Higher Ed user-generated content: How & why to encourage it

Higher Ed user-generated content: How & why to encourage it

6 minute read

Higher Ed user-generated content: How & why to encourage it

6 minute read

Higher Ed user-generated content: How & why to encourage it

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

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There are many things impacting content and higher ed at the moment—the pandemic, students as consumers and “prosumers” (producer-consumers), and plummeting attention spans and trust.

These trends and changes mean colleges and universities need to find new ways to attract, engage and recruit students. I wrote three articles recently about content strategy in higher ed:

These all mention user-generated content (UGC). As it is a growing topic, this article will go into more depth about UGC, covering:

  • What user-generated content is
  • Statistics on UGC
  • Why it’s so important and effective for universities and colleges
  • How universities can integrate UGC into their marketing plan (with some examples)

What is user-generated content (UGC)?

User-generated content is content that users voluntarily create—anything from Amazon and Tripadvisor reviews to social media posts, videos, photos, and selfies about a product or brand. It’s raw and authentic content and, since people crave authenticity in content today, and user-generated content delivers.

Although it can have the same effects as paid influencer marketing, it’s essentially the opposite of this because it’s voluntary and free. It’s earned media rather than bought or owned, and it’s often instigated entirely by consumers. Of course, this means there are some things you can’t control, and it can occasionally hurt brand perception. Generally, it’s a cost-effective and efficient way for brands to increase trust and credibility in a brand.

It’s also important to remember that marketers and content creators can actively encourage collaboration, co-creation, and storytelling through hashtags and other strategic initiatives. This helps steer the direction and attention to positive UGC that aligns with your brand (more on this later).

What user-generated content statistics tell us

In general, the impact of user-generated content on content strategy is enormous, and it has significant advantages for higher education marketing as well. The State of User-Generated Content 2022 report, which is just one of many UGC research reports, showed that:

  • 72% of consumers believe reviews and testimonials submitted by customers are more credible than brands talking about their products
  • 93% of marketers agree that consumers trust content created by customers more than content created by brands
  • 64% of consumers have tagged a brand or used a hashtag before on social media (suggesting that asking your followers to tag you or use a branded hashtag in university-related content would not be an unreasonable request)
  • 64% of consumers indicated that if a brand they like and follow is in the habit of sharing UGC, they’re more likely to share content about the brand or its products
  • Six out of 10 marketers feel their audiences engage more with UGC in marketing and communications channels

In a world of diminishing trust in brands and news publications, UGC will only become more impactful and meaningful. Content professionals, marketing, and recruitment—take note.

Why is UGC so important and effective in higher ed?

Higher education is a key industry that’s ripe for user-generated content. Allowing your audience to become a part of the conversation is one of the most influential and successful forms of marketing for student recruitment in universities today. Here are some ways it is effective.

1. UGC uses authenticity to attract millennials and Gen Z  

Millennials and Gen Z are, of course, a key audience for higher education. Because they’re “digital natives,” they’re active on social media.

Yet, they’re also two of the most challenging generations for marketers. Tired of and worn out by professionally-created content, students and young people value authenticity and are naturally skeptical of traditional advertising. So user-generated content is a great way for universities to be more human-centered and engage better with target audiences.

2. UGC shares real student stories

Every university provides a unique student experience. And sharing this creatively through student stories can set you apart from competitors. Authentic user-generated content allows universities to tell stories that would be hard—even impossible—for marketing teams to produce. And even if they could through paid or sponsored content and advertising, many consumers distrust those, especially if the content creators aren’t upfront about partnerships or compensation.

On the other hand, you’re getting organic stories with user-generated content. Over time, people become “micro-influencers” and brand ambassadors. And it doesn’t cost you a thing!

3. UGC creates two-way conversations and builds communities

Not only does UGC open up communication lines between universities and students, but it also encourages student-to-student communication. It enables you to build a community and emphasize co-creation. This encourages sharing on social media, positive word of mouth, and social proof to attract future students.

4. UGC provides social listening opportunities

The content generated by young people, students, and prospective students online is a valuable resource for understanding your audience’s motives and pain points. This is where social listening comes in.

You should be monitoring your social media channels frequently. There might be questions about the university process, direct mentions of your brand, or certain keywords people are using. Dig into the data and use it to inform your content strategy.

How to make UGC part of your higher ed social media strategy

Higher ed marketers are leveraging UGC to attract prospective students and create excitement around the college for current students and alumni.

So tap into this, get some student and alumni ambassadors for your website and social media, and create a living brand for your university or college.

Think about which channels—Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc.—are suitable for your institution. Where do students hang out? You should also find potential events and themes to share content about and create hashtags to get people involved. Also, provide guidelines and a style guide to keep contributors on-brand and ensure compliance.

