Case study: How 20 high school students ignited a social media success

Now here is a neat trick. Precisely as your read this exciting guest post from the brilliant Jon Buscall, I will be meeting him for the first time in Stockholm, Sweden. Jon has become one of my oldest and dearest Twitter friends so the timing of this post is only fitting. Enjoy! ~ Mark

This is a story to inspire even the grumpiest social media naysayer.

If a group of 20 senior high school students can get their heads around social media marketing in the space of a couple of weeks, contribute to a marketing strategy, and help slash an annual marketing budget by over 70 percent whilst delivering improved results, just think what you could do if you let your people loose to explore their own creativity!

The Backstory

Back in 2009 my company started running the marketing campaign for a local Stockholm high school. The school’s income is based solely on the $16,000 it receives per annum per student, paid by the local municipality. Faced with declining numbers of kids born sixteen years ago, the market was becoming increasingly competitive with schools vying for students. Marketing costs were escalating as ad agencies sensed there was money to be made but the school wanted to invest more in facilities for existing students rather than lining marketers’ pockets.

After I met with the school management team and grasped their unique selling point of an academic education in English, I set about persuading the school to launch a daily blog, a Facebook Page and to get on Twitter ASAP.

For that academic year I personally handled the account, ghost blogging and tweeting on a daily basis. My favorite anecdote from that year has to be the student I connected with on Twitter who ended up joining the school. Not bad, eh? $16,000 for a single tweet!

Well, obviously it was more than a tweet, but you get the point! The student visited the school and talked to students and staff after we connected online. But the point is a tweet alerted her to the possibilities found at the school.

Within a year applications to the school were up, marketing costs were down considerably and everything, as the saying goes, was pretty much peachy creamy.

The competition responds

By the start of the next academic year every school in Stockholm seemed to have a blog, a Facebook Page, a Twitter account and a lavish video made by a local ad agency.  All the schools — and their ad agencies were following our lead and jumping on the bandwagon. It represented a new revenue stream for the agencies of course.  Two months later I would see one school giving away badges with the familiar  Facebook “Like” icon on at the annual Stockholm schools recruitment fair.

With the market increasingly competitive and the school looking to invest in books and the building rather than even more marketing, we looked at different solutions. In the end, having spent a decade as a full-time university lecturer I decided to accept the school’s offer to run a Communications class this academic year with the brief to get students involved in the social media campaign. Essentially, they were to be my team of marketing interns.

… and the students take over!

I jumped at the chance to experience what 18-19 year olds were up to, but I quickly discovered they didn’t have a clue about brand personas, integrated marketing campaigns, business blogs or the power of Facebook as a marketing tool. So we started out listening to an array of internet marketing podcasts, reading business blogs and immersing ourselves in content marketing and social media strategy.

Sure, the students’ first blog posts and ventures into podcasting weren’t spectacular but very quickly they were producing material that could be published and included in the school’s online presence. Seizing on this I set up a project where they were required to produce material ahead of the first of three annual Open Houses that are the school’s key recruitment events.

Equipped with cameras, digital recorders and a sense of enthusiasm that I personally find hard to muster when it comes to trying to get people to talk on camera, off they went.

The results were spectacular:

The students promoted their efforts across their social media profiles and I chipped in with a bit of blogging on the school website.

We watched and waited with baited breath to see our results.

It’s All About Creativity & the Network

A rough poll taken in the class showed that on average each student had 450 Facebook “friends”. No wonder word of mouth spread quickly. Teens aren’t just connected to teens their age. Brothers and sisters, relatives and so on, follow each other’s Walls.

And we seeing BIG results.  On an extremely cold January evening just after Christmas over 700 prospective students came along to Open House to find out about the school. This was double the figure for the same event the previous year. The school auditorium was so full the principal had to give her introductory welcome speech a second time.

Having grasped the value of showing and not just telling, the students recorded this event to show prospective students ahead of the April Open House just what it’s like to visit the school.

Applications to the school doubled this year and the grade-point average for applicants is considerably higher than last year. Sure, some of this has to do with the commitment of the staff and school management, as well as the efforts of my company to help them along; however, 20 communications students are responsible for a massive portion of this success.

I’m in awe of what they’ve helped the school achieve.

