Hybrid learning is here to stay, with research from Barnes & Noble College Insights revealing that almost half of students favor a hybrid class format.

This data poses a few challenges for higher education marketers. How do you engage students who are spending less time on campus? And how do you reduce “melt,” whereby students who’ve applied and paid a deposit don’t turn up for their first day of classes?

The American University School of Public Affairs quickly realized their existing strategies wouldn’t cut it, so they developed an innovative social media campaign that delivered their highest-ever engagement rate.

Two of the school’s marketing leaders — Sabiha Afrin, Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications, and Chay Rao, Director of Strategic Communications & Public Relations — told us how they did it.

Read on for their most valuable insights.

1. Get Buy-In at the Brainstorming Stage

The campaign planning process allows you to get buy-in — from faculty leadership and the people executing the work.

Chay recommends getting people involved as early as possible, ideally during the brainstorming, creating a feeling of accountability.

“There’s a sense of ownership that comes with that,” he explains. “We brought the Dean of the School of Public Affairs, Vicki Wilkins, in early to this process, and she really had some great ideas and helped us move this project forward.”

Dean Wilkins was happy to sign off on the campaign strategy and played a crucial role in helping Chay and Sabiha manage the content creation process.

“She helped when we started to reach out to faculty or when we started to decide how we were going to distribute this content,” says Chay. “If there were roadblocks or if we needed her help, she was willing to pitch in and was very quick to do it.”

2. Turn Your Faculty Into Brand Ambassadors

“One thing we learned really quickly is that the real hook for our students, the reason they would want to come back, is our faculty,” Chay explains. “They are, to some degree, our product.”

Once they arrived at this realization, it became clear to Chay and Sabiha that AU’s faculty should be the focal point for their campaign, which they called #FallforSPA.

That could have created a problem. After all, faculty leaders are busy people who can be tough to pin down.

Fortunately, having secured buy-in from the Dean, it was comparatively easy for Chay, Sabiha, and their team to get other senior faculty members on board.

“We did the legwork to get that buy-in, they got really creative, and it was really a fun exercise for them,” says Chay.

3. Identify Platforms & Content Formats

During the audience research phase, Chay and Sabiha found that most of AU’s students are on Instagram.

That’s hardly surprising, with 18 to 24-year-olds representing one-quarter of all Instagram users in the US.

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As we all know, the Instagram algorithm loves video content.

And with research from Mention discovering that, on average, Instagram video posts generate over twice the comments of image posts, it became clear that video needed to be front and center in the #FallforSPA campaign.

But this campaign couldn’t live solely on Instagram; the content also needed to be repurposed for other social media platforms to deliver the highest-possible reach.

That meant Chay and Sabiha needed to answer questions like:

  • What’s the ideal length? Instagram Video posts can be up to 60 minutes long, but that’s not the case on other platforms. For instance, Twitter’s maximum video length is 2 minutes 20 seconds; the campaign videos couldn’t be longer than 240 seconds.
  • How can we collect the various campaign assets? After looking at different options, they decided that the best option was to create a Dropbox folder for faculty members to upload their video content.
  • Which tools should we use? Learning to use tools like Splice, iMovie, and various other apps helped the team stitch videos together into a single asset.
  • What training do faculty members need? Chay and Sabiha had to teach faculty ambassadors basic best practices for filming themselves on iPhones, so they ran training sessions and created tip sheets.

4. Brief Your Ambassadors

As well as training faculty leaders on how to film themselves, Chay and Sabiha had to give clear instructions for the type of content they required.

After all, each video needed to look more or less similar to create a coherent campaign.

They also decided that anything too “salesy” was unlikely to resonate with their audience because social media creates communities, not markets.

“We didn’t want the students to feel like we are trying to be insensitive here, when there is a pandemic happening, and that we just wanted their money,” Sabiha explains. “We wanted them to feel like … part of a community, and we just wanted to be sensitive about the situation.”

For that reason, they decided the best approach was to make the content fun.

That meant telling faculty members to avoid selling their courses and instead focus on some of their more exciting, eye-catching plans for the coming semester.

The faculty ambassadors were happy to play ball. One promised that students would learn how to sue people; another compared public affairs to cake baking.

But that wasn’t the end of the briefing process.

From previous testing, Chay and Sabiha knew that videos accompanied by high-quality custom thumbnails saw higher click-through rates. To that end, they asked faculty members to share a selfie to use for video thumbnails:

Again, the ambassadors fully bought into the brief. “They were very creative,” Sabiha explains. “Some of them did some poses; some of them put flowers on their heads.”

5. Create a Hub for Gathering Content

With so many people creating content for the campaign, it was essential to have a central hub for gathering all the assets.

Chay and Sabiha decided to use OneDrive and Dropbox. “We made a dedicated folder where they could go to upload their content without signing in,” Sabiha explains. “That was important to make their life easier.”

6. Choose User-Friendly Tools

From production to editing to scheduling, Chay and Sabiha relied on many tools to cut down on busy work and deliver high-quality assets.

When it came to editing the faculty videos, creating thumbnails, and adding sound effects, they used the following tools:

Splice allowed them to edit footage on their smartphones while away from their desks, while Adobe Premiere was their tool of choice for handling longer, larger video files on their desktops.

Although Instagram was the central platform for the campaign, Chay and Sabiha decided to use YouTube as their primary hub for live content, creating a single playlist containing all the finished video assets.

They also used Sprout Social for content scheduling, which helped them determine the best times for sharing content.

Sabiha also recommends many other social media management tools she’s used previously, including Buffer, HootSuite, and PromoRepublic.

“Something that works for us might not work for you, or there might be something better that could work for you,” she notes. “So I would do your research during your brainstorming and researching session.”

7. Prioritize Native Video

Despite using YouTube as the primary content hub for #FallforSPA, Sabiha recommends sticking to native video content wherever possible.

Why? Because it performs better. Indeed, research from Kantar discovered that native video offers many benefits, including higher awareness and improved favorability, consideration, and brand image.

To that end, they prioritized native videos rather than simply sharing links to the content on YouTube.

“When you are repurposing content, it’s good to use YouTube links, but the first time you’re using content, share the native one,” Sabiha advises. “And then once that generates your engagement, go use the YouTube links, so your YouTube gets some love too.”

8. Develop a Plan for Amplification & Repurposing

After producing, editing, and posting a bunch of high-quality video assets, it was important for the AU team to get as many eyes as possible on their content.

In short, they needed an effective content amplification and repurposing plan.

As with most higher education marketing teams, they leaned heavily on internal resources.

“We would encourage retweets from our professors that are very active on Twitter,” Sabiha explains. “And we have an email newsletter which goes out every week on Thursday, so we included the video and the YouTube link in our newsletter as well.”

9. Measure Performance Against Campaign Goals

The #FallforSPA produced some eye-catching results in reach and engagement, with YouTube views increasing by 216% and the average reach per post across all platforms at an impressive 11,050.

But they didn’t design the campaign to get the broadest possible reach; it was about reducing melt. Chay and Sabiha had to find meaningful metrics to demonstrate the campaign had delivered against this crucial objective.

For that reason, they used UTM codes to track visitors who clicked through to the school’s website after seeing the campaign on social media.

“We could see that they came to our site and looked at the community pages and modality pages that we set up,” Chay explains. “They started to learn about how our faculty are going to be teaching these great classes, that we’re moving this culture online.”

They also looked at the school’s retention figures. Again, the results were positive.

“Our retention for first-year students was 3% higher than AU’s overall,” Chay says. “So clearly, this campaign helped influence more students to stay at SPA than AU in general.”

Featured image by Freepik.

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