6 Things to do When Starting a New Instagram Account for the First Time

I recently met with a campus partner about an Instagram account she had just created for her department at CSU. Her questions were great, and also made me realize it might be time to blog about Instagram for users who are new to the platform.

1. Picking a username

Choosing a username is typically the first thing to do when creating an Instagram account. A username is the “@____” of your account. For example, “@ColoradoStateUniversity” is CSU’s username, while “Colorado State University” is the name. The username and name can both be used by potential followers to search for your account, so it’s important to pick a straightforward, clear and relatively short username.

Try to avoid using periods and underscores as much as possible in your username. If it’s unavoidable, limit your username to no more than two periods or underscores. I get how challenging this can be, trust me. I had to fit “CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences” in 30 characters or less and didn’t want to use periods or underscores. If your brand has a long title, I recommend you do two things:

(1) See what hashtags users are already using for your brand. Through my research, I found followers were already using (and searching) #csuvetmed quite frequently. So for our college handle, I just extended it a bit: @csuvetmedbiosci

(2) Think about usernames from your audience’s perspective. Unfortunately, an audience doesn’t always think on brand. While branding is important, so is thinking like your audience. For example, few users search for the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital on Instagram by its full name. They tend to forget the “Teaching” part, likely because our clients (who are also a big bulk of our followers) aren’t the ones teaching or learning, and likely just search for “CSU Vet Hospital.” To make searching easier and more intuitive, I made our handle “@csuvethospital.” But I didn’t totally throw the brand aside. As you can see in the picture below, our username is @csuvethospital, but our Instagram name is “CSU Vet Teaching Hospital.”

Screen shot showing the CSU Vet Hospital Instagram account's username and name

2. Choosing a hashtag (#)

One thing I frequently hear from new Instagram users is, “I know WHAT a hashtag is. I just don’t know what it DOES.” So, let’s start there.

Hashtag: “A word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.”

But what does it mean? Let’s say you love dogs (who doesn’t?), and you want to look at more dog photos on Instagram. You can search the hashtag “#DogsOfInstagram” to see pictures of everyone on Instagram who has used that hashtag in their picture caption. (See video example below.) A username, on the other hand, only lets you see pictures from that one user.


If you don’t know exactly what hashtag to search for, just start trying. There’s a hashtag for just about everything and anyone can create a hashtag by putting it in their photo caption. But, just because you can create a hashtag doesn’t necessarily mean you should when choosing a hashtag for your brand. As I mentioned above, start searching different hashtags you are thinking about using to see if your audience is already using it. Remember my example about #csuvetmed? So many veterinary students were already using that hashtag in their pictures before I created the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital Instagram account that I just decided to join in on the hashtag and include it in our posts as it made sense. I also started using the hashtag #csuvethospital for our clients to have a hashtag to use, too, and now there are almost 700 posts from people/followers who have used #csuvethospital in their own photos.

3. Posting to Instagram

Your account is set up, now you’re ready to post. But…what should you post? Remember, Instagram is all about art and beauty. This is not the place to post busy graphics and posters. It’s okay if you aren’t a professional photographer, just figure out what content your audience wants most. For example, our most popular post from August was a picture of two veterinary students who were taking over our Instagram for the week of orientation. It’s not a professional photo, but look at those likes. More than 500 people liked it. Why? Because our audience loves when students take over our account and show CSU through their eyes. It’s authentic, genuine and, most importantly, content our audience finds relevant to them.


Tip: Before launching your account, research what other brands like yours are posting to Instagram for inspiration. Then, try to come up with about two weeks worth of posts so you have a game plan and can begin posting right when you launch. How often should you post? 2-3 times per week is plenty! Once per day is ideal 👌

Filters: Instagram initially took off because of its filters and editing features that users could use to spice up their mediocre smartphone photos. Today, smartphone cameras are incredibly advanced. So while you might use a filter here and there, don’t go overboard on edits.

Location: You can also add a location to your post. Since the Veterinary Teaching Hospital is a business, there is a location (this is similar to Facebook’s location options). If your brand’s/business’ location is not on Instagram, yet, here is a good article on how to add it.

How to post: If you’ve never posted a picture to Instagram before in your life, I’ve included a video below of me posting a hedgehog picture to the @csuvethospital account.

Posting videos to Instagram: Videos don’t always perform well on Instagram (at least, not for us). If you find that videos don’t perform as well as pictures do, here’s a workaround we’ve used a couple times to post a video while still keeping our grid (or profile) looking fantastic. Instagram has a feature that allows you to upload multiple photos or videos at once. Take the best screenshot of the video and use that as the first photo in the “album.” Next, upload the video and tell your followers to swipe for more information. Here’s an example from CSU’s Instagram account:


Tip: If your brand account is affiliated with CSU, don’t forget to register your Instagram account with CSU Social.

4. Engaging with your audience

Do it! When someone comments on your photo, feel free to respond back. Network with other similar brands by commenting on their photos. For example, the CSU Recreation Center comments on CSU’s Instagram pictures from time to time. It’s a great way to get their Instagram account out there and help others find them. But be careful, don’t comment too often and be viewed as a spam account. Only comment on other brands’ pictures when it makes sense, like the CSU Recreation Center. In the post below, they said:

This view will NEVER get old

The CSU Recreation Center is visible in the photo, so it makes sense that the CSU Recreation Center commented on CSU’s post.

Similarly, only like or comment on your audience’s photos when they tag you or use your hashtag, not when you see their photos in your feed. You don’t want your followers to think you’re keeping tabs on their lives.


5. Posting an Instagram Story

Instagram Story could be its own blog. In fact, it is! Chase wrote a really great blog about the difference between an Instagram post and an Instagram Story.

All I’ll say is this: This is the perfect place to put your meaty information that doesn’t have a beautiful photo to pair with it. Have an event you want people to go to? Instagram Story. Cool speaker coming to campus? Instagram Story. Graduation information? Instagram Story.

6. Helpful apps

I haven’t used all of these apps personally, yet. Some I’ve heard about at conferences and some I’ve actually tried out. But, they’re worth checking out if you want some additional free tools to help you with your Instagram strategy.

  • Planoly: Visual planner (free for up to one account and thirty posts per month)
  • UNUM: Content strategy and analytics (free)
  • Apps like Type-Art or HypeType take your Instagram Stories to a new level. (HypeType is no longer free.)
  • There are a lot of awesome free photo editing apps out there. Search your app store until you find the one that’s right for you.