A Few Observations by the Old Guy

I understand how marketing works and I think I have a pretty good understanding of social media. Sharing these skills seemed to set off a spark in these teens and they jumped onboard the social media train with enthusiam rarely seen in a company environment where people are PAID to be enthusiastic!

With passion and dedication they created content that didn’t just impress me, it made me sit up and really take notice. It also struck a chord with their peers, who to judge by the numbers preferred the school’s low-fi 2 minute videos to the glossy 5 minute clips other schools had invested in.

To the students’ credit, the results of this “experiment” were so much better than I dared imagine that the principal has asked me to come back and run the same course with another group in the fall.

Thinking about it now I can see that the experience has taught me an important lesson that all of us working in business should remember: if you can inspire your employees to become an active part of your social media marketing campaign you can reach new goals.

These kids were extremely busy just like your employees, juggling lots of tasks throughout the year. However with a bit of planning (thanks Basecamp!) and training they were able to create content and execute the strategy we’d discussed.

Transfer that kind of approach to your software company, your airline, your food store, your agency or corporation and you can see the possibilities. Just as my students proudly shared their efforts with their network, so will your people help your business reach new people.

Getting the social media content creation out of the hands of your professional marketers and into the hands of the people actually doing the job in your business will have far reaching benefits.

These students were not just involved. They were IGNITED. What are the implications for your own business?

Jon Buscall <>  runs Stockholm-based digital communications agency Jontus Media. He blogs at Oh, and he has five <>basset hounds!

All posts

  • Very inspiring. Agree 100% that it makes a difference when employees/team are inspired to work for you and not forced to. Jobs then become careers. If an organization could just get an ounce of this energy and drive infused in their social media or business as a whole they can surely make waves. We talk about the Apple cult – their cult of employees and customers however, are indeed IGNITED.

  • This is a very timely post for me. I think I am about to have a similar very much smaller scale experience not too dissimilar, and you have put me on “alert” mode so I will begin to understand what is happening. There is a certain ignition, and the contagious variety started by an Intern I hired to help me move our NPO to the next level this summer (FB,blogging, twitter and more) She hasn’t stated yet (exams and all that) but I appear to have two more volunteer interns willing and able to help. And that’s only part of what seems to be brewing……..  I cant really quite put my finger on it all but suspect that somewhere someplace mountains will be moved…..

    I really loved how your expertise was used and enhanced to bring about such commendable results and especially against all the traditional agencies. I can really understand how thrilled MarK is to be meeting you in person this week and I hope I get the opportunity to do so one day.

  • Jon, I’m so glad you shared this story. I am so impressed! You really harnessed the power of those students.

    I asked Mark (I think) to hug you for me!

  • This is a really impressive story, Jon! I’m very interested in early business and entrepreneurship education, and this is a real testament to what can be achieved when it is done right. I enjoyed reading it!

    Mark, thanks for hosting it here, it was a treat to read! 🙂

  • Thanks
    for info.

  • Very cool! It’s great to see young people getting involved like that as well. 

  • Thanks @dannyiny:disqus I appreciate your comment. They were a lot of fun to work with and very inspiring.

  • Cheers Jenn! Mark got the dates wrong so we’re actually meeting on Saturday !!

  • It sounds like you’ve got a really exciting project of your own on the go. 

    Personally, I think a lot of the success the students achieved was through their commitment to being creative and trying things out, tweaking and then trying again. 

    Nice to *meet* you here on Mark’s blog :=)

  • Engaging the community (employees) is extremely important to the success of the project. I often speak at conferences and you get that initial burst of energy from attendees but it’s taken that enthusiasm and sustaining it throughout. Only then can social media really catch fire.

  • What a neat post, @jonbuscall:disqus and I’m jealous that Mark is meeting your basset hounds! Congrats on using SM so effectively. I think @shanan_s:twitter  would be very interested in this as well, she too works in SM in an academic environment. 

  • Great story. I am already thinking about how we can use this type of energy to fuel innovation and creativity for product management – and not just internally. Thank you for sharing!

  • What an AWESOME story and case study! Congrats to you, John and to the students for pulling off a flawless execution of social media marketing done right! Ignited, indeed!  I can tell you just love working with them and they with you – the results show that.  It’s fun when people get excited about a project – these kids apparently ‘lit’ up! thanks for sharing…powerful story!

