An investigation of the online presence of UK universities on Instagram

Published date11 September 2017
Date11 September 2017
AuthorEmma Stuart,David Stuart,Mike Thelwall
Subject MatterLibrary & information science,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Bibliometrics,Databases,Information & knowledge management,Information & communications technology,Internet,Records management & preservation,Document management
An investigation of the
online presence of UK
universities on Instagram
Emma Stuart
School of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Wolverhampton,
Wolverhampton, UK
David Stuart
Department of Digital Humanities, Kings College London, London, UK, and
Mike Thelwall
School of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Wolverhampton,
Wolverhampton, UK
Purpose Rising tuition fees and a growing importance on league tables has meant that university
branding is becoming more of a necessity to attract prospective staff, students, and funding. Whilst
university websites are an important branding tool, academic institutions are also beginning to exploit
social media. Image-based social media services such as Instagram are particularly popular at the moment.
It is therefore logical for universities to have a presence on popular image-based social media services
such as Instagram. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the online presence of UK universities on
Design/methodology/a pproach This study utili zes webometric data colle ction, and content
analysis methodology.
Findings The results indicate that at the time of data analysis for this investigation (In the Spring of 2015),
UK universities had a limited presence on Instagram for general university accounts, with only 51 out of 128
institutions having an account. The most common types of images posted were humanizing (31.0 percent),
showcasing (28.8 percent), and orienting (14.3 percent). Orienting images were more likely to receive likes than
other image types, and crowdsourcing images were more likely to receive comments.
Originality/value This papergives a valuable insightinto the image posting practicesof UK universities on
Instagram. The findings are of value to heads of marketing, online content creators, social media campaign
managers,and anyone who is responsiblefor the marketing, branding,and promoting of a universitysservice s.
Keywords Social media, Universities, Instagram, Content analysis, Images
Paper type Research paper
With the increasing cost of tuition fees in UK higher education, and the high visibility of
league tables, university branding has become a necessity (Stamp, 2004). Whilst the need to
market academic institutions is controversial (Chapleo, 2011), substantial resources are
being spent on branding institutions in order to attract staff, students, and funding
(Rolfe, 2003). University websites are an important branding tool (Opoku et al., 2006) and a
relatively inexpensive way of showcasing key products and services (Kittle and Ciba, 1999).
For prospective students, websites are critical for choosing universities and subjects
(Rolfe, 2003). Whilst around three billion people have internet access, two billion are active
social media users (Richards, 2016). Because of this huge audience, large organizations can
benefit from participating on social media (McNely, 2012).
Academic institutions can exploit social media for marketing and branding, as well as for
teaching and learning (Moran, Seaman and Tinti-Kane, 2011; Salomon, 2013), and to engage
with students (Hansen et al., 2012; Salomon, 2013). Although most US and UK universities
have Twitter accounts (Parr, 2014), image-based social media services, such as Instagram,
Online Information Review
Vol. 41 No. 5, 2017
pp. 582-597
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/OIR-02-2016-0057
Received 19 February 2016
Revised 19 January 2017
Accepted 5 April 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
are particularly popular at the moment due to the proliferation of mobile phone photography
(McNely, 2012; Rainie et al., 2012; Vong, 2012; Ibrahim, 2015); and the rise of the visual web
(comScore, 2013). It is therefore logical for universities to have a presence on popular
image-based social media services such as Instagram.
This study is an initial investigation of official UK university Instagram accounts.
It considers howUK universities use Instagram,how the site can help to engage with current
and prospective students, and which factors indicate a successful Instagram presence.
Literature review
Universities online
An online presence for marketing and branding products and services is important for
businesses (Kiang et al., 2000) and for UK universities (Roper and Davies, 2007) due to the
need to compete to attract staff, students, and funding (Stamp, 2004), and to present a
corporate identity (Opoku et al., 2006). The text and images that appear on a university
website may often be the first and only institutional impression that a prospective student
comes into contact with, and prospective students use websites to differentiate between
offerings in a crowded higher education marketplace (Saichaie and Morphew, 2014). Despite
this, there is little academic literature on university branding programs (Chapleo, 2011).
In an examination of 107 US colleges and universities, Klassen and Sitzman (2000) found
that while some colleges and universities have built potentially useful web sites, many are
failing to use the web effectively. Social media is now part of an organizations online
presence, with most US and UK universities using Twitter (Parr, 2014). However, most of
the literature that investigates social media within a university setting does so from a
teaching and learning perspective (e.g. Moran et al., 2011; Salomon, 2013) rather than
investigating its use for marketing.
The emergence of Instagram
Social media services, employ mobile and web-based technologies to create highly
interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and
modify user-generated content(Kietzmann et al., 2011, p. 241). Social media has evolved
over time from text-intensive services such as blogs and wikis to more succinct message-
based services such as microblogs (e.g. Twitter), and social networking sites (e.g. Facebook),
and multimedia services, such as YouTube and Tumblr. The current forerunners in social
media are now image-based services, such as Instagram and Pinterest, and image-based
mobile messaging applications such as Snapchat. One of the main reasons for this shift to
image-based services has been the emergence of smartphone photography (McNely, 2012;
Rainie et al., 2012; Vong, 2012; Ibrahim, 2015), coupled with the adoption of dedicated
smartphone applications (apps), which have simplified the sharing of images with friends,
family, and the world at large. Research by Van House and Davis (2005) in particular has
found that cameraphone images are taken with very social intentions, including creating
and maintaining social relat ionships, constructing per sonal and group memories,
self-presentation, and self-expression. A large scale systematic study of image posting on
Twitter in the UK and USA suggests that individual users are creative in terms of the types
of images posted and often edit or transform images as well as posting screenshots of their
smartphones (Thelwall et al., 2016). Although no study has been conducted on Instagram, it
seems likely that the same will hold true.
Images are far more engaging than text alone(Abbott et al., 2013), and engagement on
Instagram may be ten times greater than on other social media services (Moritz, 2012).
Here, greater engagement means deeper, more meaningful, and sustainable interactions
(Economist Intelligence Unit, 2007). The active user base of Instagram has surpassed that of
Twitter, reaching 400 million users by 2015 (Instagram, 2015), compared to Twitters 316 million
Presence of UK
universities on

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