“Students might not exclude a school based on a lack of presence—but having a well-maintained, active social media presence is within the range of students’ expectations, which would positively impact their opinion,” said Michael Fienen, a web marketing manager at Pittsburg State University in Kansas who detailed the most effective social media strategies in higher education for .eduGuru, a web site that tracks college internet marketing.

“The key is to make sure you add value wherever you are, give people a reason to engage you in those venues, and … add to their experience and impressions,” Fienen said, adding that universities should commit to social networking before they subscribe to Twitter or Facebook. “Properly cultivating and maintaining social media takes a lot of work, even if you have a large community of users contributing.”

In his Jan. 10 article for .eduGuru, Fienen ranked colleges and universities with the best social media presence—avoiding an overload of posts and tweets, but responding and interacting in a timely way.

Among the top schools were the University of Colorado at Boulder, Drexel University, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Oregon. Some of these institutions, such as Drexel, take time to post online congratulations to students who gain admittance to the university.

Twitter as a fund raiser?

While Facebook is the preferred social medium for teenagers and 20-somethings, university admissions officers rely more on Twitter to stay in touch with alums. Only 8 percent of teenagers use Twitter, according to a September 2009 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life project, and 37 percent of respondents ages 18-24 tweet regularly.

Joni Kirk, associate director of media relations at the University of Idaho, said sharing news about campus involvement in the community or new student programs and scholarship opportunities might attract donations from alums who wouldn’t have seen the announcements if not for Twitter.

“Public universities are relying more on private funding to finance things,” she said. “Higher ed has taken quite a hit [financially], so we have to look for other avenues, and this is certainly one.”

Idaho is still looking for ways to boost its ranks of Twitter followers, Kirk said. The campus currently has 400 alumni followers, many of whom re-tweet—or repost—links to university news items.

With more than 75,000 alums, “the potential there for people to hear more about the university is huge,” she said.

Ragan-Fore said the University of Oregon has more than 1,000 Twitter followers. As with using Facebook, too much activity on social networking sites can lead to mass “de-friendings,” he said, so tempering the frequency of Twitter posts is the key to attracting alumni donations.

“With Twitter, especially, it feels like you’re kind of screaming into the void,” he said. “And we’re always glad to have boosters following along.”

Some in higher education remain skeptical of establishing a presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, according to a 2009 survey by Noel-Levitz, a consultant for colleges. Seven out of 10 respondents said universities should “promote their programs” using social media, while 28 percent disagreed. Only 51 percent said campuses should contact prospective students via Facebook and Twitter.

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