To Spread the Word on Covid, Colleges are Turning to Students
The return of students to campus this fall has created its own wave of positive COVID-19 cases. In the midst of the pandemic, universities are grappling with how best to foster good behavior from their students, who they’re relying on to follow safety protocols that limit the spread of infection.
In the face of new restrictions, college students have continued to do what they always do, pandemic or not: socialize.
In response, universities are turning to a popular marketing tactic to help their efforts: influencers. Within the last few years, many university marketing departments have begun paying their students to act as amateur recruiters—documenting and sharing their college lifestyle on social media as an advertisement for the university itself. Now, with pandemic preparedness top of mind, those marketing departments have shifted their focus from recruitment to outbreak prevention.
On some campuses, student influencers are now being paid to share university-approved messaging about the coronavirus. It’s an effort to reach students where they are; rather than expecting kids to read emails or watch public service announcements, they’re smuggling public health information into their social feed as the proverbial pill in the apple sauce—or whatever your college dining hall analogue of choice may be.
The response has been decidedly mixed. Some students find the posts inauthentic and performative, noting the incongruity between a bubbly Instagram caption about masks and the real weight of the anxiety people are facing at this moment.
Universities traditionally lag behind brands when it comes to channel strategy, and these marketing departments should be commended in their efforts to use all available channels, especially digital ones, to talk to their students. Peer-to-peer communication is clearly a valuable tool, and early numbers suggest the reach of these posts is impressive. On the other hand, paying students to handle a problem of this magnitude carries its own risks—after all, these are teenagers being forced to adapt, like the rest of us, to an alarming new reality. Making them responsible for the safety of the student body as well may simply be too big an ask.