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Influencer Marketing and Its Place in Higher Education

We hear about influencers everywhere these days. But what even is an influencer, and where does this kind of person fit into the equation when we are talking about leadership and higher ed?

Well, I’m back from NASPA and ready to wrap up season 5 of the podcast! So in this episode, I will break down some definitions we hear when we’re in the influencer sphere, explore some innovative and successful influencer campaigns, how Higher Ed could start dipping toes into influencer marketing, and some of my best practices for working with influencers of all sizes.

May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, which was a theme to this season of the podcast. As we wrap up the school year and this season, I just hope you continue to take care of yourself and your people, and find some ways to keep self care in your routines!

And we’ll see you in season 6! Josie and the Podcast is a production of Dr. Josie Ahlquist and is produced by University FM.

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Campus Sonar analyzes online conversations to provide you with actionable insight. Subscribe to our newsletter at info.campussonar.com/subscribe to keep up on social listening insight or download our eBook—The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook—at info.campussonar.com/podcast.

Notes from this Episode:

[00:00:00] University FM is the higher ed podcast agency dedicated to helping you make shows that are worthy of people’s attention, share research, highlight diverse experiences, or bring attention to new initiatives with a podcast. They offer strategy, production, and growth services, and keep the process simple. I can tell you from season five of Josie and the Podcast this was all because of University FM.

Recently, they helped a top-ranked engineering school launch their own student podcast, with student serving as influencers for the school. How cool is that? Visit university.fm to learn more and get started. University FM: elevate the voices of your institution.

Hello, and welcome to Josie and the Podcast. I’m Josie, and I am so happy to have you here with me today. What does it mean to lead in the digital space with heart and humanity? On this podcast, I spend time answering this question with heart, soul, and lots of substance. My goal is to share conversations that encourage you, empower you, and maybe even entertain you to rethink digital strategy for yourself and the organizations you support.

This episode is going to be the bookend to season five of Josie and the Podcast. I have loved bringing back this podcast for so many reasons, but I have to give a huge shout-out to University FM. They aren’t paying me to specifically say this, but in previous seasons, producing this podcast with piecemeal attempts from different editors to designers and project managers and having it all in one place, it was just like my love language coming to life. I was just so happy. So, stick to the end of the episode. I’ll tell you my plans for the future and what’s to come.

Before that, to kind of give you a, well, what the heck have I been up to, the last shorty episode that I recorded was right before I headed to an annual conference called NASPA. And I just unloaded on you all of my lessons of conference attending, conference presenting, and all the things my good friend, Liz Gross, gave me a hard time, because she’s like, “Oh, a shorty episode, that’s an hour.”

So, here’s the thing. Maybe, these… when I say shorty episodes, it means it just features this shorty. Maybe it isn’t necessarily a short episode. Anyway, it’s kind of funny. I would love to hear if that episode was helpful for you and/or bring it back out as you’re preparing for a conference.

I was definitely thankful I had packed lots of granola bars. And one other tip that I would add is, we all know that Starbucks or Coffee Bean or whatever it is line just gets insane, right? So, there was a couple of days that I put in orders before I left my room that they weren’t ready right as I walked down. Because there were a couple of panels that I would treat my panelists with some coffee. So, that was a huge tip. Try to pre-order, if you can. Get your app ready, because, gosh, those lines were pretty scary.

I’ve been getting asked a lot about our RV, Lady Hawk. The last we took her out was in Thanksgiving, because the last couple of summers, Lloyd and I had taken some pretty long trips. And work is really heating up for the both of us. And we have some other trips coming, but that just wouldn’t be possible in the RV. We do have a smaller trip coming up for Memorial Day weekend. We also have some drama. And, oh, my gosh, this is, like, privilege problems, but we don’t park it at our home. There’s just not space, city living. And so, we have been parking it outside of the city, and we just literally found out that this RV storage location is closing. And so, we are scrambling right now.

So, if anyone lives in SoCal and is willing to have an RV parked in their driveway or in front of their house, let me know. We’ll pay you. We’re also looking into some legit options. But I guess that’s the deal with a large home on wheels. The RV was originally, you know, like, sought after, related to a little bit of mental health that my partner and I wanted to have an opportunity to completely clock out, but also to have a space, if we did need to work while we were out and about, that we’d use it to be able to, kind of, do a little bit of both.

