According to Experian Hitwise, in early March Facebook surpassed Google as the most visited Website in the US. Though the traffic levels between the two were close, Facebook’s year-over-year growth jumped 185%, while Google's traffic grew by only 9%! Like it or not, social media is radically changing how we interact online – and no group is more plugged into social media than teens (73% of all teens online use social media – Pew Research, March 23, 2010). For organizations targeting the teen market, such as our college and university clients, this news is another wake-up call for developing an effective and adaptable Web presence.

Admissions Marketing

Engaging prospective students through their preferred channels is particularly important for admissions marketers. Competition is fierce for the best applicants. Recent economic challenges have increased the need for effective recruitment as funding from endowments, gifts and other non-tuition based sources shrinks. Until recently, colleges drove admissions by casting a wide net for prospects, and then spent significant time and resources targeting a subset of prospective students who were deemed “interested” and well qualified.

The challenge now is the target audience is spending more and more time online communicating through social media channels. As a result, they’re paying much less attention to email – who has time to sift through an inbox full of junk mail to figure out what’s relevant – and barely skimming the glossy printed admissions brochures arriving in the mail.

Social Media vs. Your Website

So, how is communicating via social media different than just posting information to your Website? The Website is well understood and relatively stable means to:

  • Provide relevant and timely information about your institution’s programs, events, education opportunities, outcomes, costs, etc.
  • Direct visitors to services: apply for admissions or financial aid, request information, etc.

Social media has grown explosively over past several years – particularly Facebook – and is still rapidly evolving; key factors:

  • User-contributed content – social media enables two-way (or more) conversations with target audiences – far stronger engagement than email or Web copy.
  • Expanding your universe of contributors – engaging members of your faculty and staff who buy-in to the value of social media in the process will yield better content and stronger engagement with prospective students.
  • Managing risk – these interactive conversations create risk – you need policies for governing communication (e.g., who speaks for your institution), ground rules for what should/should not be said and how to deal with negative comments or feedback.

Social Media – Communities

Some of the many ways you can leverage social media for to help meet admissions objectives:

  • Facebook – develop communities around:
    • Prospective students – answer their questions, provide them with information and resources to help them make their college decision, and ultimately promote the benefits of joining your institution’s community through a two-way conversation
    • Accepted students – make them feel like they’re already part of your community; proactively connect with them – reinforce the one-on-one interaction between faculty/staff and students
  • Twitter – communicate events, announcements, deadlines, high school campus visits, etc.
  • YouTube – videos of campus life, surrounding area, local attractions, etc.:
    • Allow prospective students to visualize attending your college or university
    • Highlight strengths, whether it’s your campus, location or activities

Social Media – Retaining Control

While embracing social media creates significant benefits, it also presents some serious pitfalls – get ready for the whole world to see (and discuss) whatever is good and maybe not so good about your campus. Typically, content on your Website goes through some review process before it’s published – to ensure accuracy, relevance and quality (no typos, etc.). This is not necessarily so with social media.  The key to minimizing the risk of errant content is having and enforcing social media policies. At a minimum, your social media policy should address:

  • Governance – people who claim they represent the institution as a whole or in part should be officially sanctioned. Allowing any faculty/staff/student to communicate on behalf of the institution without formal oversight and guidance creates significant brand risk.
  • Responsibility – assign specific faculty and or staff members with responsibility for tracking and responding to posts on relevant social media.
  • Guidelines – staff/faculty/students who create social media post should be identified and provided with content creation guidelines for original posts and responses to posts from others.
  • Moderation – social media presences largely maintained by students should be identified as such and moderated by a faculty/staff member.  
  • Checks and balances – personnel responsible for Web and new media communications should be a second line of defense ensuring faculty/staff responsible for overseeing social media are upholding their responsibility. This office should then have the authority to shut down or reassign a social media that is not being appropriately moderated.
  • The final word – your institution’s Website should host links to all your “official” social media sites to avoid any confusion.

As with any policy, compliance with your social media guidelines will be much more effective if policies are clearly communicated, consistently enforced and supported by your institution’s senior executives.

Social media is a powerful mechanism for engaging prospective students (to increase applications) and accepted students (to improve yield). But having a strategy in place as well as appropriate policies and guidelines to safeguard your brand is critical to social media success. Ideally, your use of social media should be part of a broader Web strategy, one which blueprints your overall approach to Web engagement – from social media services and Web application platforms to the roles and responsibilities for of the people responsible for creating, managing, delivering and governing content.