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Tweeting the Big Picture

Three social media trends colleges and universities should adopt
University Business, October 2012

Just because your institution maintains a Facebook page and a Twitter account does not mean that you’re utilizing social media channels to the maximum benefit of your college or university. While establishing a platform for the university as a brand, attracting prospective students and faculty, and reaching out to students on the channels of their choice are all great uses of social technologies, there’s far more—and broader reaching benefits—to social media than simply posting news and campus happenings.

A recent study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research shows that 100 percent of responding colleges and universities utilize social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) for student recruiting, student communications, and alumni and public outreach. The higher education sector as a whole is proactively leading the way in communication and support on social media, even more so than most Fortune 500 companies. Increasingly, universities are finding that social media channels aren’t just a great way to create and foster relationships with prospective and current students, but to provide support on a variety of issues, as well.

Below are three trending uses for social media as part of a larger strategy to benefit your institution.

1. Social media monitoring

A social media monitoring system allows for instant alerts on trending topics and conversations regarding institutions, helps to gauge student and public sentiment, and provides insight into potential opportunities for connecting with current and prospective students, alumni and parents. It can also be used to identify campus or individual issues before calls and emails start rolling in (as students are apt to tweet frustrations to their friends or to the school before calling the support desk), enabling your support team to mediate issues in advance.

Higher education institutions from Penn State to the University of North Carolina use social media monitoring for everything from addressing concerns during a crisis and keeping student athletes and other “faces” of the institution on message, to predicting campus trends and responding quickly to student support requests and complaints.

2. Real-time communications with and between students, staff, faculty, alumni and parents

The immediacy and public nature of social media makes real-time updates and responses to general questions, comments and requests easier than ever. To truly foster an open, transparent and highly communicative environment, it’s essential to use every available channel for communications, especially social media for its incredible reach. Each social media channel comes with its own set of benefits. Twitter is ideal for instant alerts and updates; Facebook is a great way to publicize campus events and feature stories; and YouTube gives your university—and students—a visual platform to showcase each school’s successes and storied traditions.

Marquette University and the University of New Hampshire are examples of institutions which have made great use of each major social media channel to build community and to keep students, parents, alumni, fans, and even the world at large engaged in its campus life. Likewise, support should be available for students via every available channel, not just one or two. Students should be able to request help through the university website, by Tweeting to a support-monitored handle, or through the university’s Facebook page.

3. Crisis Management

A February 2012 Council for Advancement and Support of Education study surveyed 219 senior communications professionals at higher education institutions on social media and crisis management. In the 12 months prior to the survey, 65 percent of the respondents had experienced a crisis or a media-reported event involving their institution. More than 70 percent reported that potential reputation-damaging events had been discussed in social media channels in the same 12-month period. Only 17 percent of respondents’ crisis communications plans included guidelines for monitoring or responding to unofficial institution social media pages during a crisis or emergency (such as alumni relations, student organizations, athletics, individual academic departments, and foundation social media pages, etc.).

Using social media to broadcast positive news is commonplace. However, the omnipresence of social media applications on smartphones in the hands of students, staff, parents, the press and the general public behooves institutions to employ social media for real-time safety alerts and security updates. After the tragic 2007 shooting on Virginia Tech’s campus, the university overhauled its crisis communications plan to include social media updates. This past fall, when the campus was put on lockdown following the fatal shooting of a security officer, social media was one of the main tools used for students, staff, parents—and the world at large—to stay abreast of breaking news.

As the examples above show, the benefits of social media extend far beyond good public relations and networking practices. Monitoring, real-time communications, and crisis management through social media can be used to support an integrated school marketing strategy, exceptional campus support and service, increased awareness of student and public sentiment, and real-time communications and response in both everyday and crisis situations. The institutions that leverage social media for managed support will see their efforts pay off through increased satisfaction for students, staff, faculty, parents, and alumni. They could also realize decreased costs on call center space, help-desk labor, and containing possible PR, safety and security crises before they become out of control.