Whether you’re looking to attract more students, engage your current ones or increase donations and alumni relations, social media is a must for all universities.
Prospective students are largely looking to social media to help guide them in their college decisions, so having a robust social strategy is essential. According to a study by EAB, about 30% of the 9,500 surveyed students had reached a university website through the school’s social media channels.
Not only does social media help you build your brand and develop an audience that’s passionate about your educational opportunities, but it also enables you to foster relationships with prospective, current and former students in a way you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
This is especially true if your every post and communication via social media matches the personality and overarching voice that your university embodies in person and through on-campus activities.
Simply put, you want your online voice to perpetuate the experience that students, parents, and teachers can expect to have when enrolling, learning or working at your university. You want your online voice to speak to your university’s mission.
A lack of continuity can make your university seem disingenuous and unorganized, and nobody wants to work or study at a school that comes across as confused about its identity.
In practice, this means that any and all content you share, including your posts and personal communications via social media, needs to maintain the values you uphold every day as an educational institution.
Before you can do that, though, you need to first figure out what, exactly, those values even are.
Establishing your brand’s values
As with any organization, each university has to define its set of values. The higher education landscape is competitive, so drawing out what distinguishes a university from others is an essential tool in driving enrollment. This is where higher education branding plays an important role.
As a social media specialist at Circa Interactive, a digital marketing agency for higher education, I’ve worked through this process with a plethora of universities. To start, the branding team here at Circa Interactive goes through rounds of creative strategy in order to define and design our university partners’ brand attributes.
To engage with prospective students on social media in the most effective way possible, the team first takes a deep dive with the university and its stakeholders. By interviewing and engaging with faculty members, alumni, current students, and the internal marketing and enrollment teams, we develop a deeper understanding of who the university is. Questions are tailored around these core buckets:
- Passions, or the “why”
- Unique value propositions of the school or program
- Audiences (personas)
- Student outcomes
- Challenges or misconceptions
Once we’ve pieced together those insights, we’re able to start telling a brand story. The student is the hero in our stories, and our job is to show them how this university is the path to achieving their goals. We like to imagine ourselves as prospective students. What do we want to achieve? What’s preventing us from getting there? How does this program help us? Answering those questions is key to crafting a compelling, relevant mission.
In a campaign we developed for a few of American University’s online education programs, the core of the message was simple: raising your hand, joining a bigger movement in education and making an impact on every level.
Once you’ve identified your core message, you can begin to develop a robust social media strategy that conveys that message as effectively as possible.
Choosing the right social channel to reach your students
Your first step after determining your brand’s archetype and associated values should be to examine your target audience.
As a university, your target audience is likely made up primarily of potential students, with former students as a close secondary group. This encompasses both incoming freshmen and students transferring in from other schools. Their past behavior in response to your marketing materials and those of your competitors will inform the content you can and should share on your social media channels.
If, for example, you’ve noticed that incoming freshmen tend to click on your website’s “connect with us on Facebook” button more than potential transfer students do, then you know to gear your Facebook content toward high school seniors and their families.
This type of content could include anything from videos of student testimonials and student events such as homecoming to an article on “everything you need to know about choosing the ideal university for you.”
Your goal, essentially, would be to position your university as the must-attend school. This effort could even be narrowed down further to target students based on their interest in certain majors, their location, or any other unique factor you can think of.
Simply define your target audience and create personas based on where this person is in the enrollment funnel, what content they historically have engaged with, what content you can provide to satisfy their needs, and what platform they can be found on.
The possibilities are endless, so long as you remain true to the values and personality you established in step one.
Social media is an evolving landscape, and since there are so many social platforms out there, you have a multitude of options for interacting with and reaching out to students.
LinkedIn and Facebook are great platforms to build a professional network with current students and alumni and to establish thought leadership. We tailor our LinkedIn posts for the career-oriented persona, or the person looking to dive deeper into faculty research and industry trends. Here are a few examples from the University of San Diego School of Business:
On the other hand, visual platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are effective platforms to build brand image with engaging graphics and videos that showcase your university. When trying to reach prospective students, Instagram is king!
Because of how quickly content is consumed on Twitter, it’s a great place to promote university events and campus updates, share industry-specific news and engage with faculty and alumni in bite-size ways.
