March 20, 2014

How Some Colleges Are Being Strategic When it Comes to Social Media

Social Media and Colleges

For those of us who grew up with social media, how many times have we heard the warnings to “monitor your privacy settings” and to “be aware of what you post”? We are constantly reminded that universities look to social media when reviewing prospective students’ applications. But now the proverbial shoe is on the other foot as students increasingly use social media to research prospective colleges and universities. Although these institutions have long made use of social media, many have been crafting comprehensive strategic plans to make their profiles even more appealing to their various audiences.

An article on Wired entitled “Why Universities Need to Get Social” points to five reasons  why universities need to rethink their social media strategies. Here’s the BIGfish take on the four that we find most important:

1) Reach Students

Colleges are targeting prospective and current students, as well as alumni, all on the same mediums. If a student is particularly interested in a college, that student is likely to follow the university on various social platforms, or to mention the university online in some way. This allows universities the chance to reach out to individuals and connect with them personally. For example, check out this recent Twitter conversation between Boston College and a proud alum:

A 2012 survey by Zinch found that 68% of students used social media to research schools. In addition, 38% stated that they have used social media as a resource when deciding where to enroll. This serves to highlight the importance of universities being active and engaging on social media. “I think that using these tools and platforms gives students a real insight into what colleges are really like,” says Cara Rousseau, social media manager at Duke University. “It’s not the glossy brochure, but it’s a real sample of what the experience is all about.”

2) Build an Active Community

When a university engages in social media, it is with the understanding that the young people it will engage with are well versed and active on those mediums. Colleges therefore must share interesting and relevant content that also encourages audience participation.

On February 27th, Boston College released their take on Pharrell Williams’ Oscar-nominated song “Happy” on YouTube. The video’s description boasts: “140 students, faculty, staff and alumni. 32 locations around campus. Six days.” This is a great example of a college using new and innovative ways to engage with students and create a conversation. BostInno even covered the video, citing its positive reception across social media. Even BC alum and NBC correspondent Luke Russert shared the video on Twitter:

3) Keep Audiences Informed and Updated

Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism notes that today, more and more people get their news from social media rather than traditional news sites. Breaking news and scandals dissipate quickly across platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It’s vital that universities update their social media platforms as soon as there is an important announcement or breaking news. In doing so, audiences will know that they can find all of the information they are looking for by turning immediately to the university’s social media sites.

In addition, prospective students are looking to online communities to learn more about universities from students themselves. Shelly M. Placek of Johns Hopkins University spoke with Digital Trends concerning the school’s social media site, Hopkins Interactive. “Things like the food on campus, dorm life, social life, and examples of real students’ schedules aren’t things that would typically be covered in a traditional website or view book, at least not to the depth that a prospective student is interested. This was the thought behind creating Hopkins Interactive.” The site, which is run by current student volunteers with minimal staff oversight, gives students a central location to write and post about the school freely.

4) Monitor Reputation

Social media has become the first place people go to voice their appreciation or disdain for a particular brand, product, or service. In a world where a simple tweet can go viral in a matter of minutes, whether positive or negative, it is important that a university is monitoring what is said about it on the web. Gone are the days when students solely expressed their frustrations to their dorm mates or phone calls home. Now, students tweet or blog about them, which give universities more of a chance to do something to address the issue.

This article by University Business notes that social media is a great way to bolster retention rates for current students. The article mentions that at Ithaca College, community managers monitor comments on official campus Facebook pages and scan Twitter for certain hashtags or campus mentions. “We are actively listening for any students who are unhappy with their experience and try to reach out to them and rectify their situations on an individual basis,” says Molly Israel, director of communication at Ithaca College.

As social media moves from being a trend to being a part of students’ daily lives, universities need to adapt to the needs of their audiences. Students aren’t looking to be barraged by tons of pictures posted to their feeds per day, or bogged down by mundane university updates. It is important that universities use social media to be proactive, engaging, and current. Social media allows universities the unique opportunity to interact with followers directly through personalized responses. By posting interesting and relevant content, universities are able to build an active community. Lastly, universities should post important announcements, breaking news, and campus events in order to keep students informed. By providing the right amount of engaging images and videos, interactive conversations, and university news and updates, universities will effectively be able to engage their followers through social media.

Dana Harvey


BIG fish PR is an unconventional agency that helps its clients redefine their industries.