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Into the Online Jungle

From blogs to tweets, higher education institutions explore exotic species of social networks that facilitate new ways to recruit and screen prospective students, share news, and build community.

By Douglas Vaira

Into the Online JungleBlog, Wiki, Tweet! No, these are not the shrill shrieks and ca-caws coming from some primordial rainforest. They are, instead, the new sounds being propagated from admissions offices and communications departments at higher education institutions across the country, as more and more higher education officials become increasingly comfortable with the world of online social networking.

So comfortable, in fact, that between 2007 and 2008 there was a 32 percentage-point spike in the use of social networking applications in college and university admissions offices, according to a study comparing adoption of social media by the admissions offices of all United States four-year accredited institutions. Conducted by Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth's Center for Marketing Research, and Eric Mattson, CEO of Financial Insite Inc., the study reports that only 15 percent of colleges and universities today are not using any social media at all.

Not familiar with social networking applications? They are online tools that help to build communities of people who share common interests and who enjoy similar activities. We're talking Facebook, LinkedIn, wikis, and blogs here. MySpace and podcasts. Yes, Twitter.

Admissions and campus life offices are flocking to these tools as well, grateful for their ability to relate to current students on their own terms and in their own space and appreciative of the fact that the tools may be used to research prospective students before acceptance letters are in the mail.

In the words of Barnes, these tools are “free, interactive, comfortable for the students, convenient, and friendly.”

But beyond these positive attributes, why have institutions of higher education turned to social networking for recruiting prospective students? “Because that's where their target audience spends its time,” says Barnes. “It allows for more casual and personal conversation with students.”

Still, as with any relatively new technology, there remain challenges. Chief among them, says Barnes, is to “be transparent and authentic and not to do PR-type spins on everything.”

Alongside that, says Barnes, is “evidence that these powerful tools are not being utilized to their potential.” To realize their fullest capability, institutions must become more familiar with how to best use these tools to relate to current and prospective students.

Also emanating from the U-Mass study is a note of warning for high schoolers headed to college: You're being watched. Some 23 percent of admissions officers revealed using search engines and other sites to glimpse scholarship candidates and others to shield themselves from potentially embarrassing situations.

What cannot be questioned, however, is that prospective students are increasingly turning to social networking sites to check out colleges and universities and get a true taste of the flavor of their offerings.

Says Mandee Heller Adler, principal of Florida-based International College Counselors, “In the era of Facebook, MySpace, podcasts, and instant messaging, we have definitely seen an increase in prospective college students using social networking tools to find out about and apply to colleges.”

Colleges and universities, says Adler, are reaching out to students with Facebook pages of their own. Many applications exist that can provide users access to information about colleges, including collected student opinions on offered courses and brutally honest reviews of professors by students who have nothing to gain or lose.

“Students are also reading blogs, checking out YouTube, and listening to podcasts to get a better idea of the schools,” she continues. “Students know how much money is at stake in tuition and in future earnings, and they're being smart and savvy consumers.”

For Davidson, says Mabe, using social media is great if it accomplishes a goal that's already been set in the office.

Steven Roy Goodman, an educational consultant and admissions strategist with Topcolleges.com, agrees. “Students are going to have conversations about their college expectations and their experiences. It makes sense, therefore, from the university perspective to try to participate in some of these conversations.”

And participate is exactly what institutions—both small and large—across the country have done, eschewing the large, impersonal mass-mailings of marketing materials for social marketing techniques that create a closer, more individualized connection with potential incoming freshmen.

As the following case studies reveal, participation in social networking is producing dividends for those higher education institutions that are willing to spend the time and energy to get it right.

Making the Connection

Fans of the social networking tool Twitter? Mark down David Mabe, assistant dean in the office of admission and financial aid at Davidson College, as one. Last year, Mabe guided a campaign that combined Google Maps and Twitter, the popular online tool that encourages users to “tweet” in 140 characters or fewer about recent activities or thoughts. The focus of the operation was very simple: to make connections among the best and brightest Davidson applicants and to allow the college to begin bonding personally with these students.

A quick visit to www.twitter.com/dcadmission reveals the innermost thoughts, inspired ramblings, and top-of-mind quips of potential future Davidson students.

