On Aug. 25, 2020, student Christopher D’Andrea headed back to the University of Central Florida for his first day back on campus for fall semester. Chris, an industrial/organizational psychology major at the Orlando, U.S., institution, donned his black and gold mask for class and for socially distant work at the Student Union—capturing his day via Instagram as a UCF social media ambassador.
Chris and UCF’s two dozen social media ambassadors work with the university to create videos and content on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. What started in 2018 as a more informal partnership with student influencers on YouTube has now grown into a key strategy for showcasing student experiences, says Carly McCarthy Hollowell, social media manager.
“We have over 69,000 students, 13 different colleges, and hundreds of programs. So we’re always trying to show prospective and current students what it’s like to be a student at UCF,” she says.
DAY IN THE LIFE: In this video, Vanderbilt University business student Elloit shares a typical day on the Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., campus. Student videos like these rack up thousands of views on YouTube, prompting colleges and universities to team up with student influencers or recruit student ambassadors to create content.
UCF asks its ambassadors to post several times per week on their own social channels about UCF, and hosts other content—like Takeover Tuesdays and longer “day in the life” YouTube videos—on the university’s platforms. Similarly, Temple University works with a team of dozens of influencers on takeovers and video blogs. The Philadelphia institution started a student influencer program because prospective students often discover colleges from student videos on YouTube, says Kate O'Brien, digital marketing manager.
“We heard so much feedback that students learned about Temple on YouTube and Snapchat from a student who was sharing their experience organically,” she says.
Temple isn’t alone in that: Students today increasingly look to other students on social media for their opinions and thoughts on college life. As of 2017, nearly two thirds of students reported using social media to research an institution they’re interested in, according to the Social Admissions Report from Target X. Their number one platform? YouTube, where room tours and “day in the life” videos rack up thousands of views; comments on a robust Reddit thread on student videos in the r/ApplyingtoCollege subreddit include students sharing videos that helped them choose a school.
So, institutions like UCF and Temple get ahead of the trend by finding and partnering with student influencers or sharing their organic content. (Temple, for instance, asks students’ permission to add their videos to YouTube playlists.) Amid COVID-19, these partnerships have been more important than ever, giving universities a way to keep creating student-focused content while campuses are closed or undertaking some degree of online learning. That’s been crucial, says Hollowell, because videos can show the faces of UCF and keep audiences connected.
“We’ve been doing more ‘day in the life’ content, or distance learning, or an ‘ask me anything: freshman edition’ on our Takeover Tuesday [on Instagram],” she says. “It’s something our Instagram audience really enjoys and is a way to connect with other students during these times.”
The biggest challenges, say O'Brien and Hollowell, are finding and communicating effectively with student influencers. Here are their tips for advancement professionals to navigate smooth partnerships with students.
Look for engagement, not followers. Keep an eye out for students who are creating content about your institution—but know that the most effective student voices aren’t always the ones with the most followers. “We don't look for the kids who have 300,000 followers on Instagram or TikTok,” O'Brien says. “What we look for mostly in lieu of follower count is the engagement rate.” Whose posts have resonance with their particular audiences? Plus, as Hollowell puts it, it’s helpful to look for the students who are keen to share. “[You’re asking students]: Are you looking for a way to be engaged? Do you love UCF? Do you want to share those experiences?” she says.
Consider how students can grow. While some influencers or ambassadors have paid positions within a communications team, many (like UCF’s) are unpaid. Consider how to make the experience rewarding for students. For instance, Hollowell uses a web- and app-based tool called Cinebody to help students learn to storyboard and map out a complete video. Some students may start their ambassadorship being uncomfortable in front of the camera—but they can grow, she says. “We do want this to be something that's beneficial for them, where they can find areas they can hone in on and grow in their expertise as well,” she says.
Communicate expectations—now more than ever. Takeovers, especially amid COVID-19, can help showcase student voices, but handing the reigns for a social channel to a student can always be risky, says O'Brien. Make the guidelines (about wearing masks, for instance, or using appropriate language, given recent political and social upheavals) is key—this helps remind students that they’re “representing the university and should act appropriately,” she says.
Build community. It’s a big undertaking to work with students every week, but bringing a community-building mindset to it can help, says Hollowell. UCF wanted to give students the chance to bond with each other and make friends. They connect on GroupMe, Instagram chat, and work together on TikTok videos, for instance. “Aside from promoting the university, we want to also provide a community for them where they feel like they belong,” she says.