Welcome back to the #HESM Community Blog, where we talk directly with those in the higher education community doing great things all over North America. This month, we chatted with Kimberly Stern and Ashley Schroeder from Colorado State University. Together, they run the social and digital media teams and are responsible for A Ram’s Life, a YouTube student takeover series that allows viewers to get a glance of campus life from the student perspective.

First off, we hope everyone at CSU is staying safe and healthy! How COVID has affected Colorado State University’s in-person classes and student activities?

Kimberly Stern & Ashley Schroeder: The student experience has no doubt been impacted by COVID but we are very proud of our community for working together to keep the transmission of the virus low on campus enabling the university to offer in-person, hybrid and online classes for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. Through weekly saliva screenings, wastewater detection and a commitment to slow the spread of COVID-19, our community has shown what it means to take care and to take action. With the rollout of vaccinations across the nation and world, we’re hopeful for what the fall semester will bring. 

Many institutions have takeovers on Instagram and Snapchat but you’re doing it with YouTube, which I find fascinating! Could you tell us more about A Ram’s Life on YouTube and how it all began?

KS & AS: Our Social and Digital Media team began exploring the idea of a student-run vlog in 2019 when The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article titled, “Want to learn how the world sees your college? Look on YouTube.” The year prior, the Pew Research Center found that 85% of American teens use YouTube. When it comes to what online platforms Gen Z used most often, YouTube came in second. 

When Gen Zers want to learn something, they go to YouTube. This includes learning about colleges they’re interested in attending. While CSU has had an active YouTube channel since 2009, the content wasn’t necessarily what prospective students were looking for. They’re seeking out authentic examples of student life on campus.

Every university student follows a unique path in deciding which college suits them best. At times, the decision can be easy based on the reputation of a specific program or the location of the campus. For some, it’s not easy at all, and their final decision is based on one major factor — which institution made them feel most at home.

We wanted to take college campus video tours and online information to the next level in order to help prospective students see CSU as their home. In order to get the attention of Gen Zers applying for colleges, we recognized we couldn’t rely on the same old tactics to do the job. So, we hired three student vloggers to roam around Fort Collins, camera in tow, and document life as a student at CSU to give teens around the world a glimpse into what being a CSU Ram was really like. Our objective to use the vlog as a recruitment marketing tool came during a time when universities across the country were seeing a slow decline in student enrollment. Though we didn’t know at the time, the A Ram’s Life vlog would become even more important in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced high school students to do even more of their college research online.

How do you select students for the YouTube takeovers?

KS & AS: When we created the vlog, we knew three things

First, we wanted the vlog to be student-run, with as few content restrictions as possible to ensure the content shared was authentic, but also in line with CSU’s brand. We didn’t want students to watch the videos and hear the university talking back at them. We wanted them to hear from their peers and see the entire college experience: the successes, the fails, the fun moments and the hardships. 

Second, we wanted to have consistent vloggers, rather than different students posting videos in a “takeover” style that’s popular on Instagram. Filming your daily life on a regular basis is a lot like writing in your diary and publishing it on the web for everyone to read. It’s a personal form of communication that lets viewers live life vicariously through the creator’s experiences, which often results in a strong sense of attachment from the viewer toward the producer. A key to a vlogger’s success is to create a pseudo-friendship with their viewers, revealing intimate details of their own life while referring to their audience in the second person. This develops a sense of familiarity that keeps audience members coming back for more, even though the video creator knows no details of the individual members’ existence. This para-social relationship is the foundational core that leads to a vlogger’s success. 

Last, we wanted the vlog to live on its own YouTube channel separate from CSU’s YouTube channel, with its own branding, and have its own style. A Ram’s Life features vibrant colors, based on CSU’s secondary and tertiary color palette. Rather than the same traditional CSU green and gold, the alfalfa green and Aggie orange provide a more relaxed and youthful appearance, while still fitting within CSU’s brand. Video thumbnails fall in line with vlogger-styled graphics, and the video titles and descriptions follow the same laid-back approach.

Once A Ram’s Life was created, we put a call out for auditions through CSU’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, and the CSU Social blog in the summer of 2019. We asked interested applicants to provide an audition video detailing why they wanted to be a CSU vlogger and describe what type of content they would share. Interestingly, the majority of audition videos were submitted by incoming students — students who had not yet taken their first class at CSU but knew the importance of YouTube based on their own experience researching universities.

Our three vloggers — Jamie, Grace and Ryan — began creating content in 2019, posting once a week. From move-in to the first day of classes to cooking mac and cheese to getting a tattoo, the students shared everything about their college experience with viewers.

How do you promote, or share A Ram’s Life?

