Using social media for student recruitment isn’t going to work if everything goes through the comms office

This interesting article in the Guardian Higher Ed reports on empirical data which supports something I’ve believed for quite some time: communications offices are, at least in some respects, ill suited to using social media for student recruitment. Their role as an official channel and concern to manage the corporate brand leaves them tending towards sanitised offerings which have little impact on the decision making of potential students:

Our research, conducted with online student community The Student Room, surveyed over 300 potential and current students about what information sources or channels influenced their choice of university. We found that although 65% of students use social media channels several times a day, students rated universities’ social media presence as less influential and less trustworthy than more traditional sources such as prospectuses or open days.

Prospective students are keen to engage with their university through social media channels, with one fifth of students saying that universities don’t make enough use of social media in recruitment, which meant they currently didn’t expect or look for information there.

What’s more, many of the students we surveyed were clueless that their chosen university even had a Twitter or Facebook account – showing that there is a need for universities to ensure their social media presence is clearly signposted to attract the widest audience.

There is also a question to be asked about what kind of content is relevant for social media profiles. We found that fewer than one in five students were influenced by university Twitter accounts and only one in four were influenced by Facebook pages or blogs.

Comments we received from students included, “they do not talk about the things we need to know” and “I don’t find enough useful information that relates to me”. This suggests that many universities are using social media to try and engage with too many stakeholder groups at once, and consequently not being tailored enough about the updates they are sending out.

So how else can social media be used for student recruitment? Facilitating digital activity at thedepartmental level would mean that the structures which will overwhelmingly shape the day-to-day academic experiences of students are rendered open in a way that they previously have not been. Putting resources into encouraging undergraduates, postgraduates and staff to blog about their work and their shared working life within a department would paint a publicly accessible picture of what it will be like to be part of that department. Taking photos and recording audio from events, using a Twitter feed to curate the public life of the department and being open to online engagement with potential students would, I’m convinced, potentially have a much greater impact on the decision making of students than official messages which are centrally produced. The expansion of  marketing/communications in higher education is happening at the same time as many ensuing professional outputs have a declining purchase on the decision making of the target demographic. This is a specific instance of a much broader point: doing communications well in contemporary higher education demands so much more than just hiring new comms staff and giving the comms department more resources.

Categories: Higher Education

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3 replies »

  1. Some good points here Mark. I agree, many students are fairly smart in sussing out glossy promos and would welcome authentic / localised perspectives. Though culturally, increasingly globally-aware recruitment plays it safe.

    Basically, it’s easier to extend social media use through well-rehearsed marketing / comms. practices than invest the time and effort in the type of activities you describe (which might require challenging dept.-level cultures). And unfortunately, unless the “resources” you suggest (somehow) legitimise these activities by integrating them into assigned tasks and role / curriculum requirements, they’ll often just be seen as extra workload.

    • I sort of agree – however if, as seems likely, UK higher ed sees a progressive transfer of resources to communications and marketing functions then, if only a small quantity of this were moved into departmental budgets the money would be available for quite a bit of part time PhD work…

  2. Perhaps it just needs repackaging as outreach / impact 🙂

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