Based on what we’ve covered up until now, I’ll now go through four examples of user-generated content approaches used by different universities. You can use these for inspiration when adding UGC to your content marketing strategy.

1. Newcastle University

Newcastle University On Course to NCL
Newcastle University’s On Course to NCL microsite

Newcastle University has an excellent microsite for a student blog, called ‘On Course to NCL’ designed to help prospective students plan their journey to university and navigate student life. Sections include things like applying, accommodation, social life, and graduating.

Newcastle also has user-generated content posted on Unibuddy, an app connecting current and prospective students. Unibuddy spoke to the marketing team at Newcastle, who reported great results with user-generated content.

Valentina Terrinoni, Marketing and Student Recruitment Officer, said:

“We wanted relevant information we can use to support prospective students from shortlisting to making their final choice.”

The blog posts received 12,000 unique views and a high conversion rate (from reading a blog to starting a chat). After viewing the blog, students were 3x more likely to start a Unibuddy chat than those who hadn’t viewed it.

2. Imperial College London

Imperial College London Instagram Profile
Imperial College London’s Instagram Profile

Instagram is arguably one of the biggest platforms for student-generated content. Imperial College London posts to over 75K Instagram followers daily using the hashtag #OurImperial to encourage students to post content around their experiences. The example below shows a video of a student talking about her experience.

A student-created video on Imperial College London’s Instagram page

Building and maintaining a strong remote sense of community and shared culture during the coronavirus pandemic is extra important. We can see from the image below that Imperial College London has done just that with episodes of "The Corona Diaries" from students.

An episode of The Corona Diaries on Imperial College London’s Instagram page

3. University of Northampton

The University of Northampton has taken advantage of the rise in student-generated content by having an annual 'Student Takeover' period on their social media channels.

The University of Northampton allowed students to take over the marketing department for a week

Students are selected from the Marketing degree courses, allowing them to practice their social media marketing skills and gain feedback from the university marketing team. This is a great way to empower students and get their voices heard. We can see this in action on their Instagram page, which uses branded hashtags.

University of Northampton Student Takeover 2
Students involved in University of Northampton’s Student Takeover campaign

4. University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne has also used branded hashtags to encourage students to post photos about university life, which they can then repost to the university's social media account. This is an excellent way to increase engagement.

The University of Melbourne encourages the submission of UGC through a branded hashtag

They also have 'Student Profile' videos from students on different courses to attract prospective students, which are then used to promote open days.

University of Melbourne Student Profile Video
A Student Profile video on the University of Melbourne’s Instagram page

University UGC ideas recommended by marketers

We’ve seen how universities have used blog posts and Instagram to gather and share student-generated content. But what other types of user-generated content could you encourage? Three marketers weighed in.

Student success stories

As Imperial College London’s Corona diaries idea proved, storytelling is powerful. Emir Bacic, who leads content strategy as a co-founder of Pricelisto, gave an example of how UGC can be used. Emir said:

“For example, if your university focuses on career-oriented education, you could showcase student success stories in your content marketing strategy. This would show potential students that your school could help them achieve their professional goals.”

The options for success stories based on the focus of your university and common student goals or challenges are endless.

Humorous and relatable content

According to Marketing and Communications Team Leader, Cecilia Distefano, Swinburne University recently launched the Student Content Ambassador Program. The program specifically recruits students to create content for the university’s social media channels. With what results?

Cecilia said:

“By far, the most successful content produced are reels that speak to the student experience, usually in a relatable or comedic way. I've found that Gen Z loves short and snappy meme-based content they can see themselves in and share with their friends.”

Trend-based TikTok videos

Madison Truscan, Director of Photography and Content Strategy at Loud Agency, said:

"TikTok is the fastest growing free marketing platform there is at the moment and an incredible way to market any product, business or individual, through the use of trending sounds and concepts. You never know what might go viral."
Madison Truscan
Director of Photography & Content Strategy, Loud Agency

UGC is a key part of the future of content marketing in higher ed

User-generated content is here to stay and, without a doubt, should be integrated into higher ed content operations. Why?

  • It gives your current students a voice and a platform to be heard
  • It improves content quality and, as a result, increases your exposure online, improves your institution's SEO rankings, and builds credibility
  • It means your brand becomes more trustworthy. Students listen to other students
  • It is unique and cannot be replicated by competing institutions

Students and young people enjoy being involved, and it's free advertising for universities. Win-Win.

How to create and manage UGC in GatherContent

I’ve talked about the definition, the stats, the benefits, and even some examples and ideas you can learn from. But there’s one last question to answer. How can user-generated content be created and managed without adding extra work to your plate?

With GatherContent, for example, you can embed style guides into the editing environment to make it easy for students and contributors to follow guidelines. And thanks to the commenting and tagging features, you and your content contributors can discuss projects all in one place.

For more on how GatherContent can help you create, manage, and collaborate on content, check out the higher education industry page.

