Seven years ago, Instagram would have never been included in any sort of job description, especially not within the athletics world. Social media certainly existed, yet the focus was all on Facebook and Twitter. The little “picture app” where users can upload and share pictures and videos with their followers, better known today as Instagram, was not even created until the summer of 2010.
With the growth of social media as a whole over the past few years, many companies and organizations that previously devoted limited time and finances to this area of focus are now scrambling to put together the most attractive and popular digital product possible. Yet because of how new Instagram really is, there is still a pretty steep learning curve for different organizations to figure out what works well and what does not.
A similar process of trial and error for Wheaton’s own assistant athletic director, Rusty Lindsey, has occurred. Lindsey is in charge of the Thunder’s social media and posts pictures taken by the Thunder’s official sports photographer, Mike Hudson, to the Thunder’s Instagram account. Occasionally, Lindsey also posts student photos to the account.
After a 2015-2016 school year in which he would put numerous pictures, statistics, and descriptions with each picture, the 2016-2017 year has seen a different approach from Lindsey.
“The more picture-oriented it is, the more feedback we get, generally,” he explained.
To make a change this year, Lindsey decided to put a much larger emphasis on the picture itself. He includes any other important statistics or in-depth descriptions within the caption of the picture instead of the picture, itself.
“People really just seem to want to see the picture and move on,” Lindsey said. “They don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time reading it, at least that would be my take.”
Has it worked? The results certainly speak for themselves. Over the last two months of the 2015-2016 school year, the Thunder account averaged 115.94 likes per picture. During the first two months of the 2016-2017 school year, the Instagram account already saw an improvement by averaging 137.33 likes per post.
Of course, the change in format might not be the only factor that caused the increase in likes. The more followers an account has, the greater the chance it has to obtain these sought-after likes. Yet the increase has been great enough that it is certainly noticeable. After rarely receiving over 200 likes on any posts last year, the Thunder have averaged over 200 likes over the course of a week three times already this year, including the last week in November in which the account averaged an impressive 253.80 likes per post.
On d3socialmedia.com, which tracks social media accounts for all NCAA DIII schools, Wheaton College currently has the 15th most popular Instagram account in DIII athletics. Not too bad for a school who has only had an Instagram account for a little over two years. The Thunder have garnered 2,851 followers during this time, but were recently passed by Bowdoin College who has 2,855 followers. First place is Gallaudet University with 6,830 followers.
By far, Instagram is the strongest social media platform for Wheaton athletics. The Thunder’s Twitter is ranked 100th on the leaderboard with 2,781 followers. The University of Mount Union is in first with an incredible 9,266 followers, especially considering the fact that the school’s enrollment of 2,193 is smaller than Wheaton’s. Unfortunately, the Thunder are not ranked on Facebook, the third social media platform calculated by d3socialmedia.com, because the account is not under the same name as their Twitter and Instagram pages. The Thunder’s 2,663 followers would place 92nd on the Facebook leaderboard if they were included.
Overall, the Thunder athletic department’s emphasis is definitely on Instagram. Lindsey set a personal goal to have 3,000 followers on Instagram by 2017, but the Thunder’s account is still roughly 150 followers away. Eventually, Lindsey would also enjoy being able to pass one of Wheaton’s east coast rivals, Messiah College, who is ninth on the list with 3,198 followers.
At a certain point, it becomes difficult to gain many more followers since the pool of potential followers is essentially composed of athletes themselves, Wheaton students or alumni and family of Thunder athletes. For a smaller school like Wheaton, that pool is only so big, unlike a school like Clemson who recently won the NCAA DI National Championship and own over 99,000 followers.
Lindsey derives some of his Instagram ideas from other sources like his three favorite accounts: the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Chicago Blackhawks and Dude Perfect. Despite its obvious nature, goofy pictures or videos and anything with the potential to go “viral” are the best kinds of posts. Formulating something that will accomplish this goal is much harder than it looks, Lindsey said.
“It’s kind of stupid what works and what doesn’t on the internet,” he explained. “We have great ideas that fall flat and some of the dumbest stuff explodes, so it’s a little bit of throw it at the wall and see what sticks.”