Twitter et al may not seem like the natural habitat of an academic institution, but if universities want to appeal to undergraduates, it seems like they are going to have to bed down and get comfortable with hashtags. Typical potential undergraduates, 17 and 18-year-olds, have grown up with the evolution of social media and to them, it is simply expected.
And it’s not just potential students, either. Alumni are increasingly using social media to stay connected, as are other key university stakeholders such as staff and parents. With so many important and relevant parties getting involved in social media, it would be madness for a university to ignore it.
The statistics speak volumes
Ofcom produces an annual report on the state of communication in the UK. The latest, from August 2014, found that three quarters of 16 – 24-year-olds use social networking sites, compared to just 47% of all UK adults. Additionally, those 16 – 24-year-olds that do participate in social networking sites spend 1.5 hours every day doing just that.
Why universities need social media
Young people use social media for more than simple communicating, they use it to find information out and get a feel for brands and products. So with that in mind, there are several reasons why a university would want to embrace social media with open arms: brand awareness, recruitment and creating community.
Boring, sloppy, stuffy – a brand can convey all of this on social media through the likes of dull copy, spelling mistakes and irregular updates. Social media offers the chance to extend a universities brand and reach more (relevant) people.
We are going to touch on this more in a later post (keep your eyes peeled!) but social media is quickly gaining traction in student recruitment. Whilst it is nowhere near as important as university rankings, it offers a unique chance for near-instant contact. Students in a hurry for answers will often head to the social media pages first, and an efficient response can have a positive impact.
Creating a community
Creating a sense of community is no longer restricted to the physical world; it should be done online as well. Social media is a great starting point, it allows universities to quickly share – student achievements, shareable images, new rankings etc – and get instant replies, likes and shares. All of which creates a tighter community.
Social media in practice
A study into social authority on Twitter ranks the Plymouth University account as number one. A quick look at their Twitter feed and it is not hard to see why, they have over 32K followers and 20K tweets. Of course quality is of upmost importance, and they have managed to achieve a brilliant blend of tweets, from tweeting about fun food fermentation workshops to retweeting student achievements and engaging with the local football team (in an appropriate, relevant way)!
Facebook is another key social media platform for universities, and Sheffield University have jumped on the chance to welcome ‘freshers’, by setting up an Official Firmers Group. By using the relaxed phrase ‘firmers’ and encouraging the hashtag #shefunilife, Sheffield University are using social media to welcome and embrace their latest cohort.
The University of Southampton launched their #weareconnected campaign last year, linking up their TV advertisement, twitter campaign and online hub. It aims to highlight how connected Southampton University is – to research, business and all around the globe – and what better way than using such a cleverly connected campaign?
We are connected – University of Southampton
One of the key considerations of social media is maintaining the same voice across different platforms. Most universities strive for an authoritative voice, but that doesn’t mean it has to lack personality or even, where appropriate, a bit of humour. Social media is more informal than traditional communication methods, so it is OK to relax and even get down with the kids. Here is a great example of Glasgow University doing just that, where they request selfies for their new strategic plan. Oxford University, renowned for academic rigour and prestige, are spotted here on Twitter celebrating the 750th birthday of one of their colleges by uploading a beautiful collage, a great way to seem personable without compromising professionalism.
As well as picking the right voice, universities must also pick their platforms with care. Now more than ever, there are endless social media platforms to choose from. But to really build on a brand and community, it is best to focus efforts on quality over quantity. The platforms chosen should reflect the desired outcomes. For example, there is no point in having a YouTube channel if shooting video is not a high priority. When in doubt, see where your target audience are; Twitter and Facebook are a good starting point for now.
Lastly, universities should try, where possible, to engage with the outside community. A university is a community in its own right, but social media allows you to embrace an even bigger community. From Lancaster University retweeting a tweet about the Nepal Earthquake to Sheffield University getting involved with World Tetris Day and even the University of East Anglia retweeting a local public transport update, social media offers the chance to embrace the community at large.
In conclusion, social media offers universities a real chance to connect with students, build a community and establish their brand. To make the most of it, universities should embrace social media and all of its benefits, whilst considering its current limitations.
Want to improve engagement with your institution’s social media output? Read our piece on 6 free ways to increase HE social media engagement.