Using social media in higher education is the new norm. Recruitment. Student and alumni relations. Crisis communications. Fundraising. It all happens on social.

In this post, we look at the expanding role of social media in higher education. Let’s explore how you can use social tools to build your institutional reputation and foster a sense of community.

Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

The benefits of social media in higher education

There are plenty of benefits for higher education institutions that understand social tools. Here are some of the top advantages of social media in higher education.

Promoting values and achievements

Make your institution’s mission and values known. Social media use in higher education is significant in setting the tone on campus. Promote and represent the kind of culture your school aims to cultivate.

Value alignment informs everything from small purchases to major life decisions. Let prospective students, faculty, and partners know they’re welcome and supported. In turn, communicate the types of behavior that won’t be tolerated.

Give current and past scholars reasons to take pride in their alma mater — broadcast commitments to sustainability, investments in the community, or advances in medical research.

A little old-fashioned bragging goes a long way, too. Show off state-of-the-art facilities, award-winning research, and other accomplishments. Highlight students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Rally school spirit by celebrating top athletes, wins, and first place finishes.

Connecting with alumni and boost fundraising efforts

Alumni are often the source of major fundraising contributions. Social media raises your profile and helps maintain connections with them. Many colleges and universities maintain social accounts specifically geared to alumni relations.

Facebook groups for alumni in different cities or countries could be a good bet, too. The University of Oregon has Facebook groups for alumni all over the world.

UO Japan Alumni Facebook group

Source: UO Japan Alumni

Social is also an important tool to publicize one-off or annual fundraising events.

Last year, Columbia University’s #ColumbiaGivingDay raised $24 million. There were more than 19 thousand donors. Social media is a key way to spread the word and inspire participation and gifts.

Integrating a campaign like this with a CRM system allows you to attribute funds and measure ROI. Social fundraising campaigns also invite alumni, students, staff, and faculty to be active advocates for the school. They can provide an invaluable show of support and camaraderie.

Taking advantage of UGC (user-generated content)

Your entire student population is likely creating social content on a regular basis. That’s a ton of real-life material that can help authentically boost your institution’s profile.

Create a hashtag like #BerkeleyPOV for students to share photos. Repost the best ones (crediting the authors, of course) on your official channels.

Social media contests encourage students to share content you can use. Simple rewards like university logo clothing work well as motivational prizes. Plus, those promotional clothing items will likely show up in later posts, further promoting the university in an organic way.

Developing new learning opportunities

Social media in higher education presents powerful opportunities for creative thinking and presentation.

In the Netflix show “The Chair,” a professor asks students to Tweet their favorite line from Moby Dick. There’s not much critical thinking there. But it could be a good first step to incorporating social tools. Maybe students could use a course-based hashtag to collect those Tweets and discuss their impact or meaning.

The A. Holly Patterson Library at Nassau Community College provides resources for instructors to incorporate social media education in assignments. These include guides on information literacy and spotting fake news.

In the journal Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, Hamadi, El-Den, Azam, et al. created the following framework for the role of social media in higher education as a cooperative learning tool:

Framework for the role of social media in higher education as a cooperative learning tool

Source: Hamadi, M., El-Den, J., Azam, S. et al. A novel framework for integrating social media as a cooperative learning tool in higher education’s classrooms. RPTEL 16, 21 (2021).

Recent research shows social media is most often used in:

  • literacy education
  • medicine
  • higher education marketing, and
  • social sciences

Popular uses of social media in higher education

The impact of social media in higher education is hard to overstate. Let’s look at a few of its most important uses for higher ed.

Attracting new candidates

A recent study by TargetX found 58% of aspiring students use social media to research schools. 17% say these sources are extremely influential. And 61% say they are at least somewhat influenced by their social research.

Make it easy for students to picture their future at your university. Showcase college life with virtual tours and student takeovers.

Feature the clubs, communities, and social opportunities attendees can get involved in. Show off the campus. Help them understand the benefits your institution offers beyond academic study.

Sharing important updates in real time

No one hopes for crises or emergencies. But it’s important for institutions to plan for them. People increasingly look to social media for real-time updates and information. Social is a key part of every crisis communications plan.

Rumors travel fast on social media. So do student-led trends you’ll want to keep tabs on (we’re looking at you, #bamarush). All this makes it essential to conduct active social listening.

COVID-19 has increased the need for strong communications at universities and colleges. Mask policies, physical distancing requirements, precautions, event cancellations. These are all advisories schools now issue on social media.

Ohio University has a Twitter account specifically to deal with COVID information and updates:

People also expect institutions to respond to social movements. They want to see the university take concrete actions to address social or institutional issues.

Communication plans should also be prepared for emergencies. Think about weather disruptions, natural disasters, and other imminent threats.

Engaging students on and off-campus

Not all students live on campus. That doesn’t mean they’re less motivated to engage and participate in student life.

A key advantage of social media in higher education is that it allows students to connect. That might be from home, different campuses, work study programs, or at a conference.

Create channels and groups to rally students. Base them on wide-ranging topics, interests, experiences, and activities.

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Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

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McGill University runs more than 40 accounts dedicated to student life. And the Campus Life & Engagement Facebook Page links to private groups like McGill University Entering Class of 2021-2022.

There’s also a Facebook page specifically for off-campus students. This ensures they feel as much a part of the university community as those who live in residence.

How to use social media in higher education: 6 essential tips

Using social media in higher education can feel a little overwhelming. Here are 6 tips to help make it work for your institution.

1. Develop a social media strategy

Behind every successful social media channel, there’s a strategy at play. Add more channels to the picture, and the need for strategy increases. But so do the challenges.

It’s an enormous challenge to create a strategy for a multi-channel organization.