[00:05:38] And as this episode comes out in May, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And this season of Josie and the Podcast, the throughline, or at least the goal to have an intersection to talk about mental health, asking guests specifically how they’re taking care of themselves and their families and others. And I shared right away in the season kickoff about my own journey.

And despite us not being able to take the RV out too much, I’m pretty proud about the work that I have done on myself, from a variety of tools in my toolkit. I think the biggest one was honestly admitting to myself, and maybe even on this very podcast, that I was having a hard time, that I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and to be perfect.

And I think all those things went straight up against me, really caring for myself. And the more that I’ve actually… I found this, even years and years ago when I first started this, kind of, entrepreneur blogger journey, is the more that I have shared honestly what’s going on with me and lessons learned, the more others have come out of the woodwork, thanking me and/or saying, “Yes, me too.”

And when you, kind of, drill down digital leadership or what does it look like to lead in the digital space with heart and humanity, we throw around words like “authenticity,” “be genuine,” “be real.” And some people are in a place to, like, really share their mental health story, or you know, like, I even realize that’s a privileged place to be and to be able to do something like that.

But we have to make more of a commonplace. We have to demystify these conversations and to also show that leadership is not a perfect path or the people behind it, because whether you think, oh, social media is all about this perfect grid and people’s highlight reels, I think what we’re finding is the most celebrated content and the most celebrated leaders are able to show their, not just filters, but flaws. And in addition to, obviously, like, showing success and, like, the impact, but that is my whole goal with digital leadership, putting that name behind it to educate leaders how you could do that intersection, that you can… to meet you at the intersection of what those both look like. Because so much of leadership in the past has been this polished and even this more distant leader on the stage, in the boardroom.  And that’s just not especially what our students need right now.

So, that also relates to the topic for today about influencer marketing. And I am so jazzed up to have this conversation. I feel like, even outside of higher ed, my work and my life experience has been leading me to this moment. Maybe, that puts a lot of pressure on it. But as you think about the layers of being a leadership educator by trade, being behind the scenes in a fairly popular YouTube channel, who they are also, in their own ways, doing influencer marketing work and the work that I’m doing, trying to get leaders to be more authentic, featuring and centering students in storytelling. Well, here we are today.

So, let’s first start with the influencer definition. I know the word, “influencer,” even Teresa Valerio Parrot and I chatted about this, about influencer can have a bad rap. But what I like to ground us in is always contextualizing some of these words around a more bigger understanding, as we look at leadership. And leadership is a influence relationship between leaders and followers.

And importantly, the second piece is, who intend real changes that impact their mutual purposes. And so, this means, especially if you start to look into the social change model, servant leadership, we are looking at positive social change. So, we can probably point to some influencers who maybe have not led to some positive directions, even though there was some mutual purposes behind that.

[00:10:27] I started my research as a doc student looking into digital influence or, like, leadership in digital contexts, there were a couple definitions that I started to, kind of, at least build contextual definitions around. So, there’s one for Technopedia, digital influences the ability to create and effect change, opinions and behaviors, and drive measurable outcomes online. Another one, digital influence is described as a reach, size of popularity, relevance, time-sensitive information and resonance, impact of information conversation.

I, kind of, mash those up to use a definition that’s in the book, Digital Leadership in Higher Ed, that digital influence is your ability to create quality and consistent content and conversation that builds a vibrant online community. So, it also always, I think the definitions go back to you have reach, you have certain content that you’re going to put out for a certain outcome. And so, all of my work is around building community online.

All right, so now let’s drill down further. What is influencer marketing? This is going to be, by definition, in the marketing communications industry right now, it’s an agreement between a brand and a noteworthy person or persons in order to get a message out to a shared audience. And we see this now on every single platform, whether if it’s a blog, a YouTube short, a TikTok, or an entire series of campaign posts on Instagram. We are seeing a variety of types of influencers, and I’m going to go through those in a moment, that have different types of reach and could be extremely helpful to brands.

Okay. Let’s define first this influencer. First, thinking about probably what we’ve always known influencer to be even beyond social media is we maybe think of celebrities. This is a mega-influencer category: 1 million plus. This is going to be your, you know, Beyonces, Taylor Swifts, but it also can be some very popular YouTubers and TikTokers that you may not know, but that have three, four, 5 million followers on a certain platform.

