The Social Side of College Admissions

Social Media Is the Solution, But What's the Problem?

May 26, 2009

According to Social Media and College Admissions: The First Longitudinal Study, 61 percent of four-year colleges have a social networking presence. I definitely believe that social networking, specifically Facebook, is a golden marketing opportunity for colleges and grad schools. There are very few places where you can reach such a large population of prospective students without paying for that access.

Why Are You on Facebook?

However, having looked at dozens of Facebook pages (now Public Profiles) for colleges, I'm sometimes left wondering what their goals are. Creating a presence on a site like Facebook is not the end goal. It's a means to an end. You'll have a lot more success if you have a clear goal in mind.

Are you really getting much out of your experience? Do you have metrics in place to measure success? These are questions every admissions office should be asking regarding their Facebook presence.

Keep Your Facebook Presence Fresh and Focused

Creating a presence on a social networking site can seem very easy, but keeping it fresh and up-to-date can seem incredibly daunting. It may only take you 5 minutes to set up a group or create a Facebook page, but just being there is unlikely to provide much impact for you. The other end of the spectrum is to start pulling in feeds from all over the university, posting pictures, videos, and more with no clear strategy in mind. Again, you may not get much of an impact heading down this path either, except for creating a lot of work for you and your team.

How Do You Define Success on Facebook?

The task of maintaining and updating your social networking presence will become much more straightforward if you define some goals ahead of time.

Do you want it to be an outlet for news on campus?
Then pull in RSS feeds and monitor which stories generate clicks. Adapt the mix of stories based on this information. Create a mechanism for students, staff, and alumni to submit their own interesting news and events.

Do you want it to be a place for discussion regarding college admissions?
Then promote your Facebook presence in your admissions brochures, on your admissions homepage, and in your admissions e-mails. Encourage a few current students to be active in engaging and responding to prospective student questions. Divide up the task of checking your discussion boards and walls so that someone is monitoring activity and answering questions on at least a daily basis.

Do you want it to be a media center?
Then post videos and pictures from around your campus. You may want to start recording lectures from popular professors and upload these to Facebook. You may even want to encourage submissions by current students and alumni.

Let Your Facebook Strategy Lead the Way

Defining what you want your Facebook presence to be about may seem limiting, but it will actually end up feeling liberating. Once, you have a strategy in place and clear metrics for success. It will be much clearer for you and your colleagues what sort of content will help you achieve those goals and how you can put in place a process for keeping your Facebook presence engaging and fresh.

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Herding and Community Building

May 18, 2009

While reading the book Predictably Irrational, I came across the concept of herding, where "we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people's previous behavior, and our actions follow suit." The author Dan Ariely uses the example of restaurants. If we walk by a restaurant with a line, we assume it's good. If the line is really long, we assume it's great. You have never eaten the food at the restaurant, but you already have a positive association with it.

Start with Your Most Passionate Fans

The book got me thinking about incorporating this concept of herding when establishing online communities for prospective and admitted students. Why not encourage the most passionate, most interested students to join first and let them set a positive tone for the community? Your admissions office could target students who have:

  • Visited campus already
  • Applied early
  • Made a strong impression at college fairs
  • Have parents / siblings that are alumni

Build a Line in Front of Your School

These students are likely to post positive comments on your walls, to share their excitement on your discussion boards, to actively engage in the community with specific questions and answers regarding your school's unique programs and opportunities. You may even consider letting them know that they are the first to be invited into the community, imbuing them with a sort of insider status. These students are the "first people in line for your restaurant."

Let These Users Create a Positive Herding Effect

Now, you start inviting the 2nd and 3rd wave of prospective and admitted students into the community. A prospect or admit that may have been lukewarm is now likely to see other students singing the praises of your school (see our previous post where we discuss authenticity). Perhaps their first thought will be "Wow, people really seem to love this school. Maybe I have been missing something and should take a closer look?" These students are now walking by a restaurant with a long line that a whole bunch of other people seem to really like.

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Let Your Hair Down with Social Media

May 11, 2009

Several college admission offices have embraced the potential of social media. Davidson used Twitter and Google Maps to give a snapshot of where applicants were from and a snippet of what they had to say in their admission essays. The dean of admissions at George Mason maintains a lively and informative blog (filled with candid commentary about college admissions).

