How to Run a Successful and Safe Student Social Media Takeover
Handing over the reins of your school’s social media accounts to students may make some marketing teams nervous, but when done well, “social media takeovers” add a level of authenticity that provides prospective students with an inside look into life on campus.
For many higher education institutions, their social media presence is a tightly controlled and highly curated picture of how they’d like the school and student experience to be perceived. Many schools outline extensive posting guidelines, and a team of social media managers produce content to activate the school’s brand and monitor comments.
While necessary, these posting guidelines and approaches lack the urgency, humor, excitement and personal point of view that social media platforms thrive on. How to bring the student voice – and communication style – into your school’s social media?
We spoke to Morgan Trachtman, social media manager at Duke University, Liana Dobbs (Solis), social media manager at Southern Methodist University, Jason Boucher, communication director, social media at University of New Hampshire, and Stephanie Swindle Thomas, Director of Social Media and Visual Assets at Penn State Arts and Architecture to get their insight and playbooks for successful student media takeovers.
3 Reasons for Colleges to Try Student Social Media Takeovers
While the approaches and strategies that each of the social media managers we spoke with employed were unique, there were three key points that they all stressed that highlight the value of social media takeovers.
- A more authentic experience. Social media takeovers remove the “institutional filter” and allow prospective students to hear directly from current students.
- Extend and grow your social media audience. Providing authentic stories and cross-promoting those stories on other social media platforms increases social follows across the board. Plus, it engages both prospective students and current students.
- Tell stories that would be hard — or impossible — for a marketing team to produce. Stories about international students, unique performance opportunities, or research projects out of the country are compelling, exciting, and brand-building opportunities, but they are hard to source and produce from within the marketing department. Allowing students to tell these stories via social media ensures that they are getting out.
Planning Social Media Takeovers
Each of the four social media teams have developed some form of onboarding document that they share with the students before handing over access to their social accounts. These social media takeover guideline documents cover:
- Dress code
- Offensive language
- DEI considerations
- Style and tone
- Brand guidelines
Social media takeovers may not require hands-on work during the takeover itself, but the more planning and preparation you do leading up to the takeover, the less stress you will have to endure during the event.
Pre-record or Do It Live?
One of the most important decisions you’ll need to make is whether to give students unfettered access to your social media accounts and allow them to conduct takeovers in real time, or require that they take photos and pre-record videos that are reviewed and then posted by the social media team.
When asked why they prefer to do live takeovers at the University of New Hampshire, Communications Director, Social Media, Jason Boucher said, “We want it to be more authentic. It’s real, it’s live. It’s not pre-recorded. It’s not yesterday or last week. We want it to be in the moment.”
Live Social Media Takeovers
- Adds an element of authenticity to the takeovers and builds trust with followers
- Social media team can be on call, but don’t have to actively participate
- Simplifies the process and eliminates potential hiccups (e.g, the Dean wasn’t available to give final approval on a graphic, so the takeover had to be cut short)
- The students take on more responsibility, and need to be vetted more thoroughly
- Only students confident enough to manage a social media account for a major brand can participate
- The risk that a student could post something offensive or violate the code of conduct.
- Poor password/device management during a takeover could have unforeseen future consequences
Pre-recorded Social Media Takeovers
To avoid some of the concerns above some schools take a different approach than the University of New Hampshire and opt for pre-recorded student social media takeovers.
- Complete control over the content that gets posted during the takeover
- Students don’t need access to social media accounts/passwords
- Don’t need to rely on the students for video and photo editing
- Risk losing the “in the moment” feel
- Could come across as less authentic, particularly if the recordings are taken several days or weeks in advance
- More work for the social media team editing and curating the content
You may find that whether your students pre-record their takeovers or post them live changes depending on the subject matter. For example, a takeover showcasing the student section during a major sporting event will be far more impactful if it’s posted live during the game as opposed to the next day. Whereas a “day in the life” takeover could be safely pre-recorded, edited, and posted several days or even weeks after without losing anything in translation.
Selecting the Right Students
There are a number of different ways to select students to participate in social media takeovers, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. You may find that you stick to one approach, or employ all three simultaneously. What’s important is you develop a process that works for both your team and your administration.
Open to Anyone
The University of New Hampshire has a separate Instagram handle they use exclusively for takeovers (#ThisIsUNH), and any member of the campus community can request to take over the account via a form on the UNH site.
