Case study: How 20 high school students ignited a social media success

Now here is a neat trick. Precisely as your read this exciting guest post from the brilliant Jon Buscall, I will be meeting him for the first time in Stockholm, Sweden. Jon has become one of my oldest and dearest Twitter friends so the timing of this post is only fitting. Enjoy! ~ Mark

This is a story to inspire even the grumpiest social media naysayer.

If a group of 20 senior high school students can get their heads around social media marketing in the space of a couple of weeks, contribute to a marketing strategy, and help slash an annual marketing budget by over 70 percent whilst delivering improved results, just think what you could do if you let your people loose to explore their own creativity!

The Backstory

Back in 2009 my company started running the marketing campaign for a local Stockholm high school. The school’s income is based solely on the $16,000 it receives per annum per student, paid by the local municipality. Faced with declining numbers of kids born sixteen years ago, the market was becoming increasingly competitive with schools vying for students. Marketing costs were escalating as ad agencies sensed there was money to be made but the school wanted to invest more in facilities for existing students rather than lining marketers’ pockets.

After I met with the school management team and grasped their unique selling point of an academic education in English, I set about persuading the school to launch a daily blog, a Facebook Page and to get on Twitter ASAP.

For that academic year I personally handled the account, ghost blogging and tweeting on a daily basis. My favorite anecdote from that year has to be the student I connected with on Twitter who ended up joining the school. Not bad, eh? $16,000 for a single tweet!

Well, obviously it was more than a tweet, but you get the point! The student visited the school and talked to students and staff after we connected online. But the point is a tweet alerted her to the possibilities found at the school.

Within a year applications to the school were up, marketing costs were down considerably and everything, as the saying goes, was pretty much peachy creamy.

The competition responds

By the start of the next academic year every school in Stockholm seemed to have a blog, a Facebook Page, a Twitter account and a lavish video made by a local ad agency.  All the schools — and their ad agencies were following our lead and jumping on the bandwagon. It represented a new revenue stream for the agencies of course.  Two months later I would see one school giving away badges with the familiar  Facebook “Like” icon on at the annual Stockholm schools recruitment fair.

With the market increasingly competitive and the school looking to invest in books and the building rather than even more marketing, we looked at different solutions. In the end, having spent a decade as a full-time university lecturer I decided to accept the school’s offer to run a Communications class this academic year with the brief to get students involved in the social media campaign. Essentially, they were to be my team of marketing interns.

… and the students take over!

I jumped at the chance to experience what 18-19 year olds were up to, but I quickly discovered they didn’t have a clue about brand personas, integrated marketing campaigns, business blogs or the power of Facebook as a marketing tool. So we started out listening to an array of internet marketing podcasts, reading business blogs and immersing ourselves in content marketing and social media strategy.

Sure, the students’ first blog posts and ventures into podcasting weren’t spectacular but very quickly they were producing material that could be published and included in the school’s online presence. Seizing on this I set up a project where they were required to produce material ahead of the first of three annual Open Houses that are the school’s key recruitment events.

Equipped with cameras, digital recorders and a sense of enthusiasm that I personally find hard to muster when it comes to trying to get people to talk on camera, off they went.

The results were spectacular:

The students promoted their efforts across their social media profiles and I chipped in with a bit of blogging on the school website.

We watched and waited with baited breath to see our results.

It’s All About Creativity & the Network

A rough poll taken in the class showed that on average each student had 450 Facebook “friends”. No wonder word of mouth spread quickly. Teens aren’t just connected to teens their age. Brothers and sisters, relatives and so on, follow each other’s Walls.

And we seeing BIG results.  On an extremely cold January evening just after Christmas over 700 prospective students came along to Open House to find out about the school. This was double the figure for the same event the previous year. The school auditorium was so full the principal had to give her introductory welcome speech a second time.

Having grasped the value of showing and not just telling, the students recorded this event to show prospective students ahead of the April Open House just what it’s like to visit the school.

Applications to the school doubled this year and the grade-point average for applicants is considerably higher than last year. Sure, some of this has to do with the commitment of the staff and school management, as well as the efforts of my company to help them along; however, 20 communications students are responsible for a massive portion of this success.

I’m in awe of what they’ve helped the school achieve.

A Few Observations by the Old Guy

I understand how marketing works and I think I have a pretty good understanding of social media. Sharing these skills seemed to set off a spark in these teens and they jumped onboard the social media train with enthusiam rarely seen in a company environment where people are PAID to be enthusiastic!

With passion and dedication they created content that didn’t just impress me, it made me sit up and really take notice. It also struck a chord with their peers, who to judge by the numbers preferred the school’s low-fi 2 minute videos to the glossy 5 minute clips other schools had invested in.

To the students’ credit, the results of this “experiment” were so much better than I dared imagine that the principal has asked me to come back and run the same course with another group in the fall.

Thinking about it now I can see that the experience has taught me an important lesson that all of us working in business should remember: if you can inspire your employees to become an active part of your social media marketing campaign you can reach new goals.

These kids were extremely busy just like your employees, juggling lots of tasks throughout the year. However with a bit of planning (thanks Basecamp!) and training they were able to create content and execute the strategy we’d discussed.

Transfer that kind of approach to your software company, your airline, your food store, your agency or corporation and you can see the possibilities. Just as my students proudly shared their efforts with their network, so will your people help your business reach new people.

Getting the social media content creation out of the hands of your professional marketers and into the hands of the people actually doing the job in your business will have far reaching benefits.

These students were not just involved. They were IGNITED. What are the implications for your own business?

Jon Buscall <>  runs Stockholm-based digital communications agency Jontus Media. He blogs at Oh, and he has five <>basset hounds!

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