Influencer Marketing

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How Universities are using Social Media Influencers for Recruitment

For the 2019-2020 academic year, there will be about 19.9 million students attending college. Although this number seems high and it is projected to grow in the next year, there is forecasting on an overall decline in enrollment. Coupling with the millions of students that will still head to college and now, the new, increased competition that these establishments will face with a potential drop in enrollments overall, how will they attract the right students to fill their class?

Aside from the enrollment numbers, what comes to mind before you headed to school? How did you pick the college you went to? Revisiting those moments that lead up to one’s college choice may bring up images like touring campuses with parents, looking at course catalogs that could open the knowledge to the dream career, opening pamphlets and brochures that came in the mail showing campus life. Recently, in 2018, the National Center for Education Statistics released a study they did from 2009 to 2012 assessing the factors that went into how high schoolers decided on what college they would attend that aren’t too different from the images described above. The areas highlighted for school selection by students were in academic quality, reputation, and program of study availability.

Although, those factors are still in alignment with how many individuals will and have chosen their alma mater today, the ways on how this choice is made have changed. Traditionally, incoming students have received direct mail, tours from student ambassadors, high school events, and more. In 2020, only looking at those channels is forgetting the new sources many of the incoming students, Gen Z, are on every day. From TikTok to Instagram, the generation going to college is entrenched in other areas that capture their attention every minute.

In today’s world, offline media — like those brochures, tours, billboards, and more are less likely to reach your prospective student population. Instead, 88% of millennials and Gen Zers learn about new products through social media. Although the recommendation isn’t for these colleges to join the networks above and flood Gen Z with recruitment marketing messages as to why Gen Z should go to their school. Instead, there is a more indirect channel that will provide the direct connection that these new students will be tuned in to — influencers.

Retailers and other brands are leading the way in this space and are spending millions of their marketing budgets working with influencers to showcase the products the brands represent. A recent report found that 52% of Gen Z trusts influencers they follow on social media for advice about products or brands. Even though there are many examples and influencer campaign success stories, colleges and universities have been slow to adopt this marketing strategy.

Pushing past the risk and the stagnant tactics that worked in the past, in order to stay out in front with your prospective students (and potentially ahead of the competition), your institution needs to meet them where they are. Engaging with these influencers may be the standout factor in why students choose your school over another.

The Influence of Influencers

A college doesn’t and in some ways can’t have the same marketing efforts as a DTC brand or retailer, but that doesn’t mean that influencers shouldn’t be utilized. With how they reach their audience, subjects they focus on, the heavy sway they have over an incoming student class, and the marketable effects they have with their authentic message, colleges are centered to greatly benefit on recruitment efforts with partnerships from influencers.

Sharing The Megaphone

Influencers often collaborate with other influencers to cost-effectively create new pieces of content and further their reach into new audiences. This can be replicated and colleges can collaborate with influencers to do the same thing.

Some universities are already doing similar things like “collabs.” For example, Temple University has “student takeovers,” where these influencers hold the school’s Instagram or Snapchat handles for the day to give prospective students a “day in the life” view. Building an audience is no easy feat along with capturing a new student’s preference to attend your school; however, collaborative campaigns like this are easy content wins and expand the college’s reach through that influencer’s fanbase.

Aligning Causes

Your institution may have a mission to champion environmentally friendly practices, creating inclusive spaces, or promoting mental wellness among all students. How do new students find out about this? These initiatives may be on your website for all to see, but it’s likely your prospective students have missed this and would actively want to see how you are aligning to societal causes. A recent study found that “Gen Z has a strong sense of purpose and feels connected to important causes, and 69% think brands should help them achieve their goals. 30% percent have felt excluded by brands because of their identities.”

Seek out your own student influencers that may discuss plant-based diets or LGTBQ+ rights.  Finding influencers and creators in these spaces that also align back to the different university initiatives will continue to spread your message farther and create instant connections with the cause-driven GenZ generation. These connections on purpose will only further why these students feel empowered to attend your school.


A-list celebrities and are often portrayed as exclusive, awe-inspiring, and superhuman. Even though these are incredibly admirable traits, they unattainable for most of us and especially most students. Influencers, many who have larger audiences than celebrities, are viewed as the opposite. They provide a connection point as they are often just ‘everyday’ normal people who are conveying genuine points in their true day-to-day lives. An influencer that you may work with provides this authentic touchpoint and they could show a ‘real’ amplified view into what your college is like. This authenticity is something that colleges must tap into for recruitment.

Searching “dorm tour” on YouTube surfaces hundreds of videos with thousands of views of college influencers giving tours of their own dorm room. Often times, prospective students may see an undecorated empty dorm room, which doesn’t always show what this space will look like. This is the first space that a new, full-time student will call home. How can they connect with an empty space that doesn’t create excitement or show what student dorm life looks like? This is just one example, but pairing the authenticity an influencer has already created with the “real” look into what this time will look like at your college with these new students will grow the interest in your institution.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Influencer


Who are the people that this influencer reaches? What is the demographic makeup of the audience? Does this align back to your own student population and who you are trying to reach?

Seeing if there is a matchup of audiences is a key factor in the beginning in ensuring your institution will reach the right individuals. For example, if there is an influencer that is an out-of-state student, most of their audience is in their home state, and the majority of your student population comes from instate — this influencer might not have the right audience for you.

Audience Size and Reach

The influencer’s audience size is a direct indicator of their overall reach. Although this metric is on the vanity side of things, it’s important to note just how many individuals you could reach. Combining the audience demographics and size, you’ll have a directional sense of the impact of your recruitment campaign with these influencers.


Selecting an influencer with millions of followers or subscribers may not always be the right fit; instead assessing the overall engagement of that person should be a key indicator in deciding who to work with. Looking at the number of views, comments, replies, and likes are all of the metrics that surround engagement and show if this influencer’s content is resonating with their audience.

Going off of volume numbers like audience size is a lagging indicator because it often shows a reaction to a video or highlights if these followers were obtained through inorganic, purchasing means.


Having the influencers you work with adhering to a strict set of guidelines will likely turn many away from working with you in the first place. Many influencers have a choice in who they work with, and their audiences are quick to call them out when something seems “off” about a brand they work with. Not to put it lightly, some influencers have even lost hundreds of thousands of followers if they worked with a brand with a less than stellar product and the influencer is found praising that a less than a stellar product to help push sales. An influencer’s audience’s intolerance towards paid sponsorships and inauthenticity has increased due to the situations described above.

It’s favorable for both parties to have guidelines on sponsorships or posts. Timeliness of posts, language, and overall avoidance of topics and areas that would go against university policies are all things an influencer would expect in working with you. There shouldn’t be extreme limitations, censorship or coverups that your college is even working with an influencer in the first place — all of these things actually could work against you in the end. Both the influencer and the college need to make sure their brand is still at the forefront and no one is at risk of a PR nightmare or losing supporters.

Reaching Your Future Students In A Different Way

Times have changed and so have the ways in which universities can recruit prospective students today. The competition and pressure may always exist around the recruitment of a new class for your college. However, there will always be ways to continue to reach and engage with these potential students. One of the best ways to cut through the noise to connect with your future student body is through influencers that may be right on your campus.

Through the shared work, alignment in purpose, and authentic views into what college is like on campus, institutions working with influencers will have an advantage in attracting a new freshman class.