Good to Know: If you've enjoyed this article, you’ll also love the weekly higher ed newsletter, so get signed up! 🗞️

There are many things impacting content and higher ed at the moment—the pandemic, students as consumers and “prosumers” (producer-consumers), and plummeting attention spans and trust.

These trends and changes mean colleges and universities need to find new ways to attract, engage and recruit students. I wrote three articles recently about content strategy in higher ed:

These all mention user-generated content (UGC). As it is a growing topic, this article will go into more depth about UGC, covering:

  • What user-generated content is
  • Statistics on UGC
  • Why it’s so important and effective for universities and colleges
  • How universities can integrate UGC into their marketing plan (with some examples)

What is user-generated content (UGC)?

User-generated content is content that users voluntarily create—anything from Amazon and Tripadvisor reviews to social media posts, videos, photos, and selfies about a product or brand. It’s raw and authentic content and, since people crave authenticity in content today, and user-generated content delivers.

Although it can have the same effects as paid influencer marketing, it’s essentially the opposite of this because it’s voluntary and free. It’s earned media rather than bought or owned, and it’s often instigated entirely by consumers. Of course, this means there are some things you can’t control, and it can occasionally hurt brand perception. Generally, it’s a cost-effective and efficient way for brands to increase trust and credibility in a brand.

It’s also important to remember that marketers and content creators can actively encourage collaboration, co-creation, and storytelling through hashtags and other strategic initiatives. This helps steer the direction and attention to positive UGC that aligns with your brand (more on this later).

What user-generated content statistics tell us

In general, the impact of user-generated content on content strategy is enormous, and it has significant advantages for higher education marketing as well. The State of User-Generated Content 2022 report, which is just one of many UGC research reports, showed that:

  • 72% of consumers believe reviews and testimonials submitted by customers are more credible than brands talking about their products
  • 93% of marketers agree that consumers trust content created by customers more than content created by brands
  • 64% of consumers have tagged a brand or used a hashtag before on social media (suggesting that asking your followers to tag you or use a branded hashtag in university-related content would not be an unreasonable request)
  • 64% of consumers indicated that if a brand they like and follow is in the habit of sharing UGC, they’re more likely to share content about the brand or its products
  • Six out of 10 marketers feel their audiences engage more with UGC in marketing and communications channels

In a world of diminishing trust in brands and news publications, UGC will only become more impactful and meaningful. Content professionals, marketing, and recruitment—take note.

Why is UGC so important and effective in higher ed?

Higher education is a key industry that’s ripe for user-generated content. Allowing your audience to become a part of the conversation is one of the most influential and successful forms of marketing for student recruitment in universities today. Here are some ways it is effective.

1. UGC uses authenticity to attract millennials and Gen Z  

Millennials and Gen Z are, of course, a key audience for higher education. Because they’re “digital natives,” they’re active on social media.

Yet, they’re also two of the most challenging generations for marketers. Tired of and worn out by professionally-created content, students and young people value authenticity and are naturally skeptical of traditional advertising. So user-generated content is a great way for universities to be more human-centered and engage better with target audiences.

2. UGC shares real student stories

Every university provides a unique student experience. And sharing this creatively through student stories can set you apart from competitors. Authentic user-generated content allows universities to tell stories that would be hard—even impossible—for marketing teams to produce. And even if they could through paid or sponsored content and advertising, many consumers distrust those, especially if the content creators aren’t upfront about partnerships or compensation.

On the other hand, you’re getting organic stories with user-generated content. Over time, people become “micro-influencers” and brand ambassadors. And it doesn’t cost you a thing!

3. UGC creates two-way conversations and builds communities

Not only does UGC open up communication lines between universities and students, but it also encourages student-to-student communication. It enables you to build a community and emphasize co-creation. This encourages sharing on social media, positive word of mouth, and social proof to attract future students.

4. UGC provides social listening opportunities

The content generated by young people, students, and prospective students online is a valuable resource for understanding your audience’s motives and pain points. This is where social listening comes in.

You should be monitoring your social media channels frequently. There might be questions about the university process, direct mentions of your brand, or certain keywords people are using. Dig into the data and use it to inform your content strategy.

How to make UGC part of your higher ed social media strategy

Higher ed marketers are leveraging UGC to attract prospective students and create excitement around the college for current students and alumni.

So tap into this, get some student and alumni ambassadors for your website and social media, and create a living brand for your university or college.

Think about which channels—Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc.—are suitable for your institution. Where do students hang out? You should also find potential events and themes to share content about and create hashtags to get people involved. Also, provide guidelines and a style guide to keep contributors on-brand and ensure compliance.

Based on what we’ve covered up until now, I’ll now go through four examples of user-generated content approaches used by different universities. You can use these for inspiration when adding UGC to your content marketing strategy.

