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Influencer and Word-of-Mouth Campaigns – Enrollment Management 101

Estimated read time – 4 minutes

The idea of influencers has been a topic of discussion for a few years now, but it’s still not a widely accepted or adopted tactic in education. Some parts of these tactics may be things you’re already employing, but having a dedicated strategy and tactics with measurable outcomes can ensure that they will be more successful. For this next primer in the Enrollment Management 101 series, we tackle influencer and word-of-mouth marketing.

Who are influencers?

“Influencer” can be an often mocked and memed word that can feel disingenuous, especially when it comes to education. Let’s rethink it then and build it back up to something that works for enrollment marketing. In its current usage, an influencer is someone who can affect the behavior and perception of others. This is often, but not always, purchasing habits. Quite often the term is used to refer to someone who is compensated to promote something. 

Now that we have the parts broken down, let’s rebuild. Who has influence over students? Other students. Counselors. Their parents and family. If you’re trying to influence parents, who has influence over parents? Their peers. Parent blogs. If you want to build a program to influence students then you need to have an advocacy program in place to have current students share their stories and experiences to help recruit for you. Get counselors and parents excited about what you are doing and why. Have digital content that gets engaged with and shared that is relevant to who you are. Programs to influence parents will need to mobilize your current and alumni parents to advocate for you and your community. Whether or not you compensate them financially is a challenging decision. Will the content they share be disregarded if viewers know it is being paid for? 

Word-of-Mouth Campaigns

Word-of-mouth campaigns use happy customers (students in higher ed and families in PK-12 and alumni in both cases) to spread the word and advocate for you. Your best approach to starting a word-of-mouth campaign is to start with social listening and know who is already advocating for you. Calling it a campaign is somewhat misleading really; it’s more about doing things that inspire others to advocate for you in 1:1 conversations and in public forums. Make your content visually appealing and easily shareable so that students and parents are more likely to join in the conversation and share with their own commentary.

Visit events and experiences are great catalysts for word of mouth. These are times that people will remember, take pictures at, and have fun that they want to share. Making your events engaging and providing time and space to take pictures can help them share their experiences. These also can lead to another source of word-of-mouth: reviews. While they are less personal and interactive, they also live much longer than a conversation or a social media post or story. 

Word-of-mouth should never be thought of as stand-alone. Your word of mouth leads to further conversations and information gathering online and can lead to more inquiries and visits as well. Another example of word of mouth would be a refer-a-friend campaign. Providing some postcards or other assets that make it easy for advocates to share their experiences with others and direct back to a landing page where it’s easy to track direct engagement and outcomes makes it easy to assess success. You might consider a families event that encourages them to bring a “+1” so they can see your community first-hand. Digital word of mouth might include frames, header images, or other visuals that encourage visibility and sharing.

Influencer Campaigns

The difference between a word-of-mouth campaign and an influencer campaign is that there is an agreement between the influencer and the institution. This provides control of the message and content. The influencer amplifies your approved message, and sometimes you will provide the creative or have a process of approving it. You provide guidance on wording, hashtags, and visual guidance that is otherwise unavailable in word of mouth. Influencers can be managed by someone on-campus or through an agency partner. This type of campaign requires significant thought as to how it will be measured, reported, and success evaluated. You might look to the reach and engagement of individual influencers, traffic driven back to your site, or the number of conversations started. 

You might start this type of campaign by identifying micro-influencers, people who have an engaged following and might already have some connection to you. It’s important to have clear goals and ways to measure progress toward those goals and address those going into the campaign to avoid frustration and disappointment. An influencer campaign might serve the purpose of a customer advocacy campaign — having fans of your institution building interest and awareness with others while also helping to serve current and prospective parents and students by answering questions and directing them to resources.

Another influencer campaign that might get overlooked is employee advocacy. This is a campaign to encourage employees to share and talk about your institution. This can help spread your message to other parents and professionals they’re connected with, but can also help with hiring and recruiting new employees. Engaged and excited employees help attract more high-quality employees.

Influence the Influencers

The most effective campaigns are those that aim to influence the people who have an influence on student enrollment over time. Focusing only on students will ensure that every year you have to start over. Influence the Influencer campaigns are used in conjunction with traditional student and parent outreach campaigns to reach counselors, community members, and others who can be advocates for your institution. In a way, this is what rankings, alumni associations, and athletics have been doing for institutions for years: they build awareness and create advocates out of people who may not otherwise have any connection.

A campaign to influence the influencers might be carried out by admission counselors during travel to connect and share information and swag with school counselors and IECs. On the PK-12 side, it might be through daycares, churches, or parent blogs in the region. In both cases, you’re educating people who can advocate and recruit for you over time. Email campaigns, print, physical or digital promotional items, and exclusive events are a great way to provide updates and build trust and relationships with these groups. Measuring success would need to evaluate the change in desired behaviors (inquiries, visits, or applications for example) from that influencer’s sphere of influence. This might mean that individual’s school, region, or clients if they are an IEC. 

If influencer and word-of-mouth campaigns are not currently part of your outreach and tactics I hope that this provides some food for thought and brainstorming on how to bring them into your efforts in a way that fits your institution and personality.

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.