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Engagement Tips from the Influencer’s Playbook

With the rapid rise of Instagram Reels and viral TikToks, students are often “plugged in” for hours socializing but struggling to focus in online learning environments. What is the perceived difference between the two? Influence and value. We know education is valuable, but what gives social media the influencing advantage? A social media “influencer” is someone with a large following of people and the ability to impact trends and purchases. This person has created a sense of value for their posts and can even earn an income from networking and collaborating with other brands. 

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Believe it or not, social media influencers and online educators have a lot in common: they each want to draw in and engage a targeted audience online, but they also have to work within data-driven “rules” to make their desired impact. Instead of resisting social media’s influence on our current culture, here are a few online engagement tips borrowed from the Influencer’s playbook that can outlast any trend.

Diversify your media

A quick peek at any social media platform’s feed will give you a sense of what the influencer enjoys sharing and the kind of work they do. This will vary based on a few factors, but you will most likely notice a few commonalities: consistency and media. Unfortunately, quality content alone isn’t enough to attract an audience or encourage engagement. How that content is presented to the intended audience matters as much as the content itself. In fact, some of the content that goes viral isn’t always what you’d expect. With the rise of TikTok and other quick bursts of video content, it has become clear that the average audience expects to engage with shorter bursts of media, and many prefer to watch video clips (with subtitles) than to only scroll past photos or read lengthy captions.

This tells us that the medium matters. How content is presented and delivered will make a difference in its impact and desirability. This is true in course design as well. Simply being a content expert won’t cut it when it comes to implementing it into the course--not if you want students to care and engage with the information. Consider what content you are trying to share and the best medium to engage and educate your students. Perhaps a short video would be more effective than a long page of text. Consider a video demonstration of your slide deck to create value rather than linking the deck without context. In some cases, podcasts may be a great way to share information with an understanding that your students are often on the go, multitasking. Consider bringing students into the fun with a tool like Yellowdig or FlipGrid that incorporates social media trends and user data to drive their functionality.

Increase your presence

One of the most common suggestions social media and brand coaches encourage is to “show your face.” These experts assert that a shift from passive scrolling to active engagement on these platforms requires making yourself real and relatable to the audience to create an environment of trust. Followers want to feel like they know the influencer they’re following--and could possibly mimic them and become influential as well. Coaches recommend sharing behind the scenes, video summaries of what you’re working on, how-to videos, your favorite workflow tools, but also more relatable tidbits like where you enjoy shopping, eating, what you’re watching lately, and other aspects of your life that make you more approachable. The more an influencer shares, the more access points they have to reach a myriad of followers.

Multitasking between phone and computer in online class

In the classroom, particularly in an online format, instructor presence is key to trying to connect with students in a distance learning environment. We encourage welcome videos, video and text announcements, and more engagement across discussion activities to show students that a real person is guiding their course. We’ve all heard students complain about their course being on “auto-pilot” or “taught by the textbook,” even though we know that’s not true. In other words, students felt like they were alone in the course, not guided by their instructor or peers in a meaningful way. A personal connection creates a sense of community and has the ability to ease anxieties by establishing a feeling of trust and connection in an otherwise disconnected online environment. You don’t have to share all of your personal information, but consider creating opportunities to be real to your students--and give them the space to be real with you as well.

Innovate your planning

The amount of work that influencers put into their brand is astonishing. From the time spent planning their feeds, creating and editing their videos, to writing captions, and deciding on color palettes and song selections--the list goes on. To be consistent with the narrative of their brand and chosen medium requires planning and organization. Many influencers reach a certain point where they have to pay for services and assistants to manage their content creation and distribution. In other words, influencing a large audience online requires commitment and work.

When it comes to enhancing your course to incorporate some of these key elements, you may need to seek the help of instructional designers and colleagues. Ultimately, there are a few basic tips that can get you started:
  • Plan. Organize your content into a document. Planning out in advance what you want to share in an announcement or instructor videos will help keep you on track and avoid duplicate information.
  • Practice. Instead of diving in headfirst, try something small and see how it goes. Consider posting a video announcement once a week about what is happening in the world that relates to the content of the course.
  • Collaborate. Networking is key to building a brand of value and trust. Ask what your colleagues are finding success in their course. Consider reaching out to a faculty in a different program to discuss opportunities to brainstorm.

Survey your audience

Trends are trendy because one person did it first, then others followed suit. You don’t always have to create the wheel or try very innovative things. To truly engage an audience, you just have to demonstrate the value to them and meet them where they are. Consider surveying your students at the start of the semester to get to know them better, then build in that information into your announcements or videos. You can work from the same template every semester and then make small updates in the text around your videos or by populating placeholders based on what you learned from your survey. Then, at the end of the course, consider surveying students a final time with questions about how they felt your presence contributed to their experience.


“A trend is the beginning of a new direction, taking a turn or a twirl or a twist to something that already exists. It starts something new and then over time, will become more normal before something else will become a trend.“ (Anja Bisgaard Gade) Trends always change (and even come back), but they are often just new layers on top of foundational commonalities that we share. Whether it’s a desire to feel connected to what we do or the very real need to mix up how we engage with the world, there are key elements that make trends trend. As virtual education and entertainment grow, we have the opportunity to collect data and see how we can use real-world influences to make online learning experiences even more valuable.


Image of Taylor O'Kelley (post-author)
Taylor O’Kelley, M.Ed., is an instructional designer with ASU Online and the Learning Experience and Student Success team, supporting large-scale initiatives of future learning spaces.



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