This article was first published in Unibuddy’s fortnightly newsletter, The Chat. Subscribe to learn how universities are building community marketing and recruitment strategies, and receive conversational insights from 10 million+ messages sent via Unibuddy Chat.
Have you ever read a book that’s transformed how you think about your career?
In 2018, I read Mark Schaefer’s Marketing Rebellion—in my opinion, the definitive guide to human-to-human marketing for the modern age.
Across 300 pages, Schaefer dives into how most of our marketing is happening without us i.e. via peer-to-peer chats, customer reviews, and in independent brand communities.
Naturally, he puts forward several frameworks and strategies for harnessing the power of these activities to support marketing efforts.
As an education marketer, I’m absolutely fascinated by how HE brands, often at the center of loyal and enthusiastic communities, can leverage these strategies and stand above competing schools.
Through 33 examples, let’s look at how some universities are doing this already. But first, let’s unpack what is meant by community marketing in higher education.
What is community marketing in higher education?
Community marketing is using your existing students and talent to attract others to your institution.
In a lot of instances, it’s about giving up control and trusting your advocates and ambassadors to move your ideas, content, and campaigns for you.
Your goal is to create a sense of authenticity with your communications on the basis that we are far more likely to listen to someone who has “lived the experience” of an education, rather than those who are employed to sell it.
As marketers and recruitment professionals, we can create experiences and gateways, so it is easier for prospective students to hear (and engage with) members of your university’s community.
US universities using community marketing
For inspiration, we’ve pulled together 33+ examples of existing universities using community marketing initiatives.
Each initiative gets an outline of the idea, our take on why it works, and the difficulty of pulling it off.
We’ll cover examples that show universities:
- using student-to-student marketing techniques
- curating student experiences and giving them a platform to reach more prospects
- leveraging community initiatives for marking assets
The best ideas are not created from scratch, but by combining boxes. You could just copy what you see here, but where’s the fun in that?
Combine ideas and create something new—something that the sector has never seen before.
And if you like what you see here, don’t forget to subscribe to The Chat – our fortnightly newsletter where we share more examples of how universities are building student-to-student marketing and recruitment strategies.
On with the show.
1: Vanderbilt University – This is Vanderbilt
Pitching your community: Rather than an about page, Vanderbilt leads with “This is Vanderbilt,” a concise pitch for the university’s campus community and its students.
Our take: Vanderbilt offers a powerful example of a university nailing its colors to the mast i.e. having a strong sense of purpose and a clear picture of the type of student it wants to attract. Each of Vanderbilt’s principles is punctuated with a student’s voice—directly relevant to the theme it portrays. The result is a convincing marketing asset, far more striking than a general about/history page, which offers little insight into a university’s community. This is Vanderbilt
2: Carnegie Mellon University – Tartans, All In. Everywhere.
Community all in: Carnegie Mellon designed a community-focused approach with “Tartans All In,” raising the profile of students adopting COVID safety measures, their reasons for doing it, and why you should do the same.
Our take: Over the last year, universities have had to encourage students to adopt new habits—wear a mask, stand 6 ft apart and make online your new normal. Signage around campus and asking people to wash their hands via Facebook will only get you so far, so Carnegie’s approach is smart. What’s more effective at changing behavior? A sign telling you to mask up, or everyone around you wearing a face covering? COVID safety measures are still a key concern of students at the pre-application stage, so having a high-profile, community-focused solution won’t hurt your chances of attracting prospects to your institution. Tartans, All in. Everywhere
3. UNC Greensboro – AR Filters
Stickers?: UNC Greensboro has rolled out a unique set of AR stickers for its students to use when posting about life at university. We’re a fan of the cheek logos, neon signs and spartan helmet. Yes, Greensboro students can clad themselves in virtual armor.
Our take: Nothing says “I’m all in” on a university community like putting a giant sticker on your face. Give your community the tools and assets it needs to show its love for your university. It will attract others. Greensboro AR Filters
4. Northwest University – Pursuit Magazine
A magazine for prospects 👀: Pursuit Magazine is a quarterly publication for NU’s prospects, leading with ambassador interviews and articles that address audience needs at the prospect stage. Editorial content is supported by [ads?] that highlight university awards and USPs.
