It’s no secret that the world of social media has become integral to the college experience.

After all, today’s top universities both big and small are scrambling to the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to boast what their campuses are all about.

But higher education marketing isn’t just about having the most “school spirit,” nor is it a competition to post the most epic collegiate content.

It’s about creating an experience for the members of your school’s community, both on-campus and off.

Consider the responsibilities on the plates of any given school’s marketing team, including:

  • Wowing prospective students contemplating where they should apply
  • Keeping campus in the loop about the million things going on a day-to-day basis, including university deadlines and major events
  • Encouraging higher morale and positive relationships between students, educators and the school community at large

That only scratches the surface, by the way.

Juggling the many pieces of higher education marketing might seem like an uphill battle, but becomes less daunting when you understand just how schools today are expected to use social media.

And in this guide, we’ll break down the big picture expectations and tactics of higher education marketing and how schools can better connect to their campuses.

With that, let’s dive right in!

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Higher Education Marketing Trends & Insights

In the early days of social media for college and universities, a school’s Twitter feed or Facebook page might have been more akin to a bulletin board for current students.

Fast forward to present day and it’s clear that times have changed in terms of tactics and expectations.

For starters, prospective students are overwhelmingly using social media to research potential campuses to eventually call “home.” No longer flipping through clunky college guidebooks, students and parents primarily rely on digital communication with colleges in the form of email, text or messengers to stay in touch with schools.

Digital communication is integral to modern higher education marketing

Of course, social media is a key component of that research and communication.

Approximately 18% of high school students check out a prospective university’s Instagram account multiple times per day. This young, yet increasingly tech-savvy demographic, looks at a school’s social feed as a window into campus life.

Meanwhile, the majority of any student body is already connected to social media in some way, shape or form. Data from Pew Research Center notes the rise in social usage among those under 30, with 88% plugged into at least one platform.

The vast majority of college students are connected to social media

This data shows that it isn’t a matter of whether or not the traditional college crowd is connected to social media, but rather how much. Schools are therefore expected to work between multiple social accounts to speak to all students at every point of the university lifecycle.

Applicant. Student. Alumni.

There’s a distinct need to keep all of these audiences in the loop on a consistent basis.

Higher education marketing is about more than just creating content for these audiences, though.

As noted by Sprout Social’s own experience working with Marquette University, one of the most overlooked aspects of higher education marketing is alignment.

In the case of Marquette, Sprout saw firsthand the challenges of creating a consistent message across dozens of social accounts speaking to dozens of different audiences and departments at once.

Speaking of which, there’s a big-picture need for schools to bring their students, faculty and respective communities together via social, and doing so requires marketers in education to tackle a specific set of challenges.

Overcoming the Challenges of Higher Education Marketing

For schools of all shapes and sizes, social media in higher education has its hurdles. Specifically, there are four common challenges for those trying to establish an effective higher education marketing strategy.

1. Siloed Departments

Marketing, admissions, public relations, athletics, alumni and the list goes on.

Each of these departments desires their own social footprint, which often results in little or no collaboration between them. Rather than treat each other as islands, different departments should strive to rally around a central social message.

2. Competing Interests

Aligning social goals isn’t so simple when departments are essentially competing against one another.

For example, universities use social media for everything from fundraising and student awareness to brand reputation and recruiting. Schools must work to reconcile these interests without preventing specific teams from participating in social.

Ideally, departments should be empowered to work toward their individual objectives while still adhering to their school’s overarching strategy.

3. Diverse Audiences

Again, one of the biggest challenges of higher education marketing is keeping students engaged from their applicant to alumni.

Messaging moves quickly for universities. While initial marketing might be focused on attracting new students, that focus shifts to campus news and fundraising. Easing into that shift requires a keen attention to detail.

Of course, there’s also the need for schools to speak to students from all walks of life. In a day and age of diverse student bodies and schools celebrating a range of cultures, taking a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing to college students simply won’t cut it.