However, many admission offices seem to be treading very cautiously in the social media space. One of the main concerns we hear when we talk to admission offices relates to the loss of control, specifically with regards to their school's image.

I think those schools that fret about the loss of control are looking at social media through the wrong lens. Social media can actually be freeing. Here's why... in many ways, users expect less when it comes to social media.

Your marketing brochures are likely impeccable pieces of graphic design with top quality photographs. They have probably been vetted by several departments before ever being printed. All the text is carefully crafted to stay on message and support your school's branding. The recipients of these brochures (your prospective and admitted students) expect to be wowed by them. These are the "official" materials.

With social media, you have a lot more slack. There is greater emphasis on speed than on quality... not that you want to completely ignore quality. For example, they want quick answers to their questions, so they're more forgiving of a spelling mistake or typo.

I think the expectations are analogous to those of a speech vs. a conversation. Your website and marketing brochures are more like a speech, while social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is more like a conversation.

What's Expected of a Speech (Website, Brochures, Postcards)

  • It should be well-prepared with a clear structure
    The expectation is that you've had time to think about how you want to present the material and how to organize your thoughts. The audience anticipates that you will provide a clear and concise message that is to the point.
  • You, the speaker, are in control
    You have the podium. There is a clear delineation between speaker and audience. You are the expert, the keeper of information. You are looking to inform the audience regarding the topic.
  • You are responsible
    The onus is on the speaker to do most of the work. The audience is relying on you to make the material interesting and engaging.

What's Expected of a Conversation (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, discussion boards)

  • Continuous dialogue is more important than carefully crafting every thought and idea
    A conversation implies a back-and-forth, a fluidity. It wouldn't be much of a conversation if you had to wait a week for someone to respond to your question so they could carefully craft that response. It's implied in a conversation that you are thinking on the spot, and therefore, your audience is much more forgiving.
  • Control is shared in a conversation
    A good conversation typically involves sharing the spotlight and letting others decide how and what they want to contribute. It's not much of a conversation if you are the only one talking. People often tune out of conversations that are dominated by one person.
  • Conversations don't always adhere to a clear path
    You likely need to be open to tangents. In fact, these tangents may be where the really interesting stuff is at. Participants may steer a conversation into completely unexpected territory and help you gain completely new insights.

Maybe social media offers your school an opportunity to sit back, relax, and engage in a lively conversation. Okay, you still may not be able to relax about losing some control.

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Social Networking Bigger than E-mail

May 4, 2009

According to a March 2009 Nielsen Report, internet users now spend more time on social networks and blogs than on e-mail. Social Networking now accounts for 10% of all internet time. It's not just that more people are using sites like Facebook. They are also spending more time on these sites.

Shift to Social Networking is an Opportunity

While interacting with prospective students on Facbeook may seem more daunting than hitting the send button on a mass e-mail to prospective students, this is actually a huge opportunity for admission offices. These e-mail "blasts" tend to be a one-way dialogue. You, the admissions office, are pushing information out to these prospects. If they like what you have to say, then they may check out your site, come to an event, or send you an e-mail back.

Social networks like Facebook open up a much more active dialogue around your school. Prospects can post questions and add comments on your school's wall. You also eliminate the barrier between prospects. They can now interact with each other. Instead of being passive e-mail recipients, prospects are now active community members.

Harnessing the Power of the Community

Relying on e-mail newsletters puts the onus on the admissions office to constantly engage prospects. You need to keep their attention in this one-way dialogue and anticipate what types of information they want and when they want it.

Within a social networking environment, you have an opportunity to let the community take some of this responsibility. That includes responsibility for answering each other's questions, for providing the admissions office real-time feedback regarding what their issues and concerns are, and for just generally engaging fellow community members.

With social networks, you can change the nature of your relationship with prospective students. You can make them active participants. You can get them invested in the community and, in turn, your school.

Think of it in terms of a classroom. Which do you think is more engaging and impactful... a professor lecturing for 60 minutes on a topic OR a classroom discussion, initiated by a professor, but driven forward by students.

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