Creating a Student Social Media Army at Ithaca College

The following guest post was written by Rob Engelsman, multimedia content specialist at Ithaca College.

Disposable camera

“Ten disposable cameras. Five locations. One authentic view of a day at Ithaca College.”

For me, one of the best parts of higher ed is getting to work with students. Involving them in your social media efforts to create authentic content is a huge advantage — just ask Amy Grace Wells from Texas A&M AgriLife Communication. Good authentic content can increase engagement and build community, which is why I try to create as much of it as I can at Ithaca College.

I began running Ithaca’s social media presence when I was still a senior and almost immediately after graduation felt my grasp of day-to-day campus life slip away. So much of what I’d covered on social media came out of conversations with other students, and knowing what the big topics were from dorm to dorm helped keep me consistent and authentic.

The obvious solution to losing my roots was to dress like a college student and move back on campus … kidding. Although I do still dress like a college student. The solution was to hire students. A whole herd of them. Or as one friend coined them, my Klout Army.

Building a Social Media Workforce

The first time I put out the call for student interns was in January 2012. I posted the application only on social media and received about 15 applicants. I hired half to be the guinea pig version of what was then called the Ithaca College Student Social Media Team.

We met weekly, ate pizza and talked about social media trends, what the college was up to online and what events were happening that we thought warranted coverage on our social media. It was fairly unstructured, but we quickly established a Google calendar so that students could input events they had heard about for us to discuss at the meetings. We also tested some promotions, short videos and emerging platforms.

It was an overwhelmingly positive experience because I could feel the beginning of a strong tilt toward authenticity and community-built content, but a few speed bumps along the way forced me to rethink my approach a bit.

What emerged in fall 2012 was a new 18-member team split into three categories: strategy (long-term projects), coverage (daily events) and production (content requiring technology more advanced than an iPhone). We still met weekly, dedicating the first half of the meeting to discussing social media as a big group and then splitting into the smaller teams. Returning members from the spring acted as leaders to help guide the larger team.

The new approach worked well, but when it came time to execute projects, the students involved fell out of their small teams and relied more on who was actually available to help. The team also felt a bit bloated; with a group so large, there was barely enough event coverage and project work to go around.

We did make do, however, and produced some pretty damn cool work — like the disposable camera project Life at IC, a behind-the-scenes look at student media coverage of the election, and the launch of our Tumblr. But about two-thirds into the semester, I decided to abandon the three-group strategy and return to one united team.

#ICsocial at Work

Now in its third semester, the student social media team is thriving with about 13 members. We’ve coined a shorter name for the team, #ICsocial, and use that tag to post interesting articles on Twitter. We also occasionally run live Twitter chats that allow my student staff to talk with other higher ed professionals and alumni about the way media is changing.

When an idea for a project comes out of a meeting, students from the team volunteer to be project managers and take the time to fill out a creative brief — the same one that our Marketing Communications office uses. Once approved, the project manager stewards the effort through to completion, recruiting other members of the team to collaborate and assist when needed. To manage this, we use an online project management tool called Asana.

This process is more efficient than the free-form project management I used with earlier versions of the team. Plus, it allows different students to step up when they want to and teaches students about effective project management.

Because we have a revolving group of team members from semester to semester, I give a one-on-one presentation to new members before they join. It details the history of Ithaca College in social media, where we want to go and how important students are to that process — it’s our baseline strategy.

Arming Students With Strategy

The hope is that by showing students the reasoning behind past projects, they can get a feel for what we want to accomplish moving forward. When we strategize during meetings, it’s generally done in the context of past projects. “This new idea will be like this one with its target but this one with its execution.” It means we’re all speaking the same language when we work on the day-to-day creation of content.

Our overall strategy can at times be difficult to apply to individual posts, so just in case it doesn’t sink in, I have an extra checkpoint built into our posting method: All social media content goes through me. My students don’t have administrator access or passwords to any of our pages. Instead, they feed me in real time via text and/or email the content they create so that I can post it, ask them to improve it or take a pass on it. I pass on a lot of things, not because they’re all bad, but because I want to hold us to a certain standard.