4. Tracking Brand Reputation

There’s also the expectation for universities to have a pulse on their brand health and reputation over time. This helps determine whether or not a school’s social strategy is effective and what needs to change.

Additionally, bear in mind that social media offers schools a direct line of communication with the student body. Universities can easily be alerted to issues on campus as well as buzzworthy events among the campus community.

Schools likewise want to know where they’re scoring media mentions that tie directly into brand reputation and recruiting efforts.

Obviously, there’s a lot of ground for schools to cover via social. These challenges represent the top priorities of marketers in higher education today.

Effective High Education Marketing in Action

Beyond the previous challenges, there’s also the question of which types of content to push to students.

For marketers in higher education, the opportunities are seemingly endless.

Representing a younger crowd that’s about as social-savvy as they come, marketers are expected to be both creative and consistent in terms of how they speak to students.

Below are some shining examples of higher education marketing trends and ideas for just how today’s top universities are tapping into their student audiences.

User-Generated Content

Oftentimes the most-loved and share-worthy content of any given college come from students themselves. Many colleges regularly shout out user-generated content on campus, sourced from a school-specific hashtag like this one from UCLA (#sceneatUCLA):

Not only do these sorts of photos highlight the authentic campus experience, but also create a sense of community on campus. Through UGC, universities have a constant flurry of shareable content to choose from as students stay connected to campus: it’s a win-win.

As such, it’s common for schools to have some sort of hashtag for students to share their spirit and likewise curate UGC.

For example, Tulane uses a standard #Tulane hashtag to mark their content:

Meanwhile, UNC Chapel Hill encourages students to take advantage of their #Targram tag:

Harnessing a university hashtag is a simple yet brilliant example of how higher education marketing brings the campus community closer together.

A good way to find user-generated content to share on social is by monitoring brand mentions or specific hashtags. You can use Sprout Social’s Smart Inbox to filter social messages containing your university’s social media handles or branded hashtags across multiple profiles.

For instance, Vanderbilt could monitor the hashtag #vandygram to see all the latest user-generated content on Instagram from students or faculty.

smart inbox instagram keyword

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Epic Imagery

Visual content dominates every social channel today, and especially resonates with the college crowd.

Make no mistake: aesthetics matter to students. There’s an ongoing, unspoken competition among just about any school trying to show off who has the most beautiful, buzzworthy campus. That’s why epic, sweeping shots of campuses are so commonplace.

These sorts of snapshots do double duty of catching the eyes of students and likewise showing off your campus’ vibe.

While information and updates might be an expectation of those following a college via social, so is the occasional sunset.

Video Content

On a related note, video footage of campus life is always a plus to inject some personality into your school’s social feed.

From full-fledged productions to simple vlogs, expect video content to continue to boom in college feeds.

Creative Reminders

Schools can’t overlook the need to keep students informed about the most important happenings on campus. That said, those essential announcements and updates could always use a bit of creative flair.

In the midst of so many trends and types of content, don’t overlook the simple task of keeping students in the loop.

Humorous Content

Higher education marketing requires schools to establish their own distinct tone and voice. Just because you’re managing a college account doesn’t mean you have to be all pomp and circumstance, after all.

Many college accounts let loose with humorous content in addition to traditional updates. Doing so keeps students entertained and again lets your school’s personality shine.

Every campus has its quirks, and savvy social marketers often celebrate those unique aspects of student life whenever they can.

And for more of what today’s top schools are doing on social, check out our recent list of strategies for social media in higher education.

How Do You Feel About the State of Higher Education Marketing?

Higher education marketing has become increasingly social and that trend doesn’t look to slow down anytime soon. From aligning goals between departments to figuring out which types of content resonates most with students, marketers have more expectations and responsibilities than ever before.

The good news? Aligning those goals doesn’t have to be a massive question mark. Through collaboration and the right tools aligning the goals of departments, universities can come up with a concrete social strategy that works for everyone.