No matter which platform or platforms you choose to use, though, make sure you do your research.
All that work you put in to interviewing faculty and alumni and coming up with a brand mission? Use that to guide your social posting strategy!
Know what types of personas live in which platforms, and cater specific content for those personas. It’s especially essential to think about where that prospective student is in the enrollment funnel and how your social media strategy can guide them down to final enrollment.
With that being said, your options for content are nearly as endless as your opportunities for student targeting.
University branding best practices for types of content
Among the many different content types, some see better results on paid media, while others tend to perform better when used organically. Ultimately, though, your goal for each piece of content is what will help you determine its performance.
Types of social content to share on paid media
Let’s start by looking at the types of content that tend to work best when shared via paid media campaigns.
Prospective student enrollment content
In today’s world, we’re exposed to numerous ads on a daily basis. To stand out, universities need to utilize paid social media campaigns to reach desired students and garner their interest in both the university and its programs.
This means content can range from general content that highlights your university’s values and unique traits to program-specific content.
With all of this content, you will want to use real students in as many of your images as possible. Showcase them on campus, collaborating with other students or even giving presentations. Just be sure to optimize each image for its designated placement.
Similarly, you will want to optimize your ad copy to ensure the most clicks and read-throughs possible. Use concise and impactful copy to grab your audience’s attention and leave them wanting to learn more. Be sure to also include any upcoming application or enrollment deadlines to create a sense of urgency and a strong call to action.
Don’t just promote your program
Instead, highlight the opportunities that are available to students after graduating from the program, such as career advancement, increased earning potential and the ability to make a difference in their industry.
You can also use this content to promote data such as your university’s scholarships, graduation rate, and job placement rate as a way to stand out in the sea of universities vying for prospective students’ attention.
Fundraising and alumni news
Increasing engagement among alumni can be a difficult task, especially when you’re looking to raise funds for your university.
But when you use paid media campaigns to specifically target this group, you can tailor your messages and garner strong interest in donating money to their alma mater.
Paid media is also a great way to promote student enrollment events, webinars or on-campus events by leveraging tactics such as Facebook ads, Google Search sitelink extensions and LinkedIn InMail.
To do this correctly, we recommend you create a specific registration page on your university website to provide more information about the event and then add a Facebook pixel to the registration page to allow you to retarget to this audience.
Video is the king of content, and it is no different with paid media campaigns.
From Facebook to YouTube ads, video is a powerful medium to capture your audience’s attention, making it an important tool for advertising to prospective students.
We recommend using videos of current students and alumni sharing their own experiences and testimonies, especially for online programs.
Types of social content to share on organic media
Now that we’ve delved into the types of content that tend to help paid media campaigns succeed, let’s look at the best types of social content to share for organic engagement.
To stand out from the crowd in the competitive higher education industry, you will want to establish your program faculty and staff members as credible thought leaders in their respective fields.
Highlighting their research is essential if you want to attract great minds to your university and ensure its brand stays on the forefront of innovation in the industry.
Prospective student content
Prospective students are always looking to stay up to date and informed about their desired career fields.
To appeal to them, you will want to showcase what the career outlook is for a particular field, as well as how your program provides them with the skills they need to achieve their career goals in the corresponding job market.
To make this information more click-worthy, try sharing the information through various formats.
At Circa Interactive, we create engaging infographics, blogs, and resource guides to share career outlook information, trending industry topics and more. Once you create an infographic, for example, you can then share it on social media to help build university and program awareness as well as position the university as a thought leader in the infographic topic’s industry.
Another great example of organic social media are social posts that promote your university events with a branded hashtag that students and faculty can use.
Once you do that, create an event page on Facebook and include the hashtag in the event invite, making sure to display it on other promotional assets you use for the event.
With this hashtag, you can now engage with event attendees in real time during the event on multiple social platforms.
You can also keep the buzz of online chatter going after the event by following up with prospective students to chip in with input, answer questions, and thank the guests for coming. Then, for extra social points, share any user-generated content (UGC) from the event on your university page!
User-generated content and student influencers
You can further leverage UGC by sharing it regularly on your social media channels.
