An introduction to influencer marketing for higher education

Just five years ago, the idea of “influencer marketing” was a fringe concept. But today, it is more than a trend—it is a valuable way that brands across industries have increased social engagement online and earned new followers, leads, and customers. Read on to find out what an influencer is and how you might leverage them to support your institution’s marketing efforts.

What is an influencer?

It’s no secret that social media has changed the marketing terrain permanently, and nothing exemplifies that better than influencer marketing. An influencer is an individual or an online persona that:

  • Has access to a devoted audience that has specifically opted into seeing influencer content

  • Can affect others’ decisions based on his or her reach, perceived authenticity, expertise, or relationship with the audience

  • Occupies a unique niche or space for conversation with their audience (think “mommy bloggers” or “self-made entrepreneur personalities” that earn their audiences by being leaders in their particular groups)

  • Is typically seen as a “normal person” who connects with fans based on shared characteristics and life experiences

It is tempting to use numbers, such as a follower count, as a measure of an influencer, but high engagement with audience members and an established status as a thought leader or culture creator matters much more. Some influencers may have only a thousand subscribers, but if they regularly communicate reciprocally with those individuals, the power of those connections trumps someone with a wider reach.

Think of it this way: would you rather share your message with 10,000 readers in a place where no one interacts with your message, OR would you like to share your message with just 1,000 readers who actively discuss and re-post your content? Social media is a numbers game, but you want to care about the right numbers, and influencers’ communities often resemble the second scenario above.

Why should I consider working with an influencer?

Reason 1: Influencers offer authenticity.

The age of information overload has bred a generation of more skeptical consumers of information, making authenticity a key consumer concern. Psychology research shows that we are more satisfied with a decision if we can leverage the experiences of others like us when making a choice. This helps to explain why influencers are successful at what they do—they are perceived to be trustworthy, accessible sources of information for their supporters, who are often satisfied when they follow the advice and guidance of their favorite personalities. For example, an alumna influencer raving about how your career center helped her find a job will convince far more prospects about the value of your education than a fact sheet on your website. You can amplify your messaging through real personalities in your campus community.

Reason 2: Influencers have a built-in audience.

It is difficult to cultivate an audience from scratch. Influencers’ audiences are earned through diligent, thoughtful work in brand creation, community building, and social engagement—this hard work can benefit you immediately if you can tap into this existing community. What does it look like to use these audiences for your own goals? You may want to enter a new, competitive market, so identifying an influencer who already has ties in that area can provide a leg up. You may want to target a niche to support a campus department or program; finding influencers who work in related topic areas can help you gain mindshare. You could support computer science enrollment by finding passionate personalities in coding communities tied to your institution or region, or you might launch a new theater program by engaging community theater or costuming expert groups. Few institutions currently use influencers to reach prospects, meaning early adopters can benefit from being first movers.

Reason 3: Influencers offer “unbiased” opinions.

The generation of consumers and students you now want to recruit are far more skeptical and unwilling to buy into what brands and institutions are telling them directly. While Gen Z may follow brands online, they don’t trust these brands when it comes time to make decisions. Influencers function as gatekeepers for many social media users today—if a trusted influencer decides to share a product or message, it is because that influencer has already vetted it first. These personalities become living, breathing product reviews that show real experiences with products and companies. Capture the enthusiasm of on-campus individuals that would rave about you, like a well-known student athlete who can speak about coaches or the balance between academics and sports at your institution.

How do I find an influencer?

Start by brainstorming the types of people you think you want as brand ambassadors. Some great starting points include:

  • Lifestyle influencers who represent your institution’s local area

  • Athletes or superfans with a lot of team spirit

  • Academic thought leaders with social media presence

  • Alumni now leading in their post-graduation fields

  • Current students who have significant followings and engagement (for whatever their expertise or area of interest is)

Carefully chosen influencers represent different facets of the community you have on campus and in your alumni networks, which helps promote brand awareness and penetration into underrepresented niche groups. Consider talking with your marketing and communications teams to explore whether influencer marketing makes sense for some of your enrollment goals this year, and stay tuned for our forthcoming Q&A piece with an influencer to learn more about institutions’ common questions and concerns with using this branch of marketing.

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