Why social influencers are key to reaching youth audiences

By Maya Le Bozec-McKendry
Senior Marketing Advisor at the Tertiary Education Commission, New Zealand

How do you get young people to break through deeply ingrained, inherited perceptions and see vocational education as something that could lead to a vast array of career options – not  just the ‘trades’ that people commonly associate it with?

It’s a tough question as many people do not understand what Vocational Education & Training (VET) is or the breadth of career opportunities that it offers. On top of this, there is a historic perception of vocational education and training being less desirable than other forms of tertiary education, such as university. This perception has clouded the judgement for many learners and it is why the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) in New Zealand launched a campaign three years ago to raise awareness of Vocational Education & Training.

Why we chose to use social influencers

We wanted to seed the conversation with our audiences prior to the campaign launch so that people started to think about vocational education more broadly, and in doing so gain a better understanding of where it could take them. But as we all know, young people are notoriously hard to reach – they are less likely to access mainstream channels, such as TV and radio, and they’re also ‘wired’ to tune-out messaging from large organisations and Government.

As if reaching young learners wasn’t hard enough already, in 2020 the market was overloaded with government messaging and people were completely pre-occupied with COVID-19.  If we wanted our message to get through to learners, we needed to reach them in a relevant and meaningful way. The challenge was to break through the noise and get people to hear our message.

Our tactic was to use social influencers. Young people connect, engage, and listen to influencers through their preferred social channels. We used these credible voices, who people already followed and listened to, to talk about vocations relevant and meaningful to them, rather than the message coming directly from Government.

Our approach

We strategically chose social influencers who had a strong connection to VET. This was to ensure the messaging would feel genuine and authentic. We didn’t choose big name celebrities, rather opting for ‘real’ people with a high relevance to our subject matter. This meant finding people who had been vocationally trained or were currently undertaking vocational education.

To ensure alignment with the campaign and creative approach, we carefully selected each of the social influencers based on the following criteria:

  1. Connection to VET or their occupation – they needed to be a credible voice for vocational education and training
  2. Audience following – not only did they need to provide significant reach, it was essential that their followers aligned with young people, our key audience
  3. A mix of gender and ethnicity – it was important for the campaign to represent diversity, including our priority audiences of Māori, Pasifika, women and disabled people.

By choosing the right people, the campaign was able to gain traction and credibility in its early phase that it could not have attained without the support of these key social personalities.


The perceived risk in using influencers is that a Government Agency is paying well-known people to share our messages for us. But the value gained from taking an audience-first approach was that we were using people who were already a part of our audience’s existing online community. Our audience already trusted them and looked to them for recommendations on what to consume or consider, so by communicating through them, our message was more likely to have impact/cut-through.

For influencer content to have real, authentic impact, we needed to give the influencer a certain amount of creative freedom. We couldn’t dictate exactly what the end content would look like – neither did we want to. We needed to leave that creativity to the influencer themselves. Influencer selection as well as their creative proposal went through a robust internal approval process and once live, the content was then carefully monitored daily.


We partnered with 6 influencers, to deliver 12 pieces of bespoke content across Instagram, TikTok and Podcasts. They each delivered content on their native platforms, in a variety of formats. Some even incorporated their content into a podcast sponsorship.

This influencer activity reached 155,000 people, and outperformed the industry averages for engagement and click through. Sentiment across all of the content was positive and the majority of comments showed support for the influencers, their choice of vocational study, and thanked them for being inspirational.

Not only was the social influencer activity a huge success when it came to engagement, it was a great example of how ‘hard to reach’ audiences aren’t that hard to reach if you just use the right channels. The engagement was so successful that we’ve continued to use social influencers as part of our channel mix for young learners and the results speak for themselves.

Crucial steps you can take to ensure your work with social influencers is effective:

Engage senior leadership early – there is some risk associated with using influences,
but if you get your leadership team on-side from the beginning, the risks are easy to mitigate.

– Put the time in up front to educate the organisation on the benefit of using social influencers their buy-in is integral to you being able to give influencers creative licence.

– Choose your influencers wisely – when the content goes live, they are representing your brand. Have a think about the political environment and what your non-negotiables are. 

– Your control lies in the brief – be clear about your objective, what your message is and what you want the influencer to communicate. Without it, they’ll go rogue.

– Check your ego at the door – you won’t be able to control every aspect of the content. In fact, the best content happens when you trust the influencer and allow them to put their spin on your message.

– Remember you are not the audience – there will be times that you question the angle that the influencer takes, but they know their audience better than you do. 

>>OECD Career Readiness Project https://www.oecd.org/education/career-readiness/