Our take: This is a well-crafted publication, nicely tailored to a segment. In a time where brands are shuttering their print publications, there’s a real opportunity to create an outstanding print experience—there’s little to no competition! For prospects, a quarterly print publication is ideal to build a sense of NU’s student community, and perhaps even start to picture themselves at the institution. Pursuit Magazine
5: University of Connecticut – The College Tour
Studio quality video tour: University of Connecticut’s virtual campus tour is so big it gets its own trailer. Part of The College Tour Series, we are treated to a 36 minute (!!!) studio-quality tour of the university from the perspective of ten students.
Our take: This is beautiful, but incredibly hard to get right. The winning factor is that each student is responsible for one university theme, but everything is shared from their unique perspective. Each chapter is often peppered with a student’s personal photographs, video footage, or relatable stories that stick with the viewer. There’s some nice use of YouTube’s Chapter feature too, making it easier for prospects to find the content they need. A solid example of structure meeting community and high production value. Trailer | Tour
6: Indiana University – TikTok, How Fun In-Person Classes Could Be
TikTok o’clock: TikTok is a new force for the social media category, overtaking YouTube for average time watched per month. Indiana University has taken to the platform well, clearly letting its students lead on the majority of content produced. Check out “How Fun In-Person Classes Could Be” (30K views) and “March 31, wya? 🧐(136K)”—you’ll see what we mean.
Our take: The key to showcasing your community on TikTok is to (almost) give up control and lean into the absurd. The platform’s algorithm is built to test content with audience groups, rather than serve based on account following and authority, so new content can be discovered more easily. If you have ambassadors with creative ideas and a flair for video, the right post could make your university a top channel in a space of a day. Then you just need to keep it up. Indiana University on TikTok
7. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Discover Dynamic Minds
Repurposed stories: If you are looking to build on existing ambassador testimonials and short stories, North Carolina’s “Discover Dynamic Minds” is sound inspiration. The campaign focuses on sharing the tales of student internships—taking student stories and giving them a focus and theme.
Our take: By throwing in a few token testimonials to landing pages, you’re unlikely to have an impact on your community marketing. If it’s possible, look to repurpose your disparate stories into a single campaign to increase their impact. Discover Dynamic Minds
8. The University of Kansas – Internship turns grand designs into reality and Jayhawk builds career from the ground up
Degrees at work: University of Kansas has gone to great lengths to produce high-quality videos of its students being interviewed in a work environment. Pieces are led by students discussing their work, but seeing their actual offices and colleagues is the good stuff. It makes it feel real.
Our take: One of the most powerful marketing assets for universities is being able to show a student using their degree in context. These sorts of videos are tough to put together. Getting sign-off from brands is always a challenge, but notice how Kansas has chosen SMBs. Going for a smaller business will improve your chances of creating this sort of content—tenfold. It’s easier to get in touch with decision-makers and sign-off processes are often streamlined. Grand designs into reality | Jayhawk builds career from ground up
9. University of Montana – Instagram, Takeover Story
Takeover collection: University of Montana groups its best stories together, showcasing a variety of student voices while answering questions from prospects. There are around 10 different student views of campus, teaching, and general student life.
Our take: Using digital ambassadors for takeovers is a given in community marketing, but what happens to that content once it’s over? For UoM, its takeover insta story is an easy way to repurpose and maximize the use of its content. For prospects, it’s a fast way to get a sense of the university’s community and whether or not it’s something they want to be part of. University of Montana Takeover Story
10. California State University – Frensno – Instagram, Advice Story
Advice from current students: Fresno curates the best advice from its campus community and packages it up as an Instagram story series.
Our take: If you are running Q&As on Instagram, it makes sense to repurpose past micro-content into bigger assets. Seeing answers from the student community at large is more effective than one-off takeovers. Instagram Advice Story
11. University of Nebraska – LinkedIn, Incoming Huskers
In-person welcome: Nebraska hosted a hybrid student enrollment throughout summer—the only school of the Big Ten to do so. Student advice sessions were hosted on Zoom, but the in-person enrollment and orientation period was stretched to mitigate the risk of a COVID outbreak on campus.
Our take: Zigging while your competition zags is a good way to attract attention. With the return on in-person events, maximizing the use of your campus community at key points in the student journey is the key to creating stand-out and memorable moments. It’s hard to do that on a Zoom call. Incoming Huskers
12. Pace University – “Pace Now,” “Pace Is,” and “Pace People”
Community homepage: Pace gathers several community marketing initiatives on its homepage; sharing student content in a variety of formats. You can watch what students say about the university, take a deep dive into editorial content from its community, or read a quick student profile.
