It's hard to miss all the hype about social media. Stories about Twitter and Facebook are in the news almost daily. Several schools have attracted headlines for launching iPhone applications. The New York Times' The Choice blog just had a story about a site that aggregates and categorizes college-related twitter accounts called GlobalQuad.
So you may be thinking, our school needs to have a Facebook Page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, and more. It almost feels like blogs are a thing of the past (they're not).
But wait, take a deep breath, and relax. Just throwing something up and forgetting about it on these sites is unlikely to produce the sorts of results that you would hope for given the hype.
Social Media Is an Avenue to Get Your Message Out, Not the Message Itself
I think people sometimes forget that social media is a tool. It's not the end goal. In many cases, it can be an extremely effective tool to build and foster relationships, but, in the end, it is just a tool. Just like the telephone, e-mail, postcards, and other marketing outlets are just tools at your disposal. It's the content and people that really make the difference. Social media offers an opportunity to accelerate the distribution process, to create stronger feedback loops so you can more quickly react to what's working and what's not, and to let your community (which may be current students, alumni, prospects, admits, staff, and more) have a voice.
Social Media Is Not Fairy DustUnfortunately, Field of Dreams and Ron Popeil were wrong. "If you build it, he will come"... sorry, but that's just not the case. "Set it and forget it", I don't think so.
Free Can Be a Hard Price to Pass Up
I think one of the biggest advantages of social media is that it can be an incredibly cost-effective way to reach an audience. You don't have to pay for postage or printing. If you post your video on YouTube, you don't have to foot the bill for bandwidth and video hosting. It's free to create a Facebook Page or a Twitter account. However, the $0 price tag may also be the siren's call of social media.
Just because it's free doesn't mean you should be doing it. Creating a Facebook page that has no pictures, no wall posts, and only an address may not do you any good. In fact, it may be harmful. If I were a prospective student and I posted a question your wall, but never got a response, that may not leave a good impression.
I am a huge advocate for the potential of social media. I would encourage colleges to engage prospective and admitted students using tools they embrace like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. I believe providing a more personal touchpoint for interested students is a powerful selling point.
Content Is Still King
But you have to remember it's the underlying message you are trying to sell... the value of a college education at your school, the richness of the experience on your campus. It's unlikely that a student is going to pick your school just because you have a Facebook page, but they may pick your school because of the relationship they developed through interactions on that Facebook page.