Using Instagram to connect with the social media generation

By Christie Novak, CPA, DBA

Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA

Say hello to Generation Z. They have made their way onto college campuses and are beginning to enter the workforce. As any new generation does, they bring with them a host of differences and challenges. These students grew up in the information age, an era of the 24-hour news cycle and the idea that they can learn how to do anything with a YouTube video. They have been using computers and the internet for as long as they can remember.

An integral part of this technology-driven generation is the near constant use of cellphones. A study done by a market research company, GlobalWebIndex, found that globally people ages 16-21 spend nearly three hours per day on social media (GlobalWebIndex, "Examining the Attitudes & Digital Behaviors of Gen Z Internet Users 2019," available to subscribers via The study also found that nearly six in 10 in that age group agree "it is critical for them to be contactable at all times" and "they feel more insecure without their phone than their wallet." These young people have an attachment to their phones that is unlike any other generation, making it more difficult for educators and others to connect with them through traditional communication channels. They are used to building connections and relationships online, whether it is meeting new people or researching new companies. One way to begin to build a connection with them is to meet them where they are — on social media.

This column describes ways to use social media, specifically Instagram, to connect with the current generation of students and new employees. The popular photo- and video-sharing social network can help create a sense of community in the classroom and get students involved in learning outside of class. This column covers student perceptions and provides some lessons learned from integrating Instagram into an introductory accounting course — which would also work well for an undergraduate tax course. Finally, this column explores how Instagram can be used by public accounting firms and other organizations and offers suggestions for using Instagram in a business setting.

Using social media to connect

Social media was created to serve people's need to connect — a way to stay in touch with friends. Researchers have found that around 33% of all social media users say staying in touch with their friends is one of their main reasons for using social media (seeGlobalWeb-Index Social Flagship Report 2020, available at Over time, social media has evolved to include other uses, such as meeting new people with similar interests, staying up to date with news and current events (including tax news), and finding out more about a product or company of interest. It is a way for people to form and build a connection with others, even if they do not physically see or meet each other. In this sense, social media can be a great way for professors to build a personal connection with their students and for firms to reach out to potential new hires.

When students feel a personal connection with their professor, they may become more interested and engaged in their coursework. Student interaction with faculty can contribute to their overall effort and level of learning "when it encourages students to devote greater effort to other educationally purposeful activities during college" (Kuh, "What We're Learning About Student Engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for Effective Educational Practices," 35 Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 24, 29 (March/April 2003), available at Social media provides a unique avenue to create meaningful connections between faculty and students. It is a place to continue the in-class dialogue after the students leave the classroom. Professors can have one-on-one informal conversations with students on their understanding of the course material through direct messages. Instagram Stories, a social media feature that enables users to post photos and short videos that vanish after 24 hours, can be used to provide students with experiences that they would not be able to have in the classroom, like company tours and interviews with professionals.

One of the recommendations of the Joint Curriculum Task Force, formed by the Institute of Management Accountants and the American Accounting Association in 2010, was to create an accounting education curriculum that focuses on long-term career demands (see Lawson et al., "Focusing Accounting Curricula on Students' Long-Run Careers: Recommendations for an Integrated Competency-Based Framework for Accounting Education," 29 Issues in Accounting Education 295, 297 (2014), available at Social media can be used as one potential way to share what a career path is in accounting. Using social media to engage students in the course material, create meaningful conversations, and share professionals' experiences is a forward-thinking change that can be made to accommodate this new generation's style of learning.

Using Instagram as a teaching tool

In an introductory accounting course, the author created an Instagram account to communicate and collaborate with students throughout the semester. The account had a variety of uses: to ask students questions on the course material, to post interviews with professionals, to provide reminders of campus events, and to check in on students' well-being. This social media activity likely works best in small to medium-size classes of up to 100 students.

The Stories feature in Instagram was used to ask students questions related to the content of the week. About once per chapter, the professor asked content-based questions for students to answer and earn bonus points on their homework. The questions were short, basic problems for students to quickly assess their understanding of the material. For example, in the first chapter, students were asked to explain the basic accounting equation and give an example of an account that would be included in each category. In later chapters, students were given a few transactions and asked to prepare the journal entries for those transactions. In the chapter on bonds, students were asked to explain the difference between a discount and a premium and what indicators would let them know when a bond was sold at one or the other.

