Beating the Varsity Blues: How Authentic Content Impacts a University Marketing Strategy

By Jonathan Taylor - March 20, 2019
5 mins read time
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The ways in which prospective students are interacting with technology are changing the ways that universities recruit their new classes every year. Between traditional students that move from high school graduation straight to a four-year university, to those seeking a transition in community college, to working adults looking to higher degrees for career advancement opportunities, and every student in between, universities attempt to market to a diverse array of potential students that fit their mold as a potential successful contributor to their university’s intellectual prowess and reputation.

Social media is now as much a physical extension of a student as it is a mental focus; students almost always have a phone in their hand, on their ear, in their pocket — it’s rarely more than an arm’s length away. Across the U.S., social media usage has increased by almost 1000 percent in eight years for people between the ages of 18 and 29. More than 98 percent of college-aged students use social media. In addition, an annual nationwide survey of college students by UCLA found that 27.2 percent of students spent more than six hours on social media a week in 2014, up from 19.9 percent in 2007.

Unless their wealthy parents have been illegally paying their way into an elite school by way of false athletic recruitment à la the recent and outrageous Varsity Blues scandal, prospective students are using their extended time on social media to aid in their authentic higher education decision-making processes.

These days, 67 percent of students look to social media to research information about colleges, including campus events, student life for undergraduates, majors offered — even the dating scene — and 75 percent find social media influential. They’re checking out university websites too; 77 percent of prospective students will first visit a school’s website at least two weeks, and more typically two months, before taking action on a university decision. And, they’re seeking advice from their most trusted advisors, including teachers, counselors, friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors.

Students are putting in the work across multi-screen channels to gather information that will help them make the most informed college decision. For university marketing teams, it’s important to leverage the content that’s most impactful to prospective students at each of these crucial touchpoints: the authentic user-generated content (UGC) that current students are creating and sharing everyday.

By tapping into the wealth of student-created visuals that exist across social media already, universities can provide a realistic look into life as a current student — from the perspective of those students themselves. With this in mind, here are a few key tips to keep in mind when developing a successful, multi-channel university marketing strategy that optimizes influential student-created content.

Connect with Millennials & Gen Z on the channels that matter most to them

Millennials and Gen Z have a unique agenda, and they’re using the applications that suit their on-the-go lifestyle. According to Lendedu, 58 percent of college students check Snapchat first, Instagram second and Facebook last.

Relying on image-centric social media channels like these, college-bound younger generations are looking for easily digestible information. Universities can capitalize on this touchpoint by maintaining an active presence on these platforms and using them to directly connect with prospective students.

Universities can even try something creative; in July 2017, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay sent acceptance announcements to students via Snapchat, complete with animated confetti to celebrate. The university additionally sent the traditional acceptance letter, but adding a Snapchat acceptance tailored an experience in line with how many students opt to find and receive news.

Or, take notes from West Virginia University’s social strategy. The school has created a cadence of Takeover Tuesdays, where they let students they know and trust run the Snapchat for a day. As one student put in charge of a takeover stated, “Takeover Tuesday allowed me a unique opportunity to interact with Mountaineer Nation, from current students, to prospective students and even alumni. It was a great experience and allowed me 24 hours to show people what WVU has brought to me and hopefully showcase what WVU can do for you.” Through an authentic content perspective, the Snapchat initiative both created and inspired WVU advocates.

It’s important that universities publish content across all social channels — Instagram and Facebook, too — that features real snapshots of student life. Universities of all sizes and specialties, from Binghamton University, SUNY to UC Berkeley, benefit from curating great student-submitted images and photos of real student life. Authentic, relatable images make a big difference in giving a prospective student a glimpse into picturing themselves as a potential student at a particular university.

Leverage student ambassadors and the content they create

Student ambassador programs create heaps of authentic content that universities can leverage.

Brands often hire student ambassadors to create content about their products; universities can do the same by recruiting real students to become your university’s eyes and ears on the ground of student life — and gaining access to a wealth of content for multi-channel use.

Incentivize students to create content about their university experiences with prizes that mean something to them. A week of free coffee at the local on-campus shop? A few free pizzas? An official gameday t-shirt? Let’s be real — students love anything that’s free. Plus, there’s an even more valuable incentive: if the university chooses them to be an ambassador, they can add that title to their experience-hungry résumé.

Let your student ambassadors be your authentic influencers; prospective students will look to them for direction and inspiration when making a university decision.

Maintain engaging content on every webpage, in every department, for every student

Across all of the pages across the university’s website — departments, student programs, alumni relations and so many more — user-generated content piques interest and increases engagement. It’s often tough to maintain a constant stream of relevant content across every webpage. Leveraging the relatable content universities aggregate from ambassadors and other interactive social media campaigns across all of these touchpoints is imperative for universities to keep visitors interested.

Younger generations expect personalized digital experiences across the sites they visit. A recent Stackla report found that 70 percent of Millennials and 73 percent of Gen Z saying it’s important for a brand to provide them with a personalized experience. University websites should heed this advice when it comes to the visual content they serve.

Derby University features real social content for all departments in one central location. By implementing dynamic filtering across the social gallery on the site, visitors can choose which UGC they want to see — creating a personalized experience based on potential web page visitor intentions. Students can simply share their experiences to be posted on the social hub by tagging #DerbyUni.

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business takes another personalized approach by creating calls to action within the student journey. The university utilizes clickable ShopSpots, but instead of a product to purchase, they feature a link to a more in-depth student story. It’s a great way to use social media to give a snapshot of a Stanford student while also providing a fully immersive backstory if a visitor wants to learn more or finds a student journey that resonates with their own.

This capability can be used for many different instances. Instead of clicking a ShopSpot to learn more about a particular student, universities can use these interactive calls-to-action to directly book a college campus visit, purchase school merchandise or invite prospective students to click through to an admissions page — fast-tracking the application decision.

Your students are your most influential content creators

With so many touchpoints that prospective students might hit on the journey to a university decision, and so many locations to constantly serve engaging content, universities need to rely on the most influential content out there: student-created content. With authentic UGC at the heart of a university marketing strategy, schools can energize a real community full of students and alumni that are proud to be there — and excited to create content that shows it.

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