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6 things we’ve learnt about Instagram’s new ‘Ask a Question’ feature

Estimated read time: 8 minutes

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’ll know that Instagram have rolled out their new ‘Ask a Question’ sticker to users worldwide. The new feature allows you to add custom questions to your stories, your followers can submit questions, and you can share your responses.

Lots of brands and celebs have already jumped on the bandwagon, but if you’re yet to take the plunge, here’s what you need to know:

Use with caution

If my test run on the York St John accounts is anything to go by, people are loving this feature. We have a small following but received about 100 questions within the first few hours of our story going live, so I had to really pick and choose which ones we answered to keep the story a reasonable length.

If you’re planning to run a general Q&A, make sure you’ve set aside plenty of time during the day to deal with the responses.

Non-chronological chaos

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the new feature is the non-chronological layout of your Questions inbox. Once you receive more than 5-10 questions, they display in a long list in a vague submission order but with some randomly sticking at the top, new questions appearing halfway through the list, and no way to mark which ones you have and haven’t answered.

Be ready to spend a lot of time scrolling up and down your messages to find new submissions, or to figure out which one to answer next.

New questions do appear in your regular notifications tab, but clicking on these notifications will only take you to the beginning of your story, not the specific message.

Different devices, different challenges

If you’re on an Android device, you’ll likely find that you can’t select a photo or video to display alongside your question response; you’ll be stuck with a plain (although pretty) gradient screen.

To fully customise your replies, you’ll need an iOS device, which allows you to select media from your camera roll and folders as you would for a regular story.

There’s been no word from Instagram yet on if/when they are planning to fix this bug, but given the delays in repairing the text highlight Android bug, I don’t have high hopes!

IG Q&A screenshot

Meanwhile, Android currently offers the option to ‘Send Message’ alongside sharing or deleting any questions you receive. This definitely comes in handy for any questions you don’t have space to answer in your story, but you still want to answer – so not all is lost if you don’t have access to an iPhone!

Anything and everything

In addition to receiving more responses than we predicted, we also received a much greater variety.

Our questions ranged from your standard queries on accommodation and timetables, to people asking where the nearest Aldi to campus is, who our most famous graduate is (Gogglebox’s Scarlett Moffatt, if you’re curious), and multiple questions about whether our campus and accommodation sites are haunted!

As social managers we’re all used to dealing with strange enquiries now and then, but prepare yourself for some seriously odd (but seriously fun) questions here!

IG Q&A screenshot 2

It starts conversations

After I’d posted three or four question responses to our story, a really lovely thing started to happen – our students began to pitch in, offering their own advice and answers to other people’s questions. Some shared their own experiences and recommendations, others just submitted supportive comments or let people know that they shared the same nervousness about starting university.

Of course Instagram intends this feature to improve the two-way communication between user and follower, but if you pitch it right, it can also help to strengthen the community and relationships between your followers themselves – and your current and prospective students.

A new level of meaningful engagement

Chasing engagement on social media is nothing new, but finding that elusive ‘meaningful engagement’ sometimes feels like an impossible task.

What struck me as unusual about the messages we received through ‘Ask a Question’ is that so many of them came from students and applicants who had barely ever engaged with us before.

As universities, we think we provide plenty of opportunities for our audience to engage, but actually, how many are put off by the thought of having to make a phone call, write a formal email, or post a comment that everyone can see? Giving them a channel that promises anonymity, has an established casual tone, and specifically prompts questions resulted in an outpouring of questions that people had clearly been waiting to ask but had never felt able to express.

A poll at the end of our story asking if people would find regular Q&As useful resulted in a 97% ‘yes’ vote – a clear sign that (for now, at least) this informal style of communication can be just as useful as our more ‘official’ channels when it comes to reassuring and preparing applicants and students for their university life.

Where’s it headed?

This feature is still in its infancy and its popularity has boomed in the couple of days since it’s been introduced, but is it here for the long haul?

If early indications are anything to go by, ‘Ask a Question’ is filling a niche in the market for simple, open communication between institution and audience, removing any awkward technical issues (because who wants to submit Q&A questions in advance?) and adding a big dose of fun.

Overuse will likely deaden the initial craze, and it’s a feature that should probably be used sparingly at the risk of seeming desperate for engagement, but I think this one is here to stay.

A channel that frees your students from their nervousness about asking silly questions, that helps them share advice with each other, that lets you connect with them on a personal level? Yes PLEASE.

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