For example, SW in OH says, “I try my hardest never to hide behind what is 'normal' because the things that make me different make me who I am.” And, tweets WL in TN, “In a world of competition, tumult, and complexity, people often miss the simple essential experiences of life.” KV in CO shares, “Show them your colors. Paint your story. As I sign my name across the bottom of the canvas, I hope I have done just that.”

“We wanted to share the applicant base and craft connections between the best applicants,” says Mabe. “I would reach out to a student and say, 'I'm Dave—the essay you wrote was incredible. I'd like to share it with others.' The stuff in the background was really more important, more powerful than the tweeting.”

For Davidson, says Mabe, using social media is great if it accomplishes a goal that's already been set in the office. “But using Twitter,” he says, “allows us to exploit another college goal. It makes us able to better connect a real person to another real person.” That personal touch is a significant characteristic for a campus of 1,700 students.

Mabe says he prefers Twitter, which is more “user-controlled” in terms of turning on and off, to other applications such as Facebook. A lot of the younger staff at the college, he says, think Facebook is too personal. “They are concerned with where the line lies,” he says, between professional and personal.

As far as challenges, Mabe says that the perception of what the college was trying to accomplish was one of the most formidable. “It wasn't part of some overarching social media project,” Mabe says of the project, “and people wanted to know if comments would be anonymous. Others called into question sharing the hometowns and names of applicants,” although only abbreviations and initials were used on the site to identify participants.

Mabe also says that some stakeholders questioned whether 140 characters was too limiting in context or content. One of the biggest challenges, he says, came from several of Davidson's professors, who called the medium into question.

Blog, Wiki, Tweet bubble captionsBut ultimately, the campaign “did a good job of connecting [admissions] staff with applicants, and that was our goal,” says Mabe. Beyond that, he shares, everything behind pulling it off was free, and manpower was pretty minimal. “After we got everything set up, the effort was pretty self-guided.”

Mabe likes the idea that the college was on the “edge of a technology blade. We got good buzz, a good following. It was cool.”

Moving forward, Mabe says the school will run the same program again with Google Maps, only this time without Twitter. Still, the 140-character application hasn't fallen out of favor at Davidson.

“We've got a Twitter feed that we started using on a regular basis in July,” says Mabe, stating that he has a lot of content that can be shared with users every day—for example, a YouTube video of a recent dance ensemble presentation. In Mabe's tweet, he would provide a link to a specific URL where the video is posted.

“That's way beyond simply connecting to this one project,” he says. “It will be pushing content to our followers, and continuing to make that connection.”

A Keene Approach

Start With the Basics

Don't have any experience with Facebook, Twitter, or podcasting? Here are some resources to get you off the social-media sidelines. Among them you'll find what you need to know to get started with blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, podcasting, and Twitter.

Research

Social Media and College Admissions: The First Longitudinal Study,” by Nora Ganim Barnes and Eric Mattson, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research.

Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media Is Changing College Admission,” by Nora Ganim Barnes, National Association for College Admission Counseling

In addition to research, this paper includes helpful resources that include “Best Practices for Higher Education Blogs,” “Using Social Networking Sites,” and “Social Networking: Legal and Ethical Considerations.”

Social Media Site Tutorials

Facebook Help Center

Twitter Support

Blogger Quick Tour

LinkedIn Learning Center

YouTube Handbook

Other Online Resources

Resources in the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative site

Seven Things You Should Know About Facebook

Seven Things You Should Know About YouTube

Seven Things You Should Know about Podcasting

Seven Things You Should Know About Blogs

Seven Things You Should Know About Twitter

Common Misperceptions About Social Media” posted by Fritz McDonald on the Web site of Stamats, a marketing communications company serving higher education.

The QuickStudy Guide to Social Networking” by Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

References in Print

If you prefer a print reference, there's a For Dummies title for each social networking platform. Each book takes the reader through the basics of setting up an account; attracting followers; managing the information you share; and strategies for improving business communications, marketing, and networking opportunities. All titles are available at www.amazon.com.

Out of challenges grow tremendous opportunities. So says Kim Accorsi, director of online communications at Keene State College (KSC), Keene, New Hampshire, an institution with some 5,300 students.

Those challenges? According to Accorsi, there are several, chief among them diving headfirst into the online networking pool without having first established a true strategy.

