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Influencer Marketing for Higher Ed: Engaging Generation Z
Sarah Englebert
Influencer Marketing for Higher ED Engaging Generation Z

Generation Z is college-bound, and effectively capturing their attention requires some new strategies. Many traditional forms of advertising don't resonate as well with this generation, which Pew research defines as individuals born in 1997 or later. Even some digital forms like email marketing appear outdated to Gen Z students, which begs the question, how can your university successfully capture college-bound students' attention and let them know why they should consider your institution?

If you want to market your institution in a way that is mindful of Generation Z and the current trends that define their media consumption, one very effective strategy to embrace influencer marketing. Not sure what this is or how to do it? Don't worry. We're going to answer those questions and more so you can start engaging Gen Z and turning college hopefuls into enthusiastic students at your institution.

What Is Influencer Marketing?

So, what is influencer marketing, anyway? In an ad-saturated world, where many young people are tuned out to traditional ads, influencer marketing is a new trend that has gained significant traction. To understand it, let's look at a similar scenario you may be familiar with. Your friend tells you she ordered a pillow she loves from an online retailer. Her recommendation influences you to order one too. Now, imagine that, rather than an in-person conversation with someone you know personally, that same recommendation had come from someone you've never met in a YouTube video.

What is Influencer Marketing

You may be wondering why a stranger's recommendation should mean anything to you, but the key to influencer marketing is that this stranger doesn't feel like a stranger at all. That's because they're considered an influencer. An influencer is an online personality who has reach and credibility with their peers. They may post on Instagram, produce YouTube videos or share content on another online platform. Whatever the case may be, people trust them and pay attention to their recommendations. Look on any social media platform, and you'll see limitless influencer marketing examples.

If this sounds similar to brands having celebrities endorse a product, note that these celebrities are not the same as online influencers. In fact, a top 10 list that Gen Z recognized as prominent influencers only included one traditional celebrity. That's because relatability is a key factor in influencer marketing. Gen Z-ers must feel connected to a social media influencer to care about their recommendations. These recommendations should never feel like ads — just a sincere shout-out for a product, place or service the influencer personally loves. Listen to Finalsite's on-demand webinar on how you can adapt your school's social media strategy to connect with Gen Z-ers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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How Does Influencer Marketing Work in Higher Ed?

So, what does all this mean for academia? The concept of influencer marketing has great potential for higher education. When ACT surveyed a large pool of high school juniors and seniors about what types of sites they had found helpful in their college search, 80% said social media sites were somewhat, very or extremely useful. This means it's time for you to up your game when it comes to your institution's social media presence, and you should do so through influencers.

Instead of well-known content creators online, you can use current students, alumni and occasionally professors to raise brand awareness and build trust with prospective students to help them feel more connected and informed in making their college decision. Let's take a closer look at each of these three potential influencer groups.

How Does Influencer Marketing Work In Higher Education

1. Current Students

Current students make some of the best influencers to help market your college. After all, who knows better what it's like being a student at your institution than current students themselves? When potential applicants wonder whether they'll have a positive experience at a college, they'll want to know what sort of experience current students are having. Remember, a huge factor with influencer marketing is relatability. So, encourage your current students to share their experiences and be a college influencer incoming students can trust.

2. Notable Alumni

Past students can also share their experiences. While they may not have that immediate relatability that current students offer, they do offer something else — the ability to share how their alma mater has shaped their life after graduation. When an alumnus or alumna of your school goes on to do great things, such as becoming a government official, a published author or a top executive, for instance, this speaks well of the way their education prepared them. So, encourage these alumni to serve as influencers for your institution.

3. Faculty

On occasion, you may also want to use faculty members to help promote your brand. One advantage faculty members offer is that they should embody your college's mission and values, perhaps better than some students do. However, keep in mind that they won't appear as relatable to your audience. For that reason, you should focus your influencer marketing efforts on younger people, such as current students or young entrepreneurial alumni.

