User-generated content (UGC) is highly impactful in any industry. Research from TINT found that:

  • 72% of consumers believe reviews and testimonials submitted by customers are more credible than brands talking about their products
  • 93% of marketers agree that consumers trust content created by customers more than content created by brands
  • Six out of 10 marketers feel their audiences engage more with UGC in marketing and communications channels

UGC is especially effective in higher education. Marketers at schools and colleges are trying to reach and engage current and prospective students — and who better to do that than students themselves?

However, leveraging students to support your social media initiatives is easier said than done. Not all institutions can afford to pay their interns. And students lead busy lives; many don’t have the time to pursue social media content opportunities in addition to their studies.

With that in mind, we gathered an expert panel of higher ed marketers to discuss the best practices, key learnings, and unique challenges related to working with students. Karla Fung, Social Media Manager at UC Davis, hosted our Higher Ed Summit session and featured expert insights from:

  • Sarah Barnes, Associate Director, Communications and Marketing, Harvey Mudd College
  • Lawerence Synett, Director of Social Media, University of Colorado Denver
  • Kelly Bennett, Social Media Manager, University of Cincinnati

Read on to learn about their favorite student-driven concepts, their methods for recruiting student interns, and how they give their teams creative freedom (without letting the guardrails down completely).

Placing Trust in Students is Vital

When our panelists discussed previous projects and how they work with their existing teams, a common theme was the importance of trusting your students.

Lawrence Synett at the University of Colorado Denver believes trust is crucial to building relationships with student employees. “They are the most important aspect of what we’re doing, especially on the social media side.”

This emphasis on trusting students was central to the success of one of Lawrence’s favorite social media projects — an Instagram campaign from his time as Director of Social Media at Carnegie Mellon University. PiperTV was made for IGTV and was run and shot by students, focusing on student-driven topics rather than executive communications and university announcements.

PiperTV blossomed out of various student-led projects on Facebook and Instagram. “To see it come from start to finish solely from the students’ ideas was so much fun to be a part of,” Lawerence shares.

For Kelly Bennett at the University of Cincinnati, trust has been integral to her career in higher ed social media marketing, dating back to her first role as a social media specialist at Miami University. In those pre-Instagram days, Kelly’s leadership team had little understanding of social media but was happy to trust her expertise. “Because at that time, I was closest to who we were trying to reach — current students and prospective students.”

Ten years later, things have come full circle. Kelly accepts that her students often have a better grasp than her about what will resonate with a student audience — particularly when it comes to TikTok.

Recently, a student came to her with an idea for a TikTok post involving Kermit the Frog. Kelly fully admits that she didn’t totally get it. But she trusted the student’s insight into what plays well on the platform, and it became one of the university’s top-performing TikToks.

“A learning [experience] for me is just trusting the students and their gut,” she explained. They’re on the platforms. A lot. And they know the things that are going to land. Just letting the students run with some of their ideas definitely empowers them to take risks and come to us with really great ideas,” she says.

@uofcincy POV, you’re a University of Cincinnati grad. Enjoy this moment! #UCGrad21 #graduation #GoBearcats #uofcincy ♬ original sound – University of Cincinnati

The same goes for Karla Fung at UC Davis, who was happy to put her faith in a student’s idea for a podcast called Generation Aggie. Inspired by a conversation with her elderly aunt, the student’s concept involved highlighting commonalities between older alums and current (and prospective) students.

Karla shares, “She thought it was really interesting. So she pitched us the idea, wrote out a whole plan, and then she took the lead on working with the guests, getting it filmed, and doing a lot of the production work. And then we brought in more students to finish the whole product.”

Balancing Creative Freedom With Content Control

Higher ed marketers face a dilemma when it comes to working with students.

On the one hand, they want to give students the freedom to express themselves and pitch their wildest, most creative ideas.

But on the flip side, they don’t want to let go of the reins entirely. No institution wants to have its reputation damaged because a social media intern posted something inappropriate or inadvertently offended a follower.

For Sarah Barnes at Harvey Mudd College, the biggest challenge has been around consistency. Harvey Mudd has a comparatively small student body, and as a STEM-focused institution, its students often need more bandwidth to help her out.

As such, she took a soft-touch approach to manage the students who ran the college’s Instagram: “We gave them a best practices sheet. We never had any trouble with them posting inappropriate things; they did a great job. They just didn’t have the time, so it wasn’t consistent enough for us.” While Harvey Mudd students may not have the time to spend several hours a week working on social media, they do regularly contribute photos, which has been an incredible asset to the college’s marketing team.

Kelly faces the opposite problem. The University of Cincinnati is one of America’s largest schools, with almost 50,000 students. She has no trouble generating the content, but her team can quickly become overwhelmed with community management-related activities around big events like graduation, homecoming, and acceptance letters.

@uofcincy Nothing better than seeing new Bearcats being accepting into the family ?❤️ #BearcatsBound #uofcincy #college ♬ I Lived – OneRepublic

She typically keeps a close handle on the school’s accounts but gives students greater control at times of high demand. “It’s been super helpful to have a student that I can pull in and say, ‘Hey, on some of these bigger weekends, would you mind just helping with some of that community management?’”

