The New College Search Reality

Three strategies for social media success. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Gil Rogers

Inigral college search social mediaSocial media is changing the college applications and enrollment process. In a recent survey of more than 4,000 college-bound students, Zinch (a Chegg service) and Inigral found that nearly three-quarters of respondents used social media to research colleges.  Of this group, one-third acknowledged social media having a strong influence over their search, with 70 percent reporting it had at least some influence.  More importantly, 75 percent of students said they used social media when deciding where to ultimately enroll, with nearly 80 percent recognizing it as influential.

Admissions and Marketing

What does this mean for admissions and marketing offices? Seems like every 6 months there is a new “hot” network, and college admissions and marketing offices are consistently struggling to keep up.  Many, however, seem to miss the mark when it comes to where they are focusing their efforts. Does your college or university need a Pinterest strategy? A SnapChat strategy? Are you still maintaining that MySpace page from your first dip of the toes into social media? This recent research suggests three key takeaways for institutions aiming to maximize social media impact:

1.   Focus on critical mass

Facebook continues to be the defacto social network for students, with 70 percent of survey respondents visiting the site at least once a day.  This is compared to only 27 percent on Twitter, and less than 20 percent on Pinterest.  Both sites get a lot of attention but may not be the best platform for reaching the masses with respect to recruitment of undergraduate students. Interestingly, Instagram (a photo-sharing service owned by Facebook) surpassed Twitter this year with nearly 30 percent of students visiting the site at least once a day.

With this in mind, it’s important for institutions to understand that they need to focus on developing overall recruitment and outreach goals before trying to utilize all of the tools that are out there. It is true that creating an account on all of these sites is free.  However, it takes time and resources to create content, manage relationships, and respond to student comments throughout the year. Managing a social media presence can truly become a 24/7/365 role. It’s best to focus on doing well where the masses are (Facebook), than it is to try to manage an account on every niche social network.

2.  Tell your story visually

While still a relatively new service when compared to its peers, Instagram saw a growth in adoption of nearly 50 percent from 2012 to 2013. Pinterest saw similar growth, but is still a relatively niche network with respect to overall usage.  The growth in these two platforms specifically is significant because it shows that visual and mobile-first platforms are growing fast..

These platforms create a great opportunity for schools to bring campus life to life via social media. Telling your story visually helps students get a real feel for what’s happening, who’s attending and how they’d participate. It also helps infuse some personality into your brand, which goes a long way in developing a relationship with prospective students. In addition to showcasing your official assets, think about enlisting current students in creating and curating photos and images that tell the story of your school. 

3.  Put students front and center

Over three-quarters of students surveyed said that a college or university should have a social media presence. However, only about half of students said that they “liked” or “followed” an institution on social media sites. Students are skeptical about the “official” content from an institution.

Over 75 percent of students said that conversations they had via social media with students that attend their school had an influence on their decision to enroll there. While it is important to have and maintain institution-created content providing prospective students an official information source, a stronger strategy overall is to find ways to connect students with each other. In fact, this is almost as influential as conversations students had with their friends at their high school.

Understanding that students are open to colleges having a social media presence but not overtly connecting to their official content online, how are institutions expected to manage conversations while still giving students their space? About 70 percent of students said they would be likely to join a social network or group for admitted students from the school they chose to attend. And of the students who did join such a network, over 90 percent had a positive experience. These experiences are positive because the institution is empowering students to connect and share on their own while incorporating their branding and institutional personality.

The New Reality

The reality is that students are taking to their college search the same way their parents buy a house, buy a car, or even decide where to go out to eat on the weekend. In the “grown-up world” we visit sites like Zillow when researching homes, Cars.com when buying a car, and Yelp when deciding where to eat. We take the reviews and perspectives of strangers into account when making our final decisions. Why should students be any different?

It’s important for institutions to recognize that conversations that students were having at the dinner table and in the cafeteria 10 years ago are now happening online. Students are actively researching and making their decisions with respect to what college or university they attend based on third-party reviews and perspectives of students at the institution over marketing-based messaging they are receiving through traditional channels. Rather than focusing on creating new content, institutions should focus on curating the content that their student body is producing and showcase it to the masses via their preferred online platforms. This accomplishes what students want — finding “real” content and experiences from current students — while still empowering institutions to be active participants in the conversation.

Gil Rogers is Director of Marketing and Outreach for Zinch, a Chegg service. He has a passion for higher education marketing and recruitment. His experience in enrollment management includes direct recruitment of undergraduate students, review of applications for admission, and development of communication methods utilizing Web 2.0 technologies. Tweet @gilrogers

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