Going down slightly is a category of macro-influencer — very influential, 500,000 to 1 million plus followers. So, most likely not at a celebrity status, but, you know, basically that earmark is 1 million and below. Then you go down another chunk is a micro-influencer. And we are hearing a lot more conversations about microinfluencers, again, a person or a group that’s got influence. But the audience is going to be smaller and much more targeted, as you think about niches. And this could be up to 50,000 followers. But also, it’s so nuanced between that 50 and 500,000, as you start to look at macro-influencers. I would say the biggest determination of a micro-influencer is a very clear niche.

And then, we also have a new category called a nano-influencer. This is going to be 1,000 to 10,000 followers. And so, again, nano, I would say even more of a niche. You might even be looking at geographic-specific influence or demographic-specific influence.

Now, as I give you those definitions, I want you to think about, how is higher ed currently tapping into any kind of category?

So, for example, mega-influencers and macro-influencers, we might see a university hiring a celebrity or a very well-known author to be their graduation speaker or just a keynote for something — maybe a guest lecturer or maybe they graduated from that school, and now, all of a sudden, they’re on a billboard or in your magazine.

[00:14:55] The biggest difference here, when we’re talking about activating these celebrities or influencers in traditional campaigns, is there is a difference when we talk about influencer marketing is when you are paying those people for their influence on either their channels or yours in an agreement. Overall, we don’t see higher ed doing that, maybe, at all. What we see is the next definitions I’m going to give you, and then I’ll give you more examples later, is more of an ambassador-style campaign, where you may have an individual or a team of individuals that become the face and voice of the brand. So, we’ve seen these in content creator teams, interns, like, again, it’s almost like a student leadership position where these group of ambassadors are activated to be part, like, what we see on the screen. They might be a team of vloggers or bloggers or takeover the TikTok.

And then, we also see higher ed, and this is in all pockets of campus, hiring students, student employees, workers, or interns who might be more than just the face and the voice. They’re actually helping build out marketing campaigns, build social strategy, create, and be behind the scenes, as well as in front of the scenes.

That ambassador style, I’ve seen both paid and unpaid examples. But what is true influencer marketing? And is higher ed, is it there yet or is it ready yet for it? Well, according to — I just want to throw out a few stats — Influencer Marketing Hub, the industry paid $16.4 billion in 2022 on influencer marketing. And this is expected to grow to 21 billion by the end of 2023.

So, if you’re wondering, “I wonder if other industries are spending money on influencers,” the answer is yes. And why is this? Because young adults, not even just teens, young adults, I am influenced constantly on what I see on Instagram or even on Facebook. We are influenced in making choices, whether if it’s what we’re going to eat later, what we’re going to buy, what we’re going to do in digital and physical spaces.

At a fundamental level, influencer marketing is a type of marketing that uses all these endorsements and product mentions and, overall, social proofing from a trusted person or individuals who are called influencers, who most likely have a social following. They might be viewed as experts or known in their niches.

When you start to think about niches, you could think about, you know, there is a knitting community online, and you may not even know it exists, but until you do and then you find it, you’re like, holy cow, there are knitter… I don’t even know if that’s the word you call it. Or, I haven’t done it for a while, but triathlons within the fitness community. There are known influencers in that space. And there are also influencers in higher education and on every campus.

[00:18:29] Let’s give a couple of examples that I think could start to get your wheels turning, how we could start to think differently about how we approach influencer marketing. So, Dunkin’ Donuts, where are my Dunkin’ people, versus Starbucks, versus all the billion other things, right? Lots of coffee companies are vying for our attention. So, not surprisingly, Dunkin’ Donuts worked with a very well-known celebrity, Charli D’Amelio. Did I say that right? I’m not young. I may have mispronounced her name.

But here is the fact. She has 144.5 million followers on TikTok. Dunkin’ Donuts has 3.1 million followers, which is still pretty good on TikTok. But they created a campaign under the hashtag, Charli X Dunkin’ contest. They named a drink after her, called The Charli. And so, she would create content on her TikTok.

Fast forward at the end of the campaign, it led to a 57% increase in app downloads of, specifically, the Dunkin’ Donuts app, 20% increase in Dunkin’s cold brew units. On that day and the next day, it went up by 45%. Those are real specific numbers. Keep in mind, again, I’m not sure any campus could afford a Charli. But so, let’s apply it for small businesses, individuals, campuses.

There could be a huge uptick in working with a celebrity or a mega-influencer. But again, those might be out of our price points. This is why I think we’ve seen so much brand ambassador work to share content and increase brand awareness. That could be the baby step. If anything that you’re taking from this episode is you think about your internal ambassadors already that you could activate a campaign that you have. You may not realize, like, oh, gosh, we’ve never even asked other people to help us with this campaign.