Our take: Using your advocates to create content in a variety of formats is essential to meet the needs of a wide-ranging homepage audience. However, be careful not to spread yourself too thin as you move down the conversion funnel. You’re more likely to be remembered for one channel and content type than a weaker presence across many. Pace is many things
13. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee – Class of 2021
Outgoing advocates: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee produced a retrospect using its class of 2021. Students are interviewed in meaningful locations while high-quality footage is cut with personal moments.
Our take: Who says “authentic” has to be low-budget? While user-generated content is great for quick hits throughout the year, your yearly wrap projects will benefit from higher production. Capture your outgoing advocates in the best possible light since their stories are amongst the most trusted with your prospects. Class of 2021
14: University of Chicago – Big Brains Podcast
Recruitment via reputation: Winner of the 2021 CASE Circle of Excellence gold award and Adweek’s “Best Branded Podcast” in 2020, Chicago’s Big Brains Podcast is a runaway success story. Each week, the show covers topics related to its research areas but does so with an emphasis on accessibility and entertainment.
Our take: One of the best ways to build your brand’s reputation and offer a “halo-effect” to your recruitment campaigns is to launch a podcast. Every episode, its voices, and talent is a compelling advert for Chicago University and its various schools. This is a long-term strategy where consistency is key. Many universities have an academic community capable of churning this stuff out, but few are willing to commit to posting content consistently to grow an audience. Chicago has been sharing shows fortnightly since 2018. Big Brains Podcast
15. SUNY New Paltz – Hawk Talk
Fast community: New Paltz has gone for a no-frills set of student profiles for its Instagram Story series “Hawk Talk.” Each student gets a card with Hugo the Hawk and then shares advice for incoming prospects.
Our take: You don’t need to spend weeks thinking about this stuff. If you want to boost your community marketing efforts, you can get your ambassadors in front of a camera and post the same day. Do this regularly and you can gather all content into a single story, publish and incorporate it into comms throughout the year. Fast community marketing. Halk Talk
16. University of Wisconsin La Crosse – TikTok, Ain’t about to wait til spring. 😤🏃♀️
How many views? Wisconsin La Crosse captured its Eagle spirit with its students shoveling snow off the athletics track, then put it on TikTok. They got 116K views.
Our take: You couldn’t pay for that kind of coverage. Well, you could, but it would probably be a large chunk of your annual budget. TikTok’s algorithm is special—use it to your advantage. For La Crosse, having student-led content, spliced with a widely recognized theme (snow in Wisconsin), packed together with a good backing track… this was always going to be a winner. Aint about to wait til spring 😤🏃♀️
17. Florida International University – FIU Campus Tour 2020, Modesto Maidique Campus
Best. B-roll. Ever: In 2020, it was tough to get onto campus to film indoor spaces, so Florida International University cut together its best b-roll, added student ambassadors for commentary, and (presto!) created a virtual tour.
Our take: Wish we had thought of it. Sometimes in order to create something impactful, all you need to do is to combine existing boxes. Ambassadors add value to archive footage by sharing stories. Did you know that if an FIU student breaks their hand, student services automatically assigns them a scribe? We didn’t, and we bet the marketing team didn’t either until this student shared it. FIU Campus Tour 2020
18. Georgetown University – From a Student
A student blog (with actual content): Georgetown has done a great job of using its digital ambassadors to post blog content since 2015. “From a Student” covers tips for wellness, studies, what to do in DC, and taps into a lot of questions prospective and current students are asking.
Our take: More universities should be using ambassadors for blogging. Posting on social channels is fine but, ultimately, you don’t own that content. Yes, you have 50,000 followers on Facebook, but you probably reach around 1% of them each time you post—cheers, Facebook! A blog is a destination and channel that you own. Use it to showcase the best of your community. From a Student
19. Bentley University – Be a Force
Using students to share purpose: Bentley is a business school focused on making a difference in society, using its student stories to make its mission concrete and relatable.
Our take: “Changing the status quo” and “recognizing the need for positive change” have probably been touted by a few business schools, but “Teaching Kids the Power of Law” and “From Homeless to Student President” are clear. We know what the school cares about. Raise the profile of your student ambassadors that personify your mission. Be a Force | Be a Force on Twitter
20. University of Redlands – Living at the University of Redlands
Accommodation vs lifestyle tour: University of Redlands takes a wider view of campus accommodation by wrapping it up with “living” on campus. We have a student guide take us to all the best spots, anchoring content around various residences.
