Influencer Marketing at Illinois State University

Influencer marketing has become such a high-value marketing channel in the retail and e-commerce spaces. So why is it so underutilized in higher education?

Megan Rolfs, Director of Marketing and Communications, Division of Student Affairs at Illinois State University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about #YourRedbirdLife and the potential incredible role of influencer marketing in higher education.

#YourRedbirdLife: Illinois State University’s Influencer Marketing Campaign

The #YourRedbirdLife hashtag serves as the brand for Illinois State’s student affairs department’s social media, encompassing the fact that student affairs involves everything that occurs outside the classroom for students. 

“That’s really the way that we tried to brand our influencer marketing team too,” Megan said, “so that we could get that hashtag out there and make this influencer team sound like something really cool so our students would want to get behind this effort.” 

Influencer marketing is based on data that says that individuals are more influenced by their peers than they are businesses or organizations. 

“We know this is true of our students as well because we know that they listen to their peers and their fellow students way more than they do us as administrators or departments,” Megan said.

This knowledge led Megan to create the Your Redbird Life student influencer team, which is all about these students using their own personal networks to help spread awareness about students affairs by sharing and engaging with content.

How to Find and Compensate Student Influencers?

ISU specifically looks for influencers who can help tell the broad story of the school in all the different clubs, activities, and academic options.

“Influencers can also be, or should be about like micro influencers,” Megan said, “and looking for these different pockets of campus where you don’t already have an influence.”

We asked Megan if the influencers get compensated for their work, and if so, how.

“They are now paid five hours a week at minimum wage,” she said, “and as part of their weekly requirements, we do ask that they submit a weekly report to us.” That’s how Megan and her team get buy-in from these students.

Influencer Marketing Results at Illinois State University

The results have been outstanding. “I’ve been so excited in just two years within this program how much we’ve already been able to accomplish,” Megan said. “And while we’re still gathering all the data from this fiscal year, I can share that in fiscal year ’18 our social media audiences across all platforms grew by a total of 118%.”

The first week of class last fall compared to the week before, for example, saw engagement go up by more than 298% that week. So it’s probably not just ISU students and student influencers who are engaging the content, but it’s also their peers and family members.

“That was an unexpected outcome of this,” Megan told us, “but our parents have been excited when they see their students featured, and so they’re engaging with our content too.”

Lessons Learned About Influencer Marketing

This was not Megan’s first attempt at influencer marketing in higher education. She admitted that her first attempt failed. 

“I was trying to make it, again, as authentic and organic as it could be,” she told us, “but I didn’t really have that outlined expectations and standards or the requirements that we’ve created now. I was just asking student leaders to go out and do this for us.” 

But that’s a problem because this was a volunteer position. Student leaders were already heavily committed, and an unpaid task like this one was then typically fell to the back burner for them. 

“And then when I didn’t give them those clear guidelines of what I was asking them to do,” Megan said, “they just clearly needed some more direction or needed to be able to have more to go off of than that.”

Paying student influencers and giving them the content and guidelines to work with has helped make #YourRedbirdLife successful.

Next-Steps Influencer Marketing Advice for Higher Education

“Take the time to do some strategic planning to get this going and to get something in place,” Megan said. “I’d also suggest enlisting a student or a graduate assistant to help you monitor and track the influencer progress, especially with that weekly report.”

You also need to look for diverse representation on your influencer team. Think beyond race, gender, and sexual orientation all the way to the micro influencer perspective. For example, look at year in school, program of study, and areas of involvement.

“One of the other things we’ve learned is that influencer activity does need to be as authentic as possible,” Megan told us. “So even though you are paying this team of students to engage with your content, it doesn’t mean that it has to be extremely prescriptive.”

Finally, continue to watch trends and consider any ethical considerations with this. Stay aware of FTC guidelines and the need for disclosures to make sure your audience knows about the fact that these students are influencers.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Megan Rolfs from Illinois State University. 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.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.