And not just giving day campaigns. Because I think we’ve, kind of, reached saturation and asking people to do that, which I know is important. But what about other things?

Another example that, if you are all on YouTube, you’ve seen these ads, NordVPN. It is a virtual private network, and it relies heavily on YouTube.

So, they created a influencer program that hired individual channels that would create pretty authentic content, but they made sure they worked with the right creators — and I’ll share some best practices in a little bit — especially around entertainment, tech, and gaming. Now, those three audiences, NordVPN kind of knew that these channels might need a more directed virtual private network.

They also added a limited-time offer, and they knew that they wanted these pieces of content to be very, again, authentic and narrative. The whole campaign sponsored 598 videos that received almost 6 million likes from all those videos, with a reach of 2.2 billion.

So, this goes back to, okay, we’ve taken the baby steps of, maybe, activating our students, our alumni, maybe even our staff and faculty to create content on their own channels. But the difference here is both of these examples, there was a paid element, an agreement to the type of content, and even support with creating that content, and that we are tracking data on the backend to see what the impact is.

Here’s one more that I really loved because it’s a values-based influencer campaign. Target partnered with a number of HBCUs in a campaign called Black Beyond Measure. There was additional elements behind this, not just posting on social media, but there were scholarships, internship program, and then a design collaboration where you’d actually see products in Target during Black History Month and, hopefully, beyond, that came from Black creators. And no surprise, you would see black creators in their feed. There was a few really fun ones on Target’s TikTok that featured some well-known Black TikTokers who were also selling their pieces in Target.

So, that’s another one that I think about, if you’re feeling uncomfortable with this idea of paying someone just to create content, we want to make sure that we have a values alignment of who that person is. But also, maybe it could be something more significant around something that’s mission-driven, that hopefully will still give an ROI of increasing, you know, website visits and application requests and, oh, goodness gracious, could it be that some of these campaigns could aid in enrollment?

Spoiler alert. I believe they can.

So, how could we do it? There’s a few different common ways in influencer marketing that these agreements come out to light. The first one, the most common that we have seen, is it’s on their pages, whether if it’s on Instagram or on TikTok or it’s a sponsored ad or sponsored blog. We also see that to the next level, that that brand is then pegging to boost their posts, sponsoring those posts. So, the reach hopefully will just get a little bit more, literally, boosted.

The second way that we see is on your accounts, the brand accounts. So, you almost have, like, a takeover-esque element or almost like you would in a billboard or a magazine, or your graduation. You just see them in the feed. Obviously, they’re a notable person. They might share it with their community.

[00:24:53] The third one that I am finding is becoming more popular and I do think could be very interesting for higher ed is user-generated content from the influencer that is created for your pages. Small shops, you’re a person of one. If you think about trying to create all your own videos and reels and TikTok content, approaching that might be quite overwhelming and you don’t have resources for it.

We have seen brands hire well-known creators, and their influence campaign relationship is one that they are a creator for them, for content that’s going to live on their own platform. So, you’re getting a skilled editor creator for that place. You might be able to, then, the agreement might be, obviously, financial. But also, you might actually approach this as if it’s going to be a license for their content, a license for their skill, in addition to maybe paying for their time. That could be more affordable, versus them having to post it on their own pages or being featured in your accounts.

Where do we see this influencer marketing happening? I would say it happens everywhere, and maybe even under your nose. But the most obvious places are Instagram, in your feed, from photos, graphics, reels, stories, going live and takeovers. YouTube, I would say, is the longest place where we started to see this happen back in the day. But we see video content, as well as shorts, Facebook feeds, video live, TikTok vertical video, especially, Pinterest, even. Pinterest has a wide reach, if you start to look at some demographics that you might be wanting to focus on, and could be a different type of influencer that you may not have come across or thought of, based on other platforms, that could be graphics, video, or photos.

Before you get all caught-up in media types or how we would define this, I just want to pull us back even further, because from my experience working with influencer marketing, started literally in my home, where I’ve almost seen it on the other side. So, my husband is the co-creator of Epic Rap Battles.

They’ve worked with numerous brands over the years, whether it is having a brand deal, as they call them many times, but a sponsorship for one of their actual battles. Or, maybe it’s going to be one of their behind-the-scenes videos, or it’s going to be a post on Instagram, or sometimes all three. And I will tell you that, especially the larger the influencer, the more time you should prepare in developing the relationship and most likely coming to terms that’s going to fit for both of you.

