What social media means for today’s colleges

The role of social media in colleges today is an interesting one. For many tutors, it is the bane of their lives: an addictive distraction that eats into study time and has to have its use actively curtailed in classes and seminars. However, social media is also an essential part of a college’s outreach program and an important method of communication between students, staff, prospective applicants and alumni. We should not forget that big social media platforms such as Facebook were first designed as virtual networks in and for colleges, with the intention of making it easier to connect, communicate and share knowledge.

Different platforms, different strengths

The role of digital technology in education is growing rapidly, and colleges are finding that social media is one of the best ways to engage with current and prospective students, as well as with alumni and interested parties from outside of the institution. They are also discovering that different platforms have different success rates for different schools, and that how this works is dependent on a number of complex factors.

For some colleges, Facebook is definitely the best way to communicate with students, but for others, it’s Twitter that best suits their style of address. Others find that Instagram is favored most by a college-age demographic, while LinkedIn has a very formal approach that matches the rigor of high academia. The geographical location of a college, the age range and gender balance of its students, the political climate, and many other factors can all help decide which platforms get the most traffic at a particular college.

The most effective way to find out which social media platform is right for your college is to simply try putting the same message out across several of them at once, and then analyze the results. You may be surprised by which post had the most engagements. You can then have fun figuring out why this is and move on to further tests, increasingly tailoring your social media strategy according to what you discover.

Using Facebook

Facebook is one of the most popular social media platforms in the US and Europe, and is less specialized than many other channels. It can be used to make statements and engage in wide-ranging group conversations, as well as to send and receive private direct messages.

Facebook groups give colleges an ideal opportunity to foster a sense of community and to organize and centralize information pertinent to different departments and subsets of college users. This means that as well as a main Facebook page, a college will have several different groups where users can gather. Alumni might organize into groups by graduation year, for example, and there might be specific parents’ groups for discussion and sharing.

While groups act as a forum for semi-private conversation online, Facebook pages are more suitable for broadcasting news and updates. A college will have pages dedicated to its various sports teams and for other departments and organizations within the school, as well as one main Facebook page that will act mainly as an initial point of contact for interested outsiders. An established institution such as Bryant and Stratton College will use this to give out regular Facebook updates on its activities, achievements and upcoming events.

Specialized sharing

Colleges can also reach out to non-student social media users who are interested in the subjects in which the school specializes. These may be prospective students or individuals already working in the field in question. Sites such as LinkedIn allow colleges to publish research papers and articles on their work, connecting them to a wider network of researchers and institutions. This is not a substitute for the existing academic journals and the established system of peer-reviewed papers, but stands alongside these outlets as a more immediate way of announcing and discussing discoveries among a global community of experts.

Social media also lets colleges share video footage from sports games, concerts and theatrical productions, as well as historical facts and anniversaries. These will be of interest to a much broader audience than just students and fellow academics, and will help to raise the college’s profile in the wider world.  

Social media is ultimately all about making connections and sharing content in order to create networks based on mutual interest and respect. This is in many ways very similar to how colleges have always operated, so it’s little wonder that our schools are making full use of the many platforms available. From making public statements and news announcements on Twitter to sharing campus photos on Instagram, social media is proving an invaluable tool for colleges across the world. Looking ahead, it seems likely that this will become ever more the case.