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Office Space: Star Search
Office Space: Star Search

Campus casting calls entice students to share their stories

By Mindy Limback


Jim Frazier



In summer 2012, we were struggling with a long-standing problem: getting the right mix of students to participate in our public relations and marketing efforts for student recruitment, fundraising, and alumni engagement. Our communications team at Missouri University of Science and Technology was stuck in reactive mode—too busy responding to never-ending requests for specific types of student stories to plan an integrated approach to storytelling.

We needed to shift the dynamic. No more piecemeal searches to find someone for a marketing piece or a magazine article. Every great tale needs great talent, so why not start a casting call program to encourage people to bring their stories to us? In fall 2012, we created a system to identify students who could be the faces and voices of our institution's brand story. Spoiler alert: We ended up with a winning ensemble and hundreds of narratives that embody the Missouri S&T brand.

Steps to success

Identify your storytelling goals. Before we could gather stories, we needed to pinpoint our strategic needs. Any story we tell should support our four brand drivers: practical, applied experiences; successful graduates; strong reputation; and a broad range of engineering and science degree programs. These serve as the foundation for all our key messages. We mapped out the various communication channels we use—from the website, social media, and video projects to event speeches, the alumni magazine, and recruitment materials—as well as the types of content we would need to fill them, such as student profiles and testimonials, photos, and video stories.

Bring leaders into the loop. Your casting call won't be successful if no one shows up. Reach out to campus leadership in admissions, advancement, student affairs, academic units, and other key offices. Tell them your plans and how they can funnel people into the program. Our admissions office contacted student ambassadors, and the student affairs staff notified student groups.

Promote the opportunity. Make sure that your marketing materials include the casting event's scheduling information and details about how to RSVP online. At Missouri S&T, we reach students by posting messages on social media and in our electronic newsletters, displaying posters in the student union, and asking student organization leaders to inform their members. We've held a casting call each semester since fall 2012, so we also ask former participants to share their experiences with friends.

Gather student bios. As part of the RSVP process, we use an online form to collect basic information such as participants' names, majors, a brief biography, extracurricular activities, and any honors received. The questionnaires act as a prescreening tool, but the details that they include also help us establish a rapport with students during the in-person casting call interview.

Make participation convenient. We schedule casting calls on consecutive days for two-hour blocks during lunchtime in the student union. We reserve two adjacent rooms upstairs: One has stations for photography and paperwork—along with free snacks, drinks, and swag courtesy of the university bookstore—and in the other students sit for a short video screen test.

Think in pictures. After students sign a waiver, we shoot their portraits against a white backdrop. This photo can be used on the website and in recruitment publications, departmental newsletters, or other marketing materials. To help students relax in front of the camera, we offer playful props such as oversized hats and silly mustaches. (We also give students their pictures, which they often share on their social media accounts.)

There's no reason to limit these photos to a standard portrait. During the fall 2013 sessions, we asked students to write what they were thankful for on pieces of black poster board. We photographed them holding statements such as awesome professors and undergraduate research opportunities. We combined those images with short profiles to create the Thankful Miners social media campaign last November.

Get them talking. After the photo session, students meet individually with a communications team member for a seven-question interview. Some examples from the list include Why did you choose Missouri S&T? and Are you the first in your family to attend college? The students' answers help determine what audience would be most receptive to their stories. When the students go for the screen test, they're usually more at ease after this conversation. Then we again ask why they chose Missouri S&T. We intentionally repeat the question because the students are less likely to fumble their responses. We also share a short script and ask them to put the statements into their own words.

Make the most of their time (and gain some data). When students are waiting between stations, they serve as a quick and friendly focus group by completing a short survey about their experiences at S&T. We recognize that students who are willing to share their stories are already informal brand ambassadors, and their responses allow us to check the brand's pulse.

Catalog the treasure. We upload all the material to a password-protected WordPress site. We can quickly call up each participant's photo; biography; interview notes; screen test; and profile summary, which includes the person's gender, race or ethnicity, hometown, major, anticipated graduation year, and student activities.

Boosting the brand

What began as a beastly problem has resulted in a fairy-tale ending for our office. The casting call stories have injected life, love, and energy into S&T's brand and been repurposed across our communication channels. After four casting calls, our diverse talent pool includes more than 200 students who have assisted with everything from impromptu photo shoots for online feature stories to appearances at donor events. The program has introduced us to amazing people with memorable stories, such as:

  • Wesley, a first-generation college student from Texas majoring in civil and architectural engineering who is a technician in our student theater program—and a whiz at solving three-dimensional puzzles.
  • Marquia, a computer science major from St. Louis and a member of the Gold Miners dance team who has interned for a Fortune 100 company.
  • Jon, a father of four young children and a mechanical engineering transfer student who returned to college when his lack of a degree left him working odd jobs to make ends meet.
  • Anan, a Palestinian who worked as an S&T summer camp counselor before earning both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

With each casting call, we've made improvements and dreamed up projects along the way. During our most recent event in March, we asked students to tell us how they give back to the community. We featured photos, quotes, and footage from their video interviews on social media and in the alumni magazine as part of Miners Gave Back, an April 2014 project to celebrate Philanthropy Month on campus.

Most of all, we've learned that students will share their stories if we create the right venue. That's a lesson we'll never forget.

About the Author Mindy Limback

Mindy Limback is the assistant director of communications at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

 

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