“If you just start using [social networking tools],” says Accorsi, “but don't define what each tool will work best for, then you will quickly find yourself spending your day posting the same information in many different places, beginning with your Web site and traveling right through your long list of social networking tools.”

With an overlap in audiences, which most institutions experience, professionals can end up sending the same information to constituents multiple times.

“You run the risk of losing your audience instead of engaging them,” cautions Accorsi. “The challenge is to either define a specific use for each tool or repackage the information in different ways to best fit each tool.”

For Keene, Twitter is the tool for which the institution has the most narrowly defined use, specifically for media and new promotion through its media relations office.

“We try to not just recycle our press releases on Twitter,” says Accorsi. “Sometimes we take those releases and try to repackage them with a more 'human' touch and really get to the story behind the release. More often we use Twitter to point our audience to stories that would never be picked up as a press release, but truly demonstrate the diversity of our faculty and students.”

Keene also uses its Twitter feed for important updates and crisis communications. Accorsi finds it's the perfect tool for quick status updates to those who are concerned and just want to get to the heart of the problem.

“We've got many departments across campus using it as well,” says Accorsi. “For example, two of our honors classes recently took trips to Peru and South Africa. Both groups established Twitter feeds to share their experiences. It was a quick, easy way for them to share the experience with everyone, from their parents to prospective students.”

For Accorsi and her colleagues, the next biggest challenge associated with social networking tools is upkeep, as each tool demands that you not let it languish, that you keep your audience engaged on a frequent basis. This can require a bit of creativity on the user's end.

“Campus is pretty quiet during the summer,” says Accorsi, “so we're looking for opportunities to keep our Facebook fans engaged by building new features such as a KSC application, which would allow our fans to send 'pieces' of Keene State to their friends.”

Of course, she suggests, this type of engagement takes thought, time, and resources, which means that professionals need to work it into their overall communications strategy.

Finally, says Accorsi, with so many tools, things can quickly become overwhelming for the audience, simply because there are so many places to get information about and engage with the college. Right now, she says, Keene State is trying to mitigate some of that confusion by creating a Web page that will showcase all the ways an audience member can connect, interact, and engage with the institution.

And while the college hasn't been able to show a sizable return on investment yet, it has seen a high level of community interest in the tools. “You can see that from the responses we get when we post something new,” says Accorsi. “People are eager to participate and engage, and that is really what social networking is about.”

A Wider Network

Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., is not restricting itself to one social networking application. Quite the contrary; the college, with some 1,400 students, is using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to relay its story and the benefits of campus life to prospective students.

Edward Moller, controller and assistant treasurer at Mount Ida College, says the institution is simply trying to engage students in a format in which they are comfortable.

“We use the social tools to promote events, show videos, and enhance the features that are already on our Web site,” Moller says. “Students have established themselves in these networks on their own, regardless of how the Mount Ida College administration feels about it.”

Moller says this means that when they network with their peers, students are already sharing their experiences: “We believe that students are the best people to tell our story, and they do so without encumbrances. What we offer are the tools to help them continue to do this.”

One of the challenges Moller encountered in exploring social networking sites was that users on these sites tend not to respond favorably to marketing language and jargon sometimes found in other media. To that end, he worked to ensure that videos of the Mount Ida experience on these sites remain unedited and of a nonprofessional quality, and that they are created by students, for students.

“This enables us to present a message that appears more realistic to a prospect, compared to a polished commercial,” says Moller. “We also see potential students connecting with other potential students. Facilitating those kinds of contacts helps turn an applicant into an enrolled student.”

In addition to presenting prospective students with a “real” feel for Mount Ida, Moller says the college has realized some “real” financial savings by turning to social networking tools.

“What had been communicated in the past via bulk mail is now being produced on these sites,” says Moller. “There is a postage savings—and it's green.”

In addition, Moller says, students choose the content they wish to receive on Facebook. “[By joining our group or becoming fans,] students have opted to receive every message that we send them,” he says.

Creative Applications

Like Moller at Mount Ida, Bentley University's Michele Walsh, director of public and media relations, says the Waltham, Mass., institution uses a number of social networking tools in its operations, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Bentley serves more than 5,400 undergraduate and graduate students.

The university also offers FalconNet, an early networking platform that allows alumni to “friend” one another, but the popularity of Facebook and other online community-building applications has taken front stage.

