COVID-19 On Campus: A Reflection On Campus Marketing in 2020 and Predictions for 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the lives of people around the world. This has been especially true for college students.

So much of the traditional college experience hinges on interpersonal connections and shared spaces. But, given the nature of the COVID-19 virus, colleges and universities have had to take things in a drastically different direction without much warning. Institutions have been forced to adapt to a new normal, which put the health and safety of students first. 

In-person classes were replaced with Zoom lecture marathons and countless hours in front of dual screens; crowded dining halls and student unions were forfeited for virtual events and distanced social interactions; and much more.

As you can imagine, these sudden changes also drastically impacted campus marketing efforts. At YMC, we adapted our campus marketing strategies to engage students no matter where they’re living, studying, and sharing in 2020.

With 2020 in the rear view mirror, we wanted to share some of the valuable things we’ve learned and our predictions about what campus marketing will look like in 2021.

Every School Is Different

After unexpected school shutdowns in the spring 2020 semester, colleges and universities had a bit more time when strategizing their opening plans for fall 2020. One of the main things we noticed was the wide variance in the operating status of campuses based on state, local, and university-driven COVID-19 regulations.

Leading up to the fall semester, we referenced The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of campus reopening models daily to stay on top of the national landscape. On the local level, we found that our YMC student network and ambassadors provide the most accurate information regarding students’ locations (living remote, on, or off campus) and behaviors. 

We’ve leveraged this information to adapt our campaigns in real time and adjust expectations by campus. We always treat each school individually when managing college marketing programs; and in this situation, input from students helped us optimize what we could safely execute for the best results. 

Maybelline No Touch Product Sampling Example

“No Touch” Sampling Can Be Highly Effective

As we studied the varied reopening plans for the fall 2020 semester, we found that many campuses selected to offer adjusted in-person or hybrid learning models. In these cases, we found that working with local students to understand the protocols associated with activating on campus, the access level to students, and the overall comfort with face-to-face (always masked) interactions has been beneficial.

For our Maybelline program, we worked with college ambassadors to distribute pre-packed product sampling bags and gifts to on- and off-campus housing complexes and outdoor gatherings. This varied from pre-COVID interactions where Maybelline ambassadors offered students high-touch product interaction and trial experiences. 

Because in-person brand interactions were so limited in 2020, students expressed increased excitement and appreciation for Maybelline’s efforts to reach them during a difficult time. Product sampling bags reached thousands of students and resulted in over 10k product link views and a 5% conversion rate to purchase.

Pentel Digital Event Example

Digital Events Work

Digital events have also been successful, as they’ve enabled our brand partners and ambassadors  to provide brand experiences to broader audiences.

We found that college students are most likely to participate in events hosted after 7 PM EST on weekdays and early-to-mid afternoon on the weekends. Digital fatigue is real and this timing provided students with a break in between classes and another virtual activity. Meeting platforms (such as Zoom and Google Hangouts), microsites, and Instagram Live have offered the best interaction with this audience.

In our work with Pentel, we transitioned a longstanding in-person art experience into an online format and encouraged students to relax and create in their own space. We partnered with Pentel to host a 3-night Pentel Sketch Session event series featuring calligraphy, watercolor, and line drawing classes with featured artists. Hosting these events digitally allowed Pentel to bring in experts to showcase skills and answer art-related career questions with college students at scale. 

@hikari.murakami

Join the #AerieRealpositivity challenge, uplift each other and @aerie will donate to America’s Food Fund! #aeriereal #aeriepartner #aerieambassador

♬ 100% Real Love – PopUpGirl

Social Media Is Essential

While Gen-Z has been using TikTok for a few years, the pandemic and stay-at-home culture have accelerated mass adoption and endless scroll time on the platform. We found success in encouraging ambassadors to leverage short-form video clips on TikTok and Instagram to further engage their followers and feature brand products. Students were able to amplify existing brand challenges or create their own by pulling from the latest trends.

Our brand ambassadors played an important role in the launch of Aerie’s first TikTok challenge. The #AerieRealPositivity hashtag challenge created a movement around expressing yourself and sharing positivity at home. With the amplification of a paid campaign and celebrity role model support, this campaign generated 6,600+ user-generated videos with 2.1 billion views. 

Looking Ahead at Campus Marketing in 2021

As you can see, we’ve learned a lot in 2020. And, while the pandemic isn’t over yet, we’re feeling an increased sense of optimism about the year to come. 

Now that colleges and universities have more than 10 months of prevention and testing experience under their belts and the COVID-19 vaccine is in early stages of distribution in the U.S., some institutions are preparing for an increase in in-person and hybrid course offerings this spring.

As we begin planning for this year (and beyond!), we wanted to share a few predictions about what campus marketing may look like in 2021. Please note that the following are subject to national, state, and local policy, as well as CDC guidance.

