Our conversation today is with the very talented Krista Berend, director of social media at Texas A&M University. Krista’s job is to connect and engage with more than 71,000 Aggies — yes, that’s the current size of enrollment in College Station, Texas where Money Magazine declared Texas A&M the #1 best university in Texas. The institution is frequently recognized as one of the most engaging and influential universities online in the United States. We spoke to Krista about the importance of video, student interns, and Texas A&M’s presence on Reddit. 

First, let me just ask, how has Texas A&M handled COVID-19 through social media? Has the pandemic effected in-person classes, or campus in general? How did you use social media to amplify your COVID health and safety messaging?

Krista Berend: Along with all of our colleagues in higher education, Texas A&M has responded to the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020. Once our students left for spring break in 2020, they did not return for in-person instruction; the entire university shifted to online operations. We have offered hybrid classes (basically allowing students to select whether they wanted to have their classes in person or online) since August 2020 and are expecting to be back at full capacity in August 2021. During this time, the university developed an integrated marketing campaign called “Don’t Pass It Back” – the name plays on the Aggie phrase “pass it back,” which is how our yell leaders communicate with the crowd during athletic events and yell practices and has resonated with our campus community over the past year and a half. This ongoing campaign includes digital signage, videos, window clings, flyers, print advertising, and of course, extensive social media messaging.

Our social media team has and continues to work closely with our campus epidemiologists to determine what kind of messaging is needed at different points in time throughout each semester as they monitor COVID-19 trends on campus. We’ve shared everything from preventative behaviors to testing information and more. We’ve created specific graphic series and videos to share key information, and our campaign has been very successful: Texas A&M reported one of the lowest positivity rates for a university or college in the country in Fall 2020. We were thrilled to shift the campaign to encourage vaccination in our community earlier this year and continue to amplify the campaign and this latest messaging through our university social media channels.

When it comes to recruitment and future Aggies, what are the most engaging social media platforms to reach that audience?

Krista Berend: Our admissions marketing and recruitment efforts are housed under a different department, but we work with that team to help amplify their efforts at the appropriate times throughout the year. We tend to hear from our prospective students the most on Instagram, but we have also been slowly building out our YouTube content to target future Aggies since we know they are more likely to use YouTube to search for information than Google itself.

Are student interns part of your strategy? Do they help with trends and creating student-focused social media campaigns?

Krista Berend: Yes! Student interns are a vital part of our social media program and have been for years! Our interns are active, relied upon members of the team and do everything from helping us follow trends to monitoring social chatter to creating content and working live events with us. Our internships are adapted to the student: while we want to help them gain social media experience, we also want to offer them opportunities to pursue any and all areas of marketing and communications that they may be interested in, and as a result, our social media program has benefitted immensely from their passions and creativity over the years. Our current interns have a lot of interest in content creation and have been the brains behind some of our best hitting content this summer. They also, of course, are great sounding boards and are brutally honest when we ask them whether or not something is cool. 😊

How important is video, like Tik Tok or Reels, for growing Texas A&M’s followers and engagement? Do you use the live feature on Tik Tok or Instagram? If so, does it accomplish your goals?

Krista Berend: For years, we’ve known (and only see trends continuing upward) the growing importance of video in social media communications. The channels have optimized their algorithms for it, and many of the newest features and newest networks are created specifically around it. So yes – video is incredibly important to not just creating engaging content but also to actually being able to accomplish what our team is tasked to do on social: share the Texas A&M story far and wide across the internet! Texas A&M even recognized the important role video plays on social media a few years ago: one of the four full-time employees that make up the Texas A&M social media team is a multimedia coordinator whose entire job is to create video specifically for social media.

We use both Instagram Reels and Instagram Live for select live events – and yes, these are two features that help us reach existing and new audiences in fresh ways. We’ve been playing a lot with Reels this summer and have had a lot of success with them – this is definitely a tool in our content toolbox that we will utilize a lot in the future.

Do you have any advice for Higher Ed institutions about to launch, or thinking about launching a Tik Tok channel? How much time does it consume to curate and share engaging content on Instagram Reels, or Tik Tok?

Krista Berend: Before we decide to add a new social media network to our program, we ask ourselves two questions: 1) are we able to reach one of our target audiences on this network? and 2) do we have the resources to maintain and sustain this network to make it successful? That being said, Texas A&M does not have a TikTok account because of our team’s current answers to those two questions. And maybe that will change in the future, but for now, our shorter videos are created specifically for Instagram Reels or Stories.

Creating Reels is usually a pretty quick process for us, especially when the team has a specific idea in mind. However, there can definitely be some Reels that require a little more editing (a.k.a. time) than you might think. We’ve spent everything from a half hour to an entire day on a Reel before – but we have also learned along the way and have better streamlined our process. I encourage the team to never be afraid to try something new or different or to explore an idea they may have. As long as they are learning and growing their skillset along the way, it’s time well spent, in my opinion.

What social media trends are occurring at Texas A&M? As you prepare for the fall semester, do you see any new tools or social media apps that your institution will use? Do you have a back to school campaign? Are you promoting vaccine importance as we head into the fall?

Krista Berend: As far as trends, we continue to see huge popularity in shorter videos like Tik Toks and Reels, as well as memes. There are dozens of meme groups and accounts dedicated specifically to our campus, so those are always a good time (I love seeing our students’ creativity and humor!). While it’s not exactly a new tool, I expect our team will take more advantage of Reddit moving into the fall. We have a really active community on r/aggies and had an incredibly well received AMA on that subreddit in the spring with one of our campus epidemiologists, so we are wanting to continue that momentum as we move into the fall.

We don’t have a back to school campaign per se, but we are planning a lot of content around the start of the fall semester. Our university returned to regular, pre-pandemic operations on June 1, 2021, so this fall will be the first “real” semester since March 2020. We are expecting to have record interest in many of our “start of the fall” events like Howdy Week (our official week of welcome to new and returning students), Midnight Yell Practice (one of our most famous fall traditions), and our home football games. We’re really excited to have all of our students back, but yes, we are definitely continuing to promote the importance of vaccination and preventative behaviors as we head into the fall. We want them to have all of these wonderful Texas A&M experiences, but we first and foremost want them to be safe and healthy. And as much as I think we would all like it to, COVID-19 has not gone away peacefully – and we know this is something we will have to continue to communicate about for the foreseeable future.

About Krista Berend:

Krista Berend is the Director of Social Media in the Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University. Krista works to curate the digital presence of the university to grow the Texas A&M brand and provides strategic direction for the university’s social media program. She has built and managed content and campaigns across Texas A&M’s social media platforms, leading to the university consistently being recognized as one of the most engaging and influential universities online. Krista holds a B.A. in Communication from Texas A&M and an MBA with a concentration in marketing from the University of Houston. 

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