Pros of Influencer Marketing for Higher Ed

We've talked generally about how you can use influencer marketing, but you may still be wondering if it's really worth changing your current marketing strategies. Consider the unique advantages that influencer marketing offers as an effective way to:

1. Draw on Student Expertise

Most colleges or universities have student ambassadors lead tours around campus and speak with prospective students about their own positive experience at your school. They do this because they understand that prospective students want to hear from current students so they can form an accurate impression of the campus experience and your school in general. Influencer marketing capitalizes on this strategy by taking it online. Now your marketing campaign can draw on student expertise, just like your campus visits do.

2. Target Niche Groups

Student influencer marketing is also an excellent means to target specific groups. For example, student-athletes posting pictures after a big win or posting about the bond among their teammates is a great way to appeal to student-athletes you want to recruit. The same principle applies to other niche groups. Whether it's a certain degree program, club or activity, having college student influencers share their experiences in these specific areas online will connect with interested students.

3. Highlight Student Life

When students look online for information about a school they're interested in, 56% look specifically for information about life on campus, according to the ACT survey. You likely already include information about student life in some of your marketing materials, such as your website, brochures and more. While pictures of students relaxing on the quad or a quote from a student can enhance your marketing materials, there's really no better way to put the spotlight on student life than with authentic posts from real students highlighting what it's like to be a student at your institution. Finalsite's CMS Composer can help you create eye-catching page designs to highlight your school's student life.

4. Avoid the Feel of a Pushy or Manipulative Ad

Traditional ads tend to feel either overtly pushy or underhandedly manipulative. Effective marketing — especially to Generation Z students — should avoid this in favor of a more authentic, conversational feel. When you're going for authentic and conversational, a social media post from a student, alumni or even faculty member is an excellent alternative to more traditional marketing forms. When you give these influencers the room to be sincere rather than give them a script, their followers will recognize the sincerity and will be less likely to dismiss the post as an ad. Finalsite's Social Media Consultants can help you craft the perfect social media strategy to engage with Gen Z.

5. Get More Exposure Online

Social media content tends to be sharable, which means great content from influencers doesn't need to stay in one place. You can add to the engagement by favoriting and commenting on posts and sharing them on your own page. You can even repurpose some content and use it on your school's website with the influencer's consent. When influencers help you create a buzz online, this can help to boost your domain authority and improve your SEO rankings. Finalsite Feeds, our social media integration software, can help increase social media engagement and awareness by engaging Generation Z site visitors with recent streams of posts and tweets.

Pros of Influencer Marketing for Higher Ed

How to Use Influencer Marketing for Higher Ed

Now you know why you should be interested in influencer marketing for your institution. But how can you pull it off? In a moment, we're going to break it down by four different online platforms you can use. Since each of these platforms operates differently, you'll want to tailor your influencer marketing strategy for each one. Regardless of which site you're using, though, the first step will be to locate potential influencers. There are a couple of different approaches you can take here.

One approach is simply to encourage students across the board to post about their experience at your university. You can provide them with the right tools, whether it be hashtags, geofilters or blog platforms, to be able to do this. You can even offer incentives. For example, you might enter anyone who posts with a specific hashtag into a drawing for a prize.

Another approach, which closely resembles influencer marketing, is to scour social media sites to find a person affiliated with your school who has a large following. This doesn't just mean they have a lot of friends, followers or subscribers. It also means their posts tend to receive a lot of engagement. When you've located these influencers, you can send them a message to see if they would be interested in giving their school a shout-out. If these influencers have a strong enough following that they've been approached by brands before, they will expect payment for their efforts.

Especially when you're paying someone, it may be tempting to take control of the message they share. Resist this temptation, however, because influencer marketing only works when it feels authentic. Gen Z-ers will spot a scripted ad from a mile away, especially when they're already used to the natural voice of the influencer they follow. That doesn't mean you're completely hands-off. The key is to strike the right balance between monitoring content and giving influencers the freedom to be themselves.

Now let's look at four different platforms where influencers can share their experiences:

1. Snapchat

If you want your social influencer marketing to have an effect, you need to find influencers who have a strong following with Gen Z-ers. One place you'll find that is on Snapchat. In a recent survey of 8,000 Gen Z teens by Piper Jaffray, Snapchat emerged as the favorite social media platform. Snapchat isn't just popular in general. The ACT survey found that 42% of high school juniors and seniors used Snapchat as a part of their college research.

