What is Influencer Marketing?

Not long ago, influencers were limited to celebrities and a few enthusiastic bloggers. Today, they seem to be everywhere. 

At a foundational level, this is social media marketing that uses endorsements and mentions from influential people—individuals who have a dedicated following, or are viewed as experts within their calling.

Influencer marketing works because of the confidence that influencers have built up with their audience, and recommendations from them are a form of social proof to potential customers. This trend coincides with the public’s craving for authenticity in marketing. Even the most successful influencers will find themselves in hot water if their followers discover they’re being inauthentic, for example endorsing a product they don’t actually use themselves. 

In the context of school promotion, all of the developments in this area of marketing are more difficult to navigate than ever. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of what to consider and why this type of marketing should likely be part of your overall strategy now.

How Does Influencer Marketing Fit Into Your School’s Marketing Strategy?

You’ve probably heard of student brand ambassadors. These brand ambassadors are current and former students who are at the forefront of marketing initiatives that involve real students, real opinions and real experiences. 

Influencer marketing for higher education often involves brand ambassadors. However, the tactics for this type of marketing have evolved considerably in the past decade and there is a lot more to consider these days.

Half of generation Y, and all of generation Z have grown up submersed in a world of digital advertising. With banner, video, and popup ads at every turn on their proverbial web surfboard, it can be second nature for their brains to filter out the “noise” of advertising, and search out more veritable accounts for their potential purchase decision. 

That being said, there is still a place in the funnel for the more traditional digital advertisements, especially when it comes to the discovery phase of recruiting. It’s just a good idea to layer in an element of influencer marketing once prospects are making their decisions on which school to attend. They’ll expect to see your social media, search engine and email inbox ads, but they’ll also be looking for messages from legitimate students that come across as totally trustworthy and reliable.

In general, there are four main ways influencers can be integral to your marketing toolbox:

  • Ask an influencer to promote your school on their social media channels.
  • Mention an influencer in your social campaigns to increase their direct viewership of your school.
  • Ask an influencer to share your content to drive traffic to your website.
  • Create a relationship with an influencer to build their long-term advocacy of your school.

We’ve seen influencer marketing make up as little as 5% of a school’s marketing efforts, or be behind as much as a quarter of an institution’s marketing spend and creative.

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How Popular is Influencer Marketing and Why Should Your School Take Note?

If you’re not already on the ambassador or influencer trend, take this opportunity to look closer at the approaches outlined in this blog and consider how it could fit into your marketing toolbox.

An estimated two-thirds of UK universities engage current students and alumni in this type of marketing. And the practice is even more widespread in Australia and New Zealand where up to 75% of universities report using peer recruitment

Additionally, a recent survey from the Institute of International Education found that nearly seven in ten US colleges say they were using current students to help reach new international prospects.

This form of marketing is so popular that College Magazine published an article, the “Top 10 Universities for Aspiring Social Media Influencers.” This chronicles the best schools for “growing your accounts” while you learn.

Example: New York University regularly recruits current students to take over their official Instagram account for the day. This gives students a more “behind-the-scenes” look into a day in the life of a student.

social media marketing strategy for schools

Source: Instagram

Why are Current Students and Alumni Such Powerful Recruiters?

As we mentioned earlier, social proof is more important now than ever. People are so wise to advertising tactics on the internet—especially Gen Z’ers. Authentic storytelling is what prospects want, and influencer marketing is authenticity, curated.

A 2020 report from Intead underscores this message, as they found that more than half (57%) of surveyed students said that online conversations with student ambassadors were the most helpful resource when considering which university to apply to. Compared with 47% who said friends and family were the most helpful—which for many years had been in the number one spot of influence. The report highlighted students’ appreciation for the ambassadors’ “unique and honest perspectives on academics, student life and local culture.”

Who Manages the Social Proofers at Your School? 

Maybe you’re already engaging in some kind of student ambassador program at your school or you would like to get started. A big question we often hear is, “who manages the students or graduates that will be sharing their experiences on behalf of the institution?” 

You may already have legions of students spreading the good word about your programs and faculties, but the more organized you keep this area of your marketing mix, the better you can measure your efforts, and the easier it will be to decide on influencer evolution and resources.

Influencer marketing—when done properly—can involve a lot of steps and should be carried out by your school’s marketing team. Oftentimes the social media specialist on the team is tasked with these projects and that does make for a great fit. Otherwise, a content marketer, public relations or communications team member works too. A good understanding of the platforms the influencers are using is a prerequisite. 

