As students turn social media influencers, faculty raise concerns
Unlike offline campaigns, college administration has no way of supervising content, brand selection or promotional activity; time spent on campaigns is a concern too.
In a trend that is evoking mixed feelings on campuses, students are being roped in by major brands as social media influencers. Brands such as Starbucks, Viacom18 and PayTM are reaching out to college students, offering them merchandise and free access to exclusive events, in exchange for promotional posts on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
Typically, these are students with at least 500 followers on any one social media handle, who can craft effective posts that act as reviews for products, spread word about promotional drives, and live-tweet from brand events.
Corporate brands targeting college students on campuses is not new — it’s been done for decades in the form of festival sponsorships, events, kiosks and master classes. Roping in students to directly help push the product before a larger audience is new.
For college professors, the amount of time this kind of activity can take is a concern.
“Some companies seem to forget that students have studies. They give them a lot of tasks to achieve. Students also end up spending hours at events, or whiling away their time on social media,” says Shikha Dutt, head of the BMM department at the Vivekanand Educational Society college.
Colleges are also concerned that they have no way of monitoring content, or screening the brands or products that are pushed.
“Usually we do not allow private endorsements in our campus. We have a special panel and elaborate procedures for sponsorships and tie-ups with brands. But such campus-connect activities on a student-level, we have no way of tracking it,” says Parag Ajgaonkar, principal of Narsee Monjee college.
“At a student-to-student level, we really can’t monitor conversations between peers,” added a spokesperson for KJ Somaiya college. “Once we get a clear picture of how these student influencer models work, we might consider updating our rules.”
For students, there is more to being a campus influencer than shares, likes and a degree of fame. Some see it as a first step towards a career in social media marketing, influencing, advertising, or mass media. Other say it helps build soft skills, and acts as a sort of ongoing internship.
Harikrishnan Pillai, 19, a final-year BMS student at SM Shetty College, says he became a pro at time-management, multi-tasking and organising because of his work as a student influencer. “I used to be a reserved person. After working as an influencer for Starbucks, I started to network and make more friends (Yes). My friends would receive discounts on drinks and snacks, and I was making more friends,” he says.
Social media campaigning does help students figure out if this is the kind of career they would like to pursue, says Rommani Sen Shitak, coordinator and BMM professor at KPB Hinduja college. “What they should also keep in mind is that they must not get carried away by big names and end up wasting time.”
There is so much demand for student influencers — partly because they reach a key demographic, and partly because they are often happy to work for perks rather than pay — that apps and websites that started out as platforms for those seeking internships are now adding sections where they can connect brands with college influencers.
“We were initially focused only on providing internships to students. But the pattern shifted to companies seeking students for campaigns,” says Armaan Vananchal, co-founder of Frapp, one such platform.
Pranay Swarup, founder of Chtrbox, agrees. “We identify students with good communication and marketing skills, they must be good storytellers online, should create unique content in different formats such as Instagram stories, Facebook posts and video reviews,” says Pranay Swarup, founder of Chtrbox.
“This is just a new strategy for brands on college campuses,” says Lakshmi Lingam, professor at School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “But what is missing in most cases is the involvement of the college administration. The college management must get to take a call on which brands can be associated with students. The same rules that apply to sponsorships and promotional events on campus should apply. It is about which brands enter and the way they approach students.”