When it comes to discussing COVID-19 with college students, communications from students might be the best strategy. Such was the mindset of Boston University (BU) leadership, who knew that a safe return to campus in Fall 2020 would partially depend on students embracing new lifestyles in sync with health and safety guidelines.
To meet this need, our diverse team of BU students created a public health campaign that is provocative with a purpose. Introducing F*ck It Won’t Cut It, a multiplatform student-to-student campaign that emphasizes our inability to say “F-it” to the precautions that protect ourselves and our community.
Thus, our goals are to inform BU undergraduates about best public health and safety practices and to inspire students to make changes to their behavior on- and off-campus. To best measure our success, our main objective was to keep students safely at Boston University for the entire Fall 2020 semester. In a nutshell, we hoped our content and initiatives would inspire safe behavior that keeps cases down, which consequently keeps students on campus. We sought to accomplish these objectives by creating an engaging and share-worthy campaign, a movement that students can understand, support and embrace for the betterment of the whole community.
F*ck It Won’t Cut It is a bold approach that breaks through the noise of routine COVID-19 communications and shows that young adults take the pandemic seriously, evidenced by the fact that we achieved our objective of allowing students to healthily stay on BU's campus for the full semester.
Prior to launching the campaign in August 2020, we conducted focus groups and secondary research to understand what BU students were thinking. Our three focus groups reflected diverse BU populations, largely from the Generation Z demographic, where we learned how students felt about protocols and what they need from a COVID-19 safety campaign. Later, we conducted a survey featuring 160 respondents, which we used to better understand what students need to know about COVID-19 after the rush of move-in. Through research, we also found that 57% of Gen Z-ers reported feeling very concerned about COVID-19, and they are highly susceptible to peer influence on social media.
Our team compiled these findings to form the backbone of the campaign. It needed to be unapologetically honest to earn students’ attention and trust, which is why we picked up on the “F-it” phrase that is so deeply embedded in young adults’ language to discuss taboo topics, like sex, drugs, COVID testing and partying, that are at the intersection of college life and the pandemic.
Regarding its implementation, F*ck It Won’t Cut It is a colorful, bold campaign. The graphics are decorated with illustrated doodles, sticker-like designs and witty remarks, alluding to the conversational nature of the student-run campaign. The copy is written like a friend giving advice, so it is human, authentic and far from institutional. While we present a mixture of messages, our overall tone is funny, relatable, ironic, raw and short-form.
The campaign takes over the social space, with Instagram as the primary platform and TikTok and Twitter as supporters. Instagram posts range from witty one-liners that remind students of protocols, to infographics with real-world advice. Posts cover topics such as mask-wearing, social life, safer sex, marijuana, mental health, dorm life, testing and takeout food. We also share Instagram story “B.S. Meters” that bust popular COVID-19 myths that circulate among students.
To stop students in their tracks, the campaign extends beyond the social atmosphere with print and digital signage in academic buildings, sports fields, dorm bathrooms and elevators. The notable BU bus is even wrapped with a large campaign sticker, reading, “If you aren’t wearing a mask, I won’t pick you up.”
Additionally, a team of 50+ student Brand Ambassadors spreads the campaign message by handing out campaign swag (like t-shirts, stickers and cups) outside of testing centers, creating original TikToks and conducting secondary research to support content.
Proactive media relations is also essential in sharing the campaign story. Prior to launch, our team participated in media training and developed internal documents for key messaging, pitching and Q&A. Our student team has appeared on broadcast, print, and radio news in outlets ranging from The Boston Globe to CNN to Politico, among others.
While it is easy to be excited by thousands of followers or press hits in Boston Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and FOX, among others, the strongest result is inspiring students to embrace safe lifestyles, so we can stay in the place we love with the people we love.
F*ck It Won’t Cut It surpassed our team’s objectives and goals: First and most importantly, we were able to keep students safely on the Boston University campus for the entire semester based on low COVID-19 positivity rates, which are reflected on the university’s public Healthway dashboard. Within the social sphere, we gained more than 6,500 followers, reached more than 2.7 million users and earned approximately 43,000 engagements across Instagram, TikTok and Twitter in just five months. It is important to note that our social traction and engagement was largely organic, with over 1 million impressions in this category and a total paid-ad spend of $237.40 across both Instagram and Twitter. Our campaign has also expanded the social scene well beyond our intended audience at Boston University. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) invited our team to speak at a webinar on using social media to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among college students, and we are also a finalist for a 2021 PRWeek Award for Best in Community Relations, alongside some of the world’s biggest brands and agencies as a student-run public health campaign. Additionally, our campaign received the green light from Boston University to continue running through the Spring 2021 semester to address emerging topics, such as vaccines, caution fatigue, new strains, COVID-19 and Valentine's Day, returning to campus and more.