Example: Besides students sharing content directly on your school’s social media accounts, another angle is to repost and share the student’s original content. While this can be done on the fly and organically, it’s great to have pre-determined agreements with students for them to share their content with your marketing team. When you post it, tagging them will ensure more people see it, and there is a higher chance they will re-share your post on their own timelines as well. Below we see a University of California Facebook post, where the content originally came from a student, and credit has been given with a tag.

alumni marketing

Source: YouTube

Two Ways Your School Can Recruit Student Recruiters 

Once you’ve decided who will be the main contact and manager of the school influencers, it’s a good idea to recruit them! This can be done in a few ways.

#1 Drafting Influencers 

Many schools are asking students to include their social media links or handles on their applications or once they start their programs. These details can be added to your CRM system or your student database. You can start by looking for students who have a higher following on your desired platform. Students who have anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 followers will likely put a lot of time and effort into their social media presence and will be using their social accounts for paid partnerships. They will have an easier time navigating an agreement with their school to promote programs and they have a good chance of coming to the table with some fun content ideas. 

If an influencer you’d like to work with does engage in their own paid partnerships on their personal social channels, be sure to take a good look at whether those paid partnerships align with your school’s mission and branding. You don’t want to be seen working with an influencer that also promotes products that could be in conflict with your institution’s values.  

Important Note: If you go this route, remember that more is not always better when it comes to followers. Some people have bought their followers, and some may have a lot, but they have a very low engagement rate. 

What’s actually more important to look at is how many people like, comment, and share their content. If you come across a current student at your school who has a higher follower count and therefore may already be an influencer in their own right, be sure to ask them if they have a media kit for their account and if they are comfortable sharing their social media stats with your team. This is especially important if you’ll be entering a paid agreement with them and more common if they have more than 20,000 followers on any platform. We’ll cover more on remuneration considerations later on in this post. 

Something that you want to definitely avoid is offering influencers partnerships to endorse your school if they do not actually study there. Definitely do not do this. It is very likely this will be exposed and that will hurt the online reputation of your school

#2 Influencers Volunteering

Another option is to promote the ambassador program and ask people to apply. The opportunity can be presented like a job posting around campus, shared by student email newsletters, and published on your school’s social media channels. Another way to get the word out is to have someone who will be working with the influencers drop by classrooms, virtually or in person. 

They can give a quick five minute pitch on the program, what’s in it for the students, and how they apply. Once applications come in, you can decide which students will be the best fit for the programs you want showcased by student ambassadors. And you can also look at their social media following and determine if there are some commonalities between their existing audience and your ideal prospective students. 

Important Note: Always ask them to include all of their social media handles, links, stats on the application and above else, ask them why they’d like to be an influencer at the school. They should also be able to bring great content ideas to the table based on their experience and interests. It’s really an excellent opportunity to get in depth feedback and concepts from an engaged student.

Example: Syracuse University’s TikTok account is quite active and they often have student influencers “taking over” the account, sharing content from it via duets and they boost their ambassadors content by sharing on their official accounts.

higher ed social media

Source: TikTok

Why Drawing Up a Formal Contract is Key 

Having a contract in place with your student influencers is absolutely essential. The amount of work that goes into recruiting them, as stated above, is substantial enough to warrant having the agreement in writing. 

Your written agreement is important because this student or alumni is not an employee at your institution and nothing in their student agreement will likely cover this scope of work. Depending on whether you allow them access to any accounts or you ask them to submit high-quality content, you want a good level of trust and understanding. 

You can either ask for help from your HR, purchasing or legal department when you get to this step, or as we’ve seen in many cases, the marketing department may draw up an agreement that is signed by both parties, which at the very least gives the student a record of what they’ve agreed to and what they’ll be given once their work is complete. They have also fully committed to the work by signing the document. 

Items that should be covered in this agreement include:

  • The scope of work—exactly what is required of them. Some examples of questions you might want to ask your team when it comes to this step are:
    • Do they hand in short videos? Exactly how long should the videos be?
    • Should they email these or drop them off on a thumb drive?
    • Should they include voice over, music, or keep the videos silent?
    • How many photos are required? What is the minimum size of the photos?
    • Do you need portrait or landscape orientation photos?
    • Do they and anyone in their videos/photos need to sign media release(s)?
    • If they’re posting on behalf of the school, how many posts, how often, with what language, hashtags, links? 
    • Will captions be vetted by your team first?
    • How much lead time do they need to provide your team before they can publish their posts?
  • What the school will provide them in terms of tools or resources to complete their work, if any.
  • The dates the work commences and ends, also known as the term or service period.
  • What will they receive from the school for doing this work? (e.g. payment, honorarium, expenses, benefits)
  • If they receive any form of remuneration as listed above, do they need to invoice for this?

When all of the above has been considered and included in the agreement, two copies signed and dated are all that’s required to get started (once your team has vetted the process as well of course). If you want to get started with an influencer template, there are some free options online, like this one from INDY.

