There’s something illusory about marketing materials given to prospective university students. Shiny pages featuring shiny smiles with shiny white teeth in the foreground, cloudless blue skies in the background and copy that promises fun times today and bright futures tomorrow. But is this actually what the college atmosphere is like? What, exactly, do students do all day? Prospective students want genuine answers to important questions about where to spend their college years.
To answer these questions, Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University launched Georgetown Stories, a first-person video series curated by Georgetown students. The campaign, which launched its third year at the end of September, altered the school’s entire social media strategy, according to Laura Wilson, director of digital engagement and social media at Georgetown University.
Beginning in 2014, the social media campaign followed 12 students, who filmed their experiences across the hilly campus. Videos were posted on popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #GeorgetownStories.
Initially, the goal was to keep a connection with donors and alumni. However, there was a more lucrative group to target: incoming freshmen.
This year, the campaign follows 16 Georgetown students from the mundane events of college life—studying at the library at 2 a.m., doing laundry and walking around campus—to fun, and sometimes once-in-a-lifetime, events—attending football games, on-campus concerts and events with U.S. Olympic gold-medal winners.
As quick-hitting videos on Snapchat and in-the-moment photos on Instagram gained cultural clout, the campaign shifted its goal toward attracting prospective students with “a first-person, raw perspective” ethos. This is done in the hopes of a Georgetown student sharing a story that allows a potential Georgetown Hoya to feel a connection to life on campus.
Georgetown Stories’ transition to a younger audience occurred naturally, Wilson says, as high school and college students are heavy users of Snapchat, an app with a monthly active user base of 800 million.
“All the evidence was that typical prospective undergrad students in the U.S., meaning high school-age students, were spending a ton of time on Snapchat,” Wilson says. “A lot of schools were not really leveraging it yet. We thought this was a good opportunity to do something different.”
Approximately 23% of Snapchat’s user base, or 184 million, is composed of kids between the ages of 13 and 17, according to Statista. This is the demographic Georgetown Stories is targeting. However, the vast majority of Snapchat users, 37% (296 million), are between 18 and 24 years old, the age range of the Georgetown students telling the stories of life on campus. This, in a big way, has expanded the target audience and led to much of the Georgetown community following the hashtag.
Students were natural social storytellers for the school’s target audience, Wilson says, as the campaign was already “almost exactly the behavior people take on Snapchat.” In fact, shooting video and taking pictures in this way is likely how many millennials and members of Generation Z communicate in their free time. Snapchat users watch 10 billion videos per day, according to Bloomberg, with approximately a half-hour per day spent on average on the app by users, Business Insider reports.
“That’s what they do anyway,” Wilson says, adding that they likely give Georgetown Stories videos a different lens for public consumption than they would with friends. “We just asked them to make sure they take an extra minute and capture something [at events], but 99% of the time it’s something the student is doing anyway. We want it to be authentic to the person.”
Wilson’s team hunted for a Snapchat dashboard to help them gather data. They adopted Mish Guru, a tool that measures analytics, allows Snapchat stories to be scheduled and manages user-generated content on the app. In turn, Snapchat has become central to the Georgetown Stories campaign.
Thomas Harding, co-founder of Mish Guru, says Snapchat can be a blessing and a curse for marketers. Snapchat stories bring gaudy engagement rates, sometimes north of 75%, but most marketers can’t measure or track followers. With analytics in place, he says Georgetown Stories learned which Snapchat stories followers enjoyed and which they skipped. By controlling which pieces of student-generated content go up as a story, Harding says the university gains the advantage of “being authentic, peer-endorsed and truly crowd-sourced.”
“That’s especially important when communicating with audiences known to be distrustful of traditional advertising,” Harding says. “They might not trust an ad telling them something is good, but they’ll trust one of their peers endorsing that same message.” While Snapchat is the engine that drives Georgetown Stories, it is not the sole focus. Georgetown’s social team and storytellers have spread content across Instagram posts, Pinterest pins, Spotify playlists and YouTube videos.
On the world’s most popular social network, Facebook, Georgetown Stories has become a screening area for alumni, as well as parents of current and prospective students. Wilson says parents are very engaged and prominent in Facebook comments since 42% of Facebook users are now 40 and older, according to Statista.
“The parents have a huge influence in deciding where their child goes to school,” Wilson says. “In many cases, they are either the sole funder of their experience or are paying for a good portion of their child’s education. It makes a huge difference to have parents engaged from the standpoint of prospective students.”
A quick scroll through Facebook video comments will show many proud alumni (“My lovely Georgetown <3” and “Missing my second home”) and even prouder parents (“You are growing so much already!” and “Pretty sure my Hoya just touched the [Olympic gold] medal”).
“They probably learn more about what their student is doing watching videos and things than they do from their child,” Wilson says, laughing as she recalls her own college-aged parental coyness. “The parent engagement is really important. That’s a really active demographic on Facebook.”
The first two years of Georgetown Stories has paid huge dividends. The focused goal of targeting the incoming freshman class led to 7,027 students sending in early applications in 2015, a record-breaking number for Georgetown. This is up from 6,840 in 2014 and 6,624 in 2013. This increase does not correlate entirely to the student-generated content of the campaign, of course, but Wilson says she believes much of the surge in applications can be tied to the increased engagement with prospective students.
Perhaps the most telling success metrics from the campaign came after its first year on social media, as the school saw a 2,007% increase of engaged users on Instagram and a 348% increase of engaged users on Facebook. While the second year of social growth wasn’t quite as large, it was still sizable: Instagram saw a 162% increase in engaged users and Facebook saw a 105% increase in engaged users.
So far, Wilson says the adoption of Mish Guru has paid off, as the analytic dashboard shows a total of 165,000 Snapchat story views during the 2015-2016 academic year. This means the tool and Snapchat will continue to play a big role in the campaign in coming years, Wilson says.
“We stumbled upon some magic here, but the future of the project will only continue to evolve,” she says.