Celebrating seniors during COVID-19: four ways to recognize the class of 2020READ THE ARTICLE
After campus closed due to the coronavirus crisis, the communications team at Brigham Young University (BYU) realized they only had three weeks to plan an alternative graduation celebration for their students. We recently spoke to Jon McBride, the media relations and social media manager at BYU, to discuss his team’s strategy and the lessons he learned from his experience organizing a celebration for graduating students exclusively on social media. Below are his advice and tips for other institutions seeking to do the same.
1. Empathize with students by recognizing that a social media celebration cannot replicate the normal commencement experience
Given the unprecedented disruptions that have taken place, it is more important than ever to empower graduating students to celebrate their accomplishments. Initial press releases and social media statements released by BYU emphasized that they understood that a social media-based celebration was not what students expected and that they wished that they could still hold commencement in-person.
“We didn’t want to make it feel like a normal commencement speech because there’s nothing normal about commencement this year. We wanted to lean into the fact that this is something pretty different.”
-Jon McBride, Media Relations and Social Media Manager
Early on, they also released a video from President Kevin Worthen that emphasized with students’ disappointment but also highlighted how the broader BYU community remained strong even though they were physically separated. Jon noted that these videos and statements were essential to their broader strategy of leading with empathy because they were able to easily communicate a compassionate tone and message from the beginning. Because of this approach, BYU found that positive sentiments comprised more than 95 percent of interactions they tracked on social media throughout their planning process. Whenever they did see negative comments about the digital commencement alternative, the team reached out individually to these students to hear their concerns and address them personally, which generated further positive feedback as a result.
2. Focus your social media strategy on platforms (like Instagram) that resonate with your students and make it easy for them to engage via ready-made story templates
BYU’s traditional commencement consists of a massive gathering of 20,000 people in the basketball arena where graduates listen to speeches from leadership and guest speakers. Because they could not replicate that experience virtually, the communications team at BYU determined that they needed to reformat their celebration to take advantage of social media platforms instead. As a result, BYU decided to focus their social media strategy almost exclusively on Instagram, given its prevalence and popularity among the student population.
For example, BYU released Instagram story templates for students to share photos and highlights from their time as a student. These proved to be widely successful and allowed graduates to ease into a digital-only graduation celebration.
3. Post short graduation speeches and well-wishes from faculty on Instagram stories leading up to the virtual celebration to build excitement
In the immediate aftermath of the campus’s shutdown, BYU worked with faculty members to create 14-second videos sharing words of encouragement to put on the university’s Instagram account. In creating the initial round of videos, Jon and his team uncovered some challenges due to faculty being unfamiliar with the best lightening and background set-ups for short videos. As a result, they developed a set of guidelines to improve the videos they received for commencement.
4. Solicit content and congratulations from students using custom hashtags (#BYUGrad) and Instagram Grad Speeches
BYU also expanded the pool of commencement videos to include student messages of encouragement and celebration as well. Initially, leaders reached out to students through email but did not get many responses or submissions. As a next step, the social media team reached out personally to digitally-engaged seniors and graduating students who had done “Instagram takeovers” of BYU social media accounts in the past.
Students who participated in the campaign submitted a diverse set of videos: some videos were shot outdoors while others were inside, some graduates were dressed in caps and gowns while others were not, and messages were both lighthearted and serious. By the week of graduation, BYU received 45 student and faculty submissions in total and was able to use almost every video in their Instagram story to develop a sense of virtual community during their celebration. Due to the popularity of story templates and the 14-second graduation speeches on Instagram, BYU plans to continue these initiatives for their commencement strategy in the future.
5. Release a special message from the President on the day of graduation
On the day of commencement, BYU posted another message from President Kevin Worthen that celebrated graduating students. In it, he commended them for their resilience through a time of uncertainty and stress. The video received over 30,000 views and 50 comments.