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Admissions Goes Social

Leveraging social media to attract prospective students and get them to enroll
University Business, May 2012

Last August, when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook Virginia, people in offices up the East Coast were reading about the quake before they felt their desks not-so-mysteriously begin to wobble. How? Chalk it up to another feat of Twitter (by this time it had already helped topple unruly regimes in the Middle East). During the earthquake, users tweeted at a rate of 5,500 tweets per second, with 40,000 tweets hitting Twitter timelines and TweetDecks in just one minute.

In other words, social media has the potential to be stronger than an earthquake, and there’s no reason not to leverage that power for your admissions marketing efforts. If you don’t, you could get left behind.

“If you’re going to stand out from other schools, sometimes the qualitative stuff, the fluffy stuff, is what helps kids make that decision,” says Christopher G. Dessi, author of Your World is Exploding: How Social Media is Changing Everything—and How You Need to Change With It (2012).

The Maguire Associates 2011 College Decision Impact Survey reveals that 93 percent of U.S. high school seniors use at least one of the three major social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) a couple of times per week and 58 percent of students view Facebook at least several times a day. But among the 21,339 students who participated in the survey, only 22 percent said a college or university’s presence on a social media or networking site made them more interested in applying.

So while many institutions are putting in a laudable effort to reach prospective students on these sites, there is clearly room for improvement—and there are endless possibilities for better leveraging social media to help get students interested and admitted.

Here are six best practices to consider.

Know what you’re trying to accomplish.

What is your goal? What message are you trying to get out? Who is going to be responsible for content? These are all important considerations when forming a social media strategy, shares Rey Junco, a professor in the Department of Academic Development and Counseling at Lock Haven University (Pa.) who researches social media in higher ed. “I think that the idea should be, what do we want to do and what conversations do we want to have, and then from that make decisions about what technology to use.”

More and more schools are designating a social media role on campus, says Junco. Often, the position will sit in the marketing department, and depending on the size of the school, there could be one person who manages social media on top of his normal duties, or at larger schools, there could be a whole team of people managing social media. “They are usually people who are really good at social media engagement and social media marketing,” says Junco.

Whoever does it, “it needs to be a part of their overreaching marketing strategy,” adds Dessi.

Listen, then engage.

Listening is just as important in Facebook relationships as it is in real life: Talk about yourself too much and you’re sure to be tuned out, or worse yet, unfollowed.

Dessi believes most institutions use their social media accounts to push out too much information, instead of using it in more engaging ways.

“I think first and foremost the difference that colleges need to understand is that social media can be used as a listening tool, not just an amplifier to push information out,” he says, adding that campus marketers “should be on Twitter eavesdropping on the conversations of high school seniors.”

Junco agrees. “The whole idea of social media is to be social, and they’re platforms that allow us to engage people. I think that spirit of engagement should be embraced when using these technologies.”

Social media can be used as a listening tool, not just an amplifier to push information out.

After listening to what students are saying, don’t be afraid to reach out.

For example, if a student mentions your institution in a tweet, send a personalized response with a link to a video tour, Dessi suggests. “How sick would that be if the university Twitter [account] responded with a link to a video tour? They’re 17 years old and they’re hearing from a school they’re interested in? They’ll go berserk.” 

Cash in on ad savings.

As a small campus with a lean budget,  the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha has learned the value in not only engaging on Facebook, but advertising.

Liz Gross, director of marketing and communications, manages the effort.

“Our students are mostly local. Close to three quarters of them live within the county that our campus is situated,” she says. “To saturate the market in all those small towns, I’d have to look at really small town newspapers that the students probably aren’t even looking at.”

In five months, UW-Waukesha’s Facebook ads garnered 553 clicks, while traditional online ads on email and local news websites got only 169 clicks. Gross found that Facebook ads not only get more impressions, but they’re much, much cheaper. Traditional ads, both online and in local print publications, were costing the school 154 times more than Facebook ads, which can be paid for on a cost-per-click basis, or per 1,000 impressions, she shares.

Don’t be afraid to dive right in.

Dessi shares that colleges and universities are “sort of like businesses where there’s a lag.” In the higher ed space, he says it’s usually about two years. And at the speed that social media changes, that’s way too long to be lagging behind.

“Do something unexpected,” he suggests. “Do something different.”

Loyola University Chicago is a good example of an institution not waiting around—and even being ahead of the trend. The university’s website is advertising its own set of Facebook Timeline cover photos (those big photos that appear at the top of profile pages) so accepted students can boast to their Facebook friends that they’ve gotten in. The cover photos were released when Facebook Timeline was still in limited use.

A tip list on Foursquare allows prospective students to explore the University of Southern California campus while they check in and earn fun badges. The University of Southern California is another school whose marketing team hasn’t been afraid to innovate. When the location-based social networking site Foursquare decided to roll out the Foursquare for Universities program in 2010, USC was one of the beta partners. This allowed those in the university’s media relations department­—where social media operations are housed—to upload photos and manage venues on Foursquare.

In other words, it put the power in their hands, shares Eliza Gallo, senior online news editor for USC media relations. Gallo and her team now manage 425 venues across campus, from the library to dining halls to residence halls, and has had more than 175,000 check-ins, averaging 40 per day at the largest venue.

Foursquare reaches prospective students with the campus tour. A tip list of locations on the tour lets students check in on a guided tour, or just explore the campus on their own. “On a college campus, the physical navigation is always something we’re trying to make easier,” says Gallo. All the check-in locations on Foursquare have an address with a pin on a map that helps users find their way.

Last fall, the USC team took the Foursquare experience a step further when the company started offering the option of university badges. Prospective students, students, and visitors can unlock the True Trojan badge by checking into a few
designated locations a number of times.true trojan badge

“We saw that people, whether they were just visiting campus, students, or alumni, really enjoyed getting that,” says Gallo of the badge release. “We got an extra 2,000 to 3,000 followers on Foursquare that week.”

Let your students do the talking.

According to the Maguire Associates survey, 39 percent of students had chatted online with enrolled students at an institution they were interested in attending.

Those running strong social media initiatives know that not only should you sometimes sit back and listen, but you should also let students take the reins.

“For our prospective students, I honestly think a good recommendation from one of their friends is more valuable than anything that one of our recruiters could say to them,” says Gross. “If we can use social media to tap into the recommendations of our current students, then I am all for it.”

If your students are excited about their school, you can help them show their enthusiasm to peers. They (and you) might not even realize these people are additional prospects.

Have an impressive study abroad program? Try live streaming a video question-and-answer session between students who are currently abroad and prospective students, suggests Dessi. “That’s going to be mind-blowing and they’re going to go to your school.”

Focus on enrollment management.

As admissions administrators know, getting students to apply is just part of the equation. Having them enroll is the goal—and social media can help make that happen.

As soon as a student has been accepted, his or her needs become less about information and more about fit, says Michael Staton, founder of Inigral. “It’s really important that students are given lots of opportunities to feel like they fit in, build supportive social environments, and get involved.” His company created the Schools App, a private, branded social network for higher ed that allows admitted students to form relationships with their peers before deciding where to enroll.

When students are making their final decision, “a lot of what they see is the social experience. They get really excited about that pretty early on in the process,” he says. “If they’re choosing between three comparable schools and they have already made a lot of friends at one particular school, we believe that gives that school just a slight edge.”

The bottom line is that administrators need to think outside the box when it comes to their social media initiatives.

“It’s a mindset change,” notes Staton. “What matters is not how many fans you have and how many likes you’re getting, but how quickly you’re responding to people with specific needs. Making people feel appreciated is the new marketing.”