Did you hear about the college-bound teenager who turned down the university with a boring Facebook page? Parents and admissions counselors constantly harp on the perils of social media, nagging students to clean up their vulgar shares on Facebook, take down party shots from Instagram, and watch their language on Twitter — but now the shoe’s on the other foot as students eye college and university social media pages in their application quest.
About two-thirds of the class of 2012 used social media to research colleges and universities, according to a survey of 7,000 high school students by online education resources Inigral and Zinch. Facebook stands head and shoulders above the pack for admissions research, with 57 percent of students checking the social media giant for prospective college information. Some 38 percent categorized their social media findings as influential in their enrollment decision.
Student research engagement on other social networks trails Facebook, with applicants also searching on YouTube (42 percent), Twitter (18 percent), and Pinterest (6 percent).
At Johns Hopkins University, ranked second on StudentAdvisor.com’s Top 100 Social Media Colleges list, Facebook has become the matriarch of the university’s social media family, serving as a hub for many of its digital interactions. Those areas that garner the most hits are the most interactive: the university’s YouTube page and an admissions forum.
For students, it’s all about being able to make connections in real time with real people — social media as customer service rather than marketing. As Inigral’s report notes, “There is a difference between sharing blogs, photos, and other content about student life on social networks versus creating an online social community for students to connect with one another. According to our survey, students are less interested in hearing ‘updates from the institution’ compared to having an organized way of connecting with ‘people at the institution.'”
“On social in general, we try to listen as much as as we talk.”
“Having a strong social media presence increasingly seems to fill their needs in that it makes it easier for them to experience a friendly and dynamic relationship with what can sometimes seem like a difficult-to-navigate and faceless institution,” explains Elise Perachio Daniel, senior e-communications marketing manager at University of Washington at Seattle. “This gives them an opportunity to interact with us in a forum in which they’re already comfortable. I think it takes some of the stress out of it for them.” The university’s social media is currently ranked ninth out of the Top 100 Social Media Colleges.
To find a window into college life and social life, students are looking for social media that shows profiles, reviews, and perspectives from current students, communities that connect prospects with current students, and pictures and videos of fun events at the school. Specialized college Facebook pages such as UW’s Class of 2017 page for entering freshman help build that community from the start.
At the University of Oregon, ranked 11 on the Top 100 Social Media Colleges list, staffers bring a light touch to social media that invites student engagement. “We see the University of Oregon’s main Facebook presence as a dinner party with 270,000 of our closest friends,” says Zack Barnett, director of digital and social media communications at UO. “On social in general, we try to listen as much as as we talk. On all of our main social properties, we try to provide places that are fun, that reflect more student life than university business. At our dinner party on social, we’ll serve you broccoli in the form of our key messages, but we’ll also serve chocolate cake in the form or fun and engaging content. Balancing the two has become an art. The better we do it, the better we do on social.”
Students are turning to other students on university and college channels to find the authenticity they want. “’I’m tired of seeing ‘this school is great!, ‘I love it here, its awesome’ comments,” commented one student in Inigral’s research. “All of the vague comments could apply to anything. I would really like to see opinions people have, the negative and the positive.”
Barnett agrees that teasing out student feedback increases social media’s appeal. “We ask a lot of questions on social and let the community do the talking,” he explains. “This allows credible, authentic voices to describe why they love the university.”
“Some of the questions prospective students have can best be answered by current students,” says communications specialist Shelly M. Placek of Johns Hopkins University, number two on the current Top 100 list. “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, a social media site that is run by current student volunteers with minimal staff oversight.” Student volunteers on Hopkins Interactive are free to write and post at their discretion, with only logistical support from the admissions staff.
A nimble team from eight different offices coordinating via HootSuite’s social dashboard service keeps UO’s social presence light on its feet. Barnett relates a recent example: “Our admissions team used Tout, Vine, and YouTube to encourage student to submit short videos about why they chose the UO as part of a signing day campaign. We used Tout and Twitter to post short videos from 2013 Fiesta Bowl events. There, we edited video on the fly using our iPhones, posting it to YouTube in near real time, and then telling people about it on Facebook and Twitter.”
Social media helps navigate university systems and deadlines for prospective students who are brand new to the process. Johns Hopkins’ presence includes a forum for wait-listed students including a FAQ and a space for questions that are answered by an admissions counselor. “Since March, that page has been viewed over 2,300 times, which signals to us that this is a resource that students are using,” Placek notes. “The admissions process in general can be daunting to students and families and social media gives us an opportunity to guide them through and answer questions in a public forum, which can be helpful to those who have the same concerns.”
Even so, the majority of college social media content appears to remain aimed at current students rather than prospects. “We rarely target content specifically to prospective students, except near the main deadline for undergraduate admissions and around the time acceptance letters get mailed,” says Perachio Daniel. “However, we are in the midst of discussing whether to launch a Tumblr presence. If we do, that will almost exclusively target prospective students.”