And while the university may have received kudos for its foresight in developing and launching FalconNet, it has certainly used Facebook to its fullest potential. Currently, the university maintains:

  • An official BU page, which features automated headlines, press releases, photos, and quick links to the Bentley Web site.
  • An alumni profile dedicated to promoting events and sharing alumni news. The page offers alumni volunteers an opportunity to virally market their programs to classmates and alumni.
  • Fan pages that promote major university events.
  • A page for the Bentley Tomorrow25, an annual university-sponsored leadership competition focused on recognizing the outstanding young leaders of tomorrow.

In addition, during the housing selection process, the university created a Facebook group for students who were searching for roommates and used it to complement a hard-copy version that previously existed in the school's resource center.

“Last year only one student used the book, but almost 100 students used the Facebook group to try and find a roommate,” says Walsh.

According to Walsh, Bentley now maintains more than 2,500 “friends” on its various Facebook pages, and has identified another 8,000 alumni and students on Facebook that it is able to target with advertising.

The university is just as creative with its use of Twitter. Bentley has an official account that it uses to promote events and other major news and headlines about the school, and the alumni division has an account to share news with its audience.

In addition, the institution has created a Bentley University channel on YouTube that features a number of videos produced by the marketing division. Walsh says the university found it helpful to have one place—in addition to its Web site—to aggregate its video content for those interested in Bentley.

Using LinkedIn, the university's alumni development group created an account that is dedicated to connecting Bentley graduates with one another, as well as with current students. As administrators, the alumni staff group approves all alumni who become members, manages the posting of information, provides an online news feed from Bentley, and monitors alumni posts ranging from career questions to job listings to social events. In addition, as administrators, the team can validate alumni status and cross-reference information to ensure the university's database has the most current information available. During the past year, membership in the online group has grown from 1,500 to roughly 4,100 members.

But Walsh is quick to point out that with all of the benefits and positives associated with social networking applications come several challenges.

For instance, interest in social networking varies at the institution from department to department, she says, as employees educate themselves on the medium in general, researching its effectiveness, fast pace, and resource needs. Also, there are risks involved with the lack of control over the content posted by users.

Another challenge comes in the form of educating students on the professional risks involved with using Facebook and other tools. Statistics cited in Time magazine in 2007 revealed that 63 percent of employers who examined social networking sites rejected candidates based on what they saw. As part of a business-focused institution, Walsh says she feels a responsibility to educate students on privacy settings to protect their reputations.

“We have developed presentations for our students about the impact of social networking on job searches delivered by our career services office and hope to continue to grow this program.”

Until the university can be sure of mass adoption of these communications platforms, Walsh believes it will be most effective to use print, Web, and e-mail in combination with social networking in its outreach efforts.

Other challenges relate to resources. While Bentley adjusts to the shift in media and communication preferences among its target audiences, the university's leaders continue to explore ways to strategically incorporate social networking into each department's outreach to its various audiences, as well as determining where social networking fits within institutional branding strategy and allocating additional resources to it.

“While the fast growth of these platforms can seem daunting at times,” says Walsh, “we believe research and monitoring are essential as we take on more activities. We are pleased and encouraged by the rate of organic growth among our audiences in these new venues.”

As far as cost savings, Walsh says the university recognizes the potential to save on promotional costs by using “free” social networking and viral marketing campaigns, but that so far the institution has not realized significant savings. “We're still in early adoption mode for these tools,” she says, “but expect to realize some synergy savings in the long run.”

Will the university ignore traditional media altogether in its adoption of social networking strategies? Not likely, says Walsh.

“There are clear generational considerations in using these tools,” she says. “We were intrigued to learn that the fastest growing segment on Facebook is women over the age of 55.”

Until the university can be sure of mass adoption of these communications platforms, Walsh believes it will be most effective to use print, Web, and e-mail in combination with social networking in its outreach efforts.

Generational considerations also play a large role in the acceptance of social media as a significant marketing tool at the institution, she says, suggesting that some staff have been early adopters, while others remain fearful of the risks to Bentley.

“We feel it is safe to say that social media tools are a reality and can provide benefits,” says Walsh. “How and when each school uses them will ideally be a thoughtful effort driven by research, strategic planning, and productive input from key audiences.”

DOUGLAS VAIRA, Charles Town, West Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.