January – March 2021

The early part of 2021 will likely look very similar to the past few months, with limited in-person events and classes.

Late March – April 2021

In the late months of the spring 2021 semester, we expect campuses with in-person and hybrid learning models to begin to explore the possibilities of holding outdoor, in-person events and activities. This will likely be especially true at warm weather schools in the South and West regions of the U.S..

Fall 2021

The fall 2021 semester presents the best opportunity for a potential return to “regular” campus life. At this time, it’s likely that the health and safety precautions introduced in 2020 will remain at the forefront for the next several years.

In summary, we recommend that brands continue to lean on digital events and social tactics to engage students in the early part of the year. As the weather starts to get warmer and students spend more time outdoors, “no touch” sampling can resume and the possibility of highly regulated in-person events can be explored. The summer months should allow for more in-person brand engagement, while full-on experiential activations, mobile tours, and student-led events are more likely to return in the fall 2021 semester.

How YMC Can Help

If you’re interested in learning more about college marketing during this unique time, we’re here to help. At YMC, we’ve been connecting brands with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!

4 Instagram Metrics Your Brand Should Be Tracking

When it comes to measuring success on Instagram, there are a few common metrics that brands often track based on their goals—impressions, reach, follower growth, engagement, etc. These things are important, of course, but there are also a few less common metrics your brand may be overlooking.

The following four Instagram metrics will help you obtain a better understanding of the full impact your brand has when it comes to Instagram-based marketing.

1. Story Reach Rate

It’s no surprise that the Instagram Story feature has become an essential piece of every brand’s digital marketing strategy. According to an infographic released by Hootsuite, about 500 million people use the tool each and every day.

One of the most common goals brands have for their Instagram Story posts is to engage the brand’s existing audience in a more informal way. Thanks to Instagram Insights, it’s easy to see how many people view your brand’s Instagram Stories. But, that number doesn’t tell the full story. That’s why it’s important to also measure your the reach rate for each of your brand’s Instagram Story posts.

Reach rate is calculated by dividing an Instagram Story posts’ total reach by your brand’s follower count and then multiplying by 100 to determine the percentage. Here’s the formula:

total reach / follower count * 100 = reach rate

This metric indicates what percentage of your brand’s existing followers are seeing your Instagram Story posts. By monitoring the reach rate of Story posts over time, your brand will be able to determine if the posts are resonating with your existing audience, which can inform improved content decisions moving forward.

2. Post Saves

We all know that Instagram engagement metrics like comments and likes are important when it comes to measuring content performance. But, one of the most important engagement metrics to arise recently is a bit less visible than the others—post saves.

The Instagram Saves feature provides a way for users to save a post that they like for future reference—even if they don’t directly like or comment on that post. Once saved, users have the ability to organize their saved posts into folders (read: wish lists, travel destinations, funny quotes, etc.). 

The Instagram algorithm uses the saves metric as a measure of post quality. Posts with great engagement (including saves) will be shown to more people in the Instagram feed.

By measuring the saves on your brand’s Instagram posts, you’ll have insight into the content that resonates with your audience so you can produce similar content in the future.

3. Story Interactions

Many brands set engagement-related goals for social media. If your brand falls into this category, then Instagram Story post interactions is a set of metrics you should be focused on.

Similar to how it sounds, interaction metrics are those that are directly related to the number of interactions a brand has obtained via their Instagram Story posts (they are a form of engagement metrics). Metrics in this category include the following:

  • Profile visits
  • Followers
  • Website visits
  • Shares
  • Replies
  • Contact (calls, texts, emails, etc.)
  • Sticker taps
  • Product page views
  • Product page views per product tag

Based on your brand’s specific goals, some of these interaction metrics may be more relevant than others. For example, if your brand has a goal to increase followers, it would be important to determine exactly how many followers your Instagram Story posts have captured (bonus points if you measure the percent of followers as it relates to profile visits driven from Instagram Stories!). 

Don’t forget to grab Instagram Story metrics within two weeks of posting! You’ll only have access to these types of metrics via Instagram Insights for a short time.

4. Referral Traffic

In addition to collecting Instagram metrics directly within the social platform, it’s also important to evaluate information related to Instagram efforts on your brand’s website. This is especially important if your Instagram campaign goals focus on driving traffic to your brand’s website to capture emails, drive sales, and more.

Tracking referral traffic sent by Instagram to a website can be tricky, however, because the only place for clickable post links for the platform is within your brand’s Instagram bio. So, to accurately track referral traffic, it’s important to make use of Google Analytics (a free website tracking tool).

Referral traffic insights related to your brand’s efforts on Instagram can be found under the acquisition data category. By exploring the provided list of referral sources from social media, you’ll be able to form an understanding of how many website sessions occurred as a direct result of your brand’s efforts on Instagram.