I would also say there’s certain types of content creators that are going to be more open to it. And/or you’re already going to go to their page and realize that it’s already full of content.

So, while it might seem very attractive to start with micro-influencers or nano-influencers, maybe their price points are lower, there’s pros and cons of each. You may approach a micro or nano-influencer that’s never signed a contract before or doesn’t fully realize what that actually means, but if you also try to, all of a sudden, out the gate, work with a mega-influencer, their price point, most likely, is going to be quite high. They’re going to be very, very picky. And, again, that might take a little bit more support from legal to feel like all values are aligned along the way.

All that to say, I’m still very, very excited for this opportunity. I don’t want you to get all caught up in whether they’re micro or mega or “what my budget is.” I want you to start to think about, “Well, how could I beta-test this in just trying one campaign?” And not just to do it to do it, but to build a campaign with a specific outcome.

[00:29:27] Josie and the Podcast is also sponsored by Campus Sonar, who partners with higher ed campuses and associations that value marketing and communications as a strategic ally. Together, they empower leaders with insights from online conversation and social listening data to develop and align their strategies with the goals of the institutions they serve.

Join Campus Sonar, as they debut insights and expertise from their latest industry trends. Register for the May webinar, featuring Rebecca Stapley, Katlin Swisher, and Agassy Rodriguez. You can register on the Campus Sonar’s website or find the link in the show notes.

[00:30:11] And so, this is why I’m actually doing this episode. If you would’ve asked me last fall, if this would’ve been one of the shorty episodes of the podcast, I’d be like, there’s enough for me to talk about. But I’ve been working with some of the community college district on creating a campaign. And the reason why I said yes to it is because it is so outcome and audience-driven. It has a exact goal to it that we can then, after we run this campaign, we can follow those metrics to see if it made an impact to know, yes, we should continue doing campaigns like this in order, for example, to increase enrollment of Black and Hispanic online adult students. That is so targeted.

So, before I go into some best practices that I have learned, I want to give a quick snapshot of how higher ed is currently swimming in the influencer marketing. I would say, most likely, shallow end. You know, the shallow end is great. Maybe there’s some, like, a splash pad happening. I’m sure some great things are happening with some of these programs. But again, it’s not, I wouldn’t call it the deep end.

And the deep end could be really cool. You can do back flips off of the boards. You can do synchronized swimming. You can really get creative. I’m not saying the ways that higher ed is currently doing is not creative, but it’s very common to see the same thing. And the most common way are ambassador programs and hiring students. The good news is we see some of these programs doing really well.

So, I want to feature a couple of them, just so you’ll know, kind of, what’s out there when I started to do my digging. And a special shout-out to Danisha White for helping me do some of this market research, because we wanted to go out to see, well, can we find campuses that are paying influencers to create content, no matter where it lives? And over and over, what we found were ambassador programs or student teams.

And so, some of these I would recommend for you to check out, this is going to be just our first baby step. We’re going to do the splash pad approach, and then maybe eventually we’ll get further along.

So, Dillard University, they’ve got four students that create content in a volunteer structure. And they are creating content on TikTok, on Twitter, and on YouTube. And they’re really collaborative in how they’re coming up with ideas.

On another end, and one that I’m a big fan of, is Colorado State University. They have 11 students who they pay to listen, to share content, to build community, including one specific channel, called the Ram’s Life, which is all student-facing, from day in the life, to how to study. They’re almost these vlogging, self-made influencers. And I would say this is like midway, where maybe you’re, like, waist-deep because you are paying students for content. They are the face of it. We have a branded approach of a ram’s life. And I don’t know their exact goals for it, but from my perceptions, it looks like they are trying to feature the real life with real students that’s going to both engage current students, as well as answer the questions of potential students of what it’s really like to be a ram at Colorado State. And know that I’m going to link to all of these.

University of Georgia, they have student ambassadors. There’s 30 of them, all with the aim of creating authentic content. They want an authentic perspective. And they’ve got Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. I really like how they use Instagram stories often where they are featuring these digital dogs.

These are volunteer — so, unpaid ambassador team. And in anytime, you aren’t paying students. Unfortunately, you might see some challenges in actually getting content, the consistency piece. There has to be a lot of rallying from advisors or professionals who are behind these accounts.

