For today’s prospective undergraduates, social media is as much a part of their lives as NBC’s Must-See TV was to their parents. Instagram, which launched in 2010, has enabled 2017’s high school seniors to document their entire high school career through filtered photos.

Thus, you probably aren’t surprised to find the strong evidence that supports social media as a natural channel for researching potential institutions. Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2015 E-Expectations Report found that 54% of seniors visited an institution’s Facebook page as part of their research and 65% of those clicked the “like” button.

Following this logic, it’s only natural for your institution to want to maximize your higher ed social media marketing strategy. But this begs the question: How do you go about devising a strategy that results in positive outcomes (i.e., more prospective students)? Let’s look at three key considerations to make when outlining your social media strategy.


1. Streamline Your Social Channels

Unlike a small business, colleges and universities don’t just have one product or one message they’re trying to promote on social medial. Higher ed institutions have separate entities for just about everything. While admissions and athletics are obvious, you also must promote different departments and schools, alumni relations, graduate and doctorate programs, and on and on.

Each has its own message and each has its own social media communications objectives. It’s natural for these different bodies to desire their own respective channel, whether it’s a Facebook and LinkedIn page, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat.


But think about this from the prospective student’s point of view. If a prospect is doing their research on your institution and searches Facebook for your page, what will they find? Dozens of results likely. And what will they think? They’ll wonder which page is the “official” page. Maybe they’ll question if all these real pages are really run by the institution or just former students or fans of the schools.

By allowing your social channels to multiply into disparate pieces, you run the risk of confusing the very people you’re hoping to attract. Worse, you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of mix-messaging and uncoordinated communications.

Quality over Quantity

I’m not saying having more than one Facebook page for your institution is a bad thing, but unless you put in place a communications and governance strategy for each channel, you could find yourself tangled up in your own good intentions.

Each channel you create requires a lot of a labor and content to make it successful. In the competitive world of higher education, the last thing you want is to stretch yourself too thin and deliver poor content. In this way, quality over quantity is the rule of thumb.

You won’t find a magic number that address how many channels you should run. However, if you can answer the following questions with confidence, you may be equipped to launch a new one:

  1. What is the goal of this new channel and how does it differ from other existing channels?
  2. What communication does this channel allow that existing channels have not?
  3. Is your targeted audience active on this channel and in quantities large enough to provide a meaningful return on investment?
  4. Will you need to create a new job role(s) to manage this channel and develop/deliver new content for this channel? If not, which current role(s) will take on this responsibility?
  5. What does success look like in six months or one year?

With question five, hold yourself accountable. Measure the channel’s performance and, within that timeframe, if you do not see success, you may need to consider shutting the channel down. Leaving a trail of ghost channels across the Internet will only cause further confusion for prospective students down the road.


2. Grow Your Presence from the Inside-Out

At the top of this post, we discussed the number of prospects who use social media to research schools. But does social media actually carry a level of influence to deserve all the credit?

The aforementioned report by Levitz shows that nearly 70% of seniors ranked conversations with current students/alumni and current faculty as the most influential when it came to making a final decision about the institution. Only 46% of seniors thought Facebook posts made a difference on their decision.

Grow Your Influencers

What this data suggests is it’s not enough to have frequent Facebook posts or great Instagram photos (though it doesn’t hurt). Nevertheless, your social media strategy should be, in part, designed to target and engage your internal network of influencers: current students, faculty, and alumni.

As you build out your tactics, we recommend considering the following:

1. Establish goals and benchmarks. You won’t grow influencers overnight. Influencer marketing is a long process, but the results are more than worth it. In the beginning, establish achievable goals over short periods. Use these as benchmarks to measure your growth. Goals may include:

  2. Click to the website
  3. Likes and comments
  4. Share and retweets

2. Segment and follow your internal influencers. You may be using a social media listening tool. If so, you should be able to create segmented lists of your current students, faculty, and alumni on social media. You can segment these groups into different topics, regions, study programs, etc. Base your segmentation off the types of prospective students you’re hoping to attract. With smart segmentation, you can start to build campaigns around each of your influencer groups.

3. Appeal directly through non-social channels. Just as you would with prospective students, you’ll need to look outside of your social channels to attract influencers to follow you. The major difference is you have, presumably, more built-in affinity with your internal influencers. They all like your institution and want to see it prosper. Appeal to your students, faculty, and alumni and ask that they follow you on social media. Use email messaging, print collateral, and train you staff to communicate your needs.

4. Provide opportunities for students/faculty/alumni to communicate on your behalf. If prospective students respond to representatives of your school, you should do whatever you can to leverage that influence. You may have heard of social media “takeovers,” in which an outsider or outside group takes over the social media account of an institution and posts their own original content. “Takeovers” remove the distance between prospective students and the institution by inserting a student who can offer their own perspective. You can also set up opportunities for students, faculty, or alumni to host webinars, webcasts, podcast, social media chats, Reddit AMAs, or other question-and-answer forums. Whatever you do, your goal is to raise your influencers to such a height that your prospective students can connect with them and, thus, with your institution.


3. Motivate Prospects through Emotional Appeal

In 2014, Social@Ogilvy studied why people share content online. What they found is that 43% of people share content that’s both funny and informative. More interesting, when it comes to why, people reported that sharing content helps present the personality they wish to be known for by their friends. For instance, someone who wants to be considered financially literate by their peers may share news about the DOW or recent mergers and acquisitions on LinkedIn or Twitter. On the other hand, someone who wants to be seen as the local comedian will share funny videos and photos on Facebook or Instagram.

Consider this strategy when developing your content calendar. What content will resonate with prospective students? The answer may be hidden within their personalities.

Already institutions are motivating prospects by appealing to their emotions and personality.

University of Michigan: School Pride Pets

Who doesn’t love dogs? The University of Michigan took advantage of our doggy love and built a canine campaign on Pinterest. Fans of the school submit photos of their dogs dressed in Michigan school colors. For prospects researching Michigan, the dog lovers are bound to love the school’s enthusiasm.

Stanford University: Visual Storytelling

Stanford University understands the power a strong image has to capture attention and spark imagination. Using Instagram, Stanford shares the latest research, new stories, historical significance, and much more through incredibly captivating photos and videos.



Drake University: Snapchat’s Geofiters

Snapchat is the third most popular social media channel for college-bound students, according to the Ruffalo Noel Levitz study. Snapchat ranks just behind YouTube and Facebook, respectively. Higher ed institutions are entering the Snapchat universe all the time, but the social network has made it easier for schools to participate.

Using its Geofiters service, institutions can create customized digital decals for people using Snapchat on campus. Drake University is among the institutions leveraging user-generated content to promote its brand.

Get Social Soon

Social media will continue to influence and augment the ways prospective students see the world. As more and more young students grow up with tools like Instagram and Snapchat, they’ll expect the world around them to follow suit. Whether for good or bad, the reality is undeniable.

Through the approaches above—streamlining your social channels, leveraging your internal influencers, and motivating through emotions—you can build out a social media strategy that not only produces the engagement you expect, but also adapts to whatever channels come our way in the next few years.

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