“Authenticity is a powerful tactic.”

That’s one of the reasons Matt Byerly is a believer in integrating user-generated — or, in this case, student-generated — content into your marketing mix. 

“Using student-led content can be very rewarding,” said Byerly, vice president of marketing at Net Natives. “But, throughout my time in my prior role as creative director at Northeastern Illinois University, our biggest obstacle was always feeling confident and taking the leap to facilitate it.”  

If this sounds like a challenge you’re familiar with, Byerly has you covered. Read on for his six strategies for leveraging student-generated content. 

Know the benefits

Students these days are inundated with advertisements. This makes them incredibly savvy — and more prone to ignoring traditional advertising tactics.

According to Byerly, this is actually a benefit of student-generated content. 

“If you can find the right students, who aren’t being force-fed what to say, and it’s really coming from the heart, it’s a clever way to replace the old testimonial of the smiling student saying ‘I graduated from here and I have a great job now,’” Byerly said. 

Another benefit is that using this type of content also provides students with an opportunity to see themselves at your institution. 

“Whether it’s a blog by one of your students sharing their schedule on an average day or an Instagram Reel of their experience at a sporting event, these moments provide your prospective students with a real-life perspective of what your university could be like,” Byerly said.   

Understand the challenges

While student-generated content might pack a powerful punch, it’s also important to be aware of some of the challenges that come with using it. 

“In my experience, a real challenge I encountered was finding students who actively wanted to participate, who we could count on, and who we knew would create content on a schedule or show up to an event,” Byerly said.

And it's true. On top of navigating newfound independence, students often have a lot going on in their lives. But, there are more universal challenges, too. Getting students to participate is half the battle, Byerly said.

“For universities where student engagement is easily won, the fear is that students will go rogue, using poor design choices, or saying something that’s off-brand,” he added. “Or, an even worst-case scenario is when they do something off-brand, like using foul or offensive language, which puts the university in a bad position.” 

Find the right students 

At every institution, there are students who are champions for your university. 

“First and foremost, we worked with Student Affairs and Enrollment Services to find students who were outstanding and loved Northeastern,” Byerly said. “These were students who were academically engaged, involved on campus, and who might like the idea of being a brand ambassador for the university — because in some ways, they already were.”

Byerly’s team initiated a brand ambassador program with the thought that 

dressing up student-generated content as a real commitment for students could potentially increase their reliability. Throughout the year, the team would invite students recommended by their partners across campus to discuss a possible position in the ambassador program. 

Eventually, the program expanded to include several students who would attend campus gatherings such as student art shows and recruitment events. They’d use their phones to capture the essence of each event and would post to the university’s official social media channels like Instagram.

“Because students weren’t paid, the hourly commitment was traditionally very low, and students could opt-in on an event-by-event basis,” Byerly said. “We set those general guidelines to ensure students who are excited and engaged with their programs have space to remain that way.” 

That’s not to say that an ambassador program is at risk of depleting students’ enthusiasm or dedication. 

“Students were typically excited about the possibility of representing Northeastern,” Byerly said. “One, because I think students felt recognized for their commitment and passion — and two, because they were able to build strong relationships with all kinds of students, faculty, and staff. On our end, student-generated content consistently presented an effective way to build brand awareness, increase prospect engagement, and learn more about the students who loved our university.”

Create a contract

It’s also important to ensure that students understand the commitment they’re making when they accept a role as an ambassador who generates content.  

“We thought it was important to have students sign a mini-contract, as a way to ensure we were all on the same page about expectations,” Byerly said.  

Here are some points that students were asked to agree to in the contract:  

  • No foul or offensive language in posts.
  • No promotion of a product or another university in posts.
  • No posting about topics not already agreed upon between ambassadors and the marketing team.

Set the standard

Students are attending their college or university to learn. So, ensure that you provide guidance to them about best practices in generating content. By giving them a little guidance throughout their content creation, you’re allowing them to do what they do best. 

For example, any students who joined NEIU’s ambassador program were given examples of what successful student-generated content looked like. 

“At first we didn’t have a lot of examples, so we had to use other universities' examples,” Byerly said. “For example, we might show them a student-led Instagram takeover for a recruitment event. Then, we would explain that this was the type of content we were looking for because it was creative, enthusiastic, and on-brand for their university. We found that by simply showing them what worked — and what didn’t work — we were able to avoid a lot of problems down the road.” 

Create a toolkit

To aid students in their content creation, Byerly’s team provided them with a toolkit. This included things like digital stickers, some different backgrounds for graphics and video editing, and other branded content. 

Students were also provided with a step-by-step production guide that included information about things like lighting considerations, dimensions for images and graphics, and best practices when shooting on a phone. (This was available on the team’s website and as a PDF.) 

“Finally, we would show our student ambassadors how they could improve the quality of their posts by using things like an attachment light, mic, or a selfie stick,” Byerly said.

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