Because I’m working with a community college district, I really wanted to find another community college doing any kind of influencer or ambassador work. And Megan Rolfs, she used to work at Illinois State University. I called her up because she’s now at Heartland Community College. And she developed an influencer program while at Illinois State. So, no surprise, she has done this to Heartland.

There’s three students. They are employees. And they, I feel like, it’s almost an admissions model, because not only are they creating content, they’re the face of content, but they’re also doing all kinds of other engagement work, from being present at events, signing and creating thank you cards and signs. And so, even thinking of these student employees activating them in all types of different ways, and they call them the Hawk Squad.

The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, Rachel Putman is there now their director. There are four student employees and one staff digital strategist assistant who are paid. They help create content on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and I also believe BeReal. And I know Rachel does a thorough job of training and support and development and that they want this content to feel very much authentic and timely. Definitely, go check out their accounts for lots of best practices.

[00:35:58] Okay, I’ve got two more. Florida International University, FIU, I recently came across them from Joel, who’s been doing a lot of cool work there. They launched a FIU creator program in the fall of 2022. And they have different cohorts. So, their 2023 cohort was just brought on, where they are going to… I think they said they had over 100 applicants, and they selected 12.

So, this is also a really cool sign when, in many other pockets of campus, we may struggle getting students involved. This may be a new involvement opportunity. And from my understanding, I don’t think this program pays these ambassadors to create these original pieces of content.

The last one to share, which I would say is the furthest out into the waist, so maybe more, like, into your ribs, is CUNY’s TikTok is completely student-run. I featured it in a blog I wrote, Student-Centered Campus TikTok. They have really great engagement on TikTok. Sometimes, their content, tiptoes out into, definitely, you could tell that, maybe, an advisor professional that see it first, but it resonates.

And so, I would encourage you, whatever you define it — ambassador, creator team, influencers — it’s good to have an idea of what is happening throughout the industry. But I would say it is not the metric, because I would say very confidently, higher education is not currently taking advantage of true influencer marketing.

Heck, if you want to really be a standout, let’s say at a conference, or just again, approaches in a beta test, I think it would be so cool to just watch those metrics and see what happens.

Some things that I think would help you is to try to have a very specific audience or niche with this targeted campaign.

You also might want to think about another way to beta-test this is with student-athletes with name, image, and likeness. There’s already some parameters and relationships built in that you could start to work with some of those student-athletes.

As we think about niches and enrollment and reach, sometimes the challenge of working with the influencer is their reach may be even further than you had bargained for. So, for example, Epic Rap Battles have a very large following international. If, for example, I was to recommend them to be an influencer, which I’m not, just an example, that program or that college would have to be prepared for, maybe, someone to see that content and be influenced. And are you ready and, actually, wanting an international student? So, maybe it’s an online program.

But on the international piece, as we think about reaching these students, we also might want to look at activating international influencers who might be on apps we aren’t. So, for example, WhatsApp or other apps that are more popular in certain countries, they’re just going to get the cultural nuances, not only of the app, but within the audience that they have a reach.

The other challenge that I find with some colleges trying to create ambassador programs, and there are many, but when you think about creating one and you’re going out and you’re doing these great social listening, you’re trying to find students who are actively posting about their experience and/or have quality content and could be trained, there are just some campuses where, just right now, you may not have that much to choose from, that at least students aren’t revealing themselves or posting about their experience. This might be for some community colleges or non-residential. You would almost have to create and increase your culture of sharing in order to find those current “student influencers.”

The other challenge is an ambassador program or a, or a student worker team, it takes work to manage, not just students, but anyone, but especially students, to excite them, to coach them, to train them, to empower them, that it takes a lot of work. And so, just adding that onto somebody’s plate year-round is no simple ask.

And so, again, maybe it is a focused influencer campaign that’s seasonal or beta that you build up to something more robust.

[00:40:40] Some best practices in influencer marketing, no matter how you define, if it’s a micro, nano, mega, or it’s a one-time or year-round campaign. You have to have super specific goals. The goal is going to be to, we can say we’ve done influencer marketing, is not the right rationale to do this type of strategy. Have a very specific goal that’s going to be defined to a strategy and that comes into tactics. And this is where, almost, like, a cylinder, we start to get more and more specific.

So, my example that I gave is that we want to increase online enrollment of Black and Hispanic students. The strategy is going to be that we are going to better communicate and connect with these audiences using influencer marketing. The tactics is going to be even more specific. We are going to have a influencer marketing campaign that’s going to feature five micro-influencers that are going to target X, Y, Z demographics for this amount of time for this amount of posts.

