Why students trounce celebrities when it comes to impact and why they should be a central part of youth strategy
With many forms of marketing all but impossible in the current climate, digital influencers and experiences have thrown a lifeline to brands keen to maintain a meaningful relationship with their audiences. By no means a new toy in the marketing box, social influencers have had a bit of a varied ride with high-profile debacles like the Fyre Festival becoming the popular culture pin that helped burst the influencer bubble for celebs and followers alike. A demonstration of how fragile but vital that bond of trust is.
As the role of marketing through social influencers has evolved and developed, audiences have become wise to the commercial realities of the feeds they follow – bikini models talking about a slimming tea one day and a favourite cake mix the next starts to feel like an insult to the intelligence. When followings reach a certain size, marketers seem unable to resist thinking in terms of reach and frequency rather than genuine engagement. At this point it switches from being an effective influence opportunity to a bad old-fashioned advertising channel where X number of a desirable demographic are repeatedly bashed with blunt product messages. That’s not influencer marketing – that’s advertising through influencer channels and, as the stats clearly show us, it’s a game of diminishing returns.
Engagement and outcomes should be the measure of any successful influencer campaign and it’s for this reason that student influencers trounce pretty much all others.
We call it the ‘Triple A’ formula (Authenticity + Aspiration + Accessibility) – the three key reasons why we regularly see organic engagement rates of around 25% on student social influencer campaigns (vs an average rate of 2.4% on sponsored Instagram posts). It goes like this:
Trust is vital to any recommendation and Gen Z trust the recommendation of those closest to them, such as friends and family, over twice as much as they do that of a celebrity.
Being able to relate to the influencer is also key and students see student influencers as peers. Because of their shared context it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see that, what student influencers think is good or useful might also work for them. This is the polar opposite of big-name celebs with impossibly unattainable lifestyles. Students are also regulated by the expectation of their following. Because their audiences are smaller (usually between 1-10k) there is an expectation that they ‘keep it real’ and trying to position themselves as being far above their peers can be met with derision. Student influencers are still very much one of the gang.
The final big ingredient is credibility. As a group, they are generally not heavily commercialised, so their followers don’t feel exploited or disengaged by having endless marketing thrust at them. When they do work with brands, it is through a collaborative process which doesn’t seek influencers’ audiences alone, but their skills as a content producer, meaning that all communications feel completely authentic and native to the channel. The co-authored campaigns contain specifically tailored language, narrative and tone to make them feel incredibly personal, meaning that it is still the influencer, rather than the brand, speaking to their audience.
Audiences’ expectation of authenticity is counterbalanced by a desire for better. The best marketing is just shiny enough for people to see a reflection of their best selves in it – too dull and it doesn’t resonate, too shiny and the reflection shows too much imperfection and alienates audiences. For many, student influencers represent the most realistic version of their own best selves – the right balance of aspirational but attainable. They are the big names on campus - the tastemakers and cultural connectors, the social secretaries, the society heads and sports team captains. Basically, the people that everyone knows, who are living a similar reality but who are doing interesting stuff.
But this is by no means a homogenous or purely self-referential group – they are a diverse cultural cocktail representing over 50% of all 18-22 year olds in the UK. They are fans, fitness fanatics, and foodies, DJs, designers, sportspeople, gamers, musicians, activists, artists, innovators and inventors. They are influential because they are admired for their abilities and attitude, and they represent the upper ends of what’s possible and desirable for a youth audience.
Whereas most influencer marketing connects through interests and audiences, student influencers connect through three axis of relevance: Life stage, Lifestyle and Location.
It’s very easy to create hyper relevance for students through different passion verticals and targeting individual campuses and cities. It’s also possible to flex a bit and still very effectively reach students as a national group, or even a broader Gen Z audience by targeting passion points.
Student influencers are also very easy to reach as collaborators and ambassadors. Seed has a network of over five thousand student digital influencers who we access to co-create and deliver campaigns for our clients. This allows us to find exactly the right influencer for the brand, message and content style, showing up in the feed more as a cultural colab than a marketing campaign.
If there was a final ‘A’ to add to the reasons why student digital influencers are so effective right now, it would be ‘appropriacy’. At a time of international crisis, institutions are being relied upon for solutions and we’ve seen brands roll up their sleeves for the Covid effort. In this context, finding the route back to product and brand marketing in an authentic and honourable way can be a task. This is where the hyper relevance and authenticity of student influencers can be really effective. Students are not looking to each other to be the solution to the current challenges – they are looking to each other for inspiration and ideas and the right, authentic, empathetic content does not feel like marketing at all – it feels like support.