Social media in higher education has become an essential chapter in almost every institution’s playbook. According to our research, 98% of schools use social media across campus.
Why? There’s a lot of value for schools to unlock on social media. Universities now take to social to recruit budding scholars, promote school spirit, and raise fundraiser dollars.
But there’s more to social media in higher education than marketing. These platforms also serve as essential communications channels.
With so much at stake, it’s a lot for higher education social media teams to manage. Not to mention the colossal task of supporting a vast international community across numerous channels. That’s why it’s imperative to have the right strategy, tools, and support in place so teams can use social media to its full potential.
Learn the best practices, draw inspiration from the top institutions, and master social media for higher education with these essential tips.
Bonus: Register for our latest Higher Education webinar: How to Combat Mental Fatigue for Social Media Professionals. You’ll learn:
- Best practices for social media crisis communications planning for higher education institutions during COVID-19
- How to handle negative messages and comments directed at your institution
- How to communicate the value of your social media strategy to leadership
Advantages of social media in higher education
From using social media for higher education marketing to crisis communications, there are several reasons why post-secondary institutions should be active online. These are the key advantages of social media in higher education.
Recruit new enrolments
Students won’t apply to a school they’ve never heard of before. But they do use social media to research schools they are interested in.
A recent study by TargetX found that 58% of aspiring students use social media to look up schools they’re considering. What they find can hold sway, too: 17% say these sources are extremely influential, while 61% say they are at least somewhat influenced by their social research.
But registrations are only half of the recruitment challenge. Keeping students enrolled is the other.
Research by Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research found that up to 40% of prospective students drop out before school starts because of difficulties with the admissions process. Social media can help here, too. Georgia State University reduced this so-called “summer melt” by 22% by deploying an AI-powered chatbot to answer questions.
Social media also lets schools share a glimpse into campus life with virtual tours and student takeovers. Inspire wanderlust with snapshots of the school’s grounds. Feature the clubs, communities, and social opportunities attendees can get involved in. Make it easy for students to picture their future at your university.
Promote values and achievements
Make your institution’s mission and values known. Social media can play a significant role in setting the tone for campus culture. Promote and represent the kind of environment your school aims to cultivate.
Let prospective students, faculty, and partners know they’ll be welcome and supported in your community (in turn, communicate the type of behaviour that won’t be tolerated). For example, Dartmouth College ran an Instagram Story series to show students how to update their pronouns, and in the process, helped normalize preferred pronouns.
Give current and past scholars reasons to take pride in their alma mater. Broadcast advances in medical research, commitments to sustainability, or investments in the community. Value alignment now informs everything from small purchases to major life decisions. Bring them to the foreground to boost favourability, recruit top talent, and strengthen public image.
A little old-fashioned bragging goes a long way, too. Rally school spirit by celebrating top athletes, wins, and first place finishes. Show off state-of-the-art facilities, award-winning research, Jeopardy appearances, and other accomplishments by students, faculty, and alum.
Engage students on and off campus
Even under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, 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—from home, different campuses, work study programs, at a conference, or wherever.
Create channels and groups to rally students around different topics, interests, experiences, and activities. McGill University runs more than 40 accounts dedicated to student life, including a Campus Life & Engagement Facebook Page which links to private groups like McGill University Entering Class of 2020-2021.
Encourage user-generated content. Create a hashtag like #BerkeleyPOV or #MyNYUAd so that students share photos of the campus to have them reposted. Run social media contests. Let students share their work. Promote virtual conferences, lecture series, and online networking events to bridge connections between ideas, departments, and students. Don’t forget to have a little fun with virtual dance and tailgate parties.
No one hopes for crises or emergencies. But it’s important for institutions to plan for them. Since people increasingly look to social media for real-time updates and information, it should be a key part of every crisis communications plan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for strong communications at universities and colleges. Mask policies, physical distancing requirements, precautions, and event cancellations are among the advisories schools now issue on social media.
People also expect institutions to respond to social movements such as Black Lives Matter, sexual harassment reports, and public relations crises in a timely manner. They want to see the concrete actions the university is taking to address social or institutional issues.
Bad press, false rumours and abuse travels fast on social media, making it important to conduct active social listening. Support from leadership and clear guidelines on how to intercept and handle negative messages is crucial for social media managers to be quick and effective with their response.
Communication plans should also be prepared in the event of weather disruptions, natural disasters, active shooters, and other imminent threats.
Fundraising and advocacy
Several universities have found success in using social media in higher education as a lever for fundraising.
Purdue University’s annual Purdue Day of Giving Campaign has set five consecutive records for a 24-hour higher-ed fundraising campaign. In 2019, the social media-based campaign raised $41.6 million in a single day, bringing the school’s six-year total to $146.9 million.
Last year, Columbia University’s annual Giving Day raised $22 million from more than 18K donors. Integrating these campaigns with CRM systems allows the universities to attribute funds raised through social media and measure ROI. Beyond financials, social fundraising campaigns like these invite alumni to be active advocates, adding an invaluable show of support and comradery.
Using social media in higher education: 8 essential tips
Follow these tips to use social media in higher education to its full potential.
1. Create a social media hub
Higher education social media operations tend to involve a lot of people and even more channels. According to our 2019 Social Campus Report, in addition to 10 social media managers, another 36 people, on average, are involved in campus social initiatives. With more than 450 channels, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is likely well above this average.
Bring everyone and everything together with a central hub. Create a social media directory that lists and categorizes all social media accounts. 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 domains with the option to filter by network.
