by Freddy J. Nager, Marketing Professor, College Marketing Consultant + Founder of Marketing Forensics…

Social media was supposed to usher in an era of “free” marketing, where the only cost was one’s time. Yet the combination of overcrowding and throttling (Facebook intentionally limiting post reach in order to sell advertising) has made social media marketing significantly less effective, with response rates now close to zero.

At the same time, social media marketing has become more expensive, requiring professionals to work long billable hours, develop creative rich-media content (such as videos) to stand out from the clutter and generate interactions, and even buy ads on social networks to distribute this content.

These social media issues, combined with the dispersion of audiences over millions of platforms (publications, websites, apps, games, channels, stations, etc.), has driven marketers to a new approach that combines both widespread awareness and persuasion: influencer marketing.

Influencers are individuals who command both respect and attention, such as YouTube stars, professional athletes, and authority figures. Employing the right influencers can help marketers reach attentive audiences across multiple platforms.

Influencers On Campus

Most college marketers have yet to tap into this trend, usually expressing reservations about the costs, such as influencer compensation and management, and the risks of being associated with a third-party’s brand and messaging.

What many college marketers overlook is the hundreds of current and potential influencers on their own campuses. Here are just a few options they might find within the student population alone:

  • heads of clubs and organizations, particularly fraternities and sororities
  • reporters and editors of newspapers and other campus media
  • students who already enjoy significant, measurable popularity in social media

These student influencers have first-hand knowledge of the habits and attitudes of their peers, are comfortable with social media (e.g., they were using Snapchat long before marketers discovered it), and are relatable to others in both their age group and in their home towns (a critical factor for attracting more foreign students). Student influencers are also relatively inexpensive to hire — some might even promote a program freely in the name of school loyalty.

Employing Their Full Faculties

Of course, students are not the only influencers on campus. Indeed, when it comes to promoting a program’s academic prowess, professors are the natural option. Aside from the degree itself, faculty expertise and teaching skills are the primary product that most prospective students (or their parents) will invest money and time to attain. And unlike third-party influencers, professors can serve as credible and trustworthy faces of the organization.

Ironically, even though many influencers are subject-matter experts — and professors are the ultimate experts in their fields — most professors wield very little influence outside of their classrooms or peer circles. The reason: inadequate support from their college marketing teams.

For example, most program websites rarely show their faculty members beyond the usual details: name, photo, title, education, subject matter, and publications. Seldom are professors featured on video to show their personalities and lecturing skills. Rarely are their research and findings presented in non-academic language. Instead, college websites present most faculty members with a brief, dry bio that provides little value or interest to a prospective student. Given that most colleges also publish minimalist faculty profiles, this superficial approach also fails to differentiate the program.

Self-Promotion Falls Short Of Passing

In addition, most faculty members do not excel at promoting themselves beyond academia. While many have social media profiles, they do not use the tools (such as hashtags) properly and rarely engage in public discussions. Most professors also do not promote themselves to the media or lecture in popular forums, such as TED Talks. Although top professors are published, their academic journal articles are generally inaccessible (in all meanings of the word). The result: expertise without influence.

This inadequate self-promotion may stem from a lack of interest, opportunity, time, or in-depth knowledge of digital media tools. Whatever the case, faculty members require the support of the college marketing team:

  • training on social networking techniques and strategies
  • writing and pitching press releases about their work
  • creating videos that show them as engaging people whom students will want to meet and spend hours with in a classroom
  • and writing compelling articles or giving lectures for general consumption — and potential viral sharing

In sum, although professors are the most natural and valuable influencers in promoting an academic program — and could serve as the most effective source of differentiation from competitors — college marketers need to make them a priority, not just a name and photo on a web page.

Key Takeaways

  1. Use influencers to counter social media ineffectiveness, including students and faculty.
  2. Spotlight academic excellence not by employing vague terms such as “academic excellence,” but by prominently featuring professors and their courses.
  3. Persuade professors that marketing is in their best interests, leading to higher quality students and new opportunities to speak, publish, and build their influence.
  4. Produce and promote publicly accessible content by and about professors, such as casual interviews, compelling blogs/stories that they author, and professional videos of class lectures and discussions. (Note: some of this content appears in alumni magazines or campus publications, which prospective students can not readily access.)
  5. Train professors on how to use various social platforms effectively, from implementing hashtags that can lead to discovery, or participating in public discussions. Optionally, manage the accounts for them, or integrate their writings and videos into the program’s social accounts.

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