It’s no secret that technology is driving change (some call it disruption) in nearly every area of our lives. The current generation of college age students has been raised, almost exclusively, in an ever more connected world. They tend to favor texts over emails and they manage (some would say curate) their own life experiences on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. As colleges and universities look to market their school’s unique course offerings, campus experience and amenities, it only makes sense to join the conversation by creating a presence in Social Media.
The age of the stately “view book” or college catalogue with photos of students studying under trees on the sunny campus lawn are being replaced by a real time, multi-media, on-campus, in-classroom experience. An experience not just narrated by the marketing department, but by students themselves. Social media has quickly become a new channel for brand building. However, in order to be successful, a school’s social media presence needs to integrate with other channels used to reach students seeking admission - these include both “e” and snail mail as well as traditional media.
Social Media Adoption at Colleges and Universities
According to a National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Research to Practice Brief published in 2008, 85% of college admissions officers reported that they had a presence on at least one social media platform, up from 61% the previous year. At that time 55% of participants felt that social media (FB and blogs primarily) were key to their admissions strategy.
The latest 2012 - 2013 study looks at the social media adoption among four-year accredited institutions across the US. The criteria used were as follows: “As in all previous studies, the colleges and universities were identified using a directory compiled by the University of Texas. Under the direction of researchers Nora Ganim Barnes and Ava Lescault, interviews took place from February to May of 2013 with those who managed the social media efforts at these institutions.
A proportional sample of schools in all 50 states was utilized resulting in 26% public schools, 71% private and 2% describing themselves as “for profit institutions.” They range in size from 40 to over 37,000 undergraduates. Tuition (without fees) ranged from $2,700 to over $55,000. Admissions officers at well-known schools like Loyola University, Rutgers University and Wake Forest University were interviewed as well as smaller lesser-known institutions in the US. The findings presented here are based on 474 interviews and are statistically valid within the range of +/- 4%.”
The findings are unequivocal in supporting what earlier trending had indicated: that nearly all four year colleges and universities are now using social media to both recruit and research prospective candidates for admission.
The key findings of the survey point to active enthusiastic engagement with social media on the part of existing student populations, administrators and teaching faculty. Over 55% of College Presidents are now posting on Facebook, 55% are actively using Twitter and 35% maintain and ongoing blog presence. More than two thirds of the schools surveyed have “official school” blogs reporting on campus activity. These schools are reporting saving on newspaper ads, printing costs and other media. Administrators are also embracing new tools such as Instagram with 16% adoption, and Google + at 25% and perhaps the most unlikely at 31%, the pin board site Pinterest. Other applications that are being added to admission’s arsenal include social mapping app Foursquare, the popular business professional networking site LinkedIn and the video broadcast channel YouTube. The bottom line according to the survey is that 41% of school administrators now see a direct correlation between their social media activities and increases in their enrollment numbers.
Building the supporting infrastructure for this undertaking has been, and will continue to be, a challenge. Traditional marketing efforts that had been static, calendar oriented, and driven by printer deadlines and mailing schedules have shifted to a content creation and online publishing strategy that requires tighter integration with on-campus information technologies and systems. Publishing efforts need to be ongoing and enticing enough to create traction and attract the High School juniors and seniors beginning to troll the web for their future alma mater.
Putting the School’s blog at the Heart of Your Strategy
Traditionally, links to a blog are posted on your institution’s Facebook page, Twitter feed etc., leading prospective students back to your school’s website. But in order to be successful, you’ll need more than just that link back to your marketing - you need real interaction. Utilizing a blog as the central component of an ongoing social media marketing effort is a winning strategy. Blogs, at their best, open a dialogue and ultimately build a community.
For institutions that are used to having considerable control, this may feel like a risky venture, but the effort can be well worth it. The right tone of voice for the school must be created. This voice along with the design represents your school’s brand and should be authentic. Prospective students will click away from content they perceive as marketing in disguise. The voice should incorporate many voices reflecting the diversity and unique qualities of the school. Teachers, students and staff should contribute to build a faithful picture of campus life.
Current Students are Your Best Source of Content
Who better to promote your institution than those students who’ve already been accepted? No one can paint a better picture of campus life than those who are living it. Having students blog about their orientation, dining hall or classroom experience means so much more than marketing materials to a high school student searching online for a school. These are their peers. They speak their language. Such authenticity can lead to a dialogue. Current students can share a 360 degree view of campus life, including art and sporting events. Current students can even shed light on the community at large, offering a real taste of what it would be like to attend your school.
Equipped with smart phones, students can capture real time activity in photos and video.
Managing multiple voices and creating fresh content on an ongoing basis is a challenge, but the rewards can be great. And remember, content is more than just words, its pictures, videos, even music. There’s nothing like a viral video on YouTube to get the word out about an exciting event that took place at your school.
The Internet Goes Both Ways
Colleges and Universities are also using social media to review or research students seeking admission at their schools. Though the number reported in the above referenced survey was only 13% in the 2013 as compared with 19%, the previous year, the implications for prospective students is very real. Hopefully, it is becoming more and more clear that their online behavior can have significant consequences for young people, and that these social media applications may be used by others, in this case college admissions, to make decisions about them. Using the social media activity and behavior of an individual in the hiring process has already come under attack in some states. Whether this will prove to be the case in the use of such reviews for the purpose of admissions in higher education is yet to be seen.
Still, knowing who is visiting your school’s site is important. Social media information can help admissions capture a more detailed picture of a prospective student’s needs when it comes to scholarships or other financial assistance. For Admissions Officers, this will mean striking the right balance between data gathered from social media interactions, with the traditional test scores, college applications, and interviews if they are to find the students who can best contribute, benefit and flourish on their campus.
Managing social media is clearly a full time job. Just as marketers institute graphic standards to ensure that the look and use of their logo are consistent, guidelines for content creation and distribution are essential to maintaining your institution’s brand and reputation. The NACAC 2013-13 survey found that half of the school’s surveyed did not have “guidelines for acceptable online behavior” in place. Equally surprising, while school blogs, Facebook posts and other social media activity shows a high rate of use, the amount of time schools are spending monitoring their reputation on the internet has actually decreased from 79% in 2009 to just 38% in the past year. So while the channels to reach out and engage prospective students continue to grow and improve, the added complexity to the admissions process creates new challenges for administrators, marketers and IT resources.
Lastly, I would like to share what I think is a great pictorial representation of social media activity within higher education, provided by The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research.
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