The last really specific thing that you need in your strategy or that you would want to have, if you are, for example, going to pitch this up the food chain in higher ed, is how you’re going to measure it. So, for example, if all the content lives on the influencers’ pages, you’re going to have to have an agreement that you can view it and/or they’re going to send that to you and/or that you can be added as an admin, especially if you’re wanting to boost any of their content and put paid ads behind it, the specific measurement things that you’re looking for.

Okay. We want to, we’re looking for engagement, we’re looking for reach, we are looking for click-through rates, we want to be able to give them a trackable link that then is going to have us know that they’re going to land on this landing page, and we’re going to be able to pull data from that. I could make a whole episode just on measurement, y’all.

Okay. So, you found these influencers or you’re starting to look for them. What I would say is don’t just prioritize how many followers they have. The follower number can be deceiving and sometimes actually misleading, because we know people can buy followers. I want you to dig in and pay attention to their actual engagement rates. And probably, using a slice of time, so not just one post, not just a couple, like, looking for those patterns over time.

And again, a large following isn’t going to translate to high engagement. And it may also not translate to the engagement that you want. So, if a influencer has an audience that’s going to just be too massive, for example, the type of campaign that you’re going to have, that might be problematic.

This might be why we want to look more into regional micro-influencers that have a strong presence and influence in a, you know, a state, a geography, again, a niche area. We also want to see, though, that they have an engaged and loyal audience, so that we can, kind of, see that over time.

And it would also be beneficial, again, I think if you’re doing this for the very first time, that you have found an influencer that, maybe, has had at least one or two examples of working with a brand in the past. And you could actually ask for what some of those successful metrics were like.

This is why many brands work with influencer agencies. And just like when you’re looking for influencers, I want to add a disclaimer. When you’re working with an influencer agency, or even a marketing agency, is this is still very much like the Wild West, is that a lot of agencies will take your money, and they are able to fully back up metrics.

I have seen successful influencer marketing campaigns run through agencies. I’ve also seen successful ones when you go directly to the influencer, and they have their own team to help support them in their processes. The benefit of working with an agency, for example, you could go to them and say, “Okay, these are all the things we’re looking for. You come to us and tell us who those influencers are, that’s maybe on your roster.” And so, it’s almost like a package deal, versus if you were to go out and almost be the agent yourself, that might take some more time.

[00:45:09] No matter which direction you go, you need to have an onboarding process. So, something that’s very common in influencer marketing would be creating kind of, like, a brand guide. This would basically be in higher education, you would list out, this is who we are, this is our mission, these are the students that make up us, faculty, staff, and this is the breakdown of our campaign. Basically, that quick guide gives the agency or the influencer and/or their manager a tool to say if they think it’s going to be a good fit. And then, you’d start to build it out from there, for example, to build out a contract.

I also know there’s some agencies and influencers that have minimums, so you might want to ask, even before you go into creating this big brand breakdown, is to get that sense, if they have a range.

I’ve also found some influencers, when there is a values or mission alignment, that all that goes out the window, that they might be willing to do an agreement that they wouldn’t, for example, if it was with another type of brand or product.

I would say this next piece within contracts and guidelines, well, A, I’m not a lawyer, so you’re going to need to work with your legal counsel right away, but I want you to know and look up the FTC Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, where all of those posts and tags that you see that are listed as hashtag paid, hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored or tagged or in collaboration with, that is because of the FTC, that you have to have clear disclosures, for example, in a video. Every platform is a little different. And we want to be very upfront with that. When we hire ambassadors, when we hire interns, there is paid money, right, for them to do that. There is a reciprocal relationship. I just think it’s an important conversation to have, is there any disclosures you think you should be making? Because you are paying those humans that happen to be students for content. We haven’t seen any examples of the FTC coming down on any ambassador programs in higher ed, but I think we just need to, kind of, keep an eye on that.

For contract best practices, I would follow the common things that you always have in your contracts within your university, but I would also encourage you to think more specifically, almost like you think about, “Okay, we’re going to hire this band. They’re going to play for this long. They are going to agree to these terms. What is the agreement going to be?” So, you might need to go as specific as the timeline, as the amount of content, the length that it needs to be, if there’s any words you don’t want them to use, how many times you want to be able to review their content. And I will warn you, if you ask for too many reviews, they will redline that and/or not work with you. So, you’re going to have to be ready for that a little bit.