Prospective students want to see genuine content from the people who know your university best, because they’ve experienced it. A great way to boost engagement and reach on social media is to allow existing students and alumni to get involved with your social media.
Creating hashtags for your university and for its events is a great method for building a community and even offers participants a chance to be featured on your university’s social media page.
You can also offer regular student takeovers of university Instagram accounts to provide a diverse look into student experiences or establish a handful of students as “social media ambassadors” who can serve as regular personalities on social.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) does a stellar job of creating and using brand hashtags and sharing UGC. They even employ student ambassadors to promote their brand, encourage engagement and generate high-quality content from the student perspective.
The final type of content that consistently performs well across all social media platforms is video.
Video offers an opportunity to tell your university’s story in a compelling, fun way.
You can post video content to promote events, share campus news, announce important research achievements, share changes in departments, show off the campus, provide program details, interview students and faculty, recap university events and much more.
Another option is to post evergreen video content such as study tips, time management tools, benefits of earning a specific degree, university history, testimonials, frequently asked questions and virtual tours of campus. You can utilize your Facebook’s video library to house these videos or create a Youtube channel for the university.
Planning your social media strategy
Now that we’ve explained the various options you have for developing content that can fire up interest in your university, it’s time to map out your social media strategy.
Keep in mind that this strategy should align with your university goals. For instance, if you’re looking to increase enrollment, you will want to post more content focused on topics such as enrollment deadlines, financial aid information and enrollment requirements.
Next, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is your target audience? What content do they want to see?
- What are the goals of your social media strategy? How do they align with your university/business objectives?
- How are you going to engage your target audience with your social media strategy? What are your competitors doing to engage similar audiences?
- What platforms and tools will you use to post and track content?
- Which key performance indicators (KPIs) will you use to track and measure your social media efforts?
Here at Circa, we ask ourselves these questions before implementing social media plans for each one of our partners.
We’ve found that scheduling automated social media content with Sprout Social’s publishing tool, for example, is a quick, effective way to stay top of mind, save time, and create consistency so our audiences know when to expect content and how frequently.
An example of this would be to prioritize and cater posts around higher education milestones such as enrollment deadlines and admission events.
We recommend that you keep a running calendar with a list of important university deadlines, events, and milestones, as well as industry-relevant holidays.
Then, schedule your content ahead of time to make sure students are prepared well in advance.
Please note, though, that it’s important to keep an eye out for opportunities to create real-time, “on-the-fly” posts when there is a trending topic relevant to your university or industry—and to adjust your social strategy in the case of unexpected events.
It’s also important to note that keeping track of your content and results can help you to measure the return on investment (ROI) of your social media strategy.
Measuring the ROI of your social media strategy
Developing and maintaining a solid social media strategy can take a lot of time and money, which makes measuring the value and ROI of your campaigns extremely important. Doing this involves tracking metrics based on your specific social media and business goals.
For instance, if your goal is to increase brand awareness for your university program, you might want to track audience growth rate, impressions, traffic and reach.
However, if your goal is to build an engaged community with your students and alumni, you might want to track post engagement rate, account mentions and audience growth rate.
Sprout Social’s reporting tool is a great option for creating templates for reporting on a monthly and quarterly basis.
These reports allow you to not only see the most engaging content over a period of time but also track what day of the week and time of day your audience is engaging with your content.
The more data you can collect, the better, because stakeholders look at the bottom line: how much monetary return they and the university are getting on their investment in social media.
If you can showcase the return, they will be much more likely to support your foray into social media marketing, and you will be better equipped to increase enrollment over time.
Need more help building your social strategy?
No matter what your university’s goals are, social media is a great way to turn them into reality.
When you have a solidly built social presence, you increase your ability to develop relationships with the people who help your university continue to compete in the marketplace: prospective and former students.
Building these relationships is crucial if you want to stand out in today’s digital atmosphere, and doing so is beneficial both on and off social media.
If any of the above tips seem difficult or overwhelming, we’re here to help.
Circa Interactive’s team of social media experts is always up to date on strategies to help your university tell its most authentic story. Our social media tactics can help your university build brand and program awareness, establish a virtual community for your distinct audiences and demonstrate the value of continuing education.