Colleges and universities have very unique business and communications challenges, and have to survive in a very competitive market. The increasingly fierce competition for student dollars means that you must have a plan and employ the most effective tools at your disposal.  Social media is the next battleground.

Higher Ed institutions have long realized the power and necessity of leveraging multiple marketing and communications channels, but, as technology makes connecting ever easier, more are investing in social media strategy, which provides further opportunities to generate engagement and build the organization’s brand.

Higher education institutions are using social media channels for lots of reasons, including:

  • Engaging with prospective students, current students and alumni.
  • Responding to student questions, comments, suggestions and concerns.
  • Improving recruitment rates.
  • Engaging with parents (who are pivotal in the recruitment process).
  • Complementing the teaching/learning process
  • Building and maintaining the college brand.

The challenge is discovering the channels that students, parents and other stakeholders are active in, speaking their language, creating content that is appropriate for the context, is relevant, valuable and, importantly, highly shareable.

So, the question becomes, how can you do it better?

Generally, the focus should always be on content that is relevant and timely for your target audience. Create content that adds value, and is good enough that they want to share it. This, of course, is simple in theory, but more difficult to execute. A clearly defined plan will go along way to achieving success.

Unite teams within your organization, so that communications can occur in a cohesive way. Higher education institutions are often siloed, making communications challenging. A central panel with some oversight might be the best way to avoid conflict and provide direction.

Spend time on your strategy, then employ the best tactics It is critical that you spend enough time crafting a solid strategy before choosing channels. By itemizing and defining the goals of your engagements you will be better positioned to create solid content and assess the results more accurately.

Engage “captive” audiences, such as current students and university alumni. These are the best constituents for disseminating your message, as they are already invested in your organization, and they are the most likely to share. Also, studies have determined that prospective students are more likely to be influenced by feeds from friends than info straight from the college, which they might see as self-serving. In some instances one-to-one communication with alumni, students and parents may be the most engaging.

Keep channels professional and transparent Social channels can lend themselves to interaction that is more personal than is necessary or desirable for the intended goals. Follow your organizations legal guidelines and respect confidentiality.

Simplify your channels as much as possible Try everything that you think might work, but then focus attention and resources on the top few that actually yield results. Social media requires very active management and higher education social media teams tend to be small and stretched for time and resources.

Seek natural interactions Look for interactions that are less contrived. Social media can be viewed as invasive, and the audience may not want to “connect” with you at all. However, it is possible that you can provide value in the form of information, entertainment or otherwise valuable information. There is ample opportunity for creative thinking here. Part of this will involve honing your social media listening skills to help you discover conversations and channels that you can be part of. Also, if you can predict the information and content that your audience is looking for, you can be ready to respond to student questions expeditiously and with the biggest impact.

Cultivate relationships with key influencers who add value to your brand In the college context this might be individuals who are respected or well-known alumni in business, sports, entertainment or other areas. These brand ambassadors can amplify your message and increase your reach.

Build privacy and security into your planning When building out a social media campaign be sure to have the conversation about risks. These include security factors and how the platform meets your privacy policy requirements. You should not be blindsided because you didn’t consult your legal department. Perhaps they even have guidelines for you.

Embrace the fuzz, but crunch the numbers. The goal is primarily engagement, but we can’t always quantify that. Likes and follows give us metrics, but the audience may also just be viewing the content and it may well have an affect on their thoughts and actions, but is not easy to calculate the worth of this influence. This is where the fuzz is in social media and where art meets science. Ultimately, you will have to quantify your success as college budgets are increasingly tied to results. Have metrics in mind when embarking on any social media component. Not to do so is to risk termination of the project when budget conversations arise. There are many tools out there that will help you evaluate social media data. Running reports that show key metrics like audience growth or engagement should become a standard practice. Depending on the channel, this can be each semester or as often as each month or week.

Monitor emerging platforms It is the nature of social media, and digital communications in general, that things change rapidly, and often unpredictably. New platforms emerge constantly and, sometimes, old stalwarts can disappear remarkably quickly. Keeping up with what is new is now part of the game.

Train the professionals As social media permeates every aspect of higher education life, colleges and universities must acknowledge its influence beyond recruitment and marketing. Business training for social media managers is not optional. Just like any kind of specialist communications, social media in this context requires training in tools and strategies, best practices and insights into developing platforms.

Educate your audience Higher education institutions have another responsibility in regard to students. They could be more proactive in offering social media understanding as part of their curriculum, perhaps even as a required class, educating students about protecting privacy, communicating in ways appropriate to the medium, avoiding social media blunders, personal brand management, being wary of manipulation by brands, and more.

While social media strategy is embraced by Higher Ed with varying degrees of commitment, resources and knowledge, there is no doubt that it is here to stay, and that its importance can only grow. Next step? Call a meeting of your social media committee and be sure to put all the issues on the table.

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