Colleges Are Hiring Their Own Students as Covid-19 Safety Influencers

Erin Marquino, a junior at the University of Missouri, sits in a hammock, working on her laptop in a photo she posted on Instagram in early September.

“Having completely virtual classes has its perks sometimes, but @Mizzou has made it easy to be on campus, too!!” the caption reads. “It’s also been great partnering with them on this campaign to bring awareness to their Renewal Plan! Be sure to keep practicing Covid-19 safety procedures like wearing a mask, sanitizing, & socially distancing, especially on campus!”

In a Sept. 17 post, Caleb Poorman, a freshman, looks straight into the camera, shirtless, wearing a Mizzou-branded mask. “Hey guys, I hope your school year is going well! In these troubling and uncertain times, it’s important to stay focused and still have fun,” he wrote in the caption. “For those who may be struggling with everything going on, the University of Missouri counseling center offers remote individual therapy,” he said, adding a phone number students could call to schedule counseling.

Around the country, colleges have enlisted students to help share coronavirus safety messaging on official school channels. The University of Missouri has gone a step further. Over the summer, it hired six of its own students, including Ms. Marquino and Mr. Poorman, to serve as social media influencers, sharing content written by the university about coronavirus on their personal accounts.

Other schools are ramping up similar programs as the fall semester begins.

“We’ve never tried this before,” said Christian Basi, the director of media relations at the University of Missouri, who oversaw the program’s development. “But we felt that this particular situation was so important that we wanted to make sure we were reaching students in a format, on a platform that they would most respond to.”

“Students don’t read email details,” he said. “They’re not going to necessarily listen to a speech by administrator or watch a video by an administrator, but they will listen to their friends and they will listen to their peers and they will certainly watch them on social media.”

Safety First

Brands have often hired college students to promote their products on social media, seeking access to the coveted youth demographic.

But in recent years, some students have been hired by the marketing departments of their own colleges. These programs have typically targeted high schoolers the college is hoping to enroll. Increasingly, universities are using influencers to reach their own students, spurred by Covid-19 outbreaks and by the aim of preventing outbreaks on their campuses.

“It’s no surprise that colleges know their students are living and breathing social media,” said Windsor Hanger Western, the C.E.O. of the student marketing firm Her Campus Media.

She pointed to the influencer twins Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight as an example of what the future will look like for university marketing. The twins, who have millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube, are paid by Baylor University, which they attend, to promote the school as a destination for prospective students. (In August, the twins announced on Instagram that they had both contracted Covid-19; “It is NOT due to in person classes that this happened,” they wrote, praising Baylor’s safety precautions.)

Temple University has created paid positions for student vloggers, and shared content created by influencers on campus across its official social channels. “We keep a good pulse on the influencers in our student body,” Kristen Manka-White, a marketer at the school, told Inside Higher Ed.

The University of Maryland is planning to start paying students to share coronavirus safety information on social media in the coming weeks as part of a larger student ambassador program, said Sophie Tullier, assistant director of assessment and research for the division of student affairs.

The ambassador program began when the school limited the number of students returning to campus, leaving many R.A.s without jobs. The students were reassigned as ambassadors, with duties including handing out safety information on campus and providing other students with masks. Some of them will also be paid for posting on their own social media accounts.

The students won’t be paid based on their posts’ engagement rate, Ms. Tullier said, explaining that instead, a social media post would count for “15 minutes or 30 minutes” of work at an hourly wage. She added that while the school does plan to track engagement rates for the content, “we won’t be using that as any sort of incentive pay structure.”

The goal, she said, is for them is to come up with content and “bullet points.” These could include identifying Monday as for “how to maintain your mental health and Covid, while Tuesday is about, you know, remembering to wear your mask, and Wednesday is a reminder to keep doing the daily monitoring.”

Campus marketing experts expect to see colleges spend more on influencers, especially with the pandemic cutting off other avenues for in-person promotion.

“They’re having to rethink a little bit of how they approach marketing because there’s no face-to-face contact with their students, so I think we definitely will see an acceleration towards more modern forms of digital marketing,” said Brian Freeman, the C.E.O. of Heartbeat, an influencer marketing company that employs 20,000 college influencers. “It’s the one channel that they can guarantee all their students will see content that they want them to see.”

‘This Is an Advertising Campaign, Right?’

Missouri paid Glacier, a Canadian influencer marketing firm, $10,300 to hire the six students who have posted on their personal Instagram accounts about masks, social distancing, and the school’s mental health services.

Matt Diteljan, the C.E.O. of Glacier, declined to say how much each student was being paid. “We pay really competitive market rates based on how many followers they have and the engagement that they get,” he said. The New York Times sent messages to several influencers, asking for comment, but they did not respond.

Mr. Basi said that the school didn’t tell Glacier which students to recruit; instead, it gave the firm engagement rate targets. “They know that they have to pick the appropriate people to make sure we’re getting those types of results,” he said.

“We really carefully vet all of our influencer selections based on a number of criteria,” Mr. Diteljan said. The influencers needed to be current students who posted often on Instagram, received “really high engagement” on their posts and displayed “diversity in their styles of content,” he said.

So far, the Glacier campaign has produced 18 Instagram posts, three from each influencer, all of whom have between 1,000 and 2,500 followers on Instagram. “As of last week, we had reached about 25,000 students and employees,” Mr. Basi said. “We had recorded about 63,000 impressions for those two particular audiences.”

He added that while it is impossible to confirm exactly how well the campaign was working in terms of safety, students on campus seemed to be following mask and distancing guidelines closely. He pointed to the declining number of active cases on campus, noting that on Sept. 5, Missouri peaked at around 680 active cases. As of Friday, the school’s tracker listed 95 active cases. (During the same time period, cases in the state of Missouri fell from 1,743 to 1,345.)

Captions for the posts were written by the school’s marketing division working in partnership with Glacier and the students. “We certainly have oversight of the content that’s out there,” Mr. Basi said. “I mean, this is an advertising campaign, right?”

Looking at the Price Tag

Some students are skeptical of colleges turning their peers into paid mouthpieces.

“It just felt so incredibly frustrating to see that Mizzou spent all this money on these influencers,” said Caitlin Danforth, 19, a sophomore. “It just felt so, so shallow and so performative.”

Ms. Danforth said she felt pandered to by the influencers’ posts; the cheerful images don’t match up with the anxiety and frustration she and other students feel about attending school amid a pandemic.

“It does seem like they’re trying to build this image of the school that people on campus are not actually experiencing right now,” she said.

To make matters worse, students soon found that one of the influencers had posted several photos on Instagram in July in which he was hanging out with large groups of people, none of them wearing masks.

“You question the messaging in how these students were identified, if a student who has been posting that comes up as a good choice for them to spend money on as an influencer to promote their Covid stuff,” said Eli Hoff, 19, a sophomore at Missouri. “It’s another case of people looking at the price tag, and looking at how much they pay for tuition and saying: ‘Is this really the most effective use of our tuition money?’”

Mr. Hoff also took issue with the messaging itself. “When I see a post that has a little witty caption, and then you expand it and it’s a message about Mizzou’s Covid-19 protocols or the counseling center and stuff, you know, obviously, that’s a good message and something important,” he said. “But it just screams, ‘I was paid to do this.’”

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