1. Newcastle University

Newcastle University On Course to NCL
Newcastle University’s On Course to NCL microsite

Newcastle University has an excellent microsite for a student blog, called ‘On Course to NCL’ designed to help prospective students plan their journey to university and navigate student life. Sections include things like applying, accommodation, social life, and graduating.

Newcastle also has user-generated content posted on Unibuddy, an app connecting current and prospective students. Unibuddy spoke to the marketing team at Newcastle, who reported great results with user-generated content.

Valentina Terrinoni, Marketing and Student Recruitment Officer, said:

“We wanted relevant information we can use to support prospective students from shortlisting to making their final choice.”

The blog posts received 12,000 unique views and a high conversion rate (from reading a blog to starting a chat). After viewing the blog, students were 3x more likely to start a Unibuddy chat than those who hadn’t viewed it.

2. Imperial College London

Imperial College London Instagram Profile
Imperial College London’s Instagram Profile

Instagram is arguably one of the biggest platforms for student-generated content. Imperial College London posts to over 75K Instagram followers daily using the hashtag #OurImperial to encourage students to post content around their experiences. The example below shows a video of a student talking about her experience.

A student-created video on Imperial College London’s Instagram page

Building and maintaining a strong remote sense of community and shared culture during the coronavirus pandemic is extra important. We can see from the image below that Imperial College London has done just that with episodes of "The Corona Diaries" from students.

An episode of The Corona Diaries on Imperial College London’s Instagram page

3. University of Northampton

The University of Northampton has taken advantage of the rise in student-generated content by having an annual 'Student Takeover' period on their social media channels.

The University of Northampton allowed students to take over the marketing department for a week

Students are selected from the Marketing degree courses, allowing them to practice their social media marketing skills and gain feedback from the university marketing team. This is a great way to empower students and get their voices heard. We can see this in action on their Instagram page, which uses branded hashtags.

University of Northampton Student Takeover 2
Students involved in University of Northampton’s Student Takeover campaign

4. University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne has also used branded hashtags to encourage students to post photos about university life, which they can then repost to the university's social media account. This is an excellent way to increase engagement.

The University of Melbourne encourages the submission of UGC through a branded hashtag

They also have 'Student Profile' videos from students on different courses to attract prospective students, which are then used to promote open days.

University of Melbourne Student Profile Video
A Student Profile video on the University of Melbourne’s Instagram page

University UGC ideas recommended by marketers

We’ve seen how universities have used blog posts and Instagram to gather and share student-generated content. But what other types of user-generated content could you encourage? Three marketers weighed in.

Student success stories

As Imperial College London’s Corona diaries idea proved, storytelling is powerful. Emir Bacic, who leads content strategy as a co-founder of Pricelisto, gave an example of how UGC can be used. Emir said:

“For example, if your university focuses on career-oriented education, you could showcase student success stories in your content marketing strategy. This would show potential students that your school could help them achieve their professional goals.”

The options for success stories based on the focus of your university and common student goals or challenges are endless.

Humorous and relatable content

According to Marketing and Communications Team Leader, Cecilia Distefano, Swinburne University recently launched the Student Content Ambassador Program. The program specifically recruits students to create content for the university’s social media channels. With what results?

Cecilia said:

“By far, the most successful content produced are reels that speak to the student experience, usually in a relatable or comedic way. I've found that Gen Z loves short and snappy meme-based content they can see themselves in and share with their friends.”

Trend-based TikTok videos

Madison Truscan, Director of Photography and Content Strategy at Loud Agency, said:

"TikTok is the fastest growing free marketing platform there is at the moment and an incredible way to market any product, business or individual, through the use of trending sounds and concepts. You never know what might go viral."
Madison Truscan
Director of Photography & Content Strategy, Loud Agency

UGC is a key part of the future of content marketing in higher ed

User-generated content is here to stay and, without a doubt, should be integrated into higher ed content operations. Why?

  • It gives your current students a voice and a platform to be heard
  • It improves content quality and, as a result, increases your exposure online, improves your institution's SEO rankings, and builds credibility
  • It means your brand becomes more trustworthy. Students listen to other students
  • It is unique and cannot be replicated by competing institutions

Students and young people enjoy being involved, and it's free advertising for universities. Win-Win.

How to create and manage UGC in GatherContent

I’ve talked about the definition, the stats, the benefits, and even some examples and ideas you can learn from. But there’s one last question to answer. How can user-generated content be created and managed without adding extra work to your plate?

With GatherContent, for example, you can embed style guides into the editing environment to make it easy for students and contributors to follow guidelines. And thanks to the commenting and tagging features, you and your content contributors can discuss projects all in one place.

For more on how GatherContent can help you create, manage, and collaborate on content, check out the higher education industry page.

Good to Know: If you've enjoyed this article, you’ll also love the weekly higher ed newsletter, so get signed up! 🗞️

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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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