If you’re a real Google Analytics whiz, you can take things even further by attaching tracking codes (UTM parameters) to links used in your Instagram efforts to further pinpoint which campaigns drove the most referral traffic and conversions to your brand’s website.

A few takeaways

It’s important to use metrics and insights to determine the results of your brand’s efforts on Instagram. It isn’t enough, however, to simply rely on basic metrics like engagements and reach. 

The four metrics outlined above will help your brand to understand more about how your Instagram campaigns are performing—from which posts users are saving for later to how many people your content is driving to the website. All of the insights collected will help you to continuously adapt and improve your Instagram marketing efforts in the future.

How can YMC help?

If you’re interested in learning more about digital marketing, we’re here to help. At YMC, we’ve been connecting brands with 15- to 29-year-old consumers for two decades—we’d be happy to share our wealth of knowledge with you. Contact us today!

5 Ways Your Brand Can Vet Its Collegiate Influencers

People, especially influencers, present their best selves on social media. Their pictures are photoshopped, their captions are thoughtfully crafted, and their aesthetics are carefully developed. But, things aren’t always as they seem! The recent college admission scandal, known as “Operation Varsity Blues,” is proof that what collegiate influencers put out on social media does not always translate to real life.

Each year, more brands are turning to Gen-Z collegiate influencers—like Olivia Jade, who we followed in the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal—to promote their products through social media marketing and partnerships. And, given the current industry climate, it’s extremely important to thoroughly vet your collegiate influencers.

The following are five ways to evaluate future collegiate influencers to ensure that they’re a great fit for your brand and can effectively engage with your targeted audiences on campus.

1. Seek out on-campus involvement

In order to promote a brand on campus, a collegiate influencer needs to be plugged into their campus community. So, it’s a good idea to look for students who have a variety of involvement across different campus groups.

Ask each student about the leadership roles they hold and what their responsibilities are as a member or leader in each group. Meaningful involvement in on-campus groups can be leveraged for the brand, so make sure you delve deeper into their connections.

2. Look into secondary social media channels

While your brand might only be searching for collegiate influencers to assist with campaigns on a single platform, it’s important not to forget about other social media sites. Your brand should evaluate potential student influencers’ online personas as a whole.

Many students use different channels to express different sides of themselves (ex: Twitter = politics, Instagram = lifestyle, YouTube = beauty). Evaluating each of these channels in close detail is a simple way to ensure that each of your future influencers embodies the values of your brand—on each and every platform. Not to mention, it will help your company to avoid any not-so-happy surprises down the line!

3. Ask them about their studies and career aspirations

Evaluating influencers is much more than exploring their online personas. It’s important to have thoughtful conversations with potential collegiate partners to get to know their personalities.

The best influencers are those who are passionate about what they do. We encourage brands to ask students about their studies and career aspirations. Often times, students interested in social media, marketing, and public relations turn out to be fantastic collegiate influencers.

It’s always a great idea to seek out highly-ambitious students, but be sure to ask them about their course load and schedule. Students with too much on their plates may not be able to devote the necessary amounts of time and energy to your brand’s campaign.

4. Make sure their brand is aligned with yours

Collegiate influencers use their personal brands to promote products and services. Gen-Z has grown up surrounded by influencer marketing, and they can tell when posts feel forced or inauthentic.

To ensure a successful campaign, evaluate potential college influencers’ social media content thoroughly—this includes reading through captions and looking at Instagram stories. Also, look for diversity in your influencers’ content. Great student influencers are well-rounded (i.e. they post a variety of photos that show different aspects of their lives).

Lastly, if you have very specific content requirements for your campaign, make sure your potential student influencers already meet those requirements. It’s unlikely that influencers will change content or posting style drastically for your brand.

5. Take cues from your interactions

If potential influencers don’t sound interested in an interview, then it is highly unlikely that they’ll be able to convey authentic enthusiasm for your brand when it’s time for them to begin posting. So, don’t let content quality blind you. Trust your gut in initial conversations and interactions. You can help someone craft better posts, but you can’t craft excitement.

The takeaways

As brand managers, there are two very important lessons to take away from the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. First, social media reality doesn’t always equate to a potential influencer’s real life. And second, it’s important to thoroughly vet each and every individual that represents your brand— including any collegiate influencers.

At YMC, we work with a network of thousands of thoroughly-vetted collegiate influencers across the country, so you can feel confident knowing that we have the right college connections for your brand. Our team carefully reviews each potential hire to ensure they are right for the brand, motivated about the job, and are involved in campus life.

If you’re tackling collegiate influencer recruitment internally, we hope these tips serve as a great starting point for properly evaluating your future collegiate representatives. If you’re still feeling nervous about where to start, YMC can help!

Want to learn more?

Check out a few other articles we’ve written on this topic: