Marketing on social networks is hard, and as we’ve all witnessed, bad marketing can be worse than no marketing at all. Maybe unsurprisingly, there is one demographic that seems to have mastered the art of social self-promotion far better than corporations who spend millions: college kids.
Kids like Logan Paul. "I would lose sleep about thinking how I need to get Vine famous," Paul, a 19-year-old freshman at Ohio University, told me over the phone. "I was jealous of these kids who were like 16 years old and 200,000 people know them... I was like, I want that, I need that and I can have it if I just put some effort into it!" Four months ago, Paul had 900 Vine followers. Today, he has 1.7 million.
A company called Sumpto is trying to capitalize on kids like Paul. Sumpto connects brands with top college influencers, giving the brands exposure to their target audience and giving a few kids a little extra cash. The company has found 33,000 of these campus social network celebs nationwide, 75 of which have followings over 100,000, averaging 343,000. Now the company is doing promotions for companies like JackThreads, whose brand engagement on networks like Instagram is a fraction of the engagement on content created by Sumpto's influencers.
Is this the promised land of social media marketing? Are these kids the real deal? I spoke to three of them to find out.
Paul and his brother had been making YouTube videos for a while when they came across Vine. He says Vine’s recent addition of the "reVine" tool was key.
"I had a sense of what people find funny because of the YouTube stuff that my brother and I were doing, but with Vine it's a little different because you have to pack everything into six seconds. So I'd look on the popular page—I'd look at what the top people were doing, and I'd see, 'Oh this is what people like, this is what they find funny on Vine.' So I would... take that and then twist it, mold it, mend it to make it fit my own unique style," he says.
With a little practice, he got good. "I made some funny videos, not bad, good for starting. But the one I made when I had 900 followers, it got reVined by another big Viner who had 400,000 followers. And that was huge."
Most marketing today isn’t done on Vine, but that may be changing. The network appears to have survived the introduction of Instagram video, and has been adding features. I personally veered away from Vine after the reVine feature was introduced because it clogged my feed with videos my friends liked, but I had no interest in. But from a marketing perspective, this is an ideal feature.
Paul says he uses Vine as the so-called "top of the funnel" to draw people in with pure personality and lead them to his other social profiles. "Vine has been the biggest catalyst because it's a glimpse of my personality. People are like, wow, okay, this kid looks interesting, I'll go follow his Twitter too," says Paul. "If you create good content, then people are going to start to notice that."
He’s onto something crucial that big companies aren’t doing yet: differentiating social feeds with content meant for different purposes. Come for the entertaining Vines, stay for the tweets. With all the various forms of social mediums out there now, lots of companies figure that redundancy is easier. But a better strategy may be not to cross-post everything, thereby making unique personalities for yourself on each account.
Paul also pointed out to me that it’s important to show interest in the community you’re trying to be a part of. "Be interested, see what other people do, see if you can make friends and just stay up to date with the things that are going on," he says.
Kyle Herbert, 22, isn’t like Logan Paul. He didn’t study social media fame, and he hasn’t really expanded outside his immediate context. But as a senior at Arizona State University, he has completely mastered one thing: keeping it casual.
"Sometimes, I think marketing companies cater to the individual because they need this, they want that," says Herbert. "Whereas if you throw a little humor into it, put it more on the casual side, people are more comfortable with it. I feel like it's the comfort game almost, where in advertising you know you're being sold something, whereas in social media, I'm subconsciously telling you what you should be wearing and what you should be using, but you're only thinking that because I'm like, ‘Yeah, go check it out. Look what I'm doing.’ ‘Oh, that's cool. I follow you. I like you. I want to do this, too.’" Kyle has around 5,000 followers on both Instagram and Twitter, almost all of them within his school network.
But despite Kyle having an ostensibly natural grasp on the social media game, he came into it in an understandable attempt to make his big campus feel smaller. "For the first semester, I hated life at ASU because I would walk to class and then walk back to my dorm room and just not know anyone and never see anyone twice. It was really disheartening but I don't know. I figured out a way through social media and just through being friendly and congenial, I gained the hearts of all my peers, I guess. So now when I graduate from ASU and I go out to the real world, it's almost that same situation where I was once the fish, but now I'm being tossed into the even bigger ocean. I'm just going to keep going and keep working at it, keep doing everything that I can to gain new followers and keep those followers."
Social media is, at it’s core, a way for people to connect. So, as Kyle points out, the best thing you can do is be relatable: People want to be able to tell that there’s an actual person behind your handle.
Andy Rexford is different. His personal Twitter doesn’t have tens of thousands of followers, and not many people on his Saginaw Valley State campus know who he is. But he’s the brains behind @CollegeStudent, an anonymous Twitter with nearly 350,000 followers.
Being anonymous changes the game. There is no personal glory to be had, and the personality you have to craft is one separate from yourself and the presence you might portray on your own social media accounts. However, this is also the most similar to what companies and brands have to do every day. So how do you do it well?
"The shorter the better," Rexford, 21, told me. "Actually, ever since Twitter’s new update, I get more engaged. For CollegeStudent, I like to create a lot of what I’m going through and what my friends are going through and about the hard time we’re having and stuff—just things people can relate to."
Although the account is anonymous, this almost gives you more opportunity to craft an identity that can appeal to a huge group of people. It would be harder to present yourself as a niche product or account that people should follow, but, Andy says, anonymous accounts can be designed just for this purpose, like @CollegeStudent. "Anything that will engage your followers."
On these huge accounts with no visible person behind them, personal touches are crucial, Rexford says.
"It’s good to use hashtags to get better hits. But visitors have to know who [their] customers are and sort out the stuff that [the customers] want."