  • “Sustaining it” – and therein lies the challenge Jon. I advocate getting an SM champion to drive and focus on re-igniting the fire. Even with that if the c-suite is not on board the train will only chug along.  Sustainability, such a present challenge that plagues us all whether SM or another project. You’re so right

  • I’m jealous too! Sigh…

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  • Oh, I’d love to hear more about how you get on. Keep in touch! 

  • Ha! I think the woofs would devour Mark in slobber !!! I’m not sure I’ll have room to take them into the city. Especially given where I’m planning to take Mark :=) 

  • Thanks Erica ! It WAS amazing. They were so creative and committed to getting results, but mostly it was the creativity that they shone at. Excitement is so important to any marketing project.

  • Anonymous

    Great success story Jon. Enjoyed the video too. I’m looking forward to at least one great article as a result of two of my favorite bloggers and marketing minds meeting for the first time in person. Tell our globe-trotting friend Mr. Schaefer hello for all of us in this {grow} group hard at work today! 🙂

  • Wow! Just WOW, Jon. I love this and it shows that we can over complicate to the point of standing still and doing nothing. Outstanding work, love your kids, I am sharing this with a few of my friends in the education system here in Canada. Cheers! km

  • Bravo, Jon, what a fantastic laboratory you created! Those kids got the kind of real life education that most high schoolers can only dream of. I remember having that kind of passion being on a high school newspaper staff–but all we could do back then was practice putting out a newspaper. We may have affected our readers, but your gang changed the very world they’re living in–their peers. This really is instructive. It proves just how PRACTICAL it can be for anyone, with any background, to learn to use social media to do great things.

  • Heh, where are you planning to take Mark?! Please make sure you send him back, we like having him around. 🙂

  • Very cool story….and yes, very timely. Kids in our district could learn alot!

  • The great thing is that I’ve been asked to continue the project next academic year with a new group. It’s only 1 hour X 2 a week but I’m excited about what we can achieve. 

    @markwschaefer The students really didn’t get Twitter so much so we’re going to have to get some copies of your book  for required reading.

  • Like you I was the newspaper guy in high school. Gosh, all that cut and paste ! I’m envious of the possibilities but as I said to @leowid in a podcast i recorded being “the old guy” gives you a unique view point because we really straddle two academic traditions and cultural epochs. I like having an old world view on social media combined with my interest in life-long learning about IT and communication.

  • Cheers  Billy! I feel the pressure now to come up with a cool post :=) 

    Mark got his dates wrong so I’m seeing him on Saturday. Looking forward to it. 

  • Wow, very interesting. I love the fact that you created a transition period for the school to eventually take on the role themselves – which is what they are supposed to do (and does it better) anyway. Companies should learn from this simple example – getting their employees to be a part of what’s happening together or like what you’ve said better – IGNITED. Great article! 

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Would be happy to help Jon!

  • Love the story Jon! I think as you explained everyone has access to the same platforms. It is the content, the stories and the people that are the competitive advantage. That is why I get so furious and aggressive towards most Social Media Gurus, Bloggers, Agencies, Book Writers, Mashables etc. They pretty much lie to people to make money. I have been to the local Social Media Club Breakfasts and seen non-Marketing people being most of the attendees all thinking there is a one size fits all holy grail. And they can rattle off the same authors and speakers and also their failures.

    Your case study also proves why most big companies will never move big sales needles using social. It is personal. You would need an army of people to move and army. But if I don’t need to move and army one person or a few can move enough people for success.

  • Great job! I hope this spreads

  • Thank you for sharing Jon!

    It’s a very inspiring case study and I hope to be able to transfer your findings to my current cases. 

  • Susan Borst

    I love this, Mark.  There’s so much buzz about how “bad” social media can be for youth…this shows how it can be put to good use (and also the benefits of creativity and collaboration.)  The kids must be very proud! You, too!

  • I think this is one of my all-time favorite posst. How can you not love this? : )

  • Such a great story! It is all about the passion. 

  • Mark

    Thanks Brittany!

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  • Just coming back to get the link Mark. I can’t believe how many times this post has been shared and tweeted. Amazing !

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