Recently, Sprout Social was lucky enough to host a “Social Media in Higher Education Roundtable Discussion” with some of the brightest minds in the industry. Together our panel addressed the most pressing questions social media managers in the higher education space have, and we received a ton of great feedback on the session.

In total, we answered 11 questions that were submitted by our audience, and this post will summarize the key takeaways and strategies that were discussed during the session. If you’d prefer to watch the entire webinar, you can find the Higher Education Webinar here.

The Higher Education Social Panel

The team that we assembled for the panel couldn’t have been better. Their personal experiences were all as diverse as the organizations they represented, making for an extremely well-rounded session. If you work in the social media or higher education marketing fields, then you should make sure to follow each of them on social:

Chris Barrows – New York University
Meghan Jagnow – The University of Tennessee
Joel Renner – The George Washington University School of Business
Nikki Sunstrum – The University of Michigan

The Topics

We invited everyone who registered for the live event to submit their own questions. We received an overwhelming amount of questions, and we decided to bucket them all into five specific chapters.

  • Choosing the Best Social Networks
  • Structuring Your Social Media Account
  • Creating and Sharing Great Social Content
  • Proving the Value of Social Media
  • Tips, Tricks & Tools

This article won’t run exactly like an actual classroom, so if there are topics you’re more interested in reading about feel free to skip ahead. Just don’t forget to study for the quiz.

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1. Quality of Network Presence Over Quantity

When presented with the question “Is it more important to be on every network, or to build a robust presence on a few networks”, the resounding response was you need to focus on a select few networks. Most higher education social media teams have only one or two employees, and if you try to jump on every single network you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin.

One key in deciding which of the social networks you should spend a bulk of your time on is to look at your audience demographics. Figure out who your key demographics are and find out which social networks they spend the majority of their time on and establish a robust presence on those sites.

Once you’ve created a presence on those sites, continue to monitor how they perform to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Try checking out our collection of social media demographics to see which network is the most popular with each group.


If your key demographic is predominately urban students with a higher income, Twitter is likely the network for you.

2. The Best Social Network Depends on Audience

We had someone in the audience ask “Which social media network is best for higher education professionals?” Unfortunately for the person who posed the question, there really is no universal answer. At the end of the day, it’s where you can reach your audience most effectively and it hinges on the messages that you’d like to get across. However, the next strategy gets into more detail on where our panel has found success with newer networks.

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3. Make Sure to Test Newer Networks

Not every organization has the resources and means to build a robust presence for these new networks as they arise. However, Nikki has found tremendous success with Snapchat for engaging young Alumni. The current demographics of the network have made it perfect for her to reach out to her specific demographic she is targeting.

snapchat demographics

Meghan leverages Instagram photos to show off the community she built at her organization. She found success in sharing images of the campus, dorms and culture in an effort to humanize the Housing organization. Meghan has also used Periscope to offer campus tours to students from all over the world.

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4. Deciding Who Owns Social Media

It would be great if you could centralize your organization’s social media to one team, and some places do that, but it’s not a very realistic goal. There is so much going on within each department, team and organization that one team won’t be able to speak to those messages as well as the specific departments. Instead of trying to control every single page, sometimes it’s better to trust the other departments to manage them.

5. Educate Other Departments on Social

If you are going to trust separate departments with their own social presence, it’s key to teach them the best practices. Nikki has built a “Social Media Leaders” team with 50 people within her organization to discuss social media in higher education, including things like best practices and expectations. It’s a great way to keep the lines of communications open so that an organization maintains a cohesive voice.

That may even involve teaching the team’s mascot to use Twitter

Chris has a “Social Media Ambassadors” group that functions in a similar way, providing guidance to teams not as knowledgeable on social. He has also built out some resources that he shares with team members as they decide they’d like to build up their presence.

