Last November, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to Harvard for the first time since dropping out of sight in 2004. In his address to students, the social media guru proclaimed that Facebook “is just getting started.” Remarkably, social networking has, in the past five years, forever changed the higher learning landscape. It will profoundly shape the higher ed marketplace in the next decade. Today, it’s estimated that more than 800 million people around the world depend on Facebook.
Gone are the days when colleges and universities relied solely on glossy viewbooks filled with smiling faces, fall foliage, and ivy-covered bell towers to ramp up admissions and conversion yield. Today’s students get information about colleges by “chatting” with enrolled students about their most engaging learning and living experiences, exploring virtual 3-D campus tours, and watching student-produced videos. Administrators are now exploring new ways to engage prospective students and keep them coming back for more by using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, foursquare, iTunesU, and other social networking pathways.
A recent study conducted by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth reports that 100 percent of universities surveyed use social media to communicate with students, up from 61 percent in 2007. Significantly, the UMass study found that 98 percentof the responding institutions have a Facebook page and 84 percent have a Twitter account.
But is just signing up for hosting these social media venues enough for colleges and universities to reap optimal benefits? Student testimonials tell us the answer to that question is “no way.” With that said, we were surprised to learn that a significant number of colleges and universities do not yet use these social networking tools to their full potential. Infrequent Facebook updates and neglected websites give students the impression that an institution is neither cool nor tech-savvy – frequently causing prospective students to lose interest fast.
Indeed, underutilization of social media is a red-flag for many prospective students—and social media organizations like 7Summits, ECampusTours, YourCampus360, HubSpot, Klout.com and Kred are working with colleges and universities to better target, link, and leverage social media marketing strategies and help institutions understand how these tools can influence student audiences.
Take for example 7Summits, a social media intelligence and marketing strategy agency based in Milwaukee and Chicago—a fast growing organization that serves a wide and varied gamut of businesses and educational institutions. As their name suggests, 7Summits designs and develops social media strategies as if they were about to climb a mountain. With the attitude of an explorer, 7Summits takes into account weather conditions, topography, the strengths of the institution’s team, and other climber competitors on the mountain. 7Summits understands that social media is new terrain for most colleges and universities, and that it takes specialized expertise and practical experience to maximize social media results for these institutions and the students they serve. 7Summits CEO, Paul Stillmank, put it this way, “Our agency was created to address a new market need driven by the most significant shift in media ever. We are the destination social business agency – bringing strategy, creative and technology aspects together to help institutions re-invent themselves into more socially connected organizations.”
This new breed of social media change agents help campuses understand why and how to use social media – for the purpose of more fully engaging students, alumni, and especially new recruits. For higher education, this transformational collaboration typically focuses social media, website design and content development, search engine optimization, and psychogenic market research. This planful approach creates a transparent, vertically integrated social media experience, and attracts a new online audience and keeps them coming back for more. In this way, new age learning organizations like 7Summits actually grow demand which ultimately translates social media conversations into increased applications, deposits, enrollments, retention and persistence.
Or consider HubSpot, an internet marketing company founded by two MIT students in 2006. This organization focuses on transforming small businesses using web-based applications. HubSpot essentially transforms static websites into modern marketing tools that help to convert a higher percentage of live leads into qualified opportunities. Like other social media firms, HubSpot utilizes blogs and social media tools to help customers stay connected.
Having already implemented social media campaigns, even the most proactive colleges and universities are still interested in how these initiatives have influenced their online presence. Companies like Klout.com and Kred have created scoring systems that can measure an institution’s online engagement, influence and outreach on sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and Google+.
Beyond social media market research and networking, virtual campus tours are starting to play a major role in the college recruitment process for prospective students. Companies like ECampusTours.com and YourCampus360.com offer students free 360 degree virtual tours of over 1,300 schools. These companies realize that students are now spending an increasing amount of time on Facebook – particularly on their smart phones. These sites enable prospective students to view and connect with colleges and universities from anywhere in the world – all at their fingertips.
At the end of the day, companies like 7Summits, HubSpot, ECampusTours, and Kred are helping colleges and universities stay ahead of the social media learning curve. So, what’s next for social media tools like Facebook in higher ed? According to The Social Network movie character and Napster creator Sean Parker, “You don’t even know what the thing is yet, how big it can get, how far it can go.”
—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.