Missed Influencer Opportunity: When Students Bring Followers to Campus

This spring, Gus Johnson graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In addition to his degree in digital cinema production, he's embarking on his career with almost 450,000 YouTube subscribers, 90 million video views, 28,000 Twitter followers, and 10,000 Facebook followers. The combination should give him a pretty decent foundation to pursue a career in filmmaking and acting in Los Angeles. And he'll be doing that without student debt, since he used the earnings from his YouTube channel and associated revenue streams to fund his education.

I look at this modern success story in my home state and wonder why his college campus is completely absent from his videos (although I suspect Pulling Out The Cheat Sheet and a few others were filmed on campus). His fans are even curious about where he went to school, taking to Reddit during his senior year to try to find the answer.

He mentioned the campus in My Final Show, a video he published in April of his senior year. It was a marked departure from his standard comedic short style. Instead, here he’s completely unrehearsed, delivering a passionate plea to his viewers from his couch with full-on bed head. He delivers an unprompted testimonial that admissions staff would drool over: "Theater productions were the most positive experiences of my last four years…The director is a wonderful man and there is wonderful staff … and everybody involved has really made a very positive impact on my life." He made this video in an effort to sell out a show at UW-Stout—something that never happened during his time on campus. "I would love to try to fill up the theater that's given so much to me."

Benefits of Influencer Marketing

Gus was clearly an involved, engaged, and satisfied student—now he’s an alumnus with a clear affinity to a specialized program on campus. And he has an audience (likely young adults) that trusts him because he creates a connection between audience and content. Marketing and communications leaders who effectively harness the power of peer trust through influencer marketing can expect their efforts to:

  • Improve brand advocacy
  • Expand brand awareness
  • Reach new target audiences
  • Increase share of voice

Specifically, recruitment and fundraising are two areas that could benefit from well-executed influencer marketing. (Does this sound familiar? It’s from The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook. Download it for free today.)

Challenges of Working with Student Influencers

As with all new tactics, it’s common for old-school marketers to raise objections. Think back to 2004-2008—the first four years of Facebook use on campus. The general consensus in higher education was that the social network was a distraction, and the discussion centered on topics like security, roommate conflicts, and banning certain populations from using the network. If your memory is hazy, I have the citations to back this up in my dissertation research. I also remember attendees at the AMA Higher Education Symposium being wowed by a presentation on Facebook advertising in 2012; it was certainly not part of the average campus marketing toolbox at that point. Now, Facebook is a required part of every campus marketing strategy.

Given these examples I think campuses will come around to influencer marketing. But there are some legitimate reasons that a campus might not want to work with particular influencers. Their general mission, philosophy, and target audience should be aligned—if they’re not, that’s not just a challenge; it’s a red flag and a prompt to find another influencer. Some of Gus’s work may cause concern for the staff at his alma mater. He regularly curses in his videos, and he’s covered immature (but real-life) topics such as peeing on the toilet seat.

Opportunities to Work with Student Influencers

Authenticity is key to influencer marketing, so look for opportunities to seamlessly integrate the campus into the work your influencer is already doing, or to co-create content that both you and the influencer are happy with.

In Gus’s case, I see some organic opportunities where the UW-Stout brand could have been featured in an unobtrusive way to increase awareness with Gus’s audience. The subject matter also lends itself to sharing on official campus channels. How To Be A Professor is a fantastic satire based on actual student experience. Most faculty would be hard-pressed to say there was anything malicious about it, and they may even learn something from students’ perspective. I suspect Stop Playing the Public Piano will probably resonate with most residential college students. (Why do we actually have pianos in our public spaces?) If a campus is comfortable with humor or satire as part of their content marketing, these videos would have been excellent candidates for branded sponsorship.

When the influencer and brand are aligned, influencer marketing is a viable strategy. I shared this idea with enrollment and marketing leaders at the Summer Seminar, and I could see the wheels turning in their heads. Ken Anselment, Vice President for Enrollment and Communication at Lawrence University, summed it up well: innovative campus leaders need to "find your Gus Johnson."

Plan Now for Influencers Arriving on Campus this Fall

Campuses should recognize that their physical spaces are quite likely to pop up online as college students continue to see YouTube Creator as a viable alternative to traditional part-time employment. Some students vlog their move-in day, graduation, and everything in between—keep your eyes peeled for them (or use social listening to find them!). Consider being a partner in their creative work. Later this fall, the Brain Waves blog will feature guest posts from campuses that are experimenting with influencer marketing. We look forward to sharing the stories of social media ambassadors. If you have one to tell, get in touch with us!