How to Build Brand Advocacy in Higher Ed

How to Build Brand Advocacy in Higher Ed


Today’s prospective students hail from a noisy milieu of social chatter, incentivized influencers and bold brands. They’re Digital Natives—but to them, digital is just life. Growing up in the limelight of Insta-fame and 10-second stories, they’ve become extremely savvy with the information they share or keep, and they’re seasoned skeptics when it comes to brands vying for their attention.

The good news is that Digital Natives are still eager to hit the books, as undergraduate university enrollment is steadily increasing. They view careers as a temporary, but nonetheless critical, way to build communities and impact the world. The best way to get attention from them? Get online and focus your enrollment efforts on cultivating honest, passionate brand advocacy – the kind that tugs on the heartstrings. Make them feel part of your story.

Strong alumni are your best friends who are always looking for ways to connect. Reward them. Identify the ones working in your target regions and industries, and make sure they know your communication lines are always open. Throw in some non-traditional alumni to inspire students to think big. Initiate novel, yet nostalgic events and social campaigns that evoke a strong bond with your campus. Most importantly, find opportunities to connect alumni to your prospects.


Case Study: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater, has a track record of brilliance when it comes to making students feel like part of a strong family. We’re smart yet laid-back, ambitious but with a humble grounding. We’re big-picture innovators and we value a well-rounded education as much as we love a great party.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Prospective MBA students and alumni at an Illinois MBA retreat.


The ILLINOIS MBA does a fantastic job of connecting prospective students with their end goal – a management position in a top U.S. financial market – while cultivating a strong alumni family. Abdul Mahdi, Director of MBA Programs, turned a retreat traditionally reserved for current students into an opportunity to connect the dots between prospects, students and alumni.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘How can we use that event to bring everybody together?’” said Mahdi. “We needed to make alums feel like they were important and incentivize them to stay on.”

The mansion retreat included TEDx-style talks from leading alumni from diverse industries, as well as a business case exercise where prospects, students and alumni collaborated and learned from their diverse leadership styles. By the time cocktail hour came around, strong connections had been forged and meaningful conversations could be had. Through this and similar events, alumni are quickly developed into fierce advocates for the ILLINOIS brand.


Case Study: University of Florida

Brand advocacy starts the moment you accept a student. The more memorable experiences your program can forge for students on campus, the more they will remember to plug you to their networks in the future. Experiences don’t need to be expensive or elaborate. The key is that going social can amplify any brand experience.

[Tweet “Brand advocacy starts the moment you accept a student.”]

University of Florida

National Coffee Day adapted to the University of Florida.


The University of Florida does a great job of this on their Instagram. For National Coffee Day, the University of Florida partnered with their sister-gram UF Photography to take photos of students inside a coffee mug on the main campus plaza. These photos were then tagged and shared all over social media.


Case Study: Mercyhurst University

Mercyhurst University

Mercyhurst University’s “Carpe Diem” #GreenEnvelope acceptance frames in action on Instagram.


In designing their acceptance letters in just the right way, Mercyhurst University took full advantage of their newly minted students. Students were encouraged to pose with a cut-out “Carpe Diem” acceptance frame and share the hashtag #GreenEnvelope with their followers. This type of simple, yet effective campaign helps develop brand pride and advocacy from the very beginning.


Case Study: University of Michigan Ann Arbor

University of Michigan Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan’s “Vending Maize and Blue” social vending machine.


Finally, the University of Michigan took social sharing to the next level by installing a social vending machine on campus during orientation, where students were prompted to tweet about the university with specific hashtags in exchange for exciting school-branded gifts such as tickets to home games, gift cards to the college bookstore and branded clothing. The interactive experience merged digital tech with physical space while elevating the school’s coolness factor on various social channels.

“We are challenged to bring something new and creative to campus each year,” said Yasin Id-Deen, Social Media Manager at the University of Michigan. “For a month, we had a social vending machine on campus and people were loving it. We had constant lines everywhere we put it, and we ‘sold out’ three or four times. It was a good way to partner not only with the campus structure, but also the community within the campus.”


Turn advocacy into influence.

A compelling story can yield great results, not just with your advocates, but with far-reaching influencers. High-traffic blogs, industry-specific media outlets, social influencers and general press contacts will be more likely to feature your program in their posts if you show your story can potentially impact millions of students, or at least turn a few into unparalleled success stories.

Get a grip on your brand advocacy campaigns by examining the four “R’s” of student decision-making as specifically as possible before putting your creative ideas into action:

  1. Resource – Do you have the best library system in the world? Do you provide international immersion opportunities? Do you offer alternative teaching methods or online learning? Do you offer state-of-the-art maker facilities? What are the resources students can find uniquely at your school?
  2. Reputation – Does your program produce world-renowned research? Does it provide well-rounded liberal arts education? A small class size? Who are the influential global leaders who have graduated from your program? Where does a particular student fit in your eco-system?
  3. Risk – What does a student give up by going to school? What are his/her opportunity costs? Why spend time at your academic program versus a vocational training school elsewhere? How do you justify the investment a student makes in you?
  4. Reward – How is your curriculum structured? Can a student obtain more than one degree simultaneously by going through your program? What mentorship or career services do you provide? What are the financial and intellectual benefits of choosing your school?

Want to discuss brand advocacy in more detail? Have cool ideas for engaging alumni and influencers? Contact us to share your experiences. We would love to hear your story.

Melissa Chua
Melissa Chua
March 2, 2017