“Started from the Bottom, Now We’re Here”: How Drake University’s Bold Social Media Campaign Defined a Generation of Students

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I spoke with Niki Smith, digital media strategist at Drake University (and a Bulldog herself—she’s a Drake University alumna JO’08, GR ’15) about the recent student and university-led campaign to #BringDrakeToDrake and why it’s important to take risks on social media.

At its core, social media is a form of entertainment. It connects us to others. It educates us. It distracts us.

We follow people and institutions that keep our attention—and hide (and unfriend) those that don’t.

If you work in digital or social media, you are always looking for ways to connect with your audience. When a trend blows up (Harlem Shake, Ice Bucket Challenge, etc.), you find yourself asking the same question:

Should your institution jump on board and take a risk – or do you sit back and watch?

The reality is, taking risks on social media is usually met with trepidation. Even when there are obvious connections to your institution and cause, leadership may not want to dip a toe in the water.

So, how do you create a healthy mix of adhering to brand integrity and giving the audience what they want?

Learn how Drake University, thanks to a rapper who shares its name, did just that—and wound up attracting the attention of Drake himself.

“Turn my birthday into a lifestyle”

Niki Smith lives by this creed. It’s part of her job as a digital media strategist to know everything about Canadian-born Aubrey Drake Graham or, as the rest of the world knows him, Drake.

 

With the massive size of Drake’s social media audience, a serious question arose:

Should Drake University embrace the same-name rapper in their digital marketing?

Think about it this way:

Since 2009, there have been rumblings of #BringDrakeToDrake, a hashtag started by students in hopes that the beloved rapper would make an appearance on their campus in Des Moines, Iowa.

However, the university had some obvious hesitations:

  • Drake has no connection to the university. He is not a founder or an alumnus.
  • Drake hasn’t made a million-dollar gift (yet), and he still hasn’t performed at Drake Relays (fingers are still crossed).
  • Some of Drake’s lyrics are NSFW. How can you justify that from a PR standpoint?

In the end, Drake University decided to take advantage of the opportunity and to have some fun with the perceived connection between the university and the rapper.

Slowly, the university started tweeting about Drake. From celebrating Canada Day to including his “safe for work” lyrics in posts and images, the Drake-related tweets helped the university connect with a broader audience. If someone commented on how much he or she loved Drake’s music, Smith and company would send over a reminder of the fantastic music program at Drake University.

For two years, the university played on and enjoyed this connection… and then May hit.

“My city love me like a college running back”

When Drake announced his tour dates in May 2016, the university staff noticed something remarkable: the rapper would be performing at Des Moines’ own Wells Fargo Arena in October, a mere 2.5 miles away.

With permission from higher-ups, the PR team went to work. Senior Media Strategist Aaron Jaco (JO’07, AS ’07, GR’14), the “pun master” as Smith calls him, wrote a press release inviting Drake to campus:

 

To the university, this just was a fun way of further embracing the connection to Drake. But the fun soon spread far beyond Des Moines:

MTV, Entertainment Weekly, and other media outlets picked up the story. Ask anyone in PR—they would gladly pay for that type of advertising. But this was free because the university took a risk.

And that’s not all. Drake (@champagnepapi), who only follows about 1,200 accounts on Instagram, was also paying attention. In what Smith calls a “pivotal moment,” he followed Drake University on Instagram.

 

It seemed like the whole world was watching to see if he would visit the Bulldogs on October 4.

“That’s why I need all the energy that you bring to me”

With the date circled on calendars across campus, the entire university community was buzzing with #BringDrakeToDrake excitement.

Although Drake didn’t visit when everyone was awake, he did make a stealth visit at 2 a.m. on the morning after the concert, taking a photo and tagging the university on Instagram.

 

Like any good social media manager, Smith took a baseline of Instagram followers before the concert. The Drake University account stood at 8,000 followers.

After the tag from Drake, the university’s account gained 100 followers every 15 minutes. In fact, most of its 17,400 followers came from that night.

“It’s hard to do these things alone / Just hold on, we’re going home”

“When things on social media do well, it’s because they’re unique,” Smith said.

Since the beginning, university leadership has allowed her to “play with the connection” to Drake and to encourage students to join in on the social chatter. Why? Because they saw the value of building brand awareness among prospective students who have never heard of the 5,000-student university.

And she’s got several stories up her sleeve that prove her hard work is paying off.

“Drake posted an Instagram photo of himself wearing our pharmacy school sweatshirt, which is sold in our bookstores. I had a woman from Germany reach out and inquire about the school. Now, she could transfer here!” Smith shared.

 

 

Smith’s strategy is to engage the audience with fun content while still educating them about the university and its programs. For instance, she often replies to tweets with a link to apply to Drake University. As she said, the trick is to get students to visit—much like agreeing to a first date. Once they visit, they’re sold.

“Once someone visits, they fall in love with us,” she said. “They have a personal experience and we truly are a family here. There’s this feeling that you’re a Bulldog and we have each other’s backs. We may be different and unique, but we are all part of this family.”

So, will Drake visit campus in the broad daylight in the future? We’ll see. But the campaign has already left a lasting impression. John Smith (no relation to Niki), vice president for university advancement at Drake University, told her this:

“I don’t think you’ve realized it yet, but this is a moment that will define the Drake experience for this generation of Drake students.”

If your university could do that, what’s the harm in taking the risk?

Curious how to harness social media engagement to support advancement objectives? Check out EverTrue’s whitepaper, “Donor Identification in the 21st Century”:


 

Stephanie St. Martin is the brand awareness manager at The Ariel Group. Prior to this, she was the social media manager for Boston College University Advancement, i.e. the person behind @BCAlumni on social media. When she’s not in the digital marketing trenches, Steph can be found writing, playing/hosting trivia, and driving around the USA in hopes of seeing all 50 state capitol buildings. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter if you dare.

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