Creating Your School’s Campfire with Ephemeral Platforms

In this time of perpetual news cycles, endless feeds of memes and wellness inspiration, and wariness of personal privacy, young people lead the charge in seeking moments of deeper human connection, what I’ll call a “campfire moment.” By using social channels the way young people do, higher ed institutions can invite prospective students to their campfire and paint a more realistic picture of the school’s culture.

For the next generation of college students, social media represents an opportunity to experience community unbounded by geography. Somewhat to the dismay of marketers, these young people thrive in ephemeral, private venues. Part of this shift comes from an overall erosion of trust, where we tend to value the opinions of others like us over traditional authorities. Combine this trend with Gen Z’s preference for real, authentic stories, and the need for honest communication is obvious.

Some quick studies of Instagram location tags and Snapchat Stories helped me learn a lot about the real culture at a few schools around the country:

  • I tested the University of Alabama’s pride in their football team, and sure enough, the location tag on Instagram proved that students are decked out in crimson in dedication to their school.
  • The same feature confirmed what I know about my alma mater, Wheaton College (MA)–students adore their campus and enjoy celebrating their diverse achievements. The student body is pretty competitive about their feats.
  • Snapchat Stories showed a more colorful side of MIT, with fun tech innovations and students enjoying their city campus, which painted a more authentic picture of the school’s culture than their somewhat austere Facebook feed.
  • I also used Snapchat stories to see if fabled top party school, University of Wisconsin at Madison, lived up to its name. Most snaps showed students celebrating the warm weather at the lakeside terrace, but sure enough, there was plenty of partying once the weekend hit.

Of course, getting involved in user-generated content (UGC) comes with risks as well. Before getting involved in your student body’s content, make sure you have the right relationship with your students. The silver lining is that many students are concerned about privacy, and only broadcast themselves in their most positive light. Before asking students to contribute to the community, make sure to consider the wealth of best practice recommendations available.

If you’re responsible for your institution’s social presence, there are plenty of ways to use this trend to your benefit. A campfire is a sacred space where legends are passed down and bonds are sealed. What kind of stories should be told at your institution’s campfire? Encourage students to share these stories through your institution’s location tags. Consider staffing a student to serve as your cultural insider, or offer handle takeovers for a roving perspective. Your next wave of students will be watching–and these tactics could be an authentic differentiator for attracting the best talent.

Janine Perry is a professional researcher and strategist who uses her marketing expertise to fuel observations about education, her first passion.

Images from MIT’s Snapchat Story,

Images from University of Wisconsin’s Snapchat Story,