Admittedly, that standard can at times be pretty ambiguous. We’re in essence trying to marry Ithaca College’s branding campaign and marketing priorities to the voice and pace of frequently updated social media accounts. At its simplest, we’re asking, “Does this sound like us? Look like us? Will people be surprised this came from us?”

If it gets more complicated than that, I try to work out the specific pros and cons with my students. Sometimes I already know which way I lean on an issue, but it seems more beneficial to let the students work their way to that conclusion on their own. That way, over time, they think more strategically.

The Payoff? Great Content (and Pizza)

So what’s the ROI (return on investment) of a student social media team? Well, I pay in pizza and soda, and in return get student-generated content to post online almost daily — and often more than once a day. Recent examples include a Q&A with a successful alumnus, a student-generated playlist for midterms and a GIF to show off a big campus event. A student social media team also keeps me from having to attend an impossible number of events and adds a more authentic touch to what we post.

In return, students get to participate in (hopefully) enriching weekly discussions and have an impressive line to add on their resume. At the end of each semester, students fill out an evaluation that helps me see where we can improve or adjust, and many have commented that they find value in the weekly discussions. In addition, I’ve written recommendation letters for students looking to use their experience to land social media internships all over the country.

In the future, maybe one of them will have my job …

About Rob Engelsman

Rob is the multimedia content specialist for Ithaca College. Sometimes he also writes things about social media on his website. You can follow him on Twitter, but it’s probably best that you don’t.

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  1. Great examples here! Just to clarify, you didn’t pay any of these students? Did they get internship credit? Or were they just drawn to the appeal of the job?

    • Rob Engelsman says:

      Hey Erik! Thanks for the comment. None of the students on my team are currently paid. We do feed them once a week, but outside of that the appeal is in the conversations we have and the experiences they get. Many of them appreciate it as a resume building opportunity.

      • Guitarbuddy says:

        I’m a pro musician and have been since about 1976. We in the music world have a name for these types of gigs. We call them “exposure,” and once you’ve done a few of them the bulb goes on and you realize they’re a waste of your time.

  2. OK, I am blown away! I have a student blogging team and have been using them as social media ambassadors some (mostly to spur engagement), but looking for ways to better utilize this team. You have great strategies and results. I’m so impressed looking over your website and social media accounts. Great job. I want to be just like you when I grow up! One question: Do you have just one Facebook and Twitter for the university? How do you feel about separate pages for alumni, prospects, etc?

    • Rob Engelsman says:

      Hi Ashli! Thanks for the kind words. Ithaca has a main Facebook and Twitter, and also an alumni Facebook & Twitter that is much smaller and less followed. I’m not a huge fan of separate accounts because it dilutes the overall brand and really just creates more work for the manager. Now that you have the option to target specific demographics with your Facebook posts, there isn’t really a massively good reason to segment there. As far as Twitter, content specific to one demo or another can slide down a feed in seconds, which makes it less annoying for followers. Plus, we see a lot of engagement when sharing info for current students from our alumni who are nostalgic for campus; splitting those groups would destroy our chance to foster that cross-generational engagement.

  3. Leah Short says:

    This is such a great idea! I see Ithaca has an instagram account. Is your student group involved in that and how do you handle moderating? Instagram is tricky since it only works from smartphones, so I’m curious how the students would send you the pics to moderate. Thank you for all this information!

    • Rob Engelsman says:

      Hey Leah – sometimes my students contribute photos to the account, but they are sent to me like the content for the other social media accounts we have. So they might text or email me a photo, and then I’ll log into Instagram on my phone to post it. There’s a great site called that is really helpful for managing Instagram accounts. Pretty much the only thing it can’t do is post the actual pictures.

  4. Rob, I don’t know if you’ll still get a response to this 2-year old post, but I have a question.

    I thought that the primary reason for using students for social media content was that their authentic voices came through versus the voices of those of us who are paid to market the university. If students have to feed content through you for posting doesn’t that negate the benefit of using them?

What do you think?