Social media is obviously an important means to engage with prospective students for Higher Education. However, each individual channel is a distinct tool in and of itself. As someone will doubtless remind you when you post holiday snaps on LinkedIn: "this is not Facebook".
You know what? Post your holiday snaps where you like, but when it comes to our professional budget-limited efforts to engage students through the channels we choose and the way we do it, we do have some pressure to get things right. Getting it wrong not only hampers results in a hugely competitive sector, but damages brand credibility and might even make it into someone's listicle of the 5 greatest blunders or 10 worst examples of social media use. You don't want that.
Meeting students where they are is an opportunity to engage with them on the native channels they already inhabit, as opposed to drawing them into spaces or channels which the institution brands and controls. Social media is really about building an organic sense of community with fellow prospective students, those already enrolled, alumni and university staff members, which means not only getting answers to their questions but also feeling connected and part of something before they enrol.
However, this discussion about channels takes us not only along the well-worn paths of Facebook versus Insta, but into whole new spaces that are still largely unexplored by most HEI's. We are talking about gaming communities like Roblox, for example, and a whole new generation of Alphas who just aren't that into your funnels and pipelines, and will force you to rethink the whole thing in less than 3 years time.
Caveat first: things are changing fast, and the pace is going to get faster. At the moment, however, we do have some interesting stats as a current snapshot, which were discussed by geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy) Founder & CEO Alejandra Otero and American University of Rome's Stefania Corrado on a Keystone Education Group Webinar in October 2022.
Kyle Campbell, Founder of the recommendable Education Marketer Newsletter, made the interesting point that though we tend to hear in Europe and North America that "Facebook is dead" for younger generations, globally it is still a force to be reckoned with, so if you are targeting Africa, Asia or Oceania, don't fall into the "Facebook is for mums" way of thinking.
In the same line of thinking, even though TikTok is not appearing at the top of the list in the channels prospective students used to find information on institutions, it is the app that tends to hugely influence the bigger channels. TikTok is perhaps not where the engagement happens, but it is a place where students discover your institution and then follow up on other channels. Get this- 14% of students already use TikTok as a place to search for information about your institution.
That said, there is a big divide in terms of the way age segments social media channel use. Globally, prospective students will still prefer Instagram for undergraduate searches, Facebook for masters level, and LinkedIn for PhDs.
The new generation of learners want personalized, tailored, authentic information, and they want it quickly. It's not their fault; those of us who grew up with dial up internet learned to wait, whereas the WhatsApp generation are looking for a fast response. WhatsApp for HEIs does allow us to be more available (within the boundaries of a healthy work-life balance!), and does allow us to tailor quick responses and show genuine interest in the enquiry.
In the next few years, however, just watch this list shift dramatically. Generation Alpha are already immersed in Minecraft, Roblox, Discord and are generally Metaverse-positive. If we are truly committed to meeting students where they are, then we have to start looking seriously at gamifying our engagement, and being present in a Metaverse space.
Social media in general tends to be more heavily used at the discovery phase in general, and then tends to filter out the closer the student gets to enrollment, so there are those who use it as a yielding tool, rather than marketing per se.
Overall, Keystone found that (drum roll....) 75% of students used social media as a search engine when choosing an institution and offer. Not your website, not your own social media, but instead they are looking to see what other people are saying about you. Increasingly, new generations of students will trust their peers, and others they perceive as authentic, over the downloadable brochure with testimonials from smiling alumni. Honestly, that's not entirely surprising.
What it does mean, is that we need to really think about two things: social listening and student content creation.
Social listening is the process of using specific tools to monitor what people are saying about your institution and implementing reputation management strategies to protect your brand. This is particularly important where gaps are identified between what an institution is highlighting as a strength or crucial part of their MVV (Mission, Vision, Values), and what people are actually saying about it. If a school is pushing a message about sustainability and CSR, but social media is buzzing with stories that contradict this, you need to get in there quickly.
No it is not about covering things up, but listening, responding, and learning. This is a way of getting really authentic feedback and giving you the opportunity to really adapt responses and communication approaches in a bespoke way. By searching wide and deep to find out where and why people are mentioning your institution, you can not only really sharpen up those admissions offers, but also find user-generated content that might be worth sharing.
User generated content is really important, and maybe more than we initially thought. The Metaverse, gaming, trending social media channels; all of it points to the fact that younger generations are not content consumers, but content creators first and foremost. They want to be in the driving seat not only for what they produce, but also who they listen to and why. That changes everything, but we do have to be careful that the user content that we share is closely aligned with our own messaging and values, so that the message coheres.
Alejandra Otero tells us that TikTok is really on the up. Why? Largely because of the "for you page", where the user gets to personalize the content they really want to see and this largely informs the way the algorithm develops, because it comes directly from what users want. This is a new and powerful way of doing things, based not on reach and legacy, but discovery and niche-targeting.
Coming up behind that wave is the broader community of gaming and avant-garde communities like Discord, where users choose where and how they interact based on their own direct interests. It is vital that Institutions learn how to gamify their offer and present themselves in a way that makes users genuinely want to click and engage, but they must also do so in a way that takes into account a whole rethink of privacy and digital identity. Yes, the user will be far more in control of this too.
Paid media strategies are still going to be an important part of our approach, but as a complement to a wider, comprehensive strategy. This narrow focus on paid media in isolation is something common in our sector, and the ROI is not always clear. However, when it is integrated and used as one part of your overall approach, it can really work. An example of this would be using disruptive, attention grabbing videos as a paid campaign, but then leading users to actionable information such as a landing page, and then a thank you page to measure the progress. The last steps might get the ROI credit for conversion, but would they have got there without paid media in the first place? We need to think more broadly and strategically.
We hope that you managed to take a bit of time to listen to the webinar, and to download the report that accompanies it, but we do understand that keeping up with all of this can often be a bit overwhelming in buy marketing and recruitment teams! You are not the only one who is working hard to keep up with these changes, and we are definitely better placed to cope by working together and sharing expertise. As always, if we can join you in conversation at an event, or with your team as part of our Academy offer, just get in touch to tell us what you need.