September 7

How to Kick Off Your Influencer Marketing Strategy for Higher Education


They say there’s nothing more powerful than word of mouth to drive sales, and enrollment is no different. Harnessing that power is what an influencer marketing strategy is all about.

Without one, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity.

The results of a 2018 survey by Mediakix reveal that 89% of marketers say ROI from influencer marketing is comparable to or better than other channels.

Nearly 9 out of 10 marketers are shouting from the rooftops: “This is WORTH IT!”

And in case you have any doubt that this applies to enrollment marketing, consider that 80% of high school juniors and seniors report they find social media somewhat, very or extremely useful in their college search …

And who rules social media? 

As much as you want it to be institutions, it’s influencers who are grabbing the lion’s share of social media reach.

So … who are these “influencers” and what does an influencer marketing strategy look like for your institution? That’s what today’s post is all about.

Influencer Marketing Strategy: The Basics

First off, let’s define what an “influencer” is:

An influencer is anyone with a large audience on social media whose opinion carries similar weight for their followers as the opinion of a peer.

That’s it.

Influencers aren’t necessarily famous in the traditional sense, though they can be

Who Influencers Are and Aren’t

Celebrities, politicians, athletes are all traditionally influential people with a very large following on social media (100K, 1M+). But that doesn’t mean they all function as influencers, because relatability is a key component. 

For someone to value your opinion as much as they would a friend, they have to see you as an authentic peer. You have to feel accessible and approachable, like everyday people.

On the other hand, no one would call their friend or family member in their social network of less than, say, 100 people an “influencer.”

There’s kind of a formula.

The Magic Formula

The magic formula is an individual with a larger-than-average following – no exact number, but let’s say 1,000 or more – who still feels relatable to their followers and intentionally endorses products, services, organizations, etc.

By this definition, anyone who has developed a strong peer-like following and who is savvy enough to use it can qualify. In higher education, these people can be:

  • Student Athletes
  • Student Government Representatives
  • Club Leaders
  • Celebrity Alumni
  • Popular Faculty or Staff
  • Rockstar Administrators
  • Venerated Former Administrators
  • Local Business Owners (Internship Partners)

Virtually any individual associated with your institution in any way can be an influencer, and could be part of your influencer marketing strategy.

Recruiting Influencers

The most common way to work with influencers is simply to hire them.

Professional influencers today understand their value and are not bashful about selling their services. They have established rates based on their reach, post frequency, and other factors.

With the prevalence of influencer marketing as a legitimate side hustle, don’t be surprised if some of those you attempt to recruit will respond with, “Here are my rates.”

However, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to recruit influencers by offering other incentives:

  • Students may find the resume-building experience attractive enough in and of itself, though it helps to throw in some free swag, athletic event tickets, etc.
  • Though any faculty and staff you select should be motivated by the cause, you might also work with department heads to suggest releasing them from certain duties to make time for this opportunity.
  • Alumni or business partners may respond to honors, e.g. sponsorship of a major school event, or an agreement to promote a cause they represent, e.g. their favorite not-for-profit organization, in exchange for their cooperation.

There are pros and cons to either approach, hiring influencers or recruiting them through other means.

Professionals vs. Amateurs

When you hire an influencer, they won’t need much hand-holding. All they have to do is apply their usual tactics to building your institution’s brand. Of course, there’s a cost for that expertise that you’ll have to factor into your budget.

When you recruit an influencer whose closest experience to doing it “professionally” is small scale, i.e. a few trade deals with local businesses, you will need to train them how to handle something like an institutional brand. You’ll spend less money, more time.

5 Steps to Developing Your Influencer Marketing Strategy

Once you’ve hired/recruited your influencers, you’ll need to decide what to do with them. Again, working with a professional vs. a non-professional will be distinctly different experiences.

A professional influencer will come with ideas, maybe even a playbook that can be adapted fairly easily to your college or university.

But let’s assume you’re working with a novice influencer. In that case, it’s up to you to decide how you are going to tap this resource.

