Build An Authentic Brand by Giving It Away

By Robbie Fitzwater | Mar 17, 2017

How do you build an authentic brand on social media? Give it away!

Let’s talk about takeovers and student-run accounts. Here’s the story of how getting students involved has impacted our social media at Clemson.

Launching a Student-Run Account

Instagram has evolved from a cute photo sharing app to a full on, attention-grabbing monster. For universities, it’s turned every student into a professional photographer—adjusting exposure, bumping up saturation and adding a filter to create the perfect selfie or photo of campus. It’s turned the student body into visual ambassadors for the school and we’ve all loved them for it!

Since the end of 2013 (a little late to the party, I know…) Clemson University have been using Instagram to tell the visual story of our university. From produced videos to user generated photos and Live Stories we’ve experimented with just about everything on the platform.

But for a prospective student, we can only go so far into an authentic window at life as a Clemson Tiger on the Clemson official account. At the end of the day we’re still the “sterilized” university account. We were looking for something new, and we noticed the St. Lawrence University @herewegosaints student “takeover” account.

They give a new student the account each week and let them share their authentic story. But before started our own takeover account, I reached out to Meg Bernier Keniston, the mastermind behind the account to learn about how they started it and how it performed. She described their process, gave me some great advice and shared tools that they use to help the students who are taking over.

Soon after, our @ClemsonStudents Instagram account was born! We’ve had a year and a half of amazing student stories being told on the account. A student government president and a new freshman student shared their experiences during the first week of school. A student interning at the Olympics last summer shared her experience in Rio, members of our spirit squads took over around bowl game time, and a leader of our student LGBT community shared her experience during pride week. We’ve had many orientation ambassadors, a student in our ClemsonLIFE program, and even Miss South Carolina competing in the Miss America Competition.

We’ve had wonderful surprises, along with plenty of emotional and courageous moments. It’s helped us tell stories that we never would have found otherwise, and brought a unique human face to the university. It’s by no means our biggest university account, but it’s not about about the bright audience, it’s about the right audience! And since 50% of the audience is 14-24, we think it’s one of our most impactful channels.

How The Instagram Account Has Evolved

We started small and recruited some of our orientation ambassadors to be test pilots for the account. They are a great group of passionate students, and we trust them to not “go rogue.”

We put together our own “expectations” document planned a signup process. We met with each student for a few minutes before they took over to go over logistics, answer their questions and brainstorm content ideas. We intentionally didn’t promote it too much since we wanted to get it into a good rhythm before spreading the word to the masses.

After a month or so, we felt comfortable working to promote the account, so we started producing 30-40 second intro videos for each student to share on other platforms and link back to the account. We also worked to align our university events calendar with the student account calendar. These two things have made a huge difference: the intro videos helped it grow, and aligning the calendars made the storytelling extremely relevant.

Before long, students started requesting to take over the account and pitching what would make their story unique. We put a link to a form in the bio for students to tell us their story and when it would be best for them to take over. Margaret Kelly our point person for the account goes through the submissions and populates our calendar to give it the most diverse and relevant perspective.

Expanding to Snapchat

We also wanted to find a way to allow to have the students share their experiences in a “day in the life” format so we began giving them our university Snapchat account for the day each Thursday. Our students brainstorm the narrative storytelling, show them some of the more impressive takeovers we’ve had for inspiration. Since Snapchat Spectacles came out, we’ve been letting them experiment with those, and that’s added a unique component to the storytelling.

Snapchat itself has also evolved. starting out it was just a simple platform for sharing photos and short videos. With each new feature, from stories to longer videos and live stories, we’ve happily welcomed them and adjusted and evolved our use of the account.

Are you thinking about launching takeovers or starting a student-run account? Here are a few tips!

Start small.

Make it scalable into your workflow and then begin to build. Don’t go out of the gate with guns blazing and then get overwhelmed. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is a social audience or workflow.

Take ownership.

This is a takeover account, but it will not work without someone really taking ownership over it and putting in the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to nurture its growth. Margaret Kelly who is on our student content team has been the driving force behind the growth of the account for the last year, we made her the point person and she ran with it! With her behind the wheel we can be thoughtful and intentional about lining up students and she can give them the support they need through the process. It does require a decent amount of time investment around the logistics but it’s necessary to make the account run as smooth as it does!

Set expectations.

When you meet with students, give them some examples of what success looks like and brainstorm other ideas. Give them a concrete understanding of what you’d like to see, but make sure they know that they can be flexible. You want every student to share lots of amazing photos and videos and build great stories, but not every student is going share the same way, so support them in telling their own authentic story.

Integrate it into your calendar.

Be thoughtful about how you use the account. When campus is in full bloom on the first week of spring, make sure the student taking over takes beautiful photos. When you have a large admissions event, give it to a student who will be involved. Think of it as an unofficial marketing channel, and the message will come through.

Drive traffic from other channels & accounts.

We look at this as one of our most powerful social accounts because of its demographic base. We’ve heard it’s one of the first Clemson accounts that potential students start following. We also encourage any student taking the account to re-post on their personal accounts, and that always provides a great boost to the account!

Have fun!

We’ve had the account for a year and a half and we’ve been experimenting that entire time. There is no right way to tell a story, just keep pushing the boundary and be open to surprises. Make sure the students know that you’ve got their back & they will thrive!

Seeing these students tell their stories has been one of my most rewarding experiences. We’ve helped students tell stories that would have never been told otherwise, and we’ve let them shine while giving a human face to the university. It’s not always easy for a potential student to imagine themselves on campus, so we let them dive head first into the lives of students just like them. What better way to build a brand than to give it away!

Tell Us What You Think

How are you getting students involved in your social media efforts using takeovers or student-run accounts?

About The Author

Robbie Fitzwater is the Director of Content Strategy at Clemson University. He has worked in digital marketing and social media for the last nine years, consulted with global brands like Walmart, The American Red Cross, CBRE, and Fleet Feet Inc., and now gets to work with amazing people to share the Clemson story, and he loves every minute of it!

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