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This University is Using TikTok for Recruitment and School Pride
I spoke with Celeste Velazco, social media specialist at the University of Florida, about engaging prospective and current students on TikTok.
If you think about it, colleges and universities are basically set up to succeed on TikTok. They already have a mascot—a tool many brands have tried to replicate after Duolingo’s success. Their young target audience is most likely already using (and very engaged on) the app. And there’s a built in level of pride and fandom.
Still, there are only a few schools that have amassed the following on the app that the University of Florida has.
For this week’s newsletter I spoke with Celeste Velazco, social media specialist at the University of Florida, about higher education social strategies, the student TikTok team that helps them create content, and how they convince UF’s President to be in videos.
Rachel Karten: First, can you tell me about your current role and any past social (or not!) roles you've had?
Celeste Velazco: I'm the social media specialist in the office of Strategic Marketing and Communications at the University of Florida. This is my first social media job after graduating from UF. But as an undergrad, I was a marketing and social media intern for a couple of university departments, so I’ve been familiar with the UF brand for a while. In this role, I manage the university's main, verified social media accounts on all platforms and wear many hats: copywriting, content creation, listening and engagement, issues management, data analysis, and more.
RK: Talk to me about running UF's TikTok? How would you describe your strategy?
CV: TikTok is where we focus on our students, current and prospective, so we’ve moved to having this content really be driven by students. We do our best to tap into trending moments and audio while understanding that we're a public institution. Being a verified business account makes it harder to jump on trends or use specific sounds, but that’s an industry-wide struggle. It’s also a delicate balance between being professional yet relatable for our audience.
We aim to put our own spin on trends—and avoid doing the “expected” take from a university. There’s a lot of trial and error of course, but we've been successful so far, so I’m excited to see how our account progresses. We're also trying to incorporate more of our research and artificial intelligence efforts into the app and present it in a way that sparks student interest.
RK: What does the structure of the team look like?
CV: Our social media team is made up of two professional staff members: me and the lead of our social operation, Fairen Horner, UF Associate Director of Marketing and Communications. Within our department, we also have content support from writers, photographers/videographers, and other creatives.
For TikTok, I lead a team of five students, our inaugural student TikTok team, who help brainstorm ideas and create a lot of content. Working together, we’ve been able to better engage with our audience in a relatable and non-cringey way.
RK: Can you tell me a little more about the student TikTok team? Did they apply? Are they compensated? That’s a really smart idea.
CV: Since Instagram Stories is one of our most popular tools, we put out a call via a poll to gauge student interest. When the response was overwhelmingly positive, we sent out a short application form where students could share examples of their best TikToks, along with a few other details.
We reviewed the 50+ applicants, including the social accounts they shared and content created, set up virtual interviews with ten, and narrowed them down to a team of five—fitting for a top-five university.
They have diverse interests, skill sets, majors, and backgrounds, which makes for a strong team. They work on some projects individually, but as a team, they’re able to collaborate on videos where they need more support with production.
These students are compensated for each project—they are excited to have this experience to add to their resume and we’re excited to have their perspective, so it’s wins all around. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to meet them in person yet, but I hear that some of them have run into each other on campus—which is funny and adorable because they get so excited to see their teammates IRL. We look forward to meeting them IRL, as well, and continuing to create great content!
RK: I love that. And what does the approval process look like for TikToks?
CV: TikTok is the only platform where anyone other than Fairen and I post content, but we’re the final stamp of approval before that happens. We meet with our student team weekly to discuss what’s happening on all of our FYPs, which is extremely helpful for building a broad and diverse understanding of trends. Once we brainstorm with them, we assign concepts—whether trending or original—based on interests and skills. After that, there’s a lot of communication and collaboration on the production, edits, copy, etc. We provide feedback and work closely with them every step of the way.
Since trends move so quickly, sometimes there’s no time to waste, so we will run out and create content ourselves.
RK: How do you use the TikTok account to engage with current students?
CV: We create content specific to the Gator experience. The goal is for students to relate to our videos because they're either experiencing these moments, have experienced them, or can’t wait to. This is why it’s crucial to have students involved in the process, helping to create content for their peers. We also engage with almost all relevant comments and any videos where we’re tagged. In addition to this, we seek out videos related to UF that we aren’t tagged on to interact with and make them aware of our presence. Ultimately, it's not only about the content we create, but also about those digital relationships we build and maintain.
RK: And how do you use the TikTok account to engage with future students?
CV: Our content gets people excited about the university, regardless of their affiliation or location—prospective students, current students, alumni, students at peer universities, and more. Campus views, athletics hype, student events, and other content from a Gator POV give prospective UF students a visual of what they have to look forward to. We love seeing those “that’s my dream school” comments because it validates our work and proves that those early connections matter and that social media plays a significant role in the decision-making process.
RK: I love that UF’s President, Kent Fuchs, appears in a good amount of your TikToks. What's the process of getting him on board for ideas like that?
CV: We love working with President Fuchs! He’s a natural and is always willing to try out our unique ideas to engage with Gator Nation. Our team is always thinking about how we can include him in content and make sure that it’s the right fit—only the best for President Fuchs. We’ll storyboard and review with him to share examples of what we’re going for. Since Twitter is his thing, when he has his own ideas for content on that platform, we’ll try to flip to work on TikTok. Oftentimes, we just ask him to be himself or carry on doing “dad things,” like during our recent move-in process. Other times, we’re asking him to put a pumpkin on his head. The important part is that our audience enjoys seeing him on social.
RK: What's a post you've done that you're particularly proud of?
CV: One of our students had this amazing idea to put our own spin on the "Krissed trend" by making it "you got Gatored." I had a lot of fun during the creation process but naturally, I was nervous that the video would flop. Thankfully, it didn't, and the student response was great; they couldn't believe their university could prank them on social. The Gatorade account even joined the fun with a comment, so it was a win, for sure. This is a TikTok I will always look back to because it successfully encompasses the platform's culture.
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RK: What do you love about working in social media, particularly within higher education?
CV: Honestly, it’s the interactions. Even when I was an undergrad at UF working for different units, I always enjoyed approaching people to ask them about being featured on social and hearing their thoughts. I'm an extrovert, so I truly value these moments. With the central university accounts, people get even more excited to be featured and engage. It's always so rewarding to see how happy students are to be attending this top-five public university and how they’re ready to show that on our social accounts.
RK: What tips do you have for other social professionals who work in or want to work in higher education?
CV: Don't be afraid to explore and try new things. Do the research, observe your peers (but don’t forget to look outside of higher ed for inspiration as well), and brainstorm how you can make trends your own. If it works, it works; and if it doesn't, you move on and keep trying different things. Don't limit yourself to traditional accounts or content just because that's what you've been doing or what you think your followers prefer. I think there's an audience and space for everyone on TikTok, you just need to make yourself known and find your angle.
RK: Are you hopeful about the future of social media?
CV: There’s no doubt social media will continue to evolve and keep us on our toes with an abundance of new features, updates, and platforms. Of course, there’s no way to predict how this will unfold, but that’s what makes this field so exciting. I remember at the beginning of 2020, some industry professionals were arguing that TikTok would be replaced by a different app. Yet, here we are, so who's to say that a new platform won't blow up tomorrow as TikTok did in summer 2020. As social media professionals, we’ll continue to adapt and learn new skills to keep having those valuable interactions with our audiences.
RK: Any final thoughts?
CV: Go Gators!
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