Colleges Increasingly Rely on Social Media to Interact with Students and AlumniIn the age of smartphones and social media, Janet Garcia says, people are constantly on the lookout for information. College students are no different; in fact, they might embody that cultural shift more than anyone.
“This generation of students is on the Internet constantly,” said Garcia, director of Marketing at Westfield State University. “If you’re not on the Internet, you’re not on their radar screen.”
No worry of that at WSU, however, which uses Twitter as an information-sharing resource, LinkedIn as an alumni networking tool, and Facebook for — well, just about everything else.
“These social-media tools, are tremendously valuable to me from a marketing perspective because we’re able to engage with audiences while letting people know what’s going on and what’s coming up more efficiently,” said Garcia. “For us, it’s a great value that adds to the scope of our marketing.”
But while traditional marketing, advertising, or recruitment efforts have historically been one-way conduits, social media is, by definition, a back-and-forth effort, she noted. And that has turned the way colleges communicate with their various constituencies upside down.
“One of the best things about social media is that it facilitates a dialogue among groups that wouldn’t easily be in conversation with each other — current students, prospective students, alumnae, parents, friends of the college,” said Laurie Fenlason, vice president for Public Affairs at Smith College. “That lends authenticity and immediacy, which helps students considering Smith get a full and vivid picture of what life will be like in college and after college.”
She, like Garcia, emphasized the concept of engagement in describing her institution’s active use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube, as well as its lesser presence on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Foursquare.“At Smith, we have an active social-media program that engages all of our key constituencies,” Fenlason said, including alumni, current and prospective students, parents, faculty, and staff among those groups. “Our goals are not only to maximize our followers, but to create engagement and dialogue.”
For example, “a Tweet or Facebook post about a Smith graduate’s achievements can go a long way toward making the case for Smith to a prospective student and her family; they can see an actual, vivid example of the value of the education we provide,” she explained. “And videos or Instagram images give prospective students a sense of what it feels like to be on our campus — what it feels like to be a Smithie — even if they’re half a world away.”
Nancy Farrell, director of the Office of Institutional Marketing at Elms College, also used that word engagement in noting why her school is active on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. “Each one serves a unique function in our messaging, but the one commonality they have is engagement, which is the whole concept behind social media.
“The really important thing to understand is the behavior of this generation of students,” she added. “They want things immediately. You have to instantly respond and stay connected to them — to operate where they are, and work in their environment.”
For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest logs on to the world of social media, and how colleges have increasingly come to rely on it to inform, stay in touch, and, yes, engage.
Take, for example, WSU’s comprehensive strategy for Facebook.
“We use it in a lot of different ways,” Garcia said. “Our admissions staff has their own Facebook presence and use that for their own purposes, for prospective students, to keep them apprised of what’s going on, let them know deadlines, open houses, things like that.
“We also create pages for each incoming class. For example, the 2017 page was just created this year. We invite prospective students to join the page and communicate with them,” she went on, noting that the college helps with planning and tries to increase their comfort level. “Then they use that page for four years here to communicate with their classmates, share information, talk about classes, sometimes try to sell books, and talk about events they’re going to and try to get their friends to go. It’s a real communication tool.”
It’s one that continues after graduation, only as an alumni page, she added. Meanwhile, the athletic department manages a page to keep students and the public up to date on games and athletes, while individual academic departments set up pages based around those students’ interests.
And, of course, “the university has a general Facebook page to keep the public engaged,” Garcia explained. “We provide information about events and keep people engaged with what’s happening on campus — everything from infrastructure changes to a faculty member getting a grant, that kind of thing … anytime we’re in the news. We really have quite a Facebook presence.”
The Elms also encourages a vibrant Facebook culture, said Karolina Kilfeather, web manager. She said today’s college-age generation doesn’t respond to traditional messaging like their predecessors did, but are looking for something more sincere — and, again, communication that runs in both directions.
“So we’re careful about not policing what students say, even if it’s something negative,” she told BusinessWest. “We do keep our eye out for inappropriate things, like bullying or being wantonly aggressive. But beyond that, we do the best we can to respond to complaints or negativity, but never try to shut anyone off. We don’t discourage students from being honest, and because of that, they stay engaged with us.”
In short, she said, colleges need to realize there’s been a seismic shift in the way young people communicate. “It has become much more of a dialogue. The hardest thing to learn is coming down from the mountain. The audience wants a two-way channel now.”
It’s gratifying, Garcia said, when that audience spans generations. “It’s interesting because we’ll have alumni go to a class page to talk to current students about when they were here, things they did, how much things have changed. That cross-generational communication happens on Facebook a lot.”
Kilfeather said the Elms has certainly recognized the shift, using social media to make sure people know what’s happening on campus. “It’s been very instrumental getting crisis information out, if we have potential snow days … students look for information on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve learned we get a quick response to questions on social channels.”
Meanwhile, she said, Twitter has been a positive place to engage prospects, while YouTube is useful to showcase some of the campus programs with short videos, including footage of a cafeteria flash mob and a music video created by the field hockey team.
“These were student-driven, their idea, they came up with it, and for the most part, they produced it,” said Doug Scanlon, publications manager at the Elms. “It was organic.”
Social-media moments like that are useful in projecting a different side of campus life than someone might encounter in an official college publication, Kilfeather said.
“We have a reputation for a serious image, and this is an opportunity to use a lot more humor and candor and a more conversational tone. People have responded positively to that; students look for content after events, they want to see more videos, they want to see more photos. It has changed the tenor of the relationship between colleges and students.”
And they’re not waiting until they get back to their rooms, but living in virtual connectivity 24/7, Scanlon said. “These students all have smartphones, and they’re always checking in. It’s something that’s a part of their lives now.”
Managed correctly, Kilfeather said, social media can definitely pay dividends for a college, and that includes making sure the college’s website is not only accessible from various social-media sites, but optimized for smartphones and tablets. “Facebook and Twitter are very proactive about making sure they are successful on mobile devices. No longer does somebody have to be at the computer to interact with your message.”
As a result, “our percentage of mobile traffic to the website has more than doubled every year for the past five years,” she noted. “We know we have to be available that way, to make it easy to access and share that way. Mobile devices are certainly not going away.”
Neither, most marketing professionals seem to agree, is social media, and the constant challenge is learning how to use it and what platforms to adopt.
“It’s not about putting information out the way a lot of companies do when they get on the social-media bandwagon; they think of it as just another way of pushing, pushing, the way we use traditional marketing channels. This is very different,” Farrell said.
“As technology advances and different forms of social media come out,” she added, “we have to be very cognizant whether it’s the right move for us. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we have to use it. That’s probably our biggest challenge moving forward: to carefully choose channels that work for us as an institution.”
That’s a challenge worth undertaking at Smith, Fenlason said, because colleges that don’t take social media seriously will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
“It’s vital to meet prospective students where they are, on the channels and devices they value,” she said, “with content that is truly social — visual, immediate, engaging, and real.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org