Example: Thompson Rivers University recruited a past graduate to create a series of videos to showcase the University’s student life services. Alicia, the almuna who stars in the series also shared these to her personal accounts for additional audience reach.

social media marketing for schools

Source: YouTube

Examples of Student Influencer Remuneration

Monetary incentives are definitely not always required. There are so many factors to consider when deciding what to offer your student influencers. If you’ve recruited them based on their high follower count and extensive audience reach, you will likely need to pay them, as in they might be accustomed to only working with paying partners. 

Don’t be surprised if you meet a student in their early 20s that has 30,000 followers (which means that they are technically a micro influencer) and requests upwards of $1,000 USD per video they create for the school. This is very much in line with current prices. You can read more about 2021 influencer rates from Influencer Marketing Hub.

If you have a tighter budget, what are some other options or angles? Keep in mind that many students may be very interested in the opportunity to represent their school on social media. This can be a great “volunteer position” on their resume, especially if it is ongoing for a semester or more. Otherwise, they might be happy with gift certificates to campus restaurants and book stores. 

It really depends on the students. And if you asked them to volunteer in the first place, they may be more open to a small honorarium for the experience. 

Additionally, a report shared by ICEF, said that most ambassadors are motivated by the opportunity to assist students, boost the profile of their school, and gain work experience. Less than four in ten cited the chance “to earn extra money” as an important factor in their decision to become an ambassador.

Considering Their Method of Delivery: Your Social Media Accounts or Their Social Media Accounts

With the above agreement weighed out. A major question will need to be considered: Will the students post on official school accounts, or will they post on their own? Why not both?

While it’s important to “own” the content and have control over it, that authenticity part shines through the most when these pieces of content are shared directly from the students’ social channels. 

In many cases, the student’s reach is the most valuable part of their influencer agreement with you. But keep in mind, if you do not get a copy of their content, it will be much harder to embed on your school’s website later. 

The most ideal situation is to ask students to not only share on your official accounts via provided content or a “takeover” but to also ask them to share to their own accounts, so that their friends and followers directly see the content they are making for the school as well.

Example: The hashtag #oxforduniversity has 156 million views on TikTok but the University of Oxford has a relatively small following and an account in its infancy. If your school’s marketing team doesn’t have a lot of time for new social media platforms—or the interest—you can actually benefit by simply boosting the views on your student influencers’ accounts, and allow the student content to speak for itself. 

social media for education

Source: TikTok

How Will Influencers Interact with Prospective Students?

Student influencers can do more than post content on video sharing sites and social platforms. There are opportunities for them to answer questions too! This can be done on your website through chat software, or they can host a Q&A session via Instagram or TikTok lives. Maybe they can host an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit or be available to reply to tweets. 

There are a lot of different ways for influencers to interact with your prospective students and it’s really up to your imagination and knowledge of all the platforms and their features. If you engage students that have a great knowledge of the platforms themselves, great ideas will come from your collaboration.

Something to consider as you develop an influencer program is that you may want to create a guide for the students to reference as they work. This can be similar to a brand guide that provides them with language to use, language to avoid, certain off-limits imagery, phrases, topics, etc. This can be really helpful for you and your team to put into words, and for the ambassadors to reference as they represent your school. 

Example: In addition to showcasing student videos, and user-generated content in the form of TikToks, Instagram Stories, etc. on your website, you can also integrate a chat option on your website where prospective students have access to your ambassadors. Below we see student ambassador profiles available for chatting with from Queen Mary University of London.

school branding

What to Focus on When Measuring the Influencer Impact

As with any marketing initiative that you’re putting time, effort and potentially even budget into, you will want to measure the effectiveness of your influencers. The first step is to define some SMART goals surrounding what you want to achieve. 

If you’re looking to increase applications for a certain program—perhaps you’ve got a new influencer to promote this program over two semesters—you will want to set a goal. This could be an increase of 10% in eight months. 

Besides increases in followers, comments, likes, shares, saves on posts, key performance indicators around that goal could include program page visits. You might want to see an increase of 20% to the program pages and that could correlate to the increase in applications. 

Web traffic to the program page you’re promoting should be tracked using tools like Google Analytics. Specific traffic from the influencers social channels that direct users to the program page in question can be monitored. You may opt to use your influencers’ content in paid ads as well. In that case, it would also be important to keep track of how well those ads performed, and how much web traffic they garnered.

Affiliate links from your influencers social accounts, and the use of special hashtags, or application portals can also help you track effectiveness. 

In Summary

When teens and young adults look for information about what it’s really like to go to a college or university, they rarely consult brochures or official websites first. Instead, they often turn to social media to first gauge the environment at the institution. 

Engaging your school’s influencers to create content and chat online is going to be a more crucial part of your marketing mix in the future. When prospective students go to the hashtag or location of your school on Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, and look at the feed to get a feel for the atmosphere, how authentic will the content there be?

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