By: Brian Rosenbaum

Since I began using social media to engage my peers around causes that were important to me back in graduate school, I’ve seen its potential to mobilize people. But converting passive friends or followers into active participants is tricky, whether you’re a student group, a local business, or a multinational corporation.

At my non-profit, College Summit, we’ve long known that our students and Alumni are all over social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine – using these apps is second nature to the 16-22 age demographic. During my first months at College Summit, I had the idea of having students and Alumni blog about their experiences, but consensus was that such a project would require too much time to manage and quality control would be difficult while offering full freedom of expression. The question remained: how can we leverage the popularity of these online platforms to support our mission – helping low-income students make it to and through college?

Fast-forward to this summer, when we joined the 21st century and started an Instagram account. The initial purpose was to photodocument our summer programming – weekend-long college-going retreats (Workshops) for our rising seniors, where Alumni and volunteers play an important role working with students on their journeys to becoming “Peer Leaders.” We would continue using the Instagram account throughout the year to show off our organizational activities and as a recruitment tool for Alumni meetings, trainings, and events.

My “Ah Hah!” moment came after seeing two things happen. First, our Instagram following exploded to 200+ followers in the first two months. Prior to each Workshop, I recruited one or two volunteers to be the “resident photographer” and take brochure-worthy photos for me to post on Instagram. Not surprisingly, our initial followers were predominantly Workshop staff members, volunteers, Alumni, and Peer Leaders – the people in the photos.

Second, I saw that Alumni and Peer Leaders were posting their own photos to Instagram. And while the photos I was receiving from volunteers were polished and artistic, the student and Alumni photos were a mix of everything: group shots, activities, selfies, written testimonials, and more. They captured memories and moments. Just look through the #csws13 feed – every post (samples below) is highly emotionally charged in its content, caption, or hashtags.

 

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@anemic_royaltea

 

I was so honored to be a part of this lovely womans #certification she is an #inspiration and #rolemodel #collegesummitla #csws13 #redlandsuniversity

@nowanforever

 

I loved my #team #lifechangingexperience #before #during #after #workshopmode #collegesummit #workshop #collegesummitla #4days4years4life #TOP #CSWS13 #funandgames #kareoke #categories #hurt #meniscus #workshopaftermath #Starbucks

@imthekingschild

 

How I’ve been spending my 4th of July, and a vast amount of my summer. I make a difference, it’s what I do. #CollegeSummit #csws13 #ALC #Flight17 #Mentor #RoleModel

 

Seeing this kind of vibrant, organic activity, I knew that Instagram was the platform. So what was the strategy?

The Student Lens Project (SLP) was born from the notion that our students are already on Instagram, posting photos that were increasing the visibility of the organization. Through SLP, five Peer Leaders and six Alumni are sharing photos of their day-to-day experiences three times weekly via Instagram, from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to Northern Arizona University to Sylmar and Arleta High Schools.

These 11 individuals have magnified the region’s Instagram reach more than fourfold in less than a month.

On September 18, @CollegeSummitLA had 323 followers. Our Student Lens participants held a combined 1,360 followers. Granted, there are surely duplicates among these hundreds, but in the world of social media, it’s more about engagement than reach. That’s why there are 11 of them – more voices means more opportunities for followers comment, like, and share.

To promote engagement and connections, each photo is hashtagged #collegesummit and #studentlens and mentions @collegesummitla, our organizational handle. This makes posts easily searchable and makes it easy for participants’ followers to follow us.

The beauty of the Student Lens Project is that everyone wins. The organization gets a massive boost in online visibility, and the participants establish themselves as leaders amongst their peers, build a stronger connection to College Summit, and get to flex their creative muscles through artistic, insightful, and funny photos and videos.

Click here for a sample of the photos our Student Lens participants are posting.

 

As College Summit’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Brian works to recruit and mobilize the organization’s growing volunteer and Alumni Leader base while supporting sales initiatives, program implementation, event coordination, and development. Brian joined College Summit in 2011, seeing the organization as a place to bridge his passions for social justice, empowerment through education, and grassroots community building. Follow the adventure on Facebook by liking College Summit Southern California or via Twitter @CollegeSummitLA.

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