Transmedia Storytelling with Sunderland Students’ Union

My latest project in the digital sphere has been with University of Sunderland Students’ Union. I was commissioned in the first instance to develop a Digital Vision Document, which would provide strategic direction to the organization over the next couple of years. This process revolved around organizational consultation and training, with all Union staff given the opportunity to take part and contribute.

The success of this process, and the enthusiastic buy-in from staff provided a boost to the risky decision to ‘go digital’ for the student elections for the first time with online voting and campaigning. I was commissioned to lead on the Marketing and Communications campaign with just four weeks to go before the elections took place.

Marie Nixon, Chief Executive explains, “The biggest drivers for us to change as an organisation are the changing needs and expectations of our audiences. When I joined the Union as Chief Executive in 2012 I could see that engagement in the Student Elections was incredibly important and I was keen to try a completely fresh approach to new ways of working. Introducing online voting and campaigning was a huge challenge.”


It was an exciting opportunity for me to put into practice my ideas about engaging with Generation Z (digital natives), and to develop and deliver a campaign that would have a huge impact on an organization and its audiences.


The pixels have settled and the results are in – now it’s time to reflect and evaluate the Digital Engagement Strategy that underpinned this profound organisational leap.

The Union set me some tough quantitative targets for the 2013 elections, including a 10% turnout, and to have all 9 available Exec roles contested. These targets were well met. The voter turnout was 10.9%, more than double the 2011 figure. There were 26 candidates in all for the 9 roles available and all but one of the positions was contested by two or more candidates. The campaign was a success. Phew!

But, crucially, the Digital Engagement Strategy had qualitative impacts internally too. Marian Alderson, Assistant Returning Officer, says, “Going digital came with a sense of apprehension. I suppose a main concern was ‘will it work?’ – ‘what happens if it doesn’t work?’ but these were unfounded, it did work and was a major step forward for us and the potential for the future is endless.” 


The USSU elections campaign had three distinct phases. The first phase was ‘LEAD’ – an engagement campaign to encourage students to nominate themselves for one of the Exec positions. ‘ASK’ – the second phase campaign encouraged students to ask questions of the candidates. Once the Question Time events were over, the final message was ‘VOTE’.


The visual identity of the campaign was created by the Union’s Media Designer Jason Smith. The tone of voice was welcoming, focusing on the spirit of the elections rather than the letter of the rules.


Deep content was created for publication on the new website, including text, images and video. This content provided seeds for social media posts, which were planned up to 7 days in advance. Pre-planning social media posts helped to ensure fairness of coverage and the same trackable ‘bitly’ link could be used in numerous posts over several days, providing an added dimension of data around engagement. This data revealed that competitions and candidate manifestos were the most popular types of links, and also that students were almost twice as likely to click a link from Facebook than Twitter.


A hashtag #runsunderlandSU was used on Twitter and Instagram to encourage engagement. Question Time was hailed ‘best ever’ by candidates due to the number of attendees and the buzz created. A live twitter commentary was published, and questions were posed using the hashtag, adding a new element to the occasion and enabling students from the University’s external campuses to join in the conversation remotely.

Instagram was added to the digital mix through a subsidiary engagement campaign called the People Poster – an ‘infinite democracy’ project featuring students holding posters of people within posters of people. Images were tagged #runsunderlandSU and shared instantly via the app to Twitter and Facebook, where students could tag themselves in the pictures, gaining viral traction.


A Facebook competition app was installed on the Union’s page to drive likes and engagement with the elections. The competition was fan-gated so that students had to like the Union page to enter the competition, and pledge to vote in order to enter the prize draw for an iPad. The app then auto-published a statement about the competition to their timeline once they entered. While the need to pledge to vote no doubt put some people off it avoided the risk of gaining lots of new Facebook fans with no real interest in the Union apart from the iPad!

Deputy Chief Executive Mike Wallbank concludes, “Overall, the University of Sunderland Students’ Union elections campaign in 2013 can be described as a genuine ‘Transmedia Story’ – a time-limited, highly targeted exercise in digital engagement. And by engagement, we mean that at every level our audience was invited to contribute to and evolve the story. ‘Going digital’ has revitalized the democratic process for staff and students alike.”


  • is a web app that measures online influence. Taking into account engagements such as likes, shares, comments, retweets across all social channels, the system calculates your ‘klout’ score out of 100. USSU’s klout score increased by 13 points during the three-week elections campaign.
  • #runsunderlandSU was used over 500 times on twitter and instagram
  • Facebook engagement increased by 163%, and total reach increased by 443%
  • 1,230 clicks on bitly links
  • 26 student candidates for 9 Exec roles
  • Record attendance for Question Time events
  • 10.9% voter turnout, double the 2011 figure


Caroline Greener,, @crowdweaver,

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