Source: MIT Social Media Hub
As an external resource, the hubs allow people to find and follow the right channels and have confidence that they are official accounts. Intake forms, guidelines, and policies, can also be linked here for easy internal and external access.
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. The platform makes it easy for often under-resourced managers to assign tasks, approve and schedule posts, and mobilize in the event of a crisis.
2. Establish social media guidelines
Lay down a strong foundation for using social media in higher education. With the right guidelines in place, organizations can streamline the onboarding process, promote best practices, and maintain a unified voice across channels.
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 who often face verbal mistreatment on the frontlines. They also empower students and faculty to participate in an independent and authentic way, while reducing the need for support from the core team.
3. 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.
The enormous challenge of creating strategy for a multi-channel organization is likely why it continues to be a top goal for professionals polled in our 2019 Social Campus Report. Seventy-six percent of respondents cite defining a clear social media strategy and objectives as their top priority. Another 45% hope to coordinate social strategy campus-wide.
When it comes to developing a higher education social media strategy, a good place to start is with the university. Most institutions have mandates that social media can support. In fact, 64% of professionals agree that social media should be connected to the strategic plan and institutional mission.
Align social strategy back to the university’s core objectives. Not only does this create a clear business case for social media, it allows managers to better allocate their resources. Develop a social media content calendar to identify and plan for key dates, events, and holidays.
Tip: Integrate social media with your institution’s CRM software so you can measure its full impact.
Learn how to create a social media strategy in 8 steps.
4. Adopt a platform-specific approach
Chances are you’ll find more alumni on LinkedIn than on TikTok. Or maybe not. There’s no way to know for certain without studying up on audience demographics.
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. LinkedIn may not be the best platform for recruiting undergraduates—but it could be the ideal place to market continuing education programs.
Look beyond your audience to identify new opportunities. For example, with 45% of its international students coming from China, Boston University elected to set up official WeChat and Weibo accounts.
Stay on top of platform and demographic trends to identify where your communities are most active. This allows managers to focus on channels that will ultimately drive the most results. Management tools like Hootsuite make it easy to compare how channels stack up against each other.
Know what’s in with the young crowd. For many universities that has meant brushing up on social slang and tapping college content ideas from teens on Snapchat and TikTok.
Give the teens what they want to make content. Share university anthems on TikTok. Upload GIFs to Giphy. Ryerson University’s batch of mascot-fronted GIFS have raked in 35.1 million views. Create university-branded face- and geofilters for Snapchat and Instagram.
5. Build and empower communities
With a central hub, guidelines, and strategy, your infrastructure is in place for communities to flourish on social media and higher education.
Create hashtags the student body can rally behind online. In 2017, Georgia State University launched #TheStateWay campaign to give the community a way to share and take pride in the school’s identity. The initiative earned more than 2.4 million social impressions and was adopted by 90% of the university executives. Three years later, it’s still going strong.
Develop an accessible intake program so students and faculty can apply to create and manage accounts. Create flexibility so students, faculty, or alumni can choose the channel and format that works for them, whether a Facebook group, professional Twitter account, LinkedIn Showcase Page, Pinterest board, or YouTube series. Let students and their creativity takeover—doing so pays off. St. Andrews University more than tripled its follower count on Instagram after launching student takeovers.
Ultimately, the more people there are sharing content, the greater the reach and social share of voice your institution will have. With Hootsuite Amplify, staff and students can share vetted, on-brand content and increase reach.
6. Stay on top of trends with social listening
Social listening is essential to address and quell negativity before things get out of hand online. But it can also be used to identify trends and opportunities.
OsloMet, Norway’s third-largest university, set up specific keyword search streams on Hootsuite to learn what topics and careers candidates and students were most interested in. With their findings, they’re able to create high-performing content that speaks to these interests.
The school has also used social listening to help faculty and staff promote their research. For example, the social team listens to journalists and are able to respond when they put out calls for experts. It has allowed OsloMet scholars and studies to reach a wider audience, from research that shows the polluting effects of fast fashion, to demographic data that underscores why people on the margins suffer most during pandemics.
7. Explore 1:1 messaging
Demand for one-on-one messaging continues to grow on social media for higher education institutions. Recent research shows that the use of messaging apps increased from 37% in 2017 to 51% in 2019.
Some people are less comfortable posting in groups and forums and prefer the privacy of direct channels. Others are simply more familiar with apps like Facebook Messenger.
Artificial intelligence allows universities to scale their response capability. With AdmitHub, Georgia State University created Pounce, a chatbot that answers common questions and queries.
University of the People, the world’s largest non-profit online university, teamed up with Smartloop to launch a Facebook Messenger bot. In the first three months after its release, the bot exchanged more than a million messages with 40,000 prospective students—half of which started applications after their chat. As a result, UofPeople was able to decrease costs per application by 62%.
8. Target ads to reach audiences
Organic reach is in decline. Not just when it comes to social media for higher education marketing, but in general.
Fortunately, GenZers are pretty unbothered by ads. According to TargetX’s survey, almost three-quarters of teens have noticed ads online. Notably, more than half of those who see them actually click on them. As far as marketing grades go, a 56% click-through rate is pretty fridge-worthy.
University of the People promoted their Messenger bot on Facebook with click-to video ads. The Technological University of Mexico used a combination of Facebook and Instagram placements to target new recruits and drive a 20% increase in registrations.
New to higher education social media advertising? Study up with Social Media Advertising 101.
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.