This is likely why it continues to be a top goal for professionals polled in our Social Campus Report. 76% of respondents say defining a clear social media marketing strategy and objectives is their top priority. Another 45% hope to coordinate social strategy campus-wide.

Align social strategy back to the university’s core objectives. This creates a clear business case for social media and allows managers to better allocate resources. In fact, 64% of professionals agree that social media should connect to the strategic plan and institutional mission.

For example, look at Georgia State University’s #TheStateWay campaign. It has four pillars: Atlanta, research, classroom technology, and student success.

@georgiastateuniversityWe’re top ranked! #TheStateWay!♬ original sound – GeorgiaStateU

Meanwhile, the University of Sydney uses social media to support its 4 big strategic goals:

  • enhance its research reputation
  • attract high-quality students
  • diversify its international student base
  • build a unique brand

2. Establish social media guidelines and policies

With so many people and accounts involved, it’s important to establish guidelines and policies to keep everyone on track. Solid documentation helps streamline onboarding, promotes best practices, and maintains a unified voice across channels.

Your complete set of higher education social media guidelines should include:

It may seem like a lot of ground to cover. But thorough guidelines provide crucial support to social managers. They also empower students and faculty to participate in an independent and authentic way. As a bonus, they reduce the need for support from the core team.

3. Create a social media hub

Higher ed social media operations tend to involve a lot of people and even more channels. Bring everyone and everything together with a central hub. Create a social media directory that lists and categorizes all social media accounts.

For example, the University of Michigan has more than 1200 active social accounts. Official accounts are listed in a directory.

University of Michigan's directory of social media accounts

Source: University of Michigan

MIT maintains a searchable website that lets visitors look up channels by keyword or platform. The University of Waterloo lists upwards of 200 channels by department or domain with the option to filter by network.

As an external resource, these hubs allow people to find and follow the right channels. They can be confident they’re looking at official accounts.

The hub-and-spoke setup translates as a good management model as well. With the support of a tool like Hootsuite, a core team can monitor all channels from a central dashboard.

This makes life easier for often under-resourced social managers. Use the dashboard to assign tasks, approve and schedule posts, coordinate content from contacts across the campus, and mobilize in the event of a crisis.

4. Adopt a platform-specific approach

Did you check out the social media directories we mentioned above? If so, you’ll notice the social platforms used vary across departments, faculties, and other areas of university life.

Does admissions need a LinkedIn page? Does information aimed at parents need to go on TikTok? It’s important to consider which platforms are most likely to reach the right audience.

But remember: You’re not just talking to Gen Z.

Your audience includes students and potential students, of course, but they may not all be in their late teens or early twenties. In public four-year schools in the U.S., 90% of students are under 25. But for private for-profit four-year institutions, 66% are 25 or older.

Distribution of new full-time students by age

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Beyond mature students, you’ve also got to reach plenty of other adult audiences:

  • parents
  • corporate partners
  • other institutions
  • faculty and potential faculty
  • staff

Get to know each of your social audiences. Look for trends in age range, gender, location, and, if available, occupation, education level, and interests. With these findings, tailor and personalize messages for each different audience.

For instance, LinkedIn may not be the best platform for recruiting undergraduates. But it could be the ideal place to market continuing education programs or recruit new instructors.

TikTok might be a good channel for admissions content. (Though likely not the only one — remember those adult learners). It can also be a platform to experiment and simply build community in the inexplicable way that only TikTok can.

Stay on top of platform and demographic trends to identify where your communities are most active. This allows managers to focus on channels that drive the most results. Management tools like Hootsuite make it easy to compare how channels stack up against each other.

5. Build and empower communities

With a central hub, guidelines, and strategy, your infrastructure is in place for communities to flourish on social media.

Create hashtags the student body can rally behind online. Develop an accessible intake program so students and faculty can apply to create and manage accounts. Let students and their creativity take over — it pays off.

City University of New York handed control of its TikTok account over to students. The result is definitely not what you would find on most official higher-ed social platforms. But it has more than 23 thousand followers and 1.6 million likes.

@cunyeduStill gonna get that iced coffee tho 😗✌️ ##CUNY ##college ##student ##school ##nyc ##CandyCrushAllStars♬ original sound – Call me Snow

Colorado State University created a student-run YouTube channel. Student ambassadors share pretty intimate videos about life on campus and what it has been like to be a college student during a pandemic.

CSU promoted its YouTube channel with student takeovers on its Instagram account, which led to messages like this:

Exchange of DMs between CSU social team and prospective candidate

Source: Shorty Awards: A Ram’s Life Vlog

The more people who share content, the greater your institution’s reach and social share of voice. With Hootsuite Amplify, faculty, staff, and students can share vetted, on-brand content and increase reach.

6. Invest in building a team

Social media for higher education is not a one-person job. Nor is a job that should be left to interns. (Although it is a great idea to include student interns or work placement positions on your social team.)

For context, the University of Michigan has a social media team of 12 people plus a director and student interns. West Virginia University has a full-time social team of eight for their Morgantown Campus plus three half-time student workers.

Don’t yet have a full team? Create strategic alliances with other departments. You’ll gain access to more information and resources than you could on your own.

You can also maximize the time of a small team with a social media management platform like Hootsuite. Create posts in advance, schedule them for the best posting times, and upload batches of posts in bulk. You also don’t waste time logging in and out of different platforms.

Liz Grey at the University of Sydney said, “​​Hootsuite saves us so much time. It’s probably equivalent to having two more people on our team.”

Need to prove to higher-ups that you need more budget for social media? Come prepared with plenty of information about your current return on investment.

A social media report is an important tool for backing up the value of your work.

Put your higher education engagement strategy into action and save time while you’re at it by using Hootsuite to manage all your social channels from one dashboard. Try it free today.

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