Monday, October 28, 2013

Students Taking Over = Insta(gram)-Success

Over the summer, I was trying to get out of my own way. When you work in marketing and communications at a school you love, you want the stories and people who make that place great to be what shines through, not a bunch of marketing jargon. I'm lucky that our students love this place and more often than not, they're able to tell our stories better than I could. It was time to let them do that.

I looked at where we've been successful this year on social media and Instagram was the clear winner - it's the one place our students have really engaged with us and it was the first platform where they felt comfortable doing so with any of our "official" accounts. I'm a one-woman show when it comes to our social media efforts, so there's no way I could ever be at every event or game to capture those quintessential St. Lawrence moments for our main Instagram account. Our students often are. That's why @herewegosaints was born.

After talking with my colleagues and with the guidance of my student social media team, we launched our second Instagram account, which is taken over by a new student each week and open to any student who is interested in volunteering to do it. It would open up a lot of opportunities for us to tell the collective St. Lawrence story in an authentic way while celebrating the experiences of our students (and validating those experiences and them, which is something that is very important to me. Yay students! You're so wonderful). Our students are all over Instagram, love it when we like their photos, and like it even more when we ask to share them. This was our chance to show them we value and trust them.

Have I had concerns? Sure. It's always nerve-wracking when you're trying something new and doing so with students driving the project - but that's where you get the best results. I was nervous this wouldn't catch on or that we wouldn't get enough students interested in running the account. My team (five students) and I decided they would be the first set of students to run it so we could get a sense of the issues we might face and whether or not it would resonate with students. If it didn't work, we could just shut it down before anyone really knew about it. The first member of my student social media team took it over on September 30, just four weeks ago today.

We've done minimal advertising of the account. I posted a screenshot of the account on our main Instagram account a few days into our first week with it and each Monday when someone new takes over, I tweet the name of the student running the account. The lack of advertising has been deliberate to see if word-of-mouth was enough to propel this project forward. Was it going to be edgy enough to withstand our college's "cool" factor?

When I posted the screenshot on our account, the response to the post was minimal - 30-40 likes when our posts typically average about 200 likes. For a second I was worried, until I noticed they were following the new account instead. In four hours, the account jumped from 25 followers to over 200. Since that day, we've nearly tripled that number and reached 535 followers as of this post. For a school with just 2,400 students, this growth has been outrageous for us (I should note it took our main account more than three months to reach that many followers). On Friday, our student newspaper did a great feature on the new account - it's the first time any of our social media projects have gotten any ink. That's a win in my book.

My student team says there's been a huge buzz about it on campus since it was launched. A lot of students asked them what it was like to run it and how they could do the same. The rules are simple and I require each student who wants to take it over to meet with me so they know who I am and can ask any questions they have. My student team has made a lot of recommendations of people they know we could trust with it, and I've received several emails from interested students. They're excited, and that makes me excited.

Some interesting tidbits: My student team members are comprised of juniors and seniors, so I don't often remember they may have siblings or friends in high school. When one of my team members took it over for the week, she highly publicized her takeover of the account on her personal accounts. What I didn't expect was her sister, a high school senior, to share it. She created an image telling her high school friends to follow the account, too, since her sister was running it. (Mind blown yet? Mine was. I can't make that kind of awesome - and free! - promotion up.) On that one day alone, we gained more than 130 new followers. (In related news, who wants to hire this girl? I do.)

A few members of my student team are also admissions ambassadors and have been sharing this new account when meeting and communicating with prospective students. They love knowing they can follow an account run by students instead of an institution-run account. I'm interested to see where this goes as a recruiting tool for us - I know our admissions colleagues have started spreading the word about it, too.

I was also shocked by the incredibly positive reaction I've gotten from our alumni. One said, "Meg, I actually search for the account on Instagram to make sure I haven't missed anything." Who could ask for anything more in a new endeavor? All parts of our community audience are enjoying this, not just the people it was created for.

While I've enjoyed having a controlled group of students that I know running the account these first four weeks, I'm really excited to meet new students across campus and let them run with it. I think the fact that we have opened this up to people who are interested and not just my team is a critical part of its popularity. An account run by the team would be cool, but it would still be seen as "controlled" posts and messages. I'm excited to experiment with this approach. Do I expect hiccups? Yes. But I expect even more awesome (and that'll cure those hiccups any day).

Have questions? Want to learn more? I'll be presenting about this during the HigherEdExperts' Social Media Conference on December 4. Sign up (by Nov. 16!) and tune in to find out how this project has progressed - another plus is you'll listen to 11 of the people I admire most in higher education present on their own work. It's a win-win!

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