The reason for that is, when you are working with the influencer with content, the most engaged, successful content is going to feel authentic. It’s going to feel like it already lives within their world. Whether if it’s on YouTube or Instagram, it needs to feel organic. However, this might be the first time they’ve ever heard of your college or stepped on your campus. They might need some coaching, and getting them to really know what your voice is in order to get them excited. So, again, that relationship and not just a transactional type of experience.

As you think about long-term with influencer marketing, we need to think about not just activating our current students, building relationships with them, and building these ambassador teams. I want you to think about the relationships you build with your students now could pay off dividends in the influence that they will have in the future, from their industries, from maybe their Instagram.

And so, sometimes we look at alumni engagement and community in its own pocket. And I would love to look at influencer marketing in higher ed more on the cycle, of the student life cycle, because I think some really good admissions and student affairs and marketing teams do this, they realize, “Oh, my gosh, we have a student that’s accepted and paid their deposit who has all these followers on TikTok. Let’s build a relationship now.”

Any student that steps on your campus or staff or faculty have the potential of growing an audience and being an influencer, whether if it’s now or when they’re 60. So, if your CRM doesn’t already include some type of category where you can designate and track their online platforms, not just LinkedIn, but other ones, I would encourage you to think about that holistic approach.

I also, especially if you have to go more homegrown, don’t discount your influence from your local community. So, this could be the owners of the coffee shop across the street from campus or your mayor or other people that have their own online presence, that you could work, again, in a more organic, non-paid way, or potentially some other type of pathway.

[00:50:39] I’m getting excited about influencer marketing. Maybe, it was because of realization that we have not fully tried it, that I’m sure, like any campaign, there are going to be flops and bloopers. But because there’s so many best practices that are already in place in so many industries, it’s not like you have to feel like you’re alone. Again, billions and billions of dollars are being spent on influencer marketing in other industries. This is happening. Higher ed, we have a demographic enrollment cliff. And if you haven’t tried this, this might be a great rationale to do it, again in a beta way.

But what I would say is you’re going to need to do your research, if you want to work with someone who’s worked with influencers before, whether if it’s an agency, whether if it’s a me, in being able to find the right influencers for you and creating a campaign that’s going to be goals-driven and be able to define what those outcomes are going to be.

And this is why I’m so excited to announce that I’m formally making influencer marketing an arm of my consulting work, because just the early stages of creating this campaign for this community college district, I am dancing in my office, because not only are they giving me lots of freedom, but there’s also lots of layers. So, we also discovered that they don’t have an ambassador program. You can create an integrated ambassador program with a paid influencer marketing approach, that these things, just like all of your marketing, should be integrated.

They also realize that they haven’t really activated their local community of staff, faculty, administrators. And so, that’s, like, another phase approach that we can take to it. But I would’ve to say it’s got to be authentic. There’s got to be a strategy behind it. And please, do track how those metrics connect back to your outcomes.

[00:52:54] Okay, to wrap this sucker up, podcast updates. I am manifesting this, season six is coming in the fall. I have been so amped to get to work with University FM and Campus Sonar. They have been such great partners through this season five.

A special thank you to my guests this season, Jenny Petty, Tiffany Smith, Gourjoine Wade, Teresa Valerio Parrot, Joy and John Hoffman, and Krista Boniface. I also want to thank my team behind the scenes that have helped pulled this off. Chelsea, Giselle, Abigail, y’all have been just amazing.

And then, University FM. The humans behind this has been Robert, Cheska, and Caitlin, and their entire editing team.

And special thanks to Campus Sonar, Rebecca, Michelle, and Liz.

And, of course, thank you to you, listener. Maybe this is your first episode or you’ve been tagged along this whole time. I very much appreciate your support. And I hope you are as excited about continuing on this podcast as I am.

Y’all, this officially wraps up season five of Josie and the Podcast. Especially now that this is the last episode for a few months, please make sure that we’re connected online. Find me on pretty much all the platforms @josieahlquist, and the podcast is on both Instagram and Twitter. 

All the notes from all the shows can be found at josieahlquist.com/podcast. I would very much appreciate a review, a like, a love, a share. That goes such a long way.

And y’all, I am hitting the road. I am going to be headed out. I’m going to be flying more. I’m going to be speaking more and consulting. So, let me know if y’all want to work together. You could find me at josieahlquist.com.

I’m sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and the Podcast.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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