6. How to Tell If a Department Needs a Social Presence

When deciding if a group deserves a social presence, it’s key to consider whether or not that department has the staffing to maintain it. If they don’t, make sure to communicate to them that a social media presence is a lot of work, and that it’s not always necessary for them to have their own. The role of the University’s page is to support each department. Consider creating a document addressing the points of “Should I create a social media account” to share with staff.

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7. Leverage Timely Content

This strategy was synthesized from the question “How far in advance do you plan your social media calendar?” The answer is it depends on what kind of events you have coming up, so there really isn’t a universally correct answer. Some of the answers ranged from two months out to working within the same week. Creating stuff for holidays and calendar events are great for engaging with students at times that are important to them.

Most of the content our panel shares comes out on the fly. Catching hot topics and important conversations to drive greater engagement. Also, a lot of social media content is engaging with students one-to-one, and you really can’t plan for that. Some of the most valuable content that you can share is timely. Something that really resonates with what your students are going through really drives great engagement. Messages around the recent snowpocalypse for example.

8. Utilize Social to Promote Institutional Research

One of the more specific questions we were asked was “How can organizations promote their institutional research?” This is a really important question, especially for schools without any sort of robust athletics program. A lot of times organizations without massive sports teams rely on their research to drive students to their institutions, so sharing this type of information is crucial.

Have meetings with some of your professors creating these assets and see if you can establish them as thought-leaders within their specific field. Teach them how to make their research a bit sexier, while maintaining the same robust research, in order to make it more shareable across social media. They’ll start to grow larger followings and get more impressions on the content they share.

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9. Pull Data on a Weekly, Monthly & Semester Basis

It’s a good idea to pull data based on the specific content you share. For instance, Nikki’s team tried sharing timely holiday content on Christmas and New Years Eve and really dug into the data to see if that type of post resonated with her audience. It’s important to know how those posts perform so you can utilize that data to dictate your content strategy moving forward. Tools like Sprout Social make it easy to find all of your social media analytics.

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For the most part, each of our panelists is pulling data on a weekly, monthly and semester-wide basis. The weekly reports are to see what specific things are working, and semester reports are better for figuring out what’s working at a high-level, and being able to share that data with the stakeholders.

10. Audience Growth & Engagement Are Solid KPIs

The major KPIs to look at seem to be audience growth rate and engagement, since universities have a high turnover rate. If you’re running college social media channels, you should see a big growth as more new students are coming in when you focus on these metrics. Just make sure you’re taking the time, even if you’re a small team.

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11. Tips for New Higher Education Social Professionals

We had such great insights from the panel when we were asked “What advice would you give a new social media manager in the space?” Here’s a paraphrased version of what each of our panelists had to say:

Meghan – Don’t be afraid to engage with a student if they’re complaining or if something is going wrong. You can really reverse those poor experiences and get good feedback. Reach out to other campus communicators to develop a community. Little communities support one another not only in terms of content, but also in terms of just having a little family to work with and lean on.

Joel – Find a social media checklist. with daily, weekly and monthly that you like. Try and follow through with the tasks on that list, and set reminders on your phone to let you know when you need to finish those tasks. Find a social media tool that you like as well.

Nikki – Establish yourself as a social media communications professional and never as a guru. Social media is communications in a truncated form. Social media gives you the ability to connect with your primary stakeholders across the world, so get your game together and show everyone what you have to offer.

Chris – Focus on your work and focus on the strategy for what you’re doing with your social accounts. While testing and trying things is great, make sure that everything you do is backed by a solid strategy. You’ll face a lot of challenges, so utilize things like webinars and Twitter Chats to connect with others in the space to ensure you stay up-to-date.

Bonus Strategy 12: Try a Social Media Tool

Social media management tools like Sprout Social help streamline the entire social media process. Universities around the world turn to Sprout Social as a platform to help them manage and grow relationships with their prospective students, current students, alumni and much more. Start your own free trial today.

Or you can check out this video on how Marquette uses Sprout Social to succeed.