Higher ed, it’s time to rethink your communication and marketing strategy. You’re being forced to embrace social media. Quickly wrap your brain around the data gathered from a recent survey of various stakeholder groups at a prominent southeastern university.

-91% of students are on Facebook. 61% are on Twitter. 22% are on LinkedIn.
-90% of recent alumni, 79% of mid-career alumni, and 85% or late career are on Facebook.
-Between 60-70% of ALL alumni are on LinkedIn.

It’s probably no surprise that college students (or their younger high-school counterparts) live and breathe social media, probably via their mobile device.

And I probably don’t need to prove that 90% of recent alumni are equally immersed. After all, they are still fringe millennials.

But far-removed alumni?
The numbers don’t lie. And we haven’t even mentioned faculty or staff, yet. The reality is that all shareholder groups including employers, parents of students, potential donors, faculty and other constituents are just a “tweet” or “share” away.

But with so many different demographic populations embracing social media, many universities are struggling to integrate these platforms into their marketing and communications plans.

The result: a digital world littered with dead channels, deserted pages, and zombie profiles limping along with limited success.

Over the next few weeks, we’re helping clear the streets. We’re taking what we have learned and setting out to provide some clarity for departments that feel the pressure to move forward, but don’t know where or how to begin.

Step 1: Set your scope and goals

Execution of any social media plan requires an investment of limited resources. For public institutions, this can be difficult; success requires a long-term vision and outstanding budgeting skills. Rally your efforts around existing strengths and focus on audiences that give the highest ROI. You can’t solve all your communication problems in a day. Email lists aren’t built in a week. And successful content content marketing systems aren’t set up over night.

Success breeds success.
So begin with your departments with budget and motivation and get them moving. Empower employees that are eager to navigate the digital world. Start by engaging the communities that are most likely to reciprocate. Reward advocacy, and build an internal social culture where it counts.

And, before you start setting up profiles, establish goals. With so much opportunity for engagement, it’s important to stay focused and avoid shiny object syndrome.

Goal Example:
Share campus stories on Facebook to engage with prospective students and increase applications by x% over x amount of time.

Step 2: Define Identity

Your social media presence is an extension of school or department brand. Look inward and identify the personality of your institution.

Is your department a playful bunch of jokesters? or conservative and buttoned-up? What are you about? What are the shared experiences that stakeholders rally around?

Don’t stop with the Dean’s strategic vision. Let personality shine, and make sure that consistent voice is echoed across relevant platforms.

Step 3: Create Strategy

There is a lot of confusion about which stakeholder groups should be engaged where. Before you start building a Facebook page for the parents of students in the Department of Management Informations Systems, evaluate each channel in terms of their ability to impact the target market. If only 20% of your students are on LinkedIn, it makes more sense to allocate limited resources toward a G+ page, if 85% or your target audience is already engaging there.

According to the research study, listed below are the primary social media outlets for reaching primary shareholder groups:

Facebook: Students and Recent Alumni
Twitter: Industry and Recent-Mid Career Alumni
LinkedIn: Industry and Alumni
Email: All shareholder groups

Step 4: Define Metrics

Don’t measure success by “likes” or followers alone. Determine results that matter to your department (such as percent increase in applications or donations from a particular group).

Step 5: Empower & Support Willing Departments

Within a school or college, each unit has a particular message spoken by unique faculty members to a distinct audience. It doesn’t make sense to have a single, all-encompassing social media account that represents the entire university.

Budgets are shrinking.
Most departments (or colleges in some cases) will not have someone on staff with social media experience, although 90-100% of Universities have some degree of social media presence.

Resist the urge to centralize channels and broaden communication. Rather, focus resources on empowering users through centralized support and training; Offer education and one-on-one consultations for each department.

Step 6: Create Valuable Content

Traditional communication and marketing will fall flat in the digital world. A quick google search will uncover hoards of floundering university pages full press releases. An outsider can’t tell you what content your community is hungry for (though they can certainly help), but here are 7 ways you could find out.

1. Ask your students or alumni.
2. Ask your recruitment, development and admissions teams.
3. Ask your faculty and staff.
4. Follow news sources that are relevant to shareholder groups.
5. Discover keywords in web analytics.
6. Watch competing schools.
7. Test and learn. As you stick content out there, the metrics will tell you what your audience finds valuable.

You don’t have to get the content mix perfect before you start rolling. Content strategies constantly evolve over time. The most critical (and most challenging) piece of the strategy is building a structure for gathering, vetting, publishing and measuring content over time. This is a critical task you can’t simply off to the faculty member who draws the shortest straw. They will need razor focus and motivation or lines of communication will quickly dry up and channels go dormant.

Step 7: Build a Social Culture

The digital world is chock full of growth opportunity, but forward motion can be slowed to a crawl if departments operate in silos. Open communication fosters collaboration and mutual learning from others across campus.

Social culture begins with leadership
Social culture ultimately defined by its people, from the top down, and the actions of leadership shape it – whether on purpose or by accident. The Dean should lead the charge by implementing social values of internal transparency and collaborative conversation first. Show your support and enthusiasm. Engage online regularly, and add value to shareholders. Once change happens in the heart of your organization, the rest will follow.

As more and more universities are wrestling with the social world, strategy, training and cross-campus collaboration will be critical to achieve your marketing and communication strategic goals.

Over the next few weeks, we will be diving deeper and deeper into higher education communication and marketing. Stay tuned for a closer look into social media strategy for specific shareholder groups including: students, admissions, alumni and development.


Author: Micah Whitehead is the Social Architect and Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.

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VPM Admin at Verge Pipe Media
Verge Pipe Media is a strategic digital marketing and Public Relations agency based in Auburn, Alabama. We partner with our clients to develop their digital story and solve complex brand, marketing and communication challenges using our imaginative inbound marketing best practices.
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