Content Marketing

3 Ways Colleges Can Enhance Their Marketing Strategy with User-Generated Content

Summary: How can your school show off its spirit, its culture, and the things that make it special? By letting the students do the talking! Learn more about the surprising power of user-generated content.

Once upon a time, media was more of a hierarchical affair. Whether in book form, on the radio, or TV, there was a clear separation between the producer and the audience. “Those who created” handed down content to “those who consumed,” with rarely the twain meeting.

The Internet came along to democratize media. Suddenly, all barriers to access fell. It was so inexpensive and convenient to go online and share your voice with the world that everybody did it. Eventually, this trend evolved into social media, an amazing electronic Tower of Babel. Now we are both the producers and consumers most of the time, which makes media so much more engaging since we can participate.

An important cultural shift has happened as a result: the shift of public trust. We used to just sit down and watch the 11 o’clock news, accepting that whatever the newscaster said was what happened. We could watch a TV series and accept how it ended, instead of demanding the final season be rewritten.

Now, it seems that the experts and people of authority are less relevant, and the casual social media user is more relevant.


Millennials and Gen-Z: Trusting Their Own Voice

Out of the general web audience survey, 79% of them say user-generated content (UGC) is deemed to have more of an impact on their purchasing decisions. Users were 2.4x more likely to say that UGC is authentic. A majority of consumers, 67%, say that it’s important for brands to provide them with a personalized experience.

Narrowing down to Millennials and Generation Z, the two generations most relevant to college’s interests, studies show that they trust social media first, friends and family second, and influences last to influence a purchase. Likewise, HootSuite’s survey of Generation Z finds that they, too, will turn to friends, family, or peer reviews on the web before they trust anybody else’s word about a product.

So what is going on here? Younger generations grew up in a hot media environment that saturated them with marketing. They learned to be skeptical and cynical of paid marketers. You have to remember that older generations just did not get as much screen time in their formative years, so advertising occupied a smaller corner of their world. By the time you get to Gen-Z, they’ve scrolled past so many ads that they’re a little marketing-deaf.

Traditional, hierarchical marketing lacks authenticity for Millennials and Generation Z. It’s paid for, forced, and plastic. But the word of their peer group rings true to their ears. Hence the power of student ambassadors.

This level of authenticity may be out of reach for many industries, but higher education is practically swimming in it. As any teacher can tell you, the school environment fosters a peer-to-peer communication network, always buzzing with activity. You can harness that power by encouraging students and alumni to participate.


Using UGC To Increase Social Engagement

Whatever the culture of your campus, you can communicate it through social media. You can emphasize stimulation, fun, diversity, or present the university as student-centric or career-centric. The important thing is that you let the students have most of the fun. You encourage their engagement, they produce UGC, you promote it.

Younger generations are not just passive consumers of social media, but active participants. There’s probably a student or two filming a video for TikTok from your campus right now, with dozens more thumbing through a hashtag chain on Twitter or attempting the latest Instagram challenge. Young people love the spotlight and applause, while also applauding each other. So don’t worry about getting them to participate; they already are.

You can direct some of that energy towards a beneficial cause. We have a section on fun social media engagement ideas for schools over here. It’s OK if the activities seem silly and pointless. “Silly and Pointless” brings down the house on the Internet and what a lot of people need these days. That’s why there are a million pictures of US Senator Bernie Sanders on a chair photoshopped into every conceivable situation.

Honestly, when it comes to social media fun, the best ideas are the least complicated. Take a page from Bernie and have a challenge for students to insert your sports team mascot into improbable photos. Anything gets the ball rolling.

Organic vs. Paid Social Media

Organic social media accounts, even for a major higher education institution, can have a weak signal. In fact, over the years Facebook and Instagram have modified their algorithms and reduced the reach of organic content. Paid social advertising helps you break out of your school’s bubble and connect to a new audience.

You can spice up your digital advertising campaigns with UGC. You let the student user-generated content be the body of the “ad,” and then promote it using your social media advertising platforms.

At first glance, your ad won’t look like a typical ad, and it may blend into the other media students consume. This can help improve your ad’s response and capture students’ attention. By amplifying the UGC, your student gets to enjoy the spotlight and you get to show off how happy and spirited students are at your school. Everybody wins!


Using UGC to Enhance Events

As we slowly move back from pandemic status to being comfortable having events again, social media is a natural tool to promote any happening. Who has ever browsed a hashtag stream from a convention, concert, or summit and not felt pulled to it? You use your students’ UGC to show others what they’re missing.

At your next open house, rally, or symposium, build up the anticipation and draw a crowd by urging your students to prepare ahead of time and share their fun on social media. Perhaps the school can spice up the atmosphere with a few props or backdrops or host themed activities to prepare for the main event. Suppose your theater group’s performance of the musical Chess is preceded by one of those giant people-sized chess sets in the courtyard? Things like that.

If it’s not quite time to call an end to pandemic precautions, your virtual event benefits from the same promotion. Or you can structure events around social distancing, sparse on the ground but spreading wide. This university lists 20 COVID-friendly activities, just for some inspiration. Your UGC promotion can be serious or silly. You can even harness students’ natural drive to improve the world, by theming your UGC campaign around environmentalism, activism, or a charity cause.


Using UGC to Add Authenticity to Your Website

This one could almost go without saying, because what university website doesn’t include photos of the students somewhere? The truth is, though, that you could include them a bit more. Give them their own blog or host the social media feed widget in the sidebar of pages. Use a whole page to host an Instagram gallery with the best of student UGC. By all means, make it easy and accessible so the students can share their handiwork with the folks back home.

Adding student UGC to your site bolsters the authenticity of your school’s branding, and sends the message to prospective students that your school puts the students first. It encourages friends and family of students to drop by and perhaps share a link. It promotes a healthy atmosphere of diversity and self-acceptance. It’s all about the warm, fuzzy, “belonging” feeling.

Of course, your school’s UGC stream can show off your facilities while you’re at it. Your art department is likely eager to share student artwork on Instagram. Your engineering department can show off its next robotics projects or chemistry lab demonstration. Your computer science course can stage a publicity stunt to raise awareness for digital rights. Your social studies department can theme a UGC event around a country with a humanitarian crisis.

Students are already quite eager to sound off about issues that impact them, or show the world what they can do. It’s an authentic way of content marketing that feels as natural as water flowing downhill.



Millennials and Generation X (and look for Generation Alpha comin’ round the corner) are media-savvy generations who are used to being inundated with electronic distractions. Marketing to them, especially marketing a university to them, using these unconventional means may feel strange. But it gets the results! You have to get their attention first and to do so, you have to be unconventional. You have to go where no school has gone before.


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