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Social Networking and the .edu Experience: It's Time They Meet

IHEs must consider how to address social networking
University Business, Jan 2009

With all the Web 2.0 hype these days, it’s no surprise that student expectations of the web continue to swell. Is your institutional website living up to these expectations? Today higher education websites are more than just static pages. They are strategic assets for admissions and enrollment, advancement and fundraising, brand awareness, disseminating information such as news and safety alerts, and, now more than ever, they are strategic assets for social networking. Research shows that social networking is the most popular online activity among today’s internet users. Thus, colleges and universities must jump on the bandwagon and consider how best to address social networking to meet growing student expectations.

According to eMarketer, by 2011 half of all online adults and 84 percent of online teens in the United States (105 million total users) will use social networks. From 2006 to 2007 alone, the number of social network users increased by almost 12 million. The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently conducted a survey and found that more than half (55 percent) of all online American youths aged 12-17 use online social networking sites, and 48 percent of teens visit social networking sites at least once per day. Most importantly, these web-savvy youths are prospective higher education students.

College students are also heavy users of social networks, relying on a few key websites to meet their social networking needs. Anderson Analytics estimates that among 18- to 24-year-olds using social networking, 39 percent use only Facebook, 45 percent use Facebook and one other site, and 12 percent use Facebook plus two other sites. In addition, according to a Noel-Levitz e-Expectations Class of 2007 report, 61 percent of students thought it was a good idea for colleges and universities to put up social networking sites to promote their programs, campuses, and students. Social networking has undoubtedly emerged as a powerful communications tool and provides institutions with a new opportunity to better communicate with students on their own turf.

With so many students tethered to the online world, it is critical for the .edu environment to capitalize on their social networking needs to gain a competitive edge. Many colleges and universities are already on board. According to the Web Advantage Survey of 2007, nearly 77 percent of college marketers will have engaged in social networking, blogs, and social media during 2008.

Social networking via campus websites gives prospective students and parents a unique forum for building relationships and learning more about institutions. It can be a useful means to cultivate a responsive environment that encourages enrollment and promotes streamlined institutional enrollment processes. However, building an effective social networking presence requires essential tools, including web content management software (CMS) with rich media features, a blogging system, RSS, and web-based chat—all working together seamlessly. Together these tools enable higher education institutions to simplify the development and management of social networking features, creating a positive impact on recruitment and more.

Before launching a social network on your .edu site, it’s important to consider what type of network is most ideal for your institution. There are two types of social networks: public and niche. Public social networks are single destination sites, while niche social networks cater to small communities surrounding one common interest. For the .edu environment, a niche site seems best suited, as it creates an opportunity to improve admitted student yield, strengthen the alumni community, and more. Niche networks offer control, flexibility, and focus not available on public networks.

Membership can be by invitation only, allowing you to regulate your users. This control allows you to target specific audiences based on phases in the student life cycle. Content is better moderated, thus allowing more control of messaging and better incorporation into your marketing and communications strategy. In addition, you can integrate niche social networks with public networks, such as MySpace and Facebook. For example, students can search the Facebook directory, find the “myFavSchools” college search application, and add it to their profile page. Students can even place “badges” promoting your network and branding your institution on their Facebook and MySpace pages.

Your current website plays a vital role in your social networking efforts, as it is the starting point for most prospective students. Your site must be well maintained to keep prospective students engaged. When you add social networks into the loop, you now have more content to maintain in more places. It’s important to keep your messages accurate, consistent, and up-to-date, both on your public site and your social networks. A web CMS helps you do just that. Most CMS solutions provide easy-to-use tools that level the technology playing field. Such simplicity eliminates the need to understand complex programming languages and allows subject matter experts to become fully engaged in keeping your website updated with fresh and responsive content.

A CMS is much more than a tool for editing web pages, though. It simplifies the entire content management process, eliminating much of the complexity associated with creating, editing, and publishing web content. This includes managing the intricate content architectures and multimedia mixes found on today’s .edu websites. A CMS creates a centralized and controlled environment where page creation, updating, and publishing can be tightly managed. If implemented correctly, a CMS can do all this cost-effectively while leveraging existing staff and empowering content experts to contribute to your public site and social networks.

RSS can be a great tool for social networking, and a good CMS will have RSS capabilities built in and ready to use. A CMS allows you to easily repurpose content from your public site via RSS?literally “pushing” the content to your social networking sites and other key systems. If you enable a subscription to an RSS on your social network, news items for this feed are automatically updated with content from a variety of sources. This can include updates from the public relations, student affairs, athletics, and admissions departments. And because it’s an RSS feed, students can subscribe to this information in a variety of ways, such as through their Facebook account or their student information portal. This type of automation can be a huge time-saver and helps keep your website and social networks up-to-date and on the cutting edge.

Instant messaging is another popular technology that can be integrated into your web CMS for student services or social networking. For example, prospective students can chat directly with authorized admissions officers to get the information they need to complete the application process. Offering web-based instant chat on your site helps students engage more with your institution.

A successful social network not only stems from using effective processes and tools, it involves getting buy-in from those who will be part of maintaining a rich social networking experience—particularly the content creators. Implementing a simple-to-use CMS to create and manage content can help you gain that necessary buy-in and even transform content creators into evangelists for your social network.

With the increasing student demands for social networking capabilities from higher education institutions, college marketers are now implementing social networking as part of their online strategy. Social networking can positively differentiate your institution to prospective students as one that cultivates and keeps a close relationship with and among students. A social network may be the critical link that helps prospective students feel connected to your institution and solidifies their admissions choice. Whether you piggyback with an existing public social network or creating a niche social network of your own, implementing rich multimedia content that is consistently up-to-date will keep visitors coming back. And managing it all with an effective CMS can create a powerful social networking experience.

Lance Merker is president and CEO of OmniUpdate, located in Camarillo, Calif. He is a regular guest speaker at industry conferences nationwide and has authored several articles on web CMS, Web 2.0, social networking, blogging, and the use of RSS.—