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How to Reach Freshmen Through Social Media

July 22, 2020

The pandemic has pushed us online. As a college ministry worker, you may be feeling disappointment or frustration that your way of doing ministry has been essentially shut down.  For us at Christian Challenge CSU, Chico, many of our strategies no longer work, such as tabling on campus, which has served as our primary method of getting student contact information. With all of this outreach being lost, and the need for the Gospel on campus feeling just as urgent in this time of crisis, it can begin to feel like this upcoming Fall semester is being thrown away. But just because we can’t rely on our old ways of doing ministry doesn’t mean we are stuck. We have to adapt ourselves and our ways of thinking, and reach out to the students where they are at. We ask ourselves, “Where is the optimal place to reach students during this national and global crisis?”. Social media remains the top medium for influence and impact from a ministry lens during this time.

Social media is something that, from this point forward, will always be important in college ministry. Students of today live and breathe online interactions, to the point where having “internet friends” is completely normal. You practically don’t exist if they can’t find you in a Google search, or if your pages haven’t been updated in months. It’s important to have fresh and attractive looking content, and to have it in the right places.

The platform to be on now is Instagram. It’s been the main outlet for students to find and develop relationships with other students. However, they’re more likely to shy away from “official” campus online interactions, such as a campus Zoom call, or official campus Instagram pages, because they may feel like the organization is being disingenuous. They’re more likely to engage with unofficial campus life social pages, which we can take advantage of.

Students are constantly looking for an intentional, real, and relaxed experience. If you can create this through your social media, whether that be your ministry’s main page or a Freshman focused page, you will be able to build a following and cultivate an online follow-up system that will help your ministry connect with students and grow regardless of the limitations the pandemic puts on us.

Here are three ways to bolster your social media presence to become an effective outreach tool that will continue to be useful even after the pandemic clears up.

1. Understand the audience of your ministry’s social media page

One of the most important aspects of starting or updating your ministry’s social media account is understanding your audience, their needs, and how you can fulfill those needs. “College students” is a broad answer when it comes to the audience. Try to think about whether your content is primarily for Christian students, whether you are focusing on attracting non-Christians, or both! The answer to your audience lies in your ministry’s mission strategy and vision. Our ministry’s Instagram aims to attract two audiences with the content we upload: Christian students looking for a Christian club, and, non-Christian students looking for a campus community to plug into. On the other hand, Freshman Connect has a more specific audience, focusing on connecting incoming freshmen with the campus and introducing them to Christian friends.

Once you have an audience in mind, the next step is to understand their needs. College students have a lot of struggles that come with being new to adulthood. When our Social Team created our Freshman Connect Instagram profile (our main form of outreach for incoming freshmen this fall), we knew that students would be struggling with isolation and disappointment. They are looking for community and help navigating the online college experience. And in meeting those needs, we get an opportunity to meet their ultimate need: Jesus in their lives!

Once you have your audience in mind, it’s important to figure out what will attract students to your social media. What separates you from everyone else trying to get students involved? For our Freshman Connect page, we decided to push individual connections with each new student that follows us, cultivating friendships both online and in person. This has helped us stand out among other freshmen-oriented groups and social media pages.

Something to note is that your audience’s needs might change over time. Before the pandemic, our main social page focused on the experience students were having in our club, with pictures of events, guest speakers, and people connecting relationally. Recently, however, we realized that students were looking for comfort during this time. We changed the focus of our content, and started sharing encouraging verses, devotionals, live videos from staff and student leaders, and more that helped us meet these new needs.

2. Provide proof of the campus experience on social media by creating content based on information, engagement, and encouragement

When you’re ready to start developing content, one of the main things you’ll want to show is proof of the campus experience. Develop a large photo bank filled with pictures of students in your group having fun, smiling, hanging out at events, etc. These are the things that people want to see when they look for a group to join or a community to plant themselves in.

Even though our university is online, many students are still planning on moving to Chico. They want to start their adult lives, and they crave community. With Freshman Connect, we created a space for freshmen to get a taste of Chico State’s community by creating themed content, such as, “Ask a Senior How to Succeed in Online Classes”, and, “A Virtual Campus Tour”. I’ll break down each of these briefly, explaining what they are and how they contribute to the goals in Part 1.

  • The “Ask a Senior Series” features various Seniors in our ministry answering questions that Freshmen send in that relate to success in their first year of college. It helps us feel more personal, and the advice less generic.
  • “How to Succeed in Online Classes” fills the need of connecting with a common campus experience. Online-only classes are a new experience for many students, and providing help creates buy-in and interest.
  • The virtual campus tour uses the Instagram stories function, and we do a small guided tour of various points of interest on the campus. We had a couple photo shoots to help us accomplish this. This doubles as a great way to be intentional with students in your ministry and help them be involved in outreach. They’ll be excited to contribute to the advancement of your social presence, and they also understand the importance of good quality pictures on Instagram.

We have found that pictures with faces on our Freshman Connect page get at least twenty-seven more likes than our other posts. People looking at the posts on the Freshman page are looking for that personal experience and seeing stories about other people tend to bring in more interaction. Another great way to boost engagement is to take advantage of Instagram’s interactive components you can add to a post, such as questions and polls.

