Fast, dynamic and ever-evolving, the digital era has transformed the way we communicate unlike any era before. With smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, we’re now able to “plug in” virtually whenever we desire. And commonly, it’s social media that we’re plugging into—specifically, there’s a whopping 2.5 billion of us plugging in daily.
Social media has become the younger generations’ primary means of interacting with the world. Unsurprisingly, they’re also actively applying their love for social to their post-secondary lives—using it to inform everything from their school selection to course choices. For professional communicators working within post-secondary, attention to this shift is critical.
Whether your school is looking to expand its social presence, or just looking for inspiration on new tactics and uses, this post will get you started.
In the next several paragraphs, we’ll look at several ways that post-secondary schools are using social media to strengthen their communications—including social’s role in student recruitment and during times of crisis. We’ll also explore some of the challenges of using social media in higher education and offer solutions for overcoming them.
Bonus: Read our 2017 Social Campus Report, where we uncover the current state of social media usage on campus and outline eight areas of opportunity for higher education institutions in 2018.
How social media is being used in higher education
Social media as a tool for student recruitment
Student recruitment has always been a concern for higher-education institutions. In recent years, several factors have spiked this pressure.
Facing increased competition from new online providers, a more sophisticated selection process by students, and declining applicant pools, schools must now actively apply creative tactics to draw students into their hallowed halls.
And those campus engagement tactics must be applied year-round—not simply around the traditional applicant intake periods.
Enter social media. Today, schools around the world are flocking to social channels to showcase their curriculum, faculty, and culture.
Schools—like Australia’s University of New South Wales, for example—cleverly use social as part of their overall recruitment strategy. During UNSW’s annual recruitment week, called O-Week, the university uses social to promote their culture, curriculum and extracurricular offerings.
— UNSW (@UNSW) February 20, 2017
Throughout the week, the school also engages potential recruits through a series of fun activity invites aimed at showcasing life on the UNSW campus.
— UNSW (@UNSW) February 22, 2017
Social media as a tool to promote research and innovation
Top-tier research schools rely on attracting top researchers to accelerate their advancements in innovation. While scholarly journals and faculty speaking opportunities do an incredible job of reaching researchers, their reach is, by and large, limited to an individual’s access to and awareness of such materials.
To support these traditional promotion efforts, many institutions are now utilizing social media to help elevate awareness about their research innovations. Canada’s University of British Columbia is one such school that’s using social to showcase its leadership in hard and soft-sciences.
— UBC (@UBC) February 21, 2017
Broadcasting from its primary Twitter account, and those of its various faculties, UBC routinely highlights the pioneering achievements of its faculty and student body.
— Management (@UBCFOM) February 21, 2017
— UBC (@UBC) February 21, 2017
— UBC (@UBC) February 20, 2017
Social media as an alumni engagement and fundraising tool
Most post-secondary institutions rely on external funding to keep their operations afloat. In the past, fundraising was typically carried out through direct-mail or phone campaigns—often directed at their loyal alumni. While these traditional formats carry-on, many institutions are now also using social media to further the reach of their fundraising efforts.
Columbia University is one great example of a university making good use of social media fundraising. During their 2012 Giving Day Campaign, the school’s 24-hour fundraising day, the University launched a website to serve as their primary fundraising hub. To spread the word, Columbia then mobilized the campaign via their social media channels.
During the day, the institution targeted new and existing donors, faculty, and staff with assigned social ambassadors. The school also engaged their alumni to participate in donor match challenges and view live streams of University leaders—all of it broadcast to their large social media audience.
Within the short 24-hour period, Columbia pulled in a whopping $7.8 million in funding from across the United States as well as 53 additional countries. As Columbia puts it, their use of social media as a fundraising tool has proven to be a game-changer in how they tap into new audiences, reactivate previous donors, and continue to champion their alumni’s connection to Columbia University.
Social media as a crisis communications tool
Post-secondary institutions, while normally safe havens for scholarly pursuits, occasionally fall prey to moments of crisis—ranging from natural disasters to acts of violence.
Many schools already have well-established crisis communication plans in place to help protect students, faculty, and staff during campus crisis. And increasingly, administrators are now employing social media to quickly communicate with their campus stakeholders during times of crisis.
Take for example the November 2016 attack at Ohio State University (OSU). Initially reported as a shooting, the attack was carried out by an OSU student who smashed his car into pedestrians on a busy campus sidewalk and then slashed at passersby with a knife. In total, 11 people were injured during the attack.
As the crisis unfolded, OSU quickly turned to social media to inform its students, staff, and faculty of the attack. Using its emergency broadcast handle on Twitter, OSU sent out “shelter-in-place” alerts to notify those on campus to “run hide fight” for their safety.
Buckeye Alert: Active Shooter on campus. Run Hide Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.
— OSU Emergency Mngmnt (@OSU_EMFP) November 28, 2016
As the crisis ensued, OSU continued to direct its stakeholders to remain in place and follow emergency responder orders.
Buckeye Alert: Continue to shelter in place. Wait for Police officers directions. Please contact Police / 9-1-1 only if you have information
— OSU Emergency Mngmnt (@OSU_EMFP) November 28, 2016
Thankfully, all 11 victims survived the attack, thanks in large part to OSU’s ability to immediately broadcast safety alerts via social media.
In the days and weeks that followed the crisis, OSU officials continued to keep students informed through social—offering updates and information on campus counseling.
To this day, the school continues to use social as a primary safety communication tool. Campus officials were later applauded for their effectiveness in keeping their staff and students safe throughout the crisis.
— OSU Emergency Mngmnt (@OSU_EMFP) January 11, 2017
— Ohio State A&P (@OhioStateAP) December 28, 2016
The challenges of using social media in higher education (and how to address them)
There are, of course, challenges when using social media in higher education, whether as part of a campus engagement strategy or during times of crisis.
Commonly, the biggest challenge facing institutions—particularly those with multiple faculties operating their own unique social channels—is finding a way to efficiently streamline their social efforts campus-wide. With several simple best practices however, this fragmentation challenge can be easily managed.
Best practice 1: Develop a social media policy
Establishing a social media policy is an extremely effective way to ensure all campus wide social media efforts are on the same page and in line with your school’s overall branding. If you’re unsure of how to build one, check out our complete guide.
Best practice 2: Identify a campus-wide social media community manager
When uncertainties or questions arise, it’s a good idea to have one person in charge of your overall social media activities. This person should also be given authority to oversee each individual faculty’s social media efforts.
Best practice 3: Integrate a social media scheduling and monitoring tool
Finally, look at implementing a social media scheduling and monitoring tool to help your team efficiently coordinate a cross campus social media effort. Not sure what you’re looking for? Check out our list of must-have features for social media software.
And for more insights into what’s possible with these sorts of tools, take a look at how Cambridge University uses scheduling to effectively manage their 260 social media accounts.
Hootsuite is a unified social media platform that colleges and universities can use to drive enrollment, boost student engagement, and raise new funds.