Using Social Media to Build School Spirit on a College Campus

Who says college can't be like high school when it comes to school spirit? It can be! Sort of. So this post is about fostering school spirit and is applicable for schools that lack it and for those that already have a great big blaze of school pride and want to toss some gasoline right on that big ole fire.

This post is also about myself. Because in the immortal words of Samuel Butler, the truest characters of ignorance are vanity and pride and arrogance. (Damn it, I'm really not good at this quote thing, am I? And I was an English major. Sad day. But I've read The Way of All Flesh, so that at least counts for something, right? Who said comprehension was key?) 

One of the easiest ways to get some school spirit going - and to involve not just people on campus but alumni and parents as well - is to get a lot of people wearing your school colors on the same day. (This tactic is commonly used for high school spirit weeks, pro sports teams, football game days, and the like.) But how do you start a tradition like that, especially if you're not a big football school? I'll get to that in a bit, but keep in mind: "We're all in this together!" isn't just an inspiring scene from the cinematic masterpiece High School Musical, it's also a powerful motivating force to get people to actually take part in something. Yes, everyone wants to be a special little snowflake, but they also want to follow along and do what everyone else is doing. Ah, millennials. Deep down, most people (especially college students) enjoy taking part in things that lots of other people are doing too. Student cheering sections for sports teams are an easy example of this, but so are massive service projects, unique campus traditions, campus protests, big parties, etc.

My awesome boss (seriously - she's really awesome. And I'm not just saying that because she could possibly be reading this!) came up with the idea of "Purple Fridays" last fall and we launched it shortly thereafter, inviting students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, anybody and everybody to wear purple every Friday. Not one to simply Tweet something out and hope for the best, I worked with my marketing colleagues and came up with a plan to really get people participating. We decided to have a huge "launch event" on a specific Friday, and then try to keep the momentum going from there. Here are some key steps we took to make Purple Fridays a reality:

1) We committed to an awesome giveaway. Namely, some sweet scarves. UP is a soccer school - we don't have football, and we've led the nation in D1 soccer attendance for several consecutive years - so these were a perfect cultural fit. I'm a big proponent of using social media to give back to your followers when possible. We are always asking them to do so much for us - like this, retweet that, watch this, click that, come to this, go to that - it's nice to be able to provide people with something tangible that they are excited about. These scarves were really cool, and people really wanted them.

Good Prize = Good Results.

Good Prize = Good Results.

2) We got the drum beat going early through social media, the school paper, the faculty/staff newsletter, alumni e-newsletters… any avenue we could reach people, we did. And we picked a day that coincided with a soccer game on campus, which worked perfectly as an event to promote and plan around.

I suck as a designer, but even this lame graphic got people pumped up.

I suck as a designer, but even this lame graphic got people pumped up.

3) We told people that we would wander around campus at some point during the day and hand out scarves to anyone wearing purple. We deliberately kept this part vague, because we wanted to be sure people would wear their purple all day, and not cheat by just showing up at a designated time and place. Doing it this way also made it more fun, because it became a scavenger hunt - there was spontaneity and surprise involved, which made it feel like a game. And we know how popular "gamification" is in marketing these days. We also said we’d send a scarf to the first 50 people not on campus to post a photo of themselves wearing purple and holding a sign saying “Purple Friday.” Getting alumni, parents, and friends involved was a key aspect of the campaign.

Inviting alumni and parents to take part was a huge part of what made this successful. School pride isn't restricted to campus.

Inviting alumni and parents to take part was a huge part of what made this successful. School pride isn't restricted to campus.

4) We booked our amazing staff photographer to join us and take pictures of people wearing purple and us handing out scarves, to post later on Facebook. Because people love photos of themselves. They can’t get enough of it. Just like me with Nutella, the original hazelnut spread with a hint of cocoa. Click here to see all the photos from the day, including ones we took that day and ones people not on campus submitted. As is always my hope, some of these photos have had uses beyond social media: the website, print publications for admissions, development, and athletics, etc.

Our students really got into it. Purple hat. Purple shirt. Purple shorts. PURPLE WIN!

Our students really got into it. Purple hat. Purple shirt. Purple shorts. PURPLE WIN!

5) Tweet it out and hope for the best. I lied earlier… I definitely did some of that too. I honestly had no idea if people would take part. I hoped that they would, but we had bad luck with weather (it was October in Portland and it was drizzly all day - can you believe it?!?) and getting people to click like or watch a video with social media is one thing, but trying to change behavior and get people to wear a specific color on a specific day is a whole different ball of wax. Or so I thought, because...

HOLY SMOKES!!! It was an outrageous success. No exaggeration: packs of students were wandering around campus, waving flags, chanting, trying to find us. It was incredible. We handed out hundreds upon hundreds of scarves in less than an hour, and dozens of alumni and parents posted photos on Facebook too. It was fun, created a huge buzz, and proved once again the power of social media, especially on a college campus.

Once we saw this group of guys wearing purple and waving a giant flag, we knew we had a hit on our hands.

Once we saw this group of guys wearing purple and waving a giant flag, we knew we had a hit on our hands.

For follow up, I used the tagline “Every Friday is Purple Friday” and continued to post regularly about Purple Friday. An increase in purple attire has been pretty noticeable on campus (especially among faculty/staff, which is cool), and I’m hopeful that at least a few alumni out there are wearing more purple too. And if they’re not, I’m going to come find them. And punish them. Likely by starting to type a testy Facebook message, getting sweaty, and then deleting it. Because that’s how I roll.

My hope is that this will become an annual tradition, likely early in the school year. It was one of the most fun days at work I've had all year, and it was really cool and inspiring to see that a thoughtful social media campaign can lead to such direct and lasting results. Go Pilots!!!

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