Kelly also takes a less hands-on approach to the university’s TikTok account, leaving it to one student. “We collaborate on ideas, but she’ll actually go in and engage with other accounts on that platform. She’ll come back to me every week and say, ‘These are the things that I did.’”

Recruiting Students to Support Your Social Media Marketing

Every higher ed social media manager would love to work with a larger team of students. But recruitment takes time. How do our panelists find and hire the right people for the role?

Often, it’s a case of finding a Marketing or Communications student looking for a relevant extracurricular activity. But Harvey Mudd College is a STEM institution, so Sarah Barnes doesn’t have that luxury.

Instead, she engages with college societies, such as the amateur rocketry club. She’s joined their Discord server and attended rocket launches so she can get to know them — and they get to know her.


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A post shared by Harvey Mudd College (@harvey_mudd)

Harvey Mudd also has a budget to pay interns, which has unsurprisingly helped to drive student involvement in the college’s social media initiatives. Sarah was able to recruit one or two interns this way but soon found herself receiving applications from other students eager to join the team. “I started the ball rolling, and then they kind of self-select and present themselves.”

Sarah’s comments highlight how different institutions face diverse challenges in recruiting students to their social media teams.

This point resonated with Lawrence Synett, who recently joined the University of Colorado Denver, having previously been Director of Social Media at Carnegie Mellon. One is a public urban research institute; the other is a prestigious, long-founded legacy institution. Unsurprisingly, their student bases have different priorities.

Still, it all boils down to making students want to work with you, Lawrence explained. “We want the students to think this is a great job, whether it’s working with our student ambassadors or just getting out there in the community and letting them know that we’re here. We all have to find our own kind of individual ways.”

Of course, there’s an obvious communications channel at our fingertips, one perfect for reaching prospective student interns: social media.

Kelly Bennett noted that the University of Cincinnati’s athletics department manages a 40-strong student team, 95% hired through posting vacancies on social media. She recommends “just using the platforms themselves and reaching people that are already following and engaging with the accounts.”

Dedicated Equipment vs. BYOD

Higher ed institutions have a choice when it comes to equipping students with the necessary gear to create content:

  • Let them use the institution’s equipment.
  • Encourage a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach, with students using their smartphones to capture images and video.

For Kelly, the simplest approach is to forego the University of Cincinnati’s “closet of old equipment” in favor of BYOD. “For most of what we need our students to do, just having their own iPhones that they shoot on has been the most beneficial. And then we use a shared cloud folder that we will share pictures through.”

On the other hand, Karla at UC Davis sees the benefit in giving her students access to in-house equipment, including a team iPhone, microphones, and camera stands. “What’s nice about having some dedicated team items is that they can be logged in on the platform and not have to share passwords.”

Using Tech Platforms for Collaboration & Project Management

From Airtable to Asana to Google Drive, there’s no shortage of collaboration and project management tools at our disposal. But which platforms do our panelists use to work more closely and effectively with their student teams?

For Sarah at Harvey Mudd, the answer is simple: email. Her team has a group email thread for handling comms and uses Google Drive for sharing content. “Each student has their folder, and then they have a system of dropping in their photos with caption information, background information, and dates.”

Using collaboration tools doesn’t just help you work more efficiently — it also gives your students valuable insight into the world of work. For that reason, Kelly works with her student intern through Asana and Slack — the same platforms used across the marketing team. “In case she goes to a job, and they’re using those tools, she’ll have some familiarity with project management and the communication tools that we use day-to-day.”

She applies the same thinking to offline interactions, using an Asana-based agenda to guide weekly in-person meetings with her intern, just as she does with her supervisor.

Planning for the Future

Regarding future goals and aspirations, our panelists were eager to develop more robust student teams and systems of working to boost their content creation capabilities.

Growing their student-led teams was a particular priority for Sarah at Harvey Mudd. She was excited about hiring a new team member to give her the bandwidth to try new, innovative platforms and tools. “I would love to start using all the tools that Instagram has. There’s so much cool stuff you can do, and right now, all we’re able to do really is post photos and articles.”


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A post shared by Harvey Mudd College (@harvey_mudd)

“Robust” is a word that also resonated with Lawrence, who is building the University of Denver Colorado’s social media capabilities from the ground up.

He’s been reaching out to students, building trust, and understanding what they want to see from the institution’s social media accounts. “The number one thing that we’ve been hearing is: students want to see other students. That’s not as easy at one institution as it is at another. So that just happens to be our unique challenge.”

Meanwhile, Kelly is eager to scale up her team. She already has a student primarily focused on TikTok content and is keen to do the same for other platforms and tools, such as Instagram Stories. In December, the University launched their Student Creative Agency, in-house, student-powered agency working on real-world marketing campaigns.

Kelly is also investing more time in zero-click content, which offers standalone, in-platform insights. Increasingly, users want to stay on social platforms rather than click away. In turn, social platforms reward users — and publishers — for creating this type of content.

But creating zero-click content can be tricky. “It takes a lot more time than just sharing a link and blasting it everywhere,” Kelly explained. “So I think growing a team, having more hands on deck to be thoughtful and robust about each platform and how to utilize them to their fullest potential, is our goal and next step.”

Want more insights to help level up your higher ed social media marketing strategy? Check out our upcoming events!

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