The Social Side of College Admissions

Using Technology to Substitute for In-Person Interactions

April 30, 2009

Nothing can fully replace face-to-face interactions. An exchange of instant messages will likely never have the same impact as an in-person conversation. An e-mail isn't the same as a phone call. However, with state governments slashing budgets and college endowments taking major hits, the search for cost-effective recruitment solutions is becoming more important than ever.

The slumping economy has had a major impact on admission offices and families of college-bound students. Many admission offices are now facing budget cuts, meaning less money for student recruitment efforts, including trips to high schools and college fairs. Additionally, families now have less money to invest in the college search process. According to a Longmire and Company survey of 1,030 parents of college-bound students, a quarter said they would be making fewer college visits as a result of the economy.

It's now time to be creative in how you cost-effectively reach out to prospective and admitted students. With fewer face-to-face interactions, using virtual solutions may be the way to build relationships with these students.

Virtual Interactions May Be the Next Best Option

For several years, hundreds of colleges and universities have been utilizing online chat rooms to interact with students. Having participated in several online chats, it is by no means a fast-paced back and forth between prospects and the admission office, but it does offer an opportunity for students to get some of their more pressing questions answered. And chances are that the admissions office's answers are relevant for a good portion of those on the chat.

Wake Forest has gone even further. Starting this past December, Wake Forest began using Skype to conduct "face-to-face" interviews for students who could not make it to campus. While they would likely be the first to admit in-person interviews are preferred over these virtual alternatives, this solution has allowed admission officers to have a personal interaction with applicants when it otherwise would not have been possible.

Building an Online Community Around Your School

Many schools are still figuring out what to make of Facebook and whether they want to engage with prospective and admitted students within social networks. I think schools that sit by and do nothing to engage candidates on social networks are missing a huge opportunity. If a prospect can't make it to your campus, social networks like Facebook give you an opportunity to bring your campus to them, or at least a taste of it.

The stats about your school (standardized test scores, size, location, and diversity) are important, but it's the personal connections that a prospect makes with your school that will stand out and tip the scales in your school's favor. You don't want to hijack the conversation on these social networks, but there is plenty of room between taking over the conversation and not participating at all. You can be a facilitator, helping prospects connect with people and resources on campus. When they have questions, you can point them toward answers. If done effectively, you can even help them build relationships with each other. My guess is that there is no better sales pitch for a college than an excited student (whether it is a current student on campus or a high school senior that has fallen in love with your school and is dying to get admitted).

Play within the "Rules"

Don't forget that Facebook is a social space. If you are going to participate, make sure you participate in a way that is in line with how Facebook is used. Don't just recreate your admissions website in Facebook. Start conversations, promote events, build a community around your school.

Virtual interactions are unlikely to ever supplant personal interactions as the best way to build relationships. However, they may be a good alternative when live, face-to-face interactions are not possible.

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The Risk of Over-Moderating

April 24, 2009

Yesterday, I tuned in to a live stream of a presentation from the folks over at .eduGurus, entitled Social Media Storytelling. My hats off to the six folks who collaborated on the presentation (and made great use of technology, video conferencing in five of the participants and live-streaming out the presentation).

They made a number of great points while sharing anecdotes from their own experiences with social media and higher ed marketing. The one that stuck out most for me, though, was the emphasis on authenticity. In theory, everyone wants their message to sound authentic and real, but, in practice, it involves ceding some control, especially within a social networking environment.

Don't Lose the Authenticity

Students who visit Facebook and other social networks to learn about your school are seeking out this authenticity. If they want the "official" information about your school, they'll go to your admissions website. On social networks, they're looking to build a dialogue with you, with other prospects, and with current students, and they can sniff out a canned, marketing message from a mile away.

Your Blemishes Make You Real

To get this authenticity, you may have to let these users see a few of your school's warts. You will have to resist the urge to delete every wall post or discussion thread that does not reflect the exact image you want to project. What you get in return for this restraint is greater trust. Greater trust that you are presenting an unfiltered view of your school. Greater trust that when someone posts a positive experience about your school, they really mean it.

Let Your Students Sell Your School

Chances are, admissions counselors are not going to be your best salespeople. It's going to be fellow prospective students and current students, who have already fallen in love with your school and want to share their experiences. And if you over-moderate, users may not believe the authenticity of these experiences.

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Facebook Study Making Headlines

April 23, 2009

There's been a lot of press coverage about a study correlating the use of Facebook with lower GPAs. The study, carried out by two PhD students, surveyed 219 undergraduate and graduate students at Ohio State.

Wait to Sound the Alarms

Based on the headlines themselves, you'd think that Facebook makes students dumber. However, the study does not claim any causality, and the reports' authors have not made any statement indicating Facebook use affects grades.

What Might It Really Mean

There have been a number of comments on the NY Times' Freakonomics blog that I've found interesting. The study may be more enlightening because it leads to questions about who does NOT use Facebook. I can't imagine that college students are not using Facebook because they don't know about it, especially since penetration of Facebook on college campuses is around 85 percent.

Do they just not have time for it? Do they view it as unnecessary and frivolous? Is it a certain personality type that is opting out of social networking?

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Segmenting Your Audience on Facebook

April 20, 2009

Facebook has just surpassed 200 million users. It's hard to ignore an opportunity like this for your college or university to reach such a large audience... all in one place, especially when more and more people are using Facebook to communicate socially in lieu of e-mail.

