Lessons from WVU’s Snapchat Experiment

Tony Dobies (@DOBIEST) is a senior writer and social media manager at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.

Snapchat, the app everyone thought would disappear soon after its creation, is the newest standout in social media—and has great potential for higher education.

The friendly, yet ghostly selfie-focused app is a bit of a mystery to many. It allows users to take a photo or video and send it to friends who can view it for no more than 10 seconds. After that, it’s gone forever (unless you … gasp … screenshot it!) It’s youth-focused and temporary and that may be one of the reasons so few brands and universities have experimented with it.

That may soon change, however, as recent data shows Snapchat surpassed Twitter as the most popular social media app with 18 to 34-year-olds (behind Facebook and Instagram). Earlier in the year, a report showed that 77 percent of college students used Snapchat.

These statistics should make the move to Snapchat more of a priority for college and universities this fall. This is the age range we all want to target better. It could be the new way to recruit and engage. It sure helped us at West Virginia University realize it was a worthwhile venture, which is why we launched our account in early August.

We joined with few expectations but many hopes as we knew it had been a successful endeavor at institutions like the University of Michigan and University of Houston, two early adopters of Snapchat. For us, it was a true experiment—from the content that we published to the time it took to manage.

Within seconds of announcing on Twitter that we had joined Snapchat, we received a slew of followers (mostly students) and even more followers once we posted to Instagram. We hit the 1,000-follower mark within the first 24 hours.

It took months and months on Instagram for a post of ours to receive more than 1,000 likes. Yet, we had 1,000 views on a Snapchat Story on our second day. It was the fastest adoption of a social media account at the university from a student perspective that I have seen.

I wanted to share with you some tips I’ve developed after two weeks of running our Snapchat account. Hopefully, they will help you as you begin to “snap” away:

Use an app to post photos you’ve already taken

My office is about a mile from our downtown campus so getting to campus to take photos, especially during the semester, can be a bit of a chore. I found at least two apps (I use Snap Upload) that allow you to post photos you’ve already taken, whether it’s from your campus photographer or just something from your camera roll. Plus, it allows for you to save the Snaps you receive to then re-post in your Snapchat Story.

Make a graphic for cross-promoting

You want your first posts announcing your new account on other social media platforms to stand out. If you have the resources, I suggest creating a fun graphic that students will love. This really worked to help us get the word out on our launch date:

WVU on Snapchat

Contests create content

Five days into our Snapchat experience, we decided to run a contest and just asked our followers to “snap” us (that’s the appropriate verb, by the way, like “tweet” is to Twitter) a photo of how they show their Mountaineer pride. I was blown away by the response. Nearly 25 percent of our followers responded with a snap. Using Snap Upload, we shared our favorites in our Snapchat Story. This was so successful that we plan to do other contests for move-in day, the first day of classes, the first football game, etc.

snap contest

snap contest 1

Your office’s dry-erase can be your best friend

Our office’s dry-erase board has allowed us to easily communicate with others on Snapchat with phrases, logos and drawings. It’s fun, adds personality and is more playful than just typing in the chat feature.


It can be more than fun

From the get go, our strategy has been to keep our Snapchat light and fun but to use it strategically around larger events and deadlines. For example, two days before our “move-in day,” we posted some photos from last year’s day to our Snapchat Story but also included one with a link to a webpage with crucial information for those traveling to campus for the first time. This audience is all about quick, bite-sized pieces of information, so light-hearted, fun photos help shape and build affinity with this young crowd. And don’t feel constrained by Snapchat’s limitations. I use Photoshop to develop most of my posts to give myself more freedom.

Move-In Info

Don’t feel like you have to update every day

Think of your Snapchat as an opportunity to share and engage, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to post every day. Your followers will likely be surprised when you post a snap—it is a bit unique for a brand to be on Snapchat at this point.

If you’re debating whether to make a Snapchat account for your university, I would tell you to at least give it a try. My experience this month has been very positive with the app. But, as always, make sure to develop a strong reason for it (the projected audience is enough for me) and the resources (time) to keep up with it.

For those of you still wondering what Snapchat is, there is a fantastic guide here.

If you’re using Snapchat for your college or university, let us know in the comments about the creative ideas you’ve used to engage students.

6 responses to “Lessons from WVU’s Snapchat Experiment

  1. Pingback: Social Media Meets Brand Redesign at West Virginia University | Mercurial Media Musings·

  2. Pingback: The Student Affairs Collective » The Student Affairs Spectacular Podcast Episode #51: Liz Gross on Social Media Success in Higher Education·

  3. Pingback: 20+ Snapchat resources | Chris Snider·

  4. This was all very useful. Thanks for sharing. We just set up a Snapchat account for the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication – drakejmc

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