When organizing our photos and content for posts, we use Google Drive and Buffer. Google Drive helps us share files, photos, videos, and graphics with everyone on the Social Media Team. We want everyone to feel like they have what they need to be successful with their projects for either of our social pages. Buffer is used to plan out posts and post series’ that we do throughout the week. This allows everyone to schedule out posts weeks in advance. They can also see when and what others are posting so that it’s consistent, with no gaps of content. This frees us up for our other tasks during the week without having to worry about getting a post out on time.

It also frees you up to do more with Instagram Stories, which can’t be automated without paying a premium for Buffer. Doing something with your story will take your page to another level and boost overall page interaction. The Virtual Campus Tour, asking fun questions and posting responses, and sharing posts from other campus related accounts are great examples of using stories to your advantage when it comes to being interactive.

3. Find the people and follow them

One of the harder parts of social media outreach is getting your audience to notice your page when you are starting from little to no following. Luckily, there are options for you to find students on other pages, and gain access to them that way. Your campus probably has an Instagram page for incoming Freshmen and transfers! These pages are usually organized by the year they will be graduating, for example, “ChicoStateClassof2024.” When you find these pages, you will want to start following the students. With this approach, we’ve managed to get over 460 followers on Freshman Connect in less than two months!

We like to think of following a student on Instagram like passing out a flyer or survey with a student on campus. When they follow you back on Instagram, you can think of that as equivalent to them checking an “I’m Interested” box or showing up at an event. They want to hear more about you!

With our social media pages, Freshman Connect and Challenge CSUC, we wanted to figure out a way to follow up with any students who showed interest. For Freshman Connect, we want to connect these students with our core team student leaders. This would help make sure that these new Freshmen would quickly have the opportunity to get connected with a community, the gospel, and Challenge. We decided to call this “Coffee Meetups.” Each Freshman who followed our page was sent a direct message on Instagram, which included a link to a Google Form for them to put in their name, major, and if they prefer a zoom or in-person meetup. The text looked like this:

“Hi! Congratulations on graduating high school this year! We are so excited to welcome you to the Chico State Wildcats and are looking forward to when we all get to be in person again. We are excited to announce a new way for you to connect with current students we are calling Coffee Meetups! We’ll pair you with a current student to talk about college, Chico State social life, or anything else, and you can get a free Starbucks coffee on us! To participate, fill out this short questionnaire below, and we will try to pair you with someone with a similar major or interest! These meetings can be done online over Zoom or in-person if you’re in Chico! It’s never too early to start making friends. Let’s go Wildcats!”

We then picked ten girls and ten guys from our leadership team who would handle follow up and buy them a cup of coffee. We currently have forty-five freshmen and counting interested in meeting up with students for coffee in order to learn more about Chico State and what it is like being in College. We have had about nine meetings so far and have many more set up later in the summer/ closer to when the semester starts. I created a leader guide for our student leaders to help them navigate these meetings once they start.

For our club’s main Instagram page, we wanted a much quicker way to the Gospel, since our club is advertised as Christian, so we decided on “Challenge Meetups.” We sent every new student that followed our page a message through the Instagram direct messaging that looked like this:

“Hi! Thank you for your interest in Christian Challenge at Chico State and Butte College! We are a community-driven Christian club, and we would love to set up a time to meet with you and tell you more about how you can get connected! Fill out the form below, and we will have one of our leaders reach out to you and set up a time to get to know you better and share what our club is all about!”

These have been a great success! I have personally met with two girls through this follow-up initiative and both have accepted Jesus to be their Lord and Savior! I have been meeting with them weekly through Zoom and plan to meet in person when they come to Chico State in the Fall or Spring. One of these girls shared with me that one of her friends was struggling with God and she shared with her what we went over in our meeting and her friend came to Christ! Now I am not only sharing with her how to grow her own relationship but I am also walking her through how to share and guide her friend! She is already reproducing and starting to understand discipleship only one week after dedicating her life to Christ! None of this would have happened if we hadn’t reached out to her over Instagram, gave her the chance to say yes to pursuing us through following us back, and sent her a message giving her the opportunity to learn more and meet with us personally. She is now on her way to becoming a disciple maker!

So far we have seen about eleven Freshmen pray to receive Christ this summer through Freshman Connect’s Coffee Meetups and the Challenge Meetups! It has been so encouraging to see how God is using our steps of obedience to change lives. The mission is not canceled! God is still moving and changing hearts even if it looks a little different and takes a few more steps than what we are used to.

In order to reach students this Fall, we need to learn how to adapt and change our methodology to ensure that our primary goal is being achieved: sharing the Gospel. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, so as workers we need to be doing all we can to tend to the harvest. Our plans may have changed, but God is not surprised by this pandemic. As it says in Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Hold tight to this notion as outreach initiatives succeed and fail. God has a plan and a purpose in all of this and He will guide you through the ups and downs of this season.

Hannah has been on Staff with Christian Challenge at California State University, Chico since Fall of 2019, after graduating from the university with her degree in Journalism. She focuses on social media content, photography, video editing, singing in the worship band, helping Challenge’s international student outreach, and various writing projects. She serves alongside her husband, Noah, and is so blessed to be working with him to advance God’s Kingdom!