Since emerging in the college recruitment world just three years ago, college search social media sites have been a rapidly growing category of recruitment tools that combine the function of college search websites with the interactive, dynamic communications of mainstream social media networks. As the sites have come of age, they have given admissions professionals increased flexibility, creativity and efficiency in their recruitment communications and the way student inquiries are generated.
In fact, a recent online poll of 92 college admissions counselors by Cappex.com, 47 percent of schools said college search social media sites are important or critically important to their recruitment strategy.
So how do college search social media sites work? The formula varies, but in general these sites help colleges identify prospective students based on specific criteria, and then provide a platform for building a relationship with those students.
For example, on Cappex.com, college-bound students complete a detailed profile highlighting their personal as well as academic accomplishments and interests. Cappex.com then matches them with colleges that fit their priorities and also are likely to accept them. Students receive invitations from those colleges to learn more about the school. From there, students can request information, ask questions, send a message to an admissions professional, or even watch a video about the school.
The benefit for colleges is that rather than starting with a broad list of students to target with a generic direct mail campaign, they can make a real connection with the students they are most likely to be interested in. Likewise, students can catch the attention of schools based on their personal interests, extracurricular achievements and academic strengths ? not just their GPA and test scores.
Colleges are turning to college search social media sites more and more frequently for good reason. In Cappex.com's 2010 study of how admissions departments are using college search social media sites, admissions professionals noted plenty of benefits.
Today's students are extremely tech-savvy and already regularly use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in their personal lives. That makes it a natural step for them to use college search social media sites to connect with colleges. "We can interact with the students on their level, but without invading their Facebook space," said Teege Mettille, Assistant Director at Lawrence University, a private liberal arts college in Appleton, Wisconsin.
College search social media sites are giving students more control over their college search by shifting the prospecting process to the student's schedule. "Students can insert themselves into the process whenever they are ready, versus being on the receiving end of information we send out on our timeline," said Brett Schraeder, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Between early prospecting and accepting an application, college search social media tools allow colleges to keep in touch with students on a regular basis. These sites have content like scholarship promotions and surveys that encourage students to visit regularly, giving colleges more opportunities to connect with them.
Because of the targeted approach of college search social media sites, many admissions professionals find these tools generate higher-quality inquiries than other recruitment methods. And since students actually opt-in to become prospects, colleges begin recruiting with a concentrated pool of qualified students who already have a level of interest.
Whereas changing a direct mail campaign midstream can be costly and cumbersome, college search social media sites let schools quickly and affordably change strategies, personalize messages, and target student segments based on factors like geography, academic strengths and extracurricular interests.
In a results-driven admissions office, college search social media tools provide colleges and universities with solid metrics for tracking inquiries. Colleges also report higher pre-qualification of prospects compared to buying lists or tracking response cards.Ultimately, colleges are tracking a solid number of enrollments directly back to their college search social media efforts. Nearly one third of colleges participating in th study said they receive as many as 6 to 20 percent of their enrollments via college search social media sites.
That number is likely to grow in the future, as 39 percent of schools cited an increase in enrollments in the last school year resulting from college search social media tools.
With so many benefits to using them, it's not surprising schools are already taking college search social media sites very seriously despite their relative newness in the recruitment space. As admissions professionals become more sophisticated in their understanding of what these sites can accomplish, most agree they will play a larger role in the recruitment process.
Case in point, some schools are already changing how they initially search for students. Because of the high-quality inquiries generated by these sites, many schools are using them to jump start their usual student search process and are cutting back on traditional methods. "Our strategy has been to reach out and get the students using Cappex.com or Zinch.com, and then put them through our regular process," Mettille said about recruitment at Lawrence University.
Schools also see college search social media sites as a natural way to promote other marketing efforts, whether it's sending students a link to a campus video tour on YouTube, or inviting them to receive their viewbook. They can also be used to promote a college fair in a specific town to let students know an admissions rep is going to be there.
College search social media technology is also inspiring schools to re-think printed materials. Some schools are using information they collect through college search social media sites to personalize what they send out via direct mail. And at Occidental College, the admissions team has completely redesigned their 40-page viewbook into four shorter-format magazines that can easily be integrated with social media channels.
Despite their success with college search social media tools, colleges are still figuring out how much emphasis to place on them in their overall recruitment mix, particularly in the context of limited budgets. But some schools are already shifting portions of their budget toward college search social media; in fact, nearly 50 percent of colleges participating in the study said they will dedicate more resources to college search social media in the 2011-2012 school year.
No matter what the future holds, college admissions remains a relationships-based industry. And while face-to-face interaction is still a top priority, college search social media sites are dynamic, engaging, and social - all things that can help start a real dialogue that will only benefit both students and colleges as they find the right fit with each other.
Haven't yet worked with college search social media tools? Here are some tips for getting started:
- It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Start with one site that won't require a lot of manpower to manage, and use it to target one or two specific student populations that are a priority.
- You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Complement what you're already doing by using college search social media to introduce students to your school and direct them to your website or more traditional printed materials. You can also use these tools for more specific, timely purposes, such as promoting a local high school visit or getting word out about a campus event.
- Set the right tone. On its most basic level, social media is about people connecting with people. So keep your tone friendly and authentic, and remind yourself there's a real person at the other end of every interaction. Every connection is an opportunity to start a relationship and keep a dialogue going.
Chris Long is president of Cappex.com