Friday, 23 Oct 2020

US colleges are hiring students as Covid-19 safety influencers

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Erin Marquino, a junior at the University of Missouri, sits in a hammock while working on her laptop in a photo she posted on Instagram in early September.

“Having completely virtual classes has its perks sometimes, but @Mizzou has made it easy to be on campus, too!!” the caption reads.

“It’s also been great partnering with them on this campaign to bring awareness to their Renewal Plan! Be sure to keep practising Covid-19 safety procedures like wearing a mask, sanitising, & socially distancing, especially on campus!”

In a Sept 17 post, Caleb Poorman, a freshman, looks straight into the camera, shirtless, wearing a Mizzou-branded mask. “Hey guys, I hope your school year is going well! In these troubling and uncertain times, it’s important to stay focused and still have fun,” he wrote in the caption.

“For those who may be struggling with everything going on, the University of Missouri counselling centre offers remote individual therapy,” he said, adding a phone number students could call to schedule counselling.

Around the country, colleges have enlisted students to help share coronavirus safety messaging on official school channels. The University of Missouri has gone a step further. Over the summer, it hired six of its students, including Marquino and Poorman, to serve as social media influencers, sharing content written by the university about the coronavirus on their personal accounts.

Other schools are ramping up similar programmes as the fall semester begins.

“We’ve never tried this before,” said Christian Basi, director of media relations at the University of Missouri. “But we felt that this particular situation was so important that we wanted to make sure we were reaching students in a format, on a platform that they would most respond to.

“Students don’t read e-mail details,” he said. “They’re not going to necessarily listen to a speech by administrator or watch a video by an administrator, but they will listen to their friends, and they will listen to their peers, and they will certainly watch them on social media.”


Brands have often hired college students to promote their products on social media, seeking access to the coveted youth demographic.

But in recent years, some students have been hired by the marketing departments of their own colleges. These programmes have typically targeted high schoolers the college is hoping to enroll. Increasingly, universities are using influencers to reach their own students, spurred by Covid-19 outbreaks and by the aim of preventing outbreaks on their campuses.

“It’s no surprise that colleges know their students are living and breathing social media,” said Windsor Hanger Western, CEO of the student marketing firm Her Campus Media.

She pointed to influencer twins Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight as an example of what the future will look like for university marketing.

The twins, who have millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube, are paid by Baylor University, which they attend, to promote the school as a destination for prospective students. (In August, the twins announced on Instagram that both had contracted Covid-19.

“It is NOT due to in person classes that this happened,” they wrote, praising Baylor’s safety precautions.)

Temple University has created paid positions for student vloggers, and shared campus influencers’ content on its official social channels. “We keep a good pulse on the influencers in our student body,” Kristen Manka-White, a marketer at the school, told Inside Higher Ed.

The University of Maryland plans to start paying students to share coronavirus safety information on social media in the coming weeks as part of a larger student ambassador program, said Sophie Tullier, assistant director of assessment and research for the division of student affairs.

“We pay really competitive market rates based on how many followers they have and the engagement that they get,” he said. The New York Times sent messages to several influencers, asking for comment, but they did not respond.

Basi said the school didn’t tell Glacier which students to recruit; instead, it gave the firm engagement rate targets. “They know that they have to pick the appropriate people to make sure we’re getting those types of results,” he said.

“We really carefully vet all of our influencer selections based on a number of criteria,” Diteljan said.

The influencers needed to be current students who posted often on Instagram, received “really high engagement” on their posts and displayed “diversity in their styles of content,” he said.

So far, the Glacier campaign has produced 18 Instagram posts, three from each influencer, all of whom have between 1,000 and 2,500 followers on Instagram.

“As of last week, we had reached about 25,000 students and employees,” Basi said. “We had recorded about 63,000 impressions for those two particular audiences.”

He added that while it is impossible to confirm exactly how well the campaign was working in terms of safety, students on campus seemed to be following mask and distancing guidelines closely.

He pointed to the declining number of active cases on campus, noting that on Sept 5, Missouri peaked at around 680 active cases. As of Friday (Sept 25), the school’s tracker listed 95 active cases. (During the same time period, cases in the state of Missouri fell from 1,743 to 1,345.)

Captions for the posts were written by the school’s marketing division, working in partnership with Glacier and the students. “We certainly have oversight of the content that’s out there,” Basi said. “I mean, this is an advertising campaign, right?”


Some students are sceptical of colleges turning their peers into paid mouthpieces.

“It just felt so incredibly frustrating to see that Mizzou spent all this money on these influencers,” said Caitlin Danborn, 19, a sophomore. “It just felt so, so shallow and so performative.”

Danborn said she felt pandered to by the influencers’ posts. The cheerful images, she said, don’t match up with the anxiety and frustration she and other students feel about attending school amid a pandemic.

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