Do it for the gram: how to use Instagram to engage your RDA group (and beyond)
Quarantine or not, it's definitely worth investing some time into our RDA groups' social media profiles. As noticeboards, fun interactive platforms, or even as ways of attracting new supporters, I think it's a no-brainer to make use of something which in its most accessible form costs nothing to post or to engage with. I see plenty of Facebook pages for RDA groups, and follow a fair few on Twitter (although Twitter is a bit of a quiet place for the equestrian world, it seems). But if you ask a cross-section of young people, involved in RDA or not, where they'd be most likely to follow you, the answer is probably Instagram.
Instagram is pretty fun, as social media goes. It is, essentially, a photo-sharing platform, where you post images and short videos on a profile and they are displayed in a grid. People can then scroll through your grid and like or comment on what they see. Ideal, perhaps, for showcasing a raft of pictures of your appealing RDA ponies and inspiring activities. Although I write this blog as a definite non-expert, I do feel moderately well qualified to give useful advice on how RDA groups can use Instagram: Alice and I set up the page for our group, @abingdonrda, last January, and have accumulated just short of 3500 followers since. This is an incredibly modest number by "influencer" standards (no, we aren't viral sensations), but is currently one of the largest followings of any RDA account on the platform. We have a lot of fun using Instagram to engage others with our group's work, in and out of our own community: why not come and join us?
The first thing you need to do when signing up is choose a neat, tidy, recognisable username for your group's page. It sounds like a no brainer, but your group's name needs to be obvious: you don't want people to have to work out who you are if they stumble across your profile and become interested in helping you out. Where possible, I think short is good, with as little punctuation (like underscores and full stops) as possible to avoid mistyping and confusion. Even if you are a volunteer running your group's page, it's still representing an organisation. We are @abingdonrda, no added frills, for this reason. The app also needs to be administrated from a smartphone, although you can view and like posts from a desktop browser.
Once you've chosen a username (a heads up: you can edit your username if you change your mind on it later on, although it has to be changed to something which doesn't already exist on the platform!) you need to sort out a display picture and biography before you start uploading content. This can be done by clicking "edit profile" on your account. We chose our current display picture of Natalie and Candy because it works well when shrunk: your display picture will mainly appear very small next to your posts or in notifications, and even at lilliputian proportions it is obviously a horse and a child. Things like closeups of horses' faces, or far-off shots of horses in fields, don't tend to work as well for this purpose. We also use the same photo as the group's display picture on Facebook and Twitter (consistency is a good thing!) and it works just as well for the varying sizes on those platforms too. There's no reason, of course, that a clear version of your group's logo wouldn't work well, especially if you have something a bit different to the standard RDA one. Ultimately, we chose to go with a photo rather than a logo because we thought it added a bit more personality to our social media presence. My advice still remains to make sure a display picture works in all sizes, and to replicate it across all other group social media accounts.
Your biography also needs a little bit of attention in the set-up stage: introduce yourself... but not too much, as this section is pretty limited on characters. I spent a long time contemplating how to do this right, settling on "Est. 1975 in Oxfordshire & still improving lives for disabled riders with our team of horses and volunteers". It's a bare bones blurb which explains who we are; plenty of extra information is disseminated by our posts for those who are interested beyond that. At the moment, we've also got a short line about our ongoing Covid-19 appeal, which is also linked in the "website" section of the bio in place of our regular website (I would also usually use the last few characters to share our charity number). Instagram offers few opportunities to share working hyperlinks, unlike Facebook and Twitter, so make sure you don't leave your group's website/donation page out of your biography: it's pretty much the only opportunity you'll get for a clickable link.
Finally, I'd also recommend converting your group's account over to what is known as a "business account". This is very easy to do, and enables you to unlock extra information about your posts' reach for free, alongside the possibility of being able to pay to promote posts if that becomes of interest. (We've never done this before, but have had targeted posts from other equestrian charities appear on our feed.) This option can be accessed via "Settings", then by clicking "Account". You can select a category for your account when doing this: we chose "Non-profit Organisation" for ours. You may wish to connect your Instagram account to Facebook or Twitter (you can toggle this on and off with each post to suit you), which makes whatever you've posted appear on these other platforms (we do this for Twitter, but not Facebook).
|At a glance: a first view of our Instagram account|
Many thousands of words have been written across the internet about how to edit, present, and curate the posts on your Instagram grid (the lines of previewed posts viewable on your profile). You don't need to read too many of them to use the platform as an attractive showcase of your RDA group's work, and it's fun to play around with different settings and filters to edit your own posts, so here are some more pragmatic, RDA-specific basics which we use when handling our account:
Be fussy: use good quality photos and videos wherever possible. A photo with a pony pinning his ears back and looking like he's having a terrible time? No. A juddery, zoomed in video in which a horse and rider are barely visible? No. A photo that's blurry or out of focus? Also no. Enlist assistance from the parent with the fancy camera, or the teenage helper who is really handy with an iPhone. There's no onus on small charities to be uber professional in the images they put out; it just makes sense to show off the best possible view of your group. We've also made an interesting observation that videos often go down better than photo posts, just FYI...
Be people-focused. Our recent posts are very unusual in the sense that they are pictures and videos of our horses relaxing in their fields and not doing a whole lot; taken recently by yard staff and by a locally based coach who cycles past our fields as part of her daily exercise. Our followers asked specifically to see the horses out in the fields (more about how we got their opinion later on). In more normal times, over 99% of our posts contain riders and volunteers as well as horses: even if not in RDA sessions, spending time with the horses and demonstrating what our work means to those who access it. To be very, very frank: looking at photos of horses working is always more interesting than photos of horses doing very little in a field or a stable. A horse doing very little in a field or a stable could also be any horse, as opposed to a loyal, special, noble RDA pony. We make the odd exception for a particularly attractive equine portrait or majestic field-based shot, but for the most part we are trying to use our posts to give a visual representation of what we actually do as a charity.
A side note for this is to make sure that anyone in your posts is happy for their image to be used (or a parent/carer if appropriate). There are riders at our group who for various reasons must not be seen on social media, so they aren't. For the most part, our riders, parents, and supporters have really enjoyed interacting with our Instagram account; if anything, we've had more communications asking why XYZ class hasn't been featured recently, or from parents offering photos and videos they've taken of their own child. We have a weekly visit from a special school who bring their own regulations concerning photos and whose parents do not attend sessions; these children aren't photographed for comms purposes. This will, of course, vary according to the individuals in your group. Adapt your approach as appropriate.
Be safe and professional. Alice and I have long neglected our personal accounts for the sake of the RDA Instagram, but we still use it in a very different way to how we would use our own, private, profiles. Having more than one person with access privileges is a sensible move for any social media profile: for Instagram, which has a very young average audience, it's a particularly important example of best practice. Our young riders were very enthusiastic about engaging with the page (as an FYI, officially Instagram users should be at least 13, but many will use it earlier), and this means that we get the odd message about the horses, or about what's happening on a pony day, or a question about XYZ. Having a single, adult volunteer manning such messages opens up the potential for safeguarding issues: having multiple pairs of eyes on the account means that it's safer for all involved, and that messages can be responded to by a somewhat homogenised "X RDA Group" persona. Alice and I often field questions from potential volunteers, parents, and RDA participants from other groups; we often joke that we've synchronised our way of responding so well that we can't actually tell who's written what. Although there is a private message feature, we consider our use of it as an extension of our public posts.
Remember when we didn't have to worry about hashtags? What even are hashtags? Love them or hate them, Instagram is a hashtag-heavy platform, and using them well can be a real boon for managing your account. I see hashtags as a way of filtering posts in a way which uniquely suits you. You can add up to thirty hashtags to each of your posts. You can hop onto existing big hashtag trends to try and bag some likes from more diverse places: #MondayMotivation, #ThrowbackThursday, #FollowFriday are all popular across the entire web, alongside single words like #weekend, #charity, #horse. You can see how many posts a hashtag already has as you type it into your post to help you decide.
Better still, you can create your own hashtags to help organise your own posts, or see what other people in your group's community are posting. We always use #TeamAbingdon and #AbingdonRDA (fairly interchangeably; we like #TeamAbingdon a bit more, but it also makes sense to have a hashtag which matches our username, just like #RDAUK for National Office's account), and encourage others to use these on their posts too. You can choose to follow a particular hashtag, which enables you to see all posts made by public accounts with the same #, even from people you don't follow. We also have hashtags for each of our horses, which enables people to filter our posts for a particular one. Some of our horse hashtags use their show names (try searching #ErneValleyLir or #AelYBrynScallywag), and for those who don't have show names we prefix their names with #Abingdon: just #Bob would bring up millions of posts which weren't of our pony! We thought this would be a nice touch when we set it up, and have been pleasantly surprised that riders and volunteers have been using, and following, the same hashtags. I tend to sprinkle a few more into my posts when I am writing them; generally equestrian focused tags like #dressage, #equestrian, which help draw in extra followers who are interested in horses.
Don't forget you can also tag people in a post, as you can in a photo on Facebook: want to let National Office know about something? Tag them in your post! Want to thank a local business who raised money for you? Tag their account! Got your group a shout out from an equestrian influencer (we have two young riders who are very good at this...)? Tag them too!
|Hashtag view for #AbingdonSpeckles|
We opted to keep our profile public from the beginning, because the reason for its existence was to raise our profile as an organisation and to provide additional material for potential sponsors and fundraisers to look at. It may be that setting your group's profile to closed (only followers who you accept can view your posts) works better for you; just be mindful that the added privacy will come at the expense of lower engagement. If your page is more focused on your immediate community, your riders, parents, volunteers etc, that's not necessarily an issue; if you want it to act as a showcase of your work for potential funders, you're going to need to go public.
It's also very much up to you how interested you are in the numbers of followers. We get quite competitive with ourselves periodically to get to the next increment of 100 or 500, although we aren't quite tragic enough to consider it the most important part of what we're doing to raise our group's profile. It's nice, though, to be able to teach a new follower about RDA's work, or to receive a new helper application from someone who found our profile and liked what they saw. As Instagram is largely populated by teenagers who are deeply concerned about their follower numbers, you will find that there are lots of people who aren't shy about asking you to follow them (or follow them back) or like their posts. Don't be shy about putting it out there that you would love more people to follow you and see the excellent work that your charity is doing, although you don't have to spend hours of your life shooting out random private messages to do so. We are very open to following new followers back after realising that this is a big "thing" on the platform, although we do check the accounts before doing so, Most people who follow us are people who ride and/or own horses and like to connect with others who do similar: an ideal captive audience to teach about RDA!
I'm also convinced, although this is completely unconfirmed, that liking and commenting on the posts that pop up in your feed as much as possible helps to stop your posts getting lost; unless you follow fewer than 100 people and have endless time on your hands, you are very unlikely to be able to scroll through every single thing that your followers have posted. I use idle moments to scroll through and like a handful of posts, making sure we aren't liking anything which is offensive or depicts dangerous behaviour. I also make sure that we support the posts of any other RDA groups on our follow list. It's a lot of fun to interact with other groups' posts!
Ride on time
One thing we contemplated a lot, once we had everything else set up and a bank of lovely photos and videos building, was how often to post on our Instagram account. The volume of content shared on the platform means that users posting only occasionally are easy to miss, but post too much and a similar effect applies. As we decided to set up our account as a profile-raising exercise, we didn't want either to happen. We generally post at least three times a week, and no more than once a day. If we are building up to or away from a big event, such as Nationals or our annual Fun Day, the volume of posts is likely to be higher as we share recent photos or run a "campaign".
|An overview of our feed from just after our annual Fun Day in September|
In the lead-up to last year's National Championships, we used a very basic photo editing app to drum up some excitement amongst our followers and supporters: "I am (insert exciting/inspiring/cool word here)/I am #RDAChamps ready" was added to everything we posted, along with a countdown to the championships starting. We won't be able to repeat this as planned this year, for obvious reasons, but have every intention of reinstating it for 2021 and would love to see the idea used by other groups. There are certainly RDA groups out there who have far greater graphic design expertise than we do, and who post fabulous edited photos and original designs: if you've got a volunteer who's handy with photoshop, it could be a great way of spreading the word about fundraising events and appeals, or introducing your group to its new audience.
|From our 2019 "'#RDAChamps Ready" campaign (there's another hashtag to search...)|
Getting to know you
Social media makes it a lot easier to communicate an organisation's personality than a traditional website or paper comms. RDA groups, owning and working with horses, are also blessed with built-in appealing equine characters to spread this sort of personality. We have been pleasantly surprised by how eager people with no connection to our group (other than liking horses themselves) have been to see particular horses and learn about them. The level of detail doesn't have to be compromising: an age, height, breed (or lack of breed, as is the case for some of our herd), and a token quirky fact is often more than enough to spark a bit of curiosity, and possibly even investment, from an online audience. I can vouch for this working, because I get a real kick out of knowing that another RDA group's horse really likes to eat swedes as a snack, or that they were once an extra in a period drama. Our horse hashtags as detailed above also contribute to this sense of getting to know our community.
Although many people won't go as far as reading the caption on an Instagram post, we also make sure that ours are written with humour, enthusiasm, and pride. I write captions for a reader who has no prior knowledge of who we are: I want it to be at least moderately clear that we are working with horses to provide opportunities to disabled riders. Our activities are fun, inspiring, happy, and dynamic, and it can't be a bad thing to try and echo that in any sort of comms effort.
What's the story?
I've left perhaps the most fun feature til last: "Instagram Stories". Unlike regular posts, which remain on your profile unless you choose to delete them, stories are visible for 24 hours unless saved to something called a "Highlight". We have highlights for each of our horses, for notices (useful for things like yard closures), and for various events and initiatives. Stories are a great place to have a bit of fun and really engage with your followers: it's very easy to snap "on the hoof" (atrocious pun, I am very sorry) photos and videos from a day at the stables, and a good place to share things which wouldn't necessarily fit the vibe you are going for with your main feed. We often use our story to post things like funny videos of the horses in their fields or stables, and have used it to document trips like the Avon RDA open day, when it wouldn't necessarily be good practice to post another group's horses and riders on our feed. We also carried out the first ever group takeover on the National Office Instagram account last Easter, the majority of which involved us showing viewers what we were getting up to on a Pony Day using the story feature.
Stories are very easy to use, and give you options to add text, graphics, polls, quizzes, and even music to posts. They are also more interactive than liking and/or commenting on a regular post, and we have had a lot of fun using them to engage followers: a very easy way, in our current brave new world, to keep participants and volunteers connected with little effort. I regularly use our Story to ask followers what they would like us to post: photo or video? Which horse would you like to see? Fun Day or Regionals photo? No harm in working out your audience's interests...
My favourite ideas for using Instagram Stories as an RDA group are as follows:
- Guess the horse: zoom in very close to a photo of one of your equines, and ask followers to guess who it is. You can make this a multiple choice quiz with the "quiz" feature (which gives right/wrong answers instantly!), "this or that" with the poll feature, or open up the field completely using the "questions" feature, which enables viewers to enter their own answer. We've been amused in the past by our own chairman getting some of the answers wrong...
- Show name competition: use the "questions" feature to ask "if you could give X horse a show name, what would it be?". Not all of our horses have official show names so this is good fun, and sometimes we've put the best ones to a further vote, although always making clear that we won't be changing any passports!
- RDA quiz: the "quiz" feature makes it incredibly easy to develop multiple choice quizzes about just about anything: pony knowledge, the history of your group, or a particular horse. We are running a quiz league in a different format whilst we are closed, but there's nothing to say you couldn't run something like this on an Instagram account. A small pointer: each quiz question is discrete, so you would have to check each one manually to tally up who has and hasn't got answers right if you are counting...
- You may also want to run a True or False quiz using the "poll" feature.
- Day in the life: in the past, Alice and I have both used Stories to document our day/night at the stables, explaining what we do and why. This isn't a bad idea in more normal times: it helps demonstrate what an RDA volunteer might do and educates participants and their families as to what has to happen for their riding lesson to take place. At present, this might be a nice thing to do for those who are tasked with taking care of RDA horses, so that those stuck at home can check in with their four legged friends and feel a small part of the action.
- Q&A: the "questions" feature was designed for this, and enables users to enter their own questions which can be shared and answered in subsequent Story postings. We sometimes do "ask us anything about our group/RDA in general", but have found the most popular by far are tongue-in-cheek opportunities to ask questions of one of our horses! It can be entertaining, to say the least, to find out what our riders would like to ask Jimbob the cob.
- Supporting other RDA groups: newcomer to the world of RDA Instagrammers? We're more than happy to tag you in a Story post encouraging others to show you some support. Right now more than ever, it makes sense to stay connected.
|All of our Instagram Stories from Nationals last year (as an example) are saved to a "story highlight", visible below a page's biography, so that they can be revisited permanently|
So, why not have some fun by setting up a profile for your group, or sprucing up an existing one? Don't forget to follow us @abingdonrda: we'll make sure you're made to feel welcome!
Have you enjoyed reading this blog?
All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.
Can you help?
We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.