Because the questions are kept short, students have a quick and easy way to make sure they are staying on track with the material. Students can respond to the stories with their answers, which go to the professor's direct messages. The professor can then respond to students' answers in a one-on-one conversation — no other user has access to the direct messages. Students found this a helpful and informal way to ask questions about the week's material. After about a day, the professor would then post another video with the answers to the question and a discussion about the relevance of the topic for students to view and double-check their work.

In order to share the life of an accounting professional with the students, the professor went to a CPA in private practice and a local CPA firm to interview these professionals. These practitioners answered questions such as "What did you like about accounting as a student?" and "How do you help management make decisions?" These interviews were recorded then posted on Instagram and saved in the highlights for students to view. Instead of inviting CPAs into the classroom to present and share their experience, the students were able to see that same discussion happen online and on their own time. They were likely able to get a better picture of what to expect with a future in accounting because of the wide variety of individuals that were interviewed — interns, new staff, a partner, and a CPA in industry. Coordinating a time that all of these people could visit the classroom simultaneously would be nearly impossible, but they were all able to record interviews to post on Instagram.

The Instagram account was also used during the spring 2020 semester. When the semester transitioned online, the account added a way to check in on students. They were asked questions such as "What are you looking forward to doing?" and "What are you grateful for?" Some of the answers to these questions were shared with the rest of the class. It was helpful to be able to share with students that they were not alone in their feelings of concern or sadness during the pandemic. They were also asked to share some of their study tips now that they were studying from home. With the unique situation the spring 2020 semester provided, the Instagram account was used to create a sense of community, remind students that they were not alone, and remind them that many other students around them were going through the same thing.

To incorporate Instagram into an introductory tax course, the same approach could be followed — post questions to ask students about the major concepts from each chapter or each week. However, since tax planning is more of an art than a science, some of the questions could be less about getting the correct answer and more about sharing a thought process and creative thinking. Instagram could also be used to get students thinking and excited about the upcoming lesson. For example, if the next topic is on depreciation, a question to students could be, "In what ways can businesses use depreciation and fixed-asset acquisitions to strategically lower their taxable income?" A question related to transfer pricing could give students a scenario and ask them to recommend a specific method that would make sense to use. Some of the most interesting or creative answers could be shared with the class, either through Instagram or during a class session. Using Instagram in this way would be a low-stakes way for students to start thinking creatively about the application of the tax principles they are learning in the course.

Positive impressions

In the introductory accounting course, students overall enjoyed the opportunity that Instagram gave them to learn more about the course material and what it means to become an accountant. In fact, in an informal survey conducted during the course, 92% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that Instagram should continue to be used in the course. One reason students liked using Instagram in the class was that bonus points were offered for correct answers, and many students engaged with the account to earn the bonus points. However, 38% of students said they engaged with the account because they wanted to learn more about accounting.

Since this was an introductory accounting class, it was the first opportunity for many of the students to interact with accounting or accountants. By posting the interviews with practicing accountants, they were provided with a realistic first impression of what it means to become an accountant. About 29% of the students responded that they were more likely to become accounting majors after completion of the course. With exposure to the course material and a more realistic idea of what an accountant does, students have a better understanding of what a future in accounting may look like for them, and they look to a major in accounting more favorably.

In the survey, students had an opportunity to share their perceptions of the activity. Most of the responses were very positive and reiterated the earlier results. The table "Student Perceptions" shares some of their responses.

Suggestions for professors

For professors thinking about using Instagram or other social media in the classroom, here are some tips based on the Instagram activity discussed above.

Make a schedule

Take a few minutes at the start of the semester to plan your posts. Make a list of the questions you will ask and when you want to post them. It is easy to stay on track if you plan it all out ahead of time.

Keep it short

Instagram Stories are meant to be short clips — even a few minutes is considered long on Instagram. The questions you ask the students are intended to be quick knowledge checks so they have the time to complete them. Five minutes or less is appropriate.

Be responsive

Students are taking the time to respond to you, so be sure to reply. It does not have to be an instantaneous reply, but it should be within a reasonable amount of time. You can also set up alerts for when someone comments on your stories (i.e., sends a direct message), so you do not have to keep checking your phone or computer.

Share differing perspectives

One of the benefits of any social media is that you can post or share information from other sources, if permissible. You do not have to be the only one creating content. Maybe the AICPA or the IRS posts something about a topic discussed in class — share that. Or maybe there is a company news article referring to a current event you can tie in. Students appreciate the variety and hearing more than one voice. Also, when other social media is linked, students learn that it should be part of their future accounting and business work.

