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What Are the Best Social Media Strategies for Universities?

At Hootsuite, we’ve helped hundreds of universities—including the University of Cambridge and the University of Salford—roll out their social media programs. Here’s a quick look at three of the best ways we’ve found that higher education marketers can boost enrollment and connect with students on social media.

Do you work in higher education? We have an upcoming free webinar called, “How Social Media is Transforming Higher Education.” Experts from City University and the University of Cambridge will share what’s working at their university and you’ll have a chance to ask questions and connect with other digital leaders. Reserve your spot here.

3 great social media strategies for universities

1) Give departments autonomy over their social media

”The beauty of departmental social media is that it’s relatively free from the branded, marketed feel of official university web pages,” Rachel Herrmann, a lecturer in early modern American history at the University of Southampton (U.K.), recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The moment a university starts requiring departmental accounts to tweet about certain things or a certain number of times a day, or to report on particular statistics, those accounts begin to feel fake.”

We agree. Universities are open and collaborative by nature. There’s no shortage of experts, bright student ambassadors, and departments willing to share their passion on social channels.

But without coordination and central control, this can lead to fragmented communication and prevent the university from creating a cohesive digital presence. For example—when a new student joins and wants to engage with the English Department, which of the 23 social accounts do they follow?

As Paul Redfern, the communications and marketing team lead at Gettysburg College, suggested in Inside Higher Ed, “Our goal should be to let faculty be faculty and let students be students—and incorporate their viewpoints, styles, and voices in the online channels we manage on behalf of the institution.” At the same time, though, social media “needs to be managed as any other official communications channel.”

The key is to balance collaboration and oversight. Encourage the different voices in your university to express their views and research passions—but make sure the integrity and unity of the university is preserved.

What to do

  1. The first step is to organize all accounts with a social media management platform. This gives your different departments autonomy while giving your communications team a central view of all university communication on social media. This guide offers some help choosing a social management platform.

  1. Next, design a social media policy and a process for departments and groups creating new accounts. You don’t want to stifle creativity and collaboration, but you do need to protect the university’s reputation and ensure a coherent digital presence. This resource explains the administrative side of social media including mitigating risk and creating effective social media policies.

  2. Create an efficient process to identify risky and off-brand social media accounts. You don’t want to rely on accidental discoveries and manual searching (such as a professor noticing a new questionable Facebook Page by a group of students). Instead, set up multiple Hootsuite streams to automatically scan for branded terms and have a simple process in place to deal with issues.

  3. Set goals that rally the entire university. Old fashioned rivalry can help here such as gaining a larger digital share of voice than a competing university. Then provide comprehensive and easy-to-understand weekly reports to upper management around digital activities and progress including: market sentiment, competitive analysis, and top stories.

2) Support each step of the student journey

A study by Pew Research found that 52 percent of teenagers use YouTube and other social media sites to research assignments—it makes sense, your YouTube and Facebook content will be the first place they look when evaluating their university path. According to the 2015 Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report, U.K. teenagers now spend 3.5 working days each week on social platforms.

Whether it’s creating YouTube content to reveal campus life or connecting with alumni on Facebook, you need to nurture relationships at each step of student’s journey.

For example, the University of Cambridge uses Hootsuite Enterprise to monitor 260 different social accounts belonging to Ph.D. students, university departments, affiliated organizations, influencers, and friends of the university. This helps them listen to the many different needs of their students and community.

What to do

We’ve found that successful strategies look at the many angles of a student’s life. Build a strategy for each stage of your student’s life cycle:

  • Prospective students: what are their top questions and how are they using social to evaluate and picture life on your campus? YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook are useful here.
  • Current students: how will you help students connect with different university clubs, departments, and campus life?
  • Alumni: how do you stay connected after they graduate? They might use Snapchat while on campus, but LinkedIn and Facebook will likely be better long-term ways to stay connected.

Once you’ve built strategies for those core audiences, you can expand to other segments such as prospective faculty, donors, government stakeholders, industry, and community.

3) Use assignments to manage real-time questions

On clearing day, over 350 universities across the U.K. try to connect with prospective students and answer inquiries about course and facilities on social media. To manage this successfully requires planning, collaboration, and deep listening.

Our customer, the University of Salford, used real-time listening and assignments to handle double the enquiries in half the time compared to the year before, responding to nearly 800 messages.

In the past, clearing enquiries at the University of Salford were conducted over the phone or by email, which required call centers or long email threads amongst lecturers and academics. Moving to social, the university was historically only setup to catch direct @mentions, which meant that many enquiries were left unanswered.

As more students turned to Twitter to ask questions during the clearing, the university staff would visit to respond—not knowing if another staff member had already replied.

This time, Justin Clark, senior press officer at the University of Salford, set-up multiple keyword searches and geo-located streams to catch all U.K.-based and international student inquiries related to different courses and departments—whether they mentioned the university or not.

Not only could they conduct more advanced listening, but they could have multiple people collaborating without duplicating answers or missing messages.

“On a daily basis, we’ll look out for what our students are saying online and spark genuine, one-to-one conversations with them. That one interaction could mean the difference between that student choosing us over another university—from a commercial point of view, that’s a potential £27,000,” says Justin.

How they solved this:

  1. They set up a dedicated social media clearing team to answer inquiries. Each member had specific knowledge of the student recruitment process.

  2. They had a single team leader responsible for monitoring and listening across all social channels. The team leader would then assign individual messages to the relevant member of the social media clearing team to take action.

  3. This ensured the inquirer received the right answer the first time in as short a timeframe as possible. On average, response times to enquiries were between two to four minutes.

“It’s been a quiet revolution over the past year. Without having executive investment in social media, we couldn’t prove its worth. Now that we’re increasing recruitment efficiency during times like clearing, we’re getting the buy-in we need to prove the ROI,” says Justin.

Join us for a practical webinar on how to use social media in higher education

We’ll be going into detail with concrete examples in our upcoming free webinar. It features experts from City University and the University of Cambridge and key lessons Hootsuite has learned from working with hundreds of universities.

  • Learn specific ways communication teams, admissions department, student services, and alumni relations can use social media.

  • Discover how to increase collaboration and reach goals such as student recruitment and retention.

  • Get expert advice from Sabrina Francis, social media officer at City University and Barney Brown, head of digital communications at the University of Cambridge.

How Social Media is Transforming Higher Education
Date: Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Time: 11 a.m. GMT

Register for the Webinar