Our take: Campus tour videos always do well, but repositioning your campus tour as a lifestyle ad is a smart move, especially when it’s led by ambassadors (feeling less pushy) living at the university. It allows you to broaden your scope too. An accommodation video would just focus on features, like storage and wash facilities, but a lifestyle video uses a campus community to add a deeper level to your promotion. Living at the University of Redlands
21. Southern Utah University – Red Riot
Sample community: Lots of Universities have residential programs, but Southern Utah University packages up its activities as “Red Riot.” Billed as a major event, it’s a day where prospects can speak with ambassadors in person and get a feel for the university before applying.
Our take: With the return on in-person events, more universities should consider pulling together disparate campus outreach programs for maximum reach and impact. In-person event competition will be fierce for the remainder of 2021 and into 2022. Your program will have to be special with a view-winning student and family calendar space. Red Riot
22. Minerva Schools at KGI – Global Immersion: London
International careers: Minerva shares the stories of four (class of 2019) young professionals working in London. Each student speaks about their aspirations, career path and what value they want to add to the world.
Our take: Lots going on here. Firstly, following multiple stories set in London is the ideal way to communicate the “internationalism” of your School. This isn’t just one talking head in a lecture hall—these people are on-location living out their lives. Secondly, having your graduate community share interesting takes like: “I wanted to be president, but I realized you can make more change through working for big companies.” Global Immersion
23. George Fox University – Bruin Blog
Not shot on iPhone: All posts written by students on George Fox’s blog get the same care and attention as those put together by creators working for the university. Students get to write for the public, but they are backed by creative professionals (including a talented photographer) to make their stories come to life.
Our take: If you are giving your ambassadors a platform to publish their work, why wouldn’t you give them access to resources to make it shine? Today’s students may be digital natives, but they can benefit from your expertise in publishing content for brands. Enable ambassadors to build a relationship with your marketing team. Bruin Blog
24: The University of Toledo – Your Tomorrow
Leading with students: Toledo’s “Your Tomorrow” is your typical university poster piece, only it leads and supports content with its students’ voices. Each of its USPs is reinforced with a student story rather than a promotional page. For example, click on “Field Experience” and you are greeted with a story from two students, their projects, and results before you get anywhere near promotional copy.
Our take: This is easy to pull off and a viable avenue if you are only starting out with community comms, or looking to anchor some of your student chat activity. Ensure student content leans into the emotional—notice how student Jannet Frias touches on the common feelings associated with starting university: “nervous but being made to feel at home,” focusing on the ability to “make new friends,” and easily “meet people and connect.” These are the tests of a strong campus community and are made authentic by hearing them from Jannet. Your Tomorrow
25. Eastern University – At Eastern you can earn…
Menus with depth: Eastern backs up its primary homepage CTAs with pop-out video stories. “Your first degree” has a link to a landing page, but beneath it is ambassador Kadeem with a day in the life.
Our take: At first this would seem like a bit of a risk to UX, but in practice, it works well. Each high-quality video pop-out has buttons to navigate relevant CTAs and the stories are led with a student’s voice. At Eastern you can earn…
26. Muhlenberg College – The Muhlenberg Experience
Community perspectives: A lot of universities have social or image curation tools embedded on their homepage, but Muhlenberg allows users to sort the steam based on “living” or “learning.”
Our take: This is a welcome feature. It’s basic categorization, but it’s enough to give each set of images more meaning and context. Think about how you can organize your student imagery into collections, making it simpler to search and enjoy. Make it easy for your prospects to picture themselves at your institution. Muhlenberg Experience
27. St. Olaf College – Dear Future Oles
Ambassadors on popular topics: St. Olaf College has thrown out the traditional student profile in favor of ambassador content organized around topics. Each video in the Dear Future Oles series sees multiple ambassadors give their take on prospective student questions.
Our take: We’re a big fan of this. By using multiple ambassadors to answer one question, you give your content depth and variety. Also, you don’t have to cast a single “superstar” ambassador for video content. Quick cuts and multiple takes on a topic are enough to keep viewers engaged. The series being created from video call footage is a nice touch too. It’s a subtle advert for online learning and one that at St. Olaf College students have adapted. Dear Future Oles
28. Union College – Hear from our community
Community content in 5 minutes: Union College has created a YouTube playlist of its students’ videos—content produced independently by the university.
Our take: Why aren’t more colleges doing this? Giving your students’ best videos a platform is the fastest way to use student-generated content for recruitment. If you are tight on budget, this is the best way to leverage high-quality content for your channels. Hear from our community
29. Binghamton University – Daily Photo
Content commitment: Binghamton has posted a photo a day for, as far as we can tell, forever. Most pictures zoom in on a member of its community and give them a short story, sharing what they are doing and how it contributes to campus life. It’s easy to keep clicking.