One of the best ways you can promote your institution on Snapchat is to create geofilters. As the name suggests, geofilters are Snapchat filters that are only available to users when they're in a specific location. You can create two types of geofilters that you encourage influencers to use — community and on-demand.

Community filters are free to create and are permanent, but they can't include branding like logos. On-demand geofilters have a cost associated with them and are temporary, so you typically want to create them for specific campus events. An advantage of on-demand geofilters is that you can include your logo.

2. Instagram

Though more teens chose Snapchat as their favorite social media platform in the Piper Jaffray survey than any other site, Instagram was close behind. Instagram is experiencing rapid growth and is now up to 1 billion active users. Many of these users are Gen Z-ers, and in the ACT survey, over two-thirds of high school juniors and seniors say they have used Instagram in their college search. So, you definitely want to include Instagram in your influencer social media campaign.

How can you gain more exposure on Instagram? In short, hashtags are the key. Whether you find students on Instagram with an impressive follower count and approach them directly or encourage students all across campus to post about their school experience on Instagram, make sure you have a few hashtags ready to go. Some can be as basic as your university's name. Others should target more niche groups, such as class years, student-athletes or students in a particular program.

You should also encourage influencers to include location tags on their posts. One study found that Instagram posts that included location tags had 79% more engagement than posts that didn't include a location.

3. YouTube

YouTube is also hugely popular among Gen Z-ers. Pew Research reported that 85% of teens use YouTube — more than any other social media platform. One thing nearly all reports agree on is that Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube form the social media trifecta for Generation Z. In ACT's survey, more students said they used YouTube than any other social media site platform in their college search.

So, how can you use YouTube? A great way to provide video content that will capture the interest of your audience is testimonial videos from current students and alumni. These videos can also look like casual day-in-the-life vlogs. Students can share their favorite spots to study or provide a look into the fun events going on around campus.

If you find great video content from influencers that you want to use on your website or other platforms, see if they would be willing to let you share that content so it gets even more exposure. Most students will likely be flattered by the opportunity to be featured.

4. Blogs

Blog posts are also a great way for influencers to share their experiences. One advantage of blog content is that it can be more in-depth than the short posts teens are used to in other popular social media contexts. Unlike the other three types of posts we discussed above, blogs transcend one particular social media platform.

If you don't have a ready-made blog platform to turn to, consider Finalsite’s Posts feature. This innovative feature allows students and other members of your school community to post through an extension of your school's website. You can monitor content and make edits if necessary, allowing for an effective balance of authenticity and control. If you see posts you love, you can feature them prominently on your website.

Students can use a feature like Posts to share a singular experience, or they can maintain an ongoing blog that highlights their journey throughout a semester, school year, or even their whole college experience. Posts also conveniently supports a C.O.P.E (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) methodology so you can use the content in multiple ways throughout your site to serve your marketing purposes AND important constituents like current parents.

Let Finalsite Help You Tell Your School's Story and Capture the Attention of Generation Z

Let Finalsite Help You

Learning about a topic like influencer marketing can leave you feeling overwhelmed. This is just one piece of the puzzle to successfully engage with Gen Z and increase brand awareness for your school. The great news is that Finalsite has the expertise and resources to help you elevate all aspects of your online presence. Take some time to learn more about our services for higher ed.

If you're especially interested in improving your social media marketing, consider our social media aggregation and moderation tool, Feeds, which streamlines the process greatly. Finalsite is here to help your school's story come to life online so you can capture the attention of Generation Z teens who are looking for the perfect school to call home during this next chapter of their lives.

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Sarah Englebert headshot

As an Internet Marketer on Finalsite’s Consulting Services team, Sarah has worked with over 100 schools domestically and internationally to improve their online presence with SEO and PPC. In her free time, she can be found spending time with her dogs (#dogmomlife), going to comedy shows with her boyfriend, and trying new restaurants in pursuit of the best gluten-free dishes. 

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