Big Influencers on Campus

Colleges are increasingly collaborating with students who have large social media followings. Where do the boundaries lie?

December 5, 2019
 
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When teenagers are looking for information about what it’s really like to go to a college, they rarely consult college brochures or university websites. Instead, they just turn to social media.

“I remember going to the library to look up books with written summaries of what college life was like at different institutions,” said Brian Freeman, founder and CEO of Heartbeat, a company that connects brands with up-and-coming and established social media influencers. “I cannot imagine a 16-year old doing that now,” he said. “They’d go to the hashtag or location of a school on Instagram and look at the feed to get a feel for the atmosphere.”

On YouTube, college dorm room tours, vlogs of move-in day and chronicles of “a typical day in the life of a college student” garner hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of views. There is a huge audience for social media content related to college life, said Freeman. Of the 250,000 influencers working with Heartbeat, approximately 10,000 are current college students, he said. A dorm room tour created by Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media influencer and former student at the University of Southern California, has racked up 1.6 million views. (Giannulli’s mother, actress Lori Loughlin, was among the celebrities indicted earlier this year for her role in the college admissions scandal.)

Liz Gross, founder and CEO of Campus Sonar, a company that develops social media strategies for higher ed institutions, said the number of colleges working with student influencers is growing. Students with large followings can help colleges reach new audiences -- particularly teenagers who may be persuaded to later enroll at the institution, she said.

“For a school to get out ahead of that, work with these young, entrepreneurially minded people, is really smart,” said Freeman.

Retail brands have been sponsoring content on Instagram and YouTube for years, but higher ed has been slow to enter this space, said Gross. Many colleges are compiling lists of students with large social media followings, but some are still unsure how to work with these students, she said. Uncertainty about how much institutions should pay students, if at all, has caused some trepidation. There are also questions about how best to disclose the relationship between institution and student, and how much institutions should control what students say.

Temple University in Philadelphia is looking to expand its collaboration with campus influencers, said Kristen Manka-White, associate director of digital marketing at the university. It’s hard to build a large audience on YouTube, so it makes a lot of sense to work with students who already have thousands of followers, she said.

At Temple, campus influencers are approached by the communications team to ask if they might be interested in creating content for the university’s YouTube channel. The university also organizes student “takeovers” on Instagram and Snapchat, where students take control of the channel for a day.

Paid student positions have been created for student video bloggers, who typically work for a semester at a time, said Manka-White. Students in these roles have created videos about studying abroad, given tours of their favorite spots on campus and answered questions such as “what’s in my book bag” and “how to survive finals week.” Most of the videos have thousands of views.

Student workers have to agree to certain university policies that require they refrain from posting inappropriate or potentially offensive content, said Manka-White. It’s not a concrete guarantee that the students will be good ambassadors for the university brand, but most students understand the need to be professional, she said.

The university is selective about which students to work with, she said. They might have a large following, but if a student’s brand and audience don't align with the university, then it may not make sense to work with them.

“We keep a good pulse on the influencers in our student body,” said Manka-White. If a student posts something positive, Temple tries to amplify and engage with that content. The university has created playlists on YouTube of content created by influencers, with the students’ approval.

“They appreciate that and like the recognition,” she said.

Sometimes campus influencers are invited to events at Temple, which they are encouraged to film. Students have been offered private tours of newly renovated facilities, for example.

“That was very effective,” said Manka-White. “The students were excited about it -- they put out the material on their own channels.”

Eric Stoller, vice president of digital strategy at higher education chat-bot provider GeckoEngage, and a former blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said students have “power on campus that they didn’t hold before” because they can now reach huge audiences at any time, any place.

Influencers can also be real celebrities on campus, on par with student athletes, he said.

Institutions are desperate to differentiate themselves from each other, and campus influencers can tell stories about campus life in a way that institutions can’t, said Stoller. Colorado State University, for example, recently created a YouTube channel called "A Ram's Life" created by paid student interns. The series of videos recently reported on by The Denver Post includes footage of a student getting her first tattoo. This might seem an unusual marketing tactic, but Freeman notes that college life is "more than just academics."

While working with students can help institutions create content that young people actually want to watch, there are still a lot of "gray areas" for institutions to navigate when working with influencers, said Stoller. The rules for best practices in digital marketing are “being rewritten on a daily basis,” he said.

Exclusive access to events or freebies such as tickets to a sports game may not be considered “sponsorship” of social media content created by student influencers, but Stoller believes it is best practice to declare them. “No one wants to be told a story that isn’t true.”

Abu Noaman, CEO of Elliance, a digital marketing agency, agreed that transparency is the best way forward.

“The value of the content isn’t diminished if you declare your relationship. But covering things up can come back to haunt you.”

Freeman, CEO of Heartbeat, said sponsored content is now so common on social media that it makes no difference to consumers. Declaring that a post was sponsored used to impact engagement by a few percentage points, but in 2017, the scales tipped. The effect is now negligible, said Freeman.

“Being upfront is always the best strategy -- you don’t want to be targeted by the Federal Trade Commission,” said Freeman. “And there isn’t as much of a stigma around sponsorships as people think there is. The idea that sponsorship removes from authenticity is outdated.”

Bob Brock, president of the Educational Marketing Group, said he encourages institutions to build student influencers into their marketing strategy

“It can be a really effective tactic but works best as part of an integrated approach,” he said. “There is a tendency for institutions to think this is a cheap and easy solution, but it does take some time and effort to monitor and work with influencers on a regular basis. That requires significant resources.”

Young people tend to trust recommendations from their peers, and influencers can drive interest and engagement in a way that colleges can’t. That said, there are “huge potential pitfalls,” said Brock.

“You need to give serious consideration to the ethical considerations and identifying the right influencers to work with. Not all teen influencers are good teen influencers,” he noted. “It’s easy for things to get out of hand on social media -- sometimes students talk about things that they know little about or misrepresent. We recommend that students monitor what is being said, but [don't] control what they say. The point is for the student to speak with their own voice.”

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