Our take: It’s easy to post a photo a day for a week, perhaps two, but it takes serious commitment to build an asset like this. To win, explore how you can repurpose daily or weekly content over time to create a unique community marketing asset. Daily Photo
30. DigiPen Institute of Technology – Peer-to-peer session
Student-to-student sessions: In addition to its Unibuddy ambassador chat, DigitalPen offers deeper one-to-one ambassador video calls. Students sign up and they are paired with an ambassador for a Zoom call.
Our take: A face-to-face chat with an ambassador is a powerful recruitment tool. Ensure your ambassadors are trained to handle these high-value conversations. They should be treated with the same respect as open events. Peer-to-peer sessions
31. Mount Aloysius College
Mountie spotlight: Mount Aloysius supports its homepage’s CTAs with student stories, a slide-out social feed for “what’s happening” on campus, and ambassador instant chat. It covers all the bases.
Our take: Combining instant chat tools with other forms of community marketing will ensure you get the most from your ambassadors. If your ambassadors are handling live chat messages, are they able to share answers to the most common questions on Instagram too? Based on their conversations, could they create a blog post about a popular topic? Stretch your community’s reach. Mountie community marketing
32. Wabash College – On My Mind podcast
Campus podcast: Wabash mines its best student, campus, and alumni stories for its regular university podcast. Programming reflects the college calendar, handling anything from orientation to celebrating commencement.
Our take: Podcasts are tough to build in higher education, but if you stick to a regular publishing schedule, you can create a companion for any recruitment campaign. Giving student voices a platform is a compelling way to make your college relatable during a prospect’s decision-making process. It could tip the balance in your favor. On My Mind podcast
33. McDaniel College – Become an insider
Walking like a boss: Senior Dustin Miller takes us on a personal tour of campus, covering lecture halls, local coffee houses, and student services. The video majors on small classes, which comes through when Dustin does a “library lap,” high-fiving folks while walking backward.
Our take: Dustin is brilliant casting. When working with your ambassadors, ensure they are playing to their strengths. Producing a video with personality (that lands) will require talent and someone who loves work in front of the camera. Dustin the legend
34. University of South Alabama – South Says
South students say: University of South Alabama pulls together its ambassador video stories in one place to support marketing and recruitment activities. The stories are eclectic, ranging from moving into South Alabama to refining subject interests and carving out a career path.
Our take: It’s a cross-section of campus. Over time, you’ll likely build up a collection of student video testimonials. What are you doing with them? How are you are getting the most value? Consider applying a consistent format to each: thumbnail, title, and a short description. Boost the value of students as a community, not just individuals. South Says
Organized by difficulty
- University of Chicago – Big Brains Podcast
- University of Connecticut – The College Tour
- Indiana University – TIkTok, How Fun In-Person Classes Could Be
- The University of Kansas – Internship turns grand designs into reality and Jayhawk builds career from the ground up
- University of Nebraska – LinkedIn, Incoming Huskers
- University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee – Class of 2021
- Southern Utah University – Red Riot
- Minerva School at KGI – Global Immersion: London
- George Fox University – Bruin Blog
- Northwest University – Pursuit Magazine
- Eastern University – At Eastern you can earn…
- Binghamton University – Daily Photo
- Wabash College – On My Mind podcast
- McDaniel College – Become an insider
- Vanderbilt University – This is Vanderbilt
- Pace University – “Pace Now,” “Pace Is,” and “Pace People”
- UCN Greensboro – AR Filters
- Georgetown University – From a Student
- University of Redlands – Living at the University of Redlands
- Muhlenberg College – The Muhlenberg Experience
- DigiPen Institute of Technology – Peer-to-peer session
- Carnegie Mellon University – Tartans, All In. Everywhere.
- The University of Toledo – Your Tomorrow
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Discover Dynamic Minds
- University of Montana – Instagram, Takeovers Story
- California State University – Fresno – Instagram, Advice Story
- New Paltz State University New York – Hawk Talk
- University of Wisconsin La Crosse – TikTok, Ain’t about to wait til spring. 😤🏃♀️
- Florida International University – FIU Campus Tour 2020, Modesto Maidique Campus
- Bentley University – Be a Force
- Union College – Hear from our community
- Mount Aloysius College
- University of South Alabama – South Says
- St. Olaf College – Dear Future Oles
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