1. Connect your influencer marketing strategy to strategic goals.

What do you hope your influencer will help you accomplish? 

With a few possible exceptions, this essentially breaks down into two broad categories: recruitment and fundraising.

  • Student influencers, with their authentic takes on student life and reach among young audiences, are an excellent resource to drive recruitment of new students.
  • Alumni influencers, as social proof of outcomes and reach throughout influential society, can be powerful drivers of fundraising efforts.
  • Faculty and staff influencers, as the academic talent and reach among groups to which parents and alumni belong (churches, charitable organizations) could help drive both enrollment and fundraising.

Once you have a broad idea of the goals you want to tie them to, you can outline some key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure: form submissions for enrollment inquiries, for example.

2. Lay out expectations for your influencer.

What exactly do you want your influencer to do? 

Recently, I wrote about recruiting students to do takeovers of your social media accounts (especially Instagram). That’s one example of an activity you want your pre-established influencers involved with.

You’ll want to assign them to the social media channel(s) on which they have the strongest following and familiarity. Come up with additional social media events, such as:

  • Live video on move-in day.
  • Friday Stories (temporary content that lasts for 24 hours).
  • Pre-event posts, e.g. short clips interviewing graduates before the ceremony.
  • Para-event posts, e.g. backstage photos during a concert on campus.

Of course, you may be covering certain events on your institution’s channels yourself. 

One way to avoid redundancy might be to cover it on one social media channel (e.g. Facebook) while your influencer covers it on the channel with their greatest following (e.g. Instagram).

You’ll also need to develop some general expectations for post frequency and everyday content when nothing special is going on. One post a day? Three per week? Five total, one with video? A weekly YouTube talk show? 

How this looks is up to you and your influencer’s interests, gifts and resources.

3. Work with your influencer to develop content.

How much freedom should they have, and how hands-on should you be? 

This can be tricky. You want to provide some guidance on how your influencer represents your institution, but you also don’t want to rob their activity of authenticity.

When it comes to your influencer’s experience, remember that they are the expert. That’s essential to keeping their work authentic. 

Ask lots of questions about their perceptions of your school. Offer suggestions. That’s helpful. 

But I wouldn’t go so far as to script content, direct videos, frame shots, etc. Let them do their thing.

4. Develop a tracking method.

How will you determine how effective your influencers are along the way? 

In addition to your KPI(s), you’ll need to decide what primary indicators to track.

One simple primary indicator might be how often users engage with a hashtag you’ve instructed your influencers to use. Tracking overall engagement with a single campaign hashtag will give you a good sense of activity pre-influencer marketing strategy deployment vs. to date.

5. Be transparent.

Should you reveal that the influencer is working with/for you? 

While not everyone agrees, many enrollment marketing experts recommend instructing your influencers to acknowledge their endorsements as “sponsored content.” 

I agree with this approach. Even if you’re not paying them in cash, any incentive you’re offering – swag, tickets, etc. – could qualify as “sponsorship” to the Federal Trade Commission. The best policy is to be upfront about the relationship.

Brian Freeman, CEO of influencer sourcing agency Heartbeat, says there’s little risk of alienating the audience:

“Being upfront is always the best strategy — you don’t want to be targeted by the Federal Trade Commission … And there isn’t as much of a stigma around sponsorships as people think there is. The idea that sponsorship removes from authenticity is outdated.”

Better safe than sorry. A simple way for your influencer to acknowledge the content is sponsored is for them to clearly write the word SPONSORED at the beginning of their “under contract” posts. If you prefer a more subtle method, #ad is generally considered sufficient.

Let’s get your influencer marketing strategy off the ground.

The power of word-of-mouth marketing is unbeatable and irreplaceable. Nothing you do as a marketer in higher education will be as effective as a sincere recommendation based on trust.

But influencer marketing gets pretty close.

If you can affordably recruit ambassadors to leverage the power of their own social media following, the potential to drive enrollment and fundraising is incredible.

Don’t leave this powerful marketing asset on the table. Let’s talk more about setting up a successful influencer marketing strategy for your institution.

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