Words of Wisdom from 100 Tech Savvy Students

Congratulations to Erin Callahan and Nick Jensen from NYU on their Red Stapler presentation in the Technology in Education track!

View the presentation slides.
Session Details

Taken right from NYU’s culture code, Erin explained that “we are a startup here to delight students.”

Last spring, Erin and her team asked students “What significant opportunity within student engagement, social media, or communications do we not know about, and why do we need to know it?” They also asked students to rate their “tech savvy-ness” on a scale of 1-4. All the answers from the self-identified “3” or “4”s were considered, and the answers were surprising.

Students first wanted better branding. NYU looked at major brands such as Apple, Disney, Starbucks, and American Express as a way to create a unified brand for their large institution. To discover what it was that students associated with NYU’s brand, Erin and Nick looked to Twitter for advice. Tweets ranged from “I’ve seen vacuums that suck less than NYU wifi” to “I’ve gotten 7 emails from NYU today. Stop.” These complaints and calls for help online can be used as a means of building trust between institutions and students, but every time the wifi is down or a printer is broken, brand trust is lost.

Your undergraduate institution is a hundred thousand dollar brand for life. Let’s start focusing on our brand and make it worth it, shall we?

Students and teenagers are more likely to rant via text, tweet it, or post it to Facebook than call the institution directly to complain. The question we have to ask ourselves then, is “are we listening?”

Step one, engage with the good. And step two is the same – engage with the bad. All of those posts and tweets that talk about bad wifi, broken printers, or gross food may be resolved with a simple response with a resource back. Engagement isn’t rocket science, and it’s not a flow chart, either. Students (well, all people) crave human interaction, which can be easily done by favoriting tweets, or quickly replying. You never know, it may make someone’s day.

Importantly, the tech savvy students noted that they felt as though they weren’t included in communication. Erin sited an example of working with international students – on the surface, bringing greeters to the airport as international students landed in JFK sounds like a great idea. But, domestic students argued, “well, what about us?” and international students felt babied. Incorporate students, but do it before you build a campaign or use a communication strategy.

By using social media, the communications team learned that NYU students were discouraged about the lack of conversation about sexual assault and consent on campus. The team took this information and ran with it, producing a video about consent in just about 72 hours. Watch that video and remind yourself that students created it. By bringing on 12 interns, Erin boasts that content is written exclusively by them with the guidance of the four full time staff members at NYU. It’s an exciting way to involve students, and they’re taught three things when they start working for the department:

Be real. Be smart. Be nice.

Listening to students has proven to be important at NYU. Through a variety of Hackathons, students were directly involved in creating a multiple apps that helped with clubs and organizations, as well as a better way to navigate the library. Without students, it wouldn’t be possible.

Erin then explained NYU’s use of crowdsourcing photos on Tumblr. Every student is very excited to have their photos and information posted, which is no surprise. Students’ work is also crowdsourced on This is NYU, showcasing things that are happening at all of the campus sites around the world. Now, prospective students, parents, current students, and alumni have a place to go to learn about NYU in that moment.

Students also encouraged the communications team to better understand what it means to be a student. Teens tackle 6-7 tasks simultaneously, on average, thanks to technology. Unsurprisingly, students are 40 times more likely to sign up for text alerts than email alerts. Teens like texting, and have moved away from email. This is an important piece of behavior to better understand how to communicate with current students.

Students are constantly on sites such as Instagram and Twitter because of “FOMO” – fear of missing out. Following someone on Twitter or Instagram also lets students be “seen watching,” as Nick explained. The culture of communication has shifted, which means that communication with students should shift, too.

The NYU team is looking to work with departments such as health and counseling to train them to better support students via options other than face to face or phone calls. “If they can provide that support on the phone, they can learn to do it in a text.” It’s important to remember design and tone when talking to students, too. Poor design or usability is instantly ridiculed by the student population, and the message gets lost. The team was tasked with redesigning the website related to sexual assault resources, and by using their direct suggestions, a beautiful and useful site was created that was easy to use – especially for a not-so-easy topic.

All of these specific things worked for NYU, but it’s important to look back at your own university and understand your own audience. By shrinking the psychological size of your university, it makes communication much more manageable and less overwhelming. Students at NYU wanted to learn about their President, but it’s impossible to gather every NYU student across the world and put them in one room. To combat this, NYU’s president became more involved in their social strategy. He joined Instagram and showcased “a day in the life,” finally mastering the selfie, but more importantly, shrinking the psychological size of NYU using social media.

When using social media, Erin and Nick advise to tread cautiously into new territory. Even though students are asking for NYU on Vine, the team does not have the expertise or man power to maintain a robust account. A big part of social media is understanding your limits.

To close, Erin left us with one final tidbit of wisdom: When in doubt, baby animal gifs.