Getting creative: Tiktok and Instagram Reels for Student Recruitment

By Benjamin Boivin

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Current and incoming college students love getting creative with short-form content on the Internet, and when it comes to video, TikTok is the perfect platform to do this popularity exploded in 2019 and has been growing steadily since. It speaks their language. It’s fast-paced, witty, free-to-use, and isn’t fully understood by the older generation of college graduates that came before them, a perfect opportunity for recruiters to reach new students.

Keeping up with the newest and trendy apps is a complicated task, especially for college administrators who already have enough on their plates. Around eight years ago, Vine was the premier short-form video app preferred by college students. Twitter acquired the popular app, only to have it shut down in 2016, the same year the Chinese’s owned company, ByteDance, founded TikTok.

TikTok, known in China as "Douyin", is a video-sharing social networking service. It is used to create short music, lip-sync, dance, comedy and talent videos of 3 to 15 seconds, and short looping videos of 3 to 60 seconds. TikTok was first launched in China in 2016, before making it's way to the rest of the world in 2017 after merging with another Chinese social media service, "Musical.ly". In 2018, Facebook attempted to clone TikTok by launching “Lasso”, which failed in 2020. In the same two-year window, Instagram started testing its version of TikTok called “Reels” in Brazil. 

Introducing Instagram "Reels"

On August 5, 2020, Instagram officially launched Reels across 50 countries, including key markets like the United States, India, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The timing couldn’t be better in the U.S., with the Trump administration attempting to ban TikTok due to its Chinese origins. According to the Instagram announcement, this is "Reels":

"Reels invites you to create fun videos to share with your friends or anyone on Instagram. Record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with audio, effects, and new creative tools. You can share reels with your followers on Feed, and, if you have a public account, make them available to the wider Instagram community through a new space in Explore."

With over a billion monthly Instagram users worldwide, Reels has a real opportunity to become as big as TikTok, adding another tool in the toolbox for student recruitment and marketing. As higher education enrollment professionals, the time is now to start learning Reels’ features and functionality, so that you can position your institution to capitalize on the newest short-form creative content application. Here are some places to start:

At the bottom of the Instagram camera, select the Reels video icon to access the creative editing tools. From audio and alignment to timer, speed and countdown, Reels allows users to not only get creative with the content, but also how the content is presented. 

Utilize short videos for international recruitment  

One of the best things about 15-second video clips is that they are usually backed by popular music. While songs may be written in a particular language, they speak to a global audience. Think of The Beatles, who had moved beyond 100 million records sold globally by February 1965. Tap into what prospective students are listening to on a global scale and use it in your Reels content. Find creative ways to give personality and originality to your content.

Empower the creators you have on campus

Introducing prospective students to your institution via video apps won’t cut into your marketing budget (Reels and TikTok are free to use). The battle is finding the time to create the content and make it relevant to the younger generation. Some of the best young influencers in the industry may already work in your admissions office. 

One approach is to set up a “content creation team” consisting of arts, media, business, and communication majors. Not only do these students enjoy creating unique content, but they can use their experience to find work after college and add a new line to their professional resume. It’s a win-win. Also, the students on your campus today likely have a lot in common with those you want to see on campus next year. 

Don't talk at them, communicate with them

When you visit a college’s “About Us” page, it usually begins with, “Founded over 100 years ago…” Generation Z (and their younger siblings) don’t necessarily care about an institution’s history and prestige in the same way their parents did. This generation seeks authentic, nurturing, fun, and fast communication. 

Instead of reading about campus traditions in a viewbook or search print piece, they prefer to see a tradition live on social media. From “The Gator Chomp” at the University of Florida to the incredible architecture on Oxford’s campus, there are ways to stand out and show off your community without writing about it in long-form. Modernize the marketing approach through Reels. 

Start recruiting earlier  

TikTok’s original user base was younger than the college-aged Vine users that preceded them. While high school freshmen and sophomores may not open up a college print piece or search the Internet for their future institution, they will likely download Reels and already use TikTok. These video apps are a perfect way to introduce your institution’s brand before younger students even begin the college search process. 

Frequency is key, but keep it relevant 

Unlike Facebook marketing, it isn’t realistic to create a social media posting schedule months in advance for short-form video apps. Half the fun of TikTok is its spontaneity (or “so random”) and relevancy. When posts begin looking too planned and professionally curated, views begin to drop. Unlike a class schedule or start of each semester, campus life is continually changing, with new and exciting things happening every day. 

Keeping up with today’s aspiring college students is more challenging than ever, but with great challenge comes great reward. Using short-form content creation via video apps won’t just boost early interest and engage a new group of prospective students, it also allows your institution to invest in a modern style of marketing. 

Topics: International Student Recruitment Social Media for Higher Education

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