- Colleges and universities in the US are taking a page out of the marketing playbook and using influencer partnerships to encourage students to wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay healthy.
- Consumer brands have used influencers for years, but it can register as inauthentic when schools hire their own students to influence their peers.
- Social psychologist Dominic Packer, a professor at Lehigh University, explains how effective this tactic can be among college students.
- On the surface, it seems like an effective way to reach students, but Packer warns the strategy hinges on colleges seeking deeper involvement from their student bodies.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When “twin-fluencer” sisters Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight tested positive for Covid-19, they announced it to their 5.8 million Instagram followers in a caption with a disclaimer about their school, Baylor University: “It is NOT due to in person classes that this happened.”
The twins have posted regularly about their time at Baylor, including paid partnerships with the university. As Baylor’s vice president of marketing and communications and chief marketing officer told the Dallas Observer, the school’s Instagram account gained 3,000 followers when the McKnights announced they were attending Baylor.
Consumer brands have used influencer partnerships for years, but now colleges and universities in the US are hiring their own students to influence their peers to wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay healthy. It’s an ambitious move, but not one that’s necessarily guaranteed to succeed.
According to some experts, when an educational organization starts pulling from the marketer’s playbook, it can register as inauthentic — especially in the middle of a pandemic. Will students really listen to influencers if they come off as mouthpieces for their schools?
“As a general principle, it makes a lot of sense to want to try to shape opinion using spokespeople and role models who students feel a connection to,” Dominic Packer, social psychologist and professor at Lehigh University, told Business Insider. But, he said, colleges will need to keep certain priorities in mind for the method to have the best results.
On the surface, it seems like an effective approach
Colleges have an easy explanation for trying the influencer approach: Students usually pay more attention to Instagram than the informational email they receive from the school. But as one student at the University of Missouri told the New York Times, some people may question whether an Instagram post promoting university-branded masks is really the best use of their tuition.
For Packer, the issue comes down to identity. People seek guidance from those with whom they share an identity, he said. It’s why some of the most effective influencers, whether they are social-media stars or politicians, are genuine and personal — those who reveal the imperfect, just-rolled-out-of-bed parts of their lives, as much as they show the jet setting and designer wardrobes.
In addition, people tend to follow leaders they view as “one of them.” If a student influencer appears inauthentic by using a caption scripted by their school’s administration, for example, that influencer may lose legitimacy in the eyes of their peers.
“It’s a tricky balance of how do you amplify influencers’ voices without co-opting them and making them seem like they’re actually not part of that group anymore,” Packer said. “They’re part of some other elite set of people, which would not work very well.”
Not only might they come across as elite, Packer adds. They might not look like their peers either.
Colleges must represent the diversity of their student body to be as effective as possible
Packer makes the case that college campuses are not monolithic communities, so schools must reach a diverse set of students to be as effective as possible in their messaging.
This is especially true in order to target people who don’t abide by any public-health measures at all — those not wearing masks, practicing social distancing, or following quarantine guidelines.
For example, most schools have a variety of organizations and social groups: athletics and Greek life, social activist groups and student-run publications, a capella and theater groups, and so on. Influencers, if they have any hope of influencing, must represent at least some cross-section of those disparate identities.
“If you’re really going to engage in this kind of social influence strategy successfully,” Packer said, “you need those role models to represent the diversity of the community.”
Students need to be involved to be invested
Packer also noted it’s important schools involve their students in the planning and decision-making process, rather than asking them to promote the plan after the fact.
If student influencers can say they helped set the rules, perhaps their posts encouraging others to follow the rules will come off as more authentic and sincere.
“If it looks like we’re just paying them to say it, that’s not going to work out,” he said. “If they helped come up with the plan, they then can very authentically go out and help sell the plan.”
It’s not the only approach, but it’s a start
Two months into the school year, colleges are still figuring out what’s working. Coronavirus cases are difficult to track and compare nationwide because schools have their own methodologies and timelines for reporting test results.
A New York Times survey has found more than 178,000 cases at college campuses across the US since the pandemic started. The report stated most of the cases were announced since students returned to campus in the fall, which could indicate influencers should represent just one of many strategies to combat further spreading.
“We’re seeing different universities having different rates of success at mitigating the virus,” Packer said. “And some of it’s behavioral and having strategies that are good, and some of it’s luck.”
To Find More Information, Go To Saubio Digital And Look Up Any Topic