It does not have to be perfect

There is a time and place for polished social media accounts with edited videos and engaging visuals. Those are important for companies advertising their products, but not for you. Students want to learn more about accounting and get to know you a little better. They are not expecting perfection.

Be yourself

One of the objectives of the Instagram activity is to build a connection with your students. They want to get to know you, so let them see you. You do not try to be someone else in the classroom. Do not try to be someone else on social media.

How firms can connect with this generation, too

Accounting firms can reach out to students on social media, too. Because practitioners will be either recruiting or working with students in the near future, it is important to know how best to engage them. When students are doing their research on firms to work for, they are likely using websites and social media to do so. The GlobalWebIndex Social Flagship Report 2020 found that nearly 50% of internet users ages 16-24 use social media to research products they are looking to purchase. Although choosing a firm to work for may not be exactly the same as brand research, it does involve making a decision between different "products" or firms. The GlobalWebIndex Report also stated that platforms like Instagram are best suited to "nurture the areas where social and commerce activities overlap the most, namely the research stage, where video can better bridge the online-offline shopping experience gap." Of the students in the classes where the Instagram activity was used, 94% reported that they use Instagram socially. This platform seems to be a great way to share content with students to help them decide on where to begin their career.

Examples of professional uses of Instagram

Some firms and companies are engaging students very successfully on Instagram. For example, PwC (@lifeatpwc) posted an intern welcome video montage and remote-working tips for the new interns starting over the summer virtually. Videos made specifically for interns on a social media page remind everyone else in the firm that the interns are starting and makes the interns feel welcomed into the firm, particularly in an irregular intern season. KPMG (@kpmg_us_careers) posted videos using the Instagram TV app (IGTV) answering common questions and explaining more about careers and opportunities in tax, audit, and advisory. These are great resources for students to learn more about the fields they are interested in and help answer the questions they may have been too afraid to ask a recruiter.

The AICPA (@theaicpa) posts insightful quotes from practitioners and others that can be reposted and includes links to articles on its website. Becker (@cpabecker), known for its CPA Exam preparation courses, uses Instagram Stories to have students check their knowledge by asking a multiple-choice question from one of the exams and then shares an explanation of the answer. It posts and reposts study tips and setups from other students and celebrates when students pass. Even the IRS gets involved (@irsnews), explaining some of the tax implications of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136, and posting reminders of extended tax deadlines. The best Instagram accounts put faces and voices to a company name. These accounts allow the student to get to know the people who make up a company, their potential colleagues, and make them feel welcome before they even start working there.

Suggestions for practitioners

If you are thinking about using social media to engage with students professionally, here are some additional tips and takeaways from some of the best firms.

Let them know about events

Whether it be trips to campus or bowling nights, keeping students involved in the activities of the firm makes them feel like they are a part of something, even if they have not started yet.

Share behind-the-scenes looks

Students typically want an understanding of what their future career at a firm would look like. Let them hear what they could expect from their job as an intern or even a partner at your firm.

Let lots of people talk

The culture of a firm is one of the most important decision points for a student. Students want to find a company where they will be comfortable. By spotlighting multiple people in a firm, students get a better feel for what the culture is like without even having to visit.

Answer commonly asked questions

Students are visiting your Instagram or other social media account to learn more about your firm. You know the most common questions you get asked by students. Answering them proactively allows students to feel better about having those questions, that they are not alone, and that they know you have been thinking about ways to help them feel more comfortable.

From Instagram to classroom

It is important for students to feel a sense of community and connection in the classroom. This is even more important when classes are held entirely or mostly online. One way professors can build that sense of connection is through social media, particularly Instagram, to share thoughts and experiences with students. The use of Instagram also gives students a way to have informal one-on-one conversations on their learning and progress with the professor. Low-stakes questions posted on social media also give students a way to quickly check their knowledge of the material. Professionals can use Instagram to share an inside look at their firms, welcome virtual interns, and share more about their firm's culture for students who are deciding where to begin their careers. Although social media is typically used to stay in touch with friends, the opportunities to integrate it into the classroom and the professional setting are endless.   



Christie Novak, CPA, DBA, is an assistant professor of accounting at Madden School of Business, Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA, is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is the immediate past chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, please contact


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