KS & AS: To get the word out about the vlog, we promote the vlog on CSU’s social media accounts, and have each vlogger host an Instagram Story takeover on CSU’s Instagram account from time-to-time. Our Office of Admissions includes the videos in their emails to prospective students and created targeted social media campaigns to reach prospective students.

Has A Ram’s Life been successful? How do you measure success and what is the goal of the video takeover series?

KS & AS: When we launched A Ram’s Life, CSU was one of the only universities with its own vlog run by students. The vlog was an experiment that we hoped would be successful and provide a deeper and authentic view of student life at CSU. 

Since launching the vlog in 2019, A Ram’s Life has gained more than 12,000 subscribers, has 2.1 million video views and nearly 19 million impressions. The Denver Post featured CSU’s vlog in a 2019 article, sharing our strategy and process, and the importance of vlogging and YouTube in higher education.

The best results, however, came from the videos that have connected with prospective students to help them make the big decision to come to CSU. Countless viewers have reached out to the vloggers to learn more about CSU, others have committed to CSU, and one (that we know of) even transferred from her New York college to CSU.

When CSU moved to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, campus tours and college visits were canceled, and CSU turned to digital marketing more than ever to not only share the CSU experience with prospective students, but to also explain what student-life was like during the pandemic. Jamie, Grace and Ryan continued vlogging through it all, providing an unfiltered view of their experiences. Jamie and Grace, who were living in the residence hall, were finishing their first year back at home with their parents. Ryan, a senior, was wrapping up his college education from his apartment off campus. During a time when prospective students couldn’t visit campus due to COVID-19, our vloggers gave an inside look at what student life was like.

Our vloggers — Jamie, Grace, Ryan and now Alex — have shared some of the most intimate moments of their college experience in order to help future Rams find their home at CSU. The experiment worked.

Do you have student interns, or employees that assist with this YouTube campaign?

KS & AS: Our three vloggers are paid student interns on our team, and they really steer the ship, so to speak. They’ve done a great job connecting with their audience and coming up with new and authentic content. We review every video before it’s published to ensure their videos follow the guidelines we’ve set, like no vlogging and driving. Safety first! We meet once or twice a semester to brainstorm new content ideas and talk about how we can improve the channel. But the vloggers are truly the main reason why the vlog is so successful.

How do you plan to keep A Ram’s Life going forward? Do you see any changes needed?

KS & AS:  We hope Grace, Jamie and Alex continue vlogging for the duration of their college careers. From moving into residence halls to living off-campus for the first time to landing that first job after college, every year in college is so different. We would love to see how each of the vloggers change and grow over their four years at CSU. Hiring more student vloggers with diverse backgrounds and identities is definitely a goal for our team. Wouldn’t it be cool to see the college experience from an international student’s perspective? 

As the channel gains more subscribers, we’ll probably need to determine a process for community management and responding to comments and questions. CSU’s Office of Admissions does a great job keeping an eye out for opportunities to answer questions or provide more information about CSU to prospective students. The vloggers often receive questions from viewers on their personal social media accounts, which has worked out well so far, but could become overwhelming if the quantity and frequency of questions increase over time.

As new generations come along, they’ll each use different social media platforms to connect with each other and brands. We hope to stay nimble and meet our audience wherever they are (or go)!

About Kimberly Stern:

With 15 years of experience in strategic digital communications, Kimberly Stern leads Colorado State University’s award-winning Social and Digital Media team. Her team is responsible for setting the strategy and stewarding Colorado State University’s brand and reputation in the social and digital media space. She helped create a distinct voice for the institution that fans have come to trust and engage. She loves the challenge of blending the art and science of creating dynamic and engaging digital content. Under her leadership, CSU’s social media presence has blossomed into an internationally recognized powerhouse. The CSU Social and Digital Media team won a Webby Award (aka “Oscars of the Internet”) and is a Shorty Awards honoree (honoring the best in social media). Kimberly was recognized as an outstanding young leader and named to BizWest’s 2015 40 Under Forty, and in 2017 she was recognized as the PRSA Colorado Mentor of the Year. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Technical Communications and an MBA from Colorado State University.

About Ashley Schroeder:

Ashley is the assistant director of social and digital media at Colorado State University. She has worked on CSU’s award-winning Social and Digital Media team since 2013, and aids in executing the social media strategy for the university and elevating CSU’s brand and reputation on eight social media platforms. She enjoys creating unique and meaningful interactions with social media communities, work that has helped the team win a Webby Award and become a Shorty Awards honoree. Ashley earned her bachelor’s degree from CSU in Journalism and Technical Communications and her master’s degree in Communications and Media Management in 2020. 

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