Student Storytelling at SUNY Oswego

Your university’s brand is not what you say it is. Instead, your brand is what other people believe you to be.

Do you want to know what your university’s brand is? Ask your students. They’ll tell you. If you have 8,000 students, you’ve got 8,000 brands out there.

At SUNY Oswego, the marketing team went one step beyond asking their students to identify the brand. They actually let the students tell their brand story, and they did it without a centralized script, brand training, or even administrative approval of each blog post.

Tim Nekritz, Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about giving up the reins to your communication channels and trusting and empowering your students to tell your institution’s best story.

What’s the value in letting students speak authentically?

It all starts with the students you choose as bloggers.

“I picked (our student bloggers) because they were doing interesting things and not just to sound out marketing phrases, and taglines,” Tim said. “That’s not really what social media is for.”

These student ambassadors communicate with a broad audience of alumni, prospective students, and members of the campus community. What’s the common denominator that appeals to all those groups?

Tim believes the answer lies in interesting stories told by authentic voices.

Take swimming, for instance. It’s not the sport most universities lead their athletic marketing message with. But SUNY Oswego’s swimming and diving team’s has had a great season. Tim picked one swimmer who was social media savvy and had plenty of unique personality. Her stories could communicate the breadth of a swimmer’s experience in and out of the pool at Oswego.

“Even the people who knew nothing about swimming,” Tim said, “learned a little bit about it and learned that we had a really good team, and saw … the character insights that you can get from such a group.”

The university’s prime example of a student success story comes from Alyssa Levenburg, the school’s first in-earnest video blogger. She made videos oriented toward prospective students, not only at Oswego but those looking at other colleges, too.

It wasn’t long before Alyssa was invited to speak at conferences, including the content higher ed web conference in Atlanta where she was the only student speaker.

“That was a lot because I did not restrain what she did,” Tim said.

How do you find and motivate student brand ambassadors?

At the start of the student storytelling project, Tim asked around for students who might be good at making videos. He’d ask people if they knew science majors who could break down their work into everyday language, for example. His original goal was to recruit a set number of bloggers from predetermined backgrounds.

“It’s kind of changed a little bit,” he said. “We still find ways to highlight them, but my core students are now (in) communication studies generally or marketing people.”

For specific stories – like the swimming and diving team episodes – Tim still asks around. Sometimes, a student who tells a single-event story turns into an intern. Before hiring an intern, he likes to vet them by asking others to vouch for them, talking about oftens, and how often they can post.

“Sometimes you happen (upon) those people,” Tim said. “It’s always a bonus if you can get them early on in their college careers.”

It helps, too, if they have enough college experience to tell interesting stories. Still, you don’t want to have to retrain a team every year if all your interns are graduating seniors.  

In general, these students are passionate about what they’re doing. They have some school spirit. Of course, they want this experience on their resume, but they’re also dependable people who value the opportunity to talk about the college they love.

What channels see the most return from student ambassadors?

“Instagram is it right now,” Tim said. “Snapchat is kind of there.”

A lot of students seem to have bailed on Snapchat, though, after it redesigned. Instagram is simpler and cleaner, and they might use Snapchat only for direct messaging. It’s not a place to hunt for stories anymore.

The type of content has to match the channel, too. One of the SUNY Oswego interns has developed into the tip blogger more so than anybody else. Another is a great photographer. “I can use her stuff everywhere,” Tim said. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat.”

Last year, an intern put together a list of 25 questions to ask your future roommates. It seemed a little long, but nearly all the students in Oswego’s incoming freshmen class copied it,  gave their answers, and found roommates that way.

“When we get that person, that really good (storyteller) who can put out things that are informative yet entertaining, we want to find ways to showcase that,” Tim said. “There’s so many different ways to do it because good content is good content.”

What’s the first step to leveraging student storytellers?

Choose one channel, probably one you think is low risk. Blogging is a good idea because it won’t get quite as much attention at first.

Value the students’ contributions. Once you start an approval process, your message changes from “I value your contributions” to “I value the ability to edit or approve your contributions.” Just select interesting storytellers and let them tell great stories.

Tim’s final suggestion is to have a list of story ideas. Once the student ambassadors have introduced themselves, drumming up ideas for stories can get challenging. Help them with that.

Remember your audience. “If you’re a student applying at a college,” Tim said, “you’ve already talked to a whole bunch of administrators. You want college students, current college students. They are who you aspire to be…so (they) are the ones who you will trust the most.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Tim Nekritz from SUNY Oswego. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.