Connecting with current students is one thing… connecting with students before they even get to school is another. But that was the task at hand for Bailey Parnell, Digital Marketing Specialist at Ryerson University’s Student Affairs (which includes the Career Centre, Health & Wellness, Housing & Residence Life, Student Learning Support and Student Life). Thankfully, in this day and age of social media, it’s easier to connect remotely than ever. Still, it was quite the challenge to foster a sense of community and support students before the school year even commenced, yet Parnell and her team, through specific goal setting, benchmarketing and a multifaceted digital marketing strategy, managed to do just that.
For starters, a catchy and self-explanatory hashtag: #RoadtoRyerson fit the bill quite nicely. They then decided that they wanted to feature 5 incoming students to share all the excitement, nerves and struggles of coming to a new school and for some, city. For most students, the transition is quite big – perhaps coming from a small town and moving to a big city like Toronto and keeping up with a faster and more frenetic pace of life. For others, maybe not as big, for example, living in the GTA and commuting, but still quite a transition from high school life to university life, where one must be much more independent and self-directed. Also, for those commuting in and out of the school, it is in many ways harder to feel connected to other students when not living “on-campus” so-to-speak. The 5 students, chosen from many online submissions became the voices of this month-long road leading up to Orientation week. They shared their struggles, fears, anxieties, triumphs and even just the practical realities of getting ready for the beginning of a whole new chapter of their lives. Other incoming students started following these 5 bloggers and once seeing their own struggles in theirs, started connecting to them… and through them to other students. And a sense of community was born, even before school began… and the goals of #RoadtoRyerson were achieved.
Nitty Gritty of the #RoadtoRyerson Campaign
According to Parnell, here is a breakdown of the campaign:
#RoadToRyerson is a summer campaign that supports the transition of incoming students to Ryerson University. Through a series of weekly blogs and social updates using the hashtag #RoadToRyerson, five incoming students from very diverse backgrounds were able to share their transitional journeys- with fellow students. From the simple things like buying school supplies to the more daunting like moving across the world, or suffering from anxiety and depression, these five students opened up their lives in the weeks leading up to Orientation. In doing so, they actively connected with other incoming students and made them feel they weren’t in this journey alone. We believe here that no one tells student stories better than students themselves and the results have been truly profound.
The goals of #RoadToRyerson were to:
- Support incoming student transition (one of the biggest transitions you’ll ever make)
- Connect all incoming students to a central conversation and community
- Have students tell their own stories to be more relatable to others going through the same experience.
Leaving home for the first time, meeting new people, changing lifestyles or coming to the ‘big city’ can all be very taxing experiences. Through this campaign, we empowered students to support one another. With 92% of our incoming class on social media, and 96% of Ryerson students commuting, it was important to build community online specifically and we did just that with #RoadToRyerson.
It was through interactions like the following that showed us we succeeded in our qualitative goals:
A thank you video from a blogger to RU Student Life and fellow students.
“Love the #RoadtoRyerson blogs! They make my road seem less daunting. :3 @mikaelmmelo @bedroompunk @fongkikid @NxBlanchard @MSchwahnForever” via @ErinGuerette
@MSchwahnForever I love your #RoadToRyerson blog, even though I’m from the GTA I can still relate to so much 😄 “ via @minakshi_kareer
For a better look at the campaign check out this slideshare or head over to http://studentlife.ryerson.ca/roadtoryerson.
How They Reached Prospective Students
Parnell notes that it was important to use a combination of paid and non-paid, traditional and digital to reach the incoming students. She details their approach below:
This was an interesting challenge at first. Because Student Affairs traditionally deals with current students, we collaborated with our admissions department to reach prospective students.
Together, we asked as many incoming 1st years as possible to submit a 30s video audition to be one of our 5 featured storytellers. After the 2 week submission period, our team chose the 5 students based on their diversity of experience and storytelling abilities. We then built the microsite, and compiled their profiles and introductory blogs for the launch. For the month preceding Orientation Week, the five students released weekly blog updates via RU Student Life and frequent social media posts using #RoadToRyerson. Other students started joining the conversation up until Orientation Week when it was at its most active. After their first week of classes, they released their final blogs, reflections and farewells.
To reach students at the beginning, and for promotion leading up to the students’ arrival, we primarily used:
- Inbound and paid social media (i.e. Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram)
- Direct email (i.e. Admissions’ mailouts and RU Student Life’s weekly subscriber-based newsletter)
- RU Student Life blog
- Word of mouth
During the physical events of Orientation week, we employed (very little) traditional marketing tactics like printed banners with the hashtag or including the hashtag on volunteer t-shirts. The beauty in this campaign is how truly simple it is. In its first year, without paid social and print ads, the campaign cost nothing but time and effort. It tells us that the students were already looking for a place to connect and we just helped them find one.
“By Students, For Students”
Ryerson University, unlike other higher educational institutions, faces a unique challenge when it comes to connecting students to each other and university life, as it is mostly a commuter school. Parnell shares below the different types of marketing approaches they employ to reach their crucial audience: the students.
Ryerson, but particularly my area of Student Affairs, is at an interesting stage in relation to our peers in the higher education space. Because we are a commuter school, we were driven to seek out digital community long before many of our colleagues. At the time of RU Student Life’s inception in 2011, it was still a newer concept in Canadian higher education to invest resources, human and otherwise, into digital marketing. However, in an effort to build community among our students when they weren’t on campus, some very forward-thinking individuals greenlit the development of RU Student Life. You might say that necessity drove us to be “ahead of the curve.” To this day, RU Student Life remains a ‘by students, for students’ brand supported and managed by professional staff – a concept that in itself is still rare to our peers.
In the last few years, there has certainly been a move towards digital and social marketing in the education space. At RU Student Life, we are advocates of being where the students are and where they are going to be, not telling them where we want them to be. That student team I mentioned above has made it easy for us to keep a live pulse on what our [mostly] 18-24 year old students are using. As any marketing professional in 2016 can imagine, that’s social media. In my opinion, there shouldn’t be any questions about whether or not higher education institutions should be on social media anymore. It’s a must. That’s where your students are, and you’re not telling your stories in the best place if you’re not there with them.
Though I am personally a huge fan of social marketing, our students across the university communicate to us year over year that they still prefer email as the number one form of communication. This is because that’s where they feel they won’t miss anything important. Knowing this, we maintain a healthy email marketing strategy. In Student Affairs, we are more digital right now while maintaining some traditional marketing in the forms of posters, handouts, etc. Ryerson’s marketing department also uses social media marketing to reach a broader audience of prospective students and their influencers, as well as other audiences such as partners, donors, and the general public. In addition to social media, Ryerson also uses other online channels (programmatic and native), and more traditional channels such as print media, print collateral and out-of-home advertising.
Connecting with students, sharing their stories… it’s clear these are the main goals of Ryerson’s Student Affairs marketing team, and as they should be. The point of all marketing, in one form or another, is to connect and share stories. As Parnell points out, “storytelling is the basic unit of human understanding. It’s how we make sense of the world and how we become invested in anything.”
Ryerson University is the winner in the Not for Profit category for our 2016 CAMP Marketing Awards!
Lian Novak is a Toronto-based marketing communications professional. She is passionate about brand management, writing and all things fashionable. Oh, and pie. Always pie. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her musings on Twitter @Lian_Novak.