So let's assume you get over the initial hurdle and decide that it's worth it for your school to be on Facebook. The next questions are who is your target audience, what types of information do they want about your school, and what type of relationship are you looking to foster.

For colleges, there seem to be a few major buckets that people will fall into, and each of these groups is likely to want very different information about your school. And you are very likely hoping to achieve different results for each of these groups. The lists below are by no means comprehensive and I'm sure you could add several bullets to each section, but they start to scratch at the surface of this challenge.

Alumni

They've already got your diploma on their wall. Their time at your school has likely left them with an emotional tie to their alma mater.

What types of information are they likely to want?

  • Alumni news - Information to help them stay connected with each other and with the accomplishments of fellow graduates
  • College news - Information on exciting happenings at your college, important achievements, prominent hires
  • Sports scores and updates

What are the college's goals?

  • Fundraising - money for your next building project
  • Brand building - alumni are often some of the most powerful advocates of your college's brand

Current Students

They're laying down good money for a degree from your esteemed institution.

What types of information are they likely to want?

  • Campus Events - Speakers coming to campus, upcoming performances and concerts, and career fairs
  • Important Deadlines and Announcements - Due dates for student housing and financial aid forms, holiday schedule
  • Sports scores and updates

What are the college's goals?

  • Information Dissemination - Keeping current students up-to-date on what's happening on and around your campus
  • Support - Creating a presence where they can reach out with questions and concerns
  • Relationship Bulding - eventually they'll be alumni, and fundraising will become more important

Prospective and Admitted Students

They are in the midst of one of the biggest decisions of their life, where to go to college. Dozens of colleges and universities are sending them marketing materials.

What types of information are they likely to want?

  • Program / Major Information
  • Important Deadlines and Forms - Admissions and financial aid application deadlines and forms
  • Recruitment Events - College fairs you'll be at and visit days
  • More than Just the Stats - Virtual tours, student blogs, the information that college guidebooks don't have about the real feel of the campus and the students who attend your school

What are the college's goals?

  • Increasing applications
  • Improving yield

Does One Size Fit All?

Can a single Facebook Page (Public Profile) or Facebook Group address the needs of all of these segments effectively? Getting someone to become a Fan of your school's Facebook Page or join your school's Facebook Group should not be the end goal. I'm guessing any large, public university could have a thousand Fans within a month with a little bit of work, but then what? Engaging your Fans in a meaningful way is the real challenge and that is what will ultimately help you get real results from your Facebook presence.

To really engage each of these groups, you need to give them a reason to keep coming back, to stay tuned in to what is happening with your college or university. To do this, do you need a separate Facebook page for the alumni office, the admissions office, and the student services office? Maybe.

There may be other options to consider as well. At Varsity Outreach, we've built a Facebook Application specifically designed for admission offices to reach out to prospective and admitted students. Inigral has built a Facebook Application primarily for current students. iModules has built a Facebook plug-in for its alumni community product.

Social networks like Facebook may be a relatively new phenomenon, but the numbers are hard to ignore. Figuring out ways to build connections with alumni, current students, prospective and admitted students, faculty, sports fans, and more is likely to provide real value for your college or university.

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Are Facebook's New Public Profiles a Good Thing for Colleges?

April 15, 2009

Facebook recently made some major changes to their Pages (now called Public Profiles), which are profiles for organizations like colleges, businesses, music groups, and other celebrities. They've essentially made them more like personal profiles, giving the Wall greater prominence. This seems to be a response to the growing popularity of Twitter, which emphasizes quick snippets of information.

The Upside of the New Public Profiles

The major upside is that Public Profiles are given access to the Streams of its fans. That means that when you update the status of your college's Public Profile, it will show up on the homepage of your fans along with the status updates of that fan's friends. That gives your updates placement on prime real estate. The homepage is typically the first page Facebook users see when they log back in.

With this opportunity comes a new challenge&mdahs;relevancy. It is now more important to find the right balance between maintaining a relationship with the Fans of your Public Profile without "over-streaming". Whereas before Facebook allowed you to see more or less about a person or page on your feed, it is now an all-or-nothing deal. You are either part of their Stream or you are not. So if you start updating your status and posting items very frequently, you want to make sure that it is relevant to a good portion of your Fans or you may lose the main advantage of the new Facebook Public Profiles, placement in a user's Stream on their homepage.

Given that Fans of a college's Public Profile are a varied bunch, relevancy becomes particularly challenging. Do your alumni want the same updates as current students or even prospective students? What about fans of your sports teams? So what type of information should you be posting in the status of your Public Profile?

The Major Downside of the New Public Profiles

Facebook has drastically reduced the ability of organizations to present any sort of unique branding / unique feel in their Public Profiles. The Wall has become the most important feature and any Applications that were added have been relegated to their own tabs, off the main page of the Public Profile. It is now much more difficult to express what makes your school unique, to cater to the particular wants and needs of your Fans.

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We're Launching a Blog

April 14, 2009

At Varsity Outreach, we have decided to launch a blog called The Social Side of College Admissions to share news, insights, and our random musings about the intersection of college admissions and social networking.

Social networking is now a staple for high school students. Many spend hours every week connecting with friends, playing interactive games, and more on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and MyHighSchool. We hope to highlight trends, research, and articles that we uncover as well as share our two cents on social networking and college admissions.

We welcome your comments and feedback.

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