Grab a Tiny Mic and A Student

Higher ed social media strategists at AMA shared insights on how they successfully engaged Gen Z students by employing their peers for marketing and engagement.

By: Nicole Shupe
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National Harbor, MD – A major takeaway from the 2022 American Marketing Association (AMA) Higher Ed Symposium is that the most underutilized resource is the one in greatest supply: student-created social content. This may seem a recipe for disaster—something akin to lighting a match near uncovered tinder—but who better to reach the prospective student audience than those who recently underwent the same decision process and ultimately chose the institution?

“The older I got, the farther away I got from the targeted demographic,” said Alex Mowrey, social media content strategist with the University of Pittsburgh, who helped restructure Pitt’s marketing team to leverage content and resources effectively. “It gave us a good opportunity to leverage student content in enrollment marketing. We can develop content about what it means to be a student on campus, but the students are the best people to make that content.” 

As marketing and communications leaders strive to be authentic and meet student audiences where they are, universities such as UC Berkeley, Wheaton College, the University of Pittsburgh and Colorado State University staffed their teams with student interns and employees. By providing simple visual and audio editing tools and access to equipment, such as tiny mics and light rings, the institutions have tapped into their students’ creativity and social media savvy. 

Although there was only one session that focused solely on student-created content, it was a subject that came up time and again in presentations throughout the three-day event. Anice Rodriques Barbosa, who was one of five presenters in the primary session, began Wheaton College’s social media ambassador program 7 years ago. 

“We started with one student who worked for 12 hours each week, primarily on Snapchat for on-campus information,” said Barbosa. “Over the course of 7 years, my team has grown from one to four, and now we create short-from video content for Instagram reels and TikTok, and we are playing around with YouTube shorts.”

Barbosa, who is the digital marketing director, has integrated her students directly into the professional team. 

“They are an extension of our content-creation team; they work alongside our photographer and videographer on assignments; and we use the content they produce across all of our channels, print and digital,” said Barbosa. “All are paid, and they have starred in our ad campaigns and collaborated with other students on campus to create campaigns. They are truly just an extension of the team.”With a student-creation team of 12, Colorado State University uses six students to vlog for the student-centered YouTube channel called A Ram’s Life.

“This has been one of the most powerful recruitment tools that we started as an experiment to see if it would be popular,” said Ashley Schroeder, the university’s assistant director of social and digital media. “It grew into an amazing recruitment tool for us and university admissions. (The students) blog about their lives and are super independent, which is why there are so many of them, they take less time to manage.”

 

The student creators’ hours add up to the hours of one professional person and how you manage those hours is very important; how you empower them is important.

Although the avenues for student-centered content are almost as numerous as the platforms available, presenters agreed that focused and individualized attention for students so that they understand the university’s brand is key. 

“You have to check in with students, quite frequently, and you have to manage the schedules,” said Yasin Id-Deen, the director of social media at UC Berkeley, who noted that teaching and leading his three student interns has been an entirely new and different process for him. “I look at it as their hours add up to one professional person and how you manage those hours is very important; how you empower them is also very important.”

Id-Deen noted that, even if they are students, he “uses them as professionals” and spends time explaining the differences between representing a brand and representing an individual.

“I give them professional skills to grow in the area of social media marketing or marketing in general,” he said. “As they go on, we get into the nitty gritty and how the students should embrace the content strategy.”

An added benefit to different student-centered content is the informal projection of student diversity and campus culture to a larger audience. Two years ago, Barbosa began looking at the Wheaton student creation team from a new vantage point. 

“We kept getting feedback that our ambassadors didn’t look like our community,” said Barbosa. “So, I spent a year revamping our program to reflect the student body at Wheaton. I looked at our hiring practices, the representation of our team, and how to diversify and retain our students to represent our community.”

As schools across the country begin to tap into this underutilized resource, the content will naturally become more appealing for the prospective audiences, with untold benefits for the universities and student creators alike.

“We could not do what we do without our students,” said Schroeder. “In 2013, when they started, we saw the internship program as a way to help our students gather skills so that when they graduated they could get a job, and that is still important, but we could not do without them now.”

Nicole Shupe

Nicole Shupe

Senior Editor

Nicole has written, ghostwritten and edited for numerous publications during the last two decades. When she isn’t holding a red pen or reading a book, she can be found catering to her mastiffs’ daily demands for snuggles. She has even been known to multitask and do all three activities at once.

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