You can blow through your higher ed marketing budget by buying a bunch of airtime on your local radio station or dumping a bunch of dollars into newspaper ads that no one sees. Or you can–usually for a fraction of the cost–deputize influencers to market for you.

Peer-to-peer marketing, intentional or unintentional, has been around since the beginning of time. If you see your neighbor’s new Internet of Things 5G refrigerator, you’ll want one too. The same principles apply to higher education.

The recommendations of people you trust and identify with are the most powerful advertising available. When marketing for graduate programs, that could be someone’s killer job right out of school, or the amazing time they have while studying.

influencer marketing for grad programs

Business Insider’s annual Influencer Marketing Report provides stats to back up the power of influencers. The average influencer engagement rate across industry platforms is 5.7 percent, while engagement rate for brands on channels like Instagram hovered between 2 – 3 percent over the past year. That’s double the bang for your buck from the right influencers.

First, though, it’s not enough to just decide you want to start an influencer campaign. Before you do that you have to identify what your school really has to offer, and who you want to influence.

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Find your focus and stick to it

Remember, marketing is about telling people what’s in it for them.

Marketing for higher ed graduate programs means painting a picture of how your programs improve the lives of students. That might not be as obvious as giving them more career opportunities. There might be something special about the bonds formed through student groups, or the flexibility of your curriculum. When it comes to influencing a decision, it could even come down to what your region—not your school—has to offer.

Use your thoughtful, well-researched buyer personas to help guide who you want your influencers to engage with. You can’t connect to everyone or highlight everything.

Influencer campaigns are most effective when they are crisp, targeted, and specific. Promoting your university as a “great place” is broad and vague; promoting your online MBA as the best option for working parents will allow you to target your influencer campaign and reap a more tangible reward.

Identify the right influencers for your graduate programs

Most schools already have organic social media programs to attract students. Influencers are a natural extension of that. Finding the right influencers will pay off in spades. If you are angling for a younger audience, you want to use forums like Snapchat, Periscope, Musical.ly and Tumblr. Instagram and Facebook audiences tend to skew older and may be more fertile ground for reaching adult audiences.

Depending on how robust you want your campaign to be, you may consider outsourcing with an agency that facilitates influencer marketing and reporting. Or you can move forward with a DIY approach. Social listening will give you visibility into what people are already saying.

Don’t discount the conversations that aren’t necessarily about what you consider to be your core offerings. That law student studying on the beach has just as much of a chance of influencing his friends as the newly minted attorney who just got a great job.

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Reach out to influencers

Once you identify influencers who overlap with your goals, approach them with a proposal. Reaching out to someone with a million followers could be costly and they may even require you go through an agent (yes, Instagram and YouTube celebrities often have agents). Not in your budget? There’s hope. Some of the most effective influencers are the ones with modest to medium followings that seamlessly blend into the community you are trying to tap into.

If your influencer and your brand have a natural overlap, the best way to get them to share and create meaningful content is to give them free rein.

Emphasize honesty to build loyalty

You can have your communications department crank out a script, but most social media users are very media savvy. They’ll see through it. People follow other people on social media for a variety of reasons, but one is a shared like and admiration. Let your influencer be themselves; that’s what their followers want.

If your influencer and your brand have a natural overlap, the best way to get them to share and create meaningful content is to give them free rein. Sure, you’re spending money on the influencer, but the minute the influencer’s audience feels like they’re being bought, the blinders go up. Set your influencer loose to create organic, meaningful, unscripted compelling content.

Encouraging authenticity, targeting the right prospects, and sharing relevant messages will have the biggest impact.