Provided you can build up enough awareness around your takeover events to generate submissions, this approach allows your social media team to focus on vetting students who have already expressed interest, instead of chasing down groups or individuals on campus who might have compelling stories to tell.
Small Pool of Pre-Vetted Students
Over the course of several years, the social media team at Duke University has developed relationships with a group of “student ambassadors” who they frequently tap to perform student social media takeovers, or to recommend other students that might be a good fit for a takeover.
Tour guides are another great resource. They are already comfortable serving as the face of the institution, and over the last few years they have perfected many of the skills necessary to run a successful takeover through hosting both live and recorded virtual campus tours.
While the social media team at the Penn State Arts and Architecture allows students to submit requests for social media takeovers via a Google Form, many of the takeovers come from students the social media team actively seeks out and recruits. For example, linking up with theater productions to take followers backstage on opening night, or walking through the sculpting process with an M.F.A in Art student
Keeping your ears to the ground to find compelling stories is a great way to ensure that your takeovers fill specific gaps in your social media content, rather than relying on the stories to come to you.
Executing the Social Media Takeover
Provided you’ve done your due diligence setting up a process and vetting the students, creating the content for the takeover should come together relatively seamlessly. While a lot of the creation process will vary from school to school and takeover to takeover, there are some universal considerations to keep in mind.
Choosing a Platform
When it comes to takeovers, Instagram is the most common platform the colleges and universities we spoke with are currently using, with Snapchat and Facebook also being popular options. That’s not to say that you can’t run a successful social media takeover on other platforms though — like TikTok — provided your school has an established audience and you feel a social media takeover would perform well there. But keep in mind that just because a large percentage of your prospective students are using a particular platform, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to want to engage with your school’s account.
“You have to meet them where they want you to be, not where they are necessarily.” Stephanie Swindle Thomas, Director of Social Media and Visual Assets at Penn State Arts and Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University
Promoting the Takeover
In the days leading up to your takeovers, you’re going to want to introduce them to the students and provide some background on the story they’re going to tell. Whether that’s posting a photo of the student with a short bio a few days before the takeover or creating a more elaborate awareness campaign with videos and graphics will depend on the resources you have available.
Providing Takeover Support
This will vary depending on whether you’re doing a live takeover or a pre-recorded one, but either way you will want to make someone from the social media team available to advise the student(s) while they’re capturing photo and video. Any number of issues could arise that require feedback, and you don’t want to leave it to your students to make judgment calls entirely on their own. If you can have someone from the team shadow the student conducting the takeover in person, even better — provided doing so doesn’t infringe on the authenticity of the takeover.
Just be mindful that there’s a fine line between providing support and providing direction.
“Don’t tell the students what to do. We let them know we’re happy to brainstorm, but they’re not going to be their true, authentic selves if we’re telling them exactly what to say. At the end of the day, this is their takeover, and we want them to tell the story they want to tell.” Liana Dobbs (Solis), social media manager at Southern Methodist University
Repurposing Takeover Content
If you’re conducting your takeovers on Instagram or Snapchat — which the majority of schools we spoke to are — then the stories your students capture will disappear 24 hours after they’re posted. There’s a lot of opportunity for engagement in that time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t repurpose them elsewhere after the fact. Chances are pretty good that your admissions team would find myriad uses for the sort of authentic, student-driven storytelling that takeovers generate.
Some repurposing options include:
- Instagram highlight reels or Snapchat Spotlights
- Admissions and/or University YouTube channel
- Campus life section on your school’s main website
- Paid social ad campaigns
- Capital campaign sites
Whether you already have buy-in to start planning social media takeovers, or you’re building a case to test them out at your institution, the most important thing to remember is it will take some time to establish a process and get into a publishing rhythm with your takeover content. But once you get to a point where you can reliably produce them, they can become an invaluable source of content for your social media channels with uses that extend far beyond the initial posts. It may be hard to relinquish some control to the students on campus, but don’t forget that they’ve been living and breathing social media for most of their lives — they’ve got this.
“Oftentimes giving people the reins can feel scary, but letting folks be creative can result in really amazing content. The students are experts at social media…They know a lot and really don’t be afraid to let them be creative and create content.” Morgan Trachtman, social media manager at Duke University