Massive social media advertising campaigns have proven effective for colleges and universities large and small, and a new analysis shows that institutions that invest the most in social media ads spend less per student on marketing than do campuses who stick to traditional strategies.
Campuses considered “moderate-to-heavy” investors in social media marketing to alumni and current and prospective students—using popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn—spend $83 per student on advertising costs, while “light-to-non-investors” spend $121 per student, according to a study released last month by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and Lipman Hearne, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing and communications firm that serves nonprofit organizations.
The higher-education market analysis also reported a rise in overall investment in social media advertising: Fifty-two percent of campuses surveyed spent more on social media marketing between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2009, and 55 percent of colleges invested more in interactive online tools.
Donna Van De Water, chief operating officer of Lipman Hearne, said the ability to track page views and other metrics during an online marketing drive is appealing to college marketing decision makers because it “helps an institution understand where it sits relative to competitors, how to better manage reputation, how to shape messages, and how to maximize resources.”
Institutions that spent the most money on web-based ads on popular social networking sites had advantages in three of the most critical marketing areas: web site hits, positioning among colleges, and alumni giving.
The increase in social media ad investments coincided with a drop in “traditional advertising” among colleges and universities, according to the Lipman Hearne survey. More than four in 10 “heavy” social media users said they spent less on advertising in established ad venues, such as print publications.
Advertising strategies are shifting after a decade of rapid growth in colleges’ marketing budgets. The average midsize college—with enrollment of 2,000 to 5,999 students—spent about $260,000 in fiscal year 2001 on marketing. That number jumped to $800,000 in fiscal 2009, according to the survey.
Rob Moore, Lipman Hearne’s CEO, said the tripling of marketing budgets among midsized campuses was in response to an increase in “competition for students [and] deep tuition discounting,” both factors that can have a “huge impact on the institution’s bottom line.”
The marketing spending survey, released July 26, was conducted in February and March at 212 CASE member schools, including 138 colleges and universities ranging from two-year schools to research institutions.
Reaching out via Facebook and Twitter isn’t isolated to campus marketing departments. A Maguire Associates survey of U.S. public and private institutions offering four-year undergraduate degrees found that 77 percent of senior enrollment officers use social networking to contact and recruit students.
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.
But some higher-ed officials said tapping into the legions of alumni, students, and parents who use social media every day is tantalizing for campus marketing pros.
Joni Kirk, associate director of media relations at the University of Idaho, said that with the school’s 75,000 alums, “the potential … for people to hear more about the university [on Facebook and Twitter] is huge,” she said.
“Higher ed has taken quite a hit [financially], so we have to look for other avenues, and this is certainly one,” Kirk added.
And not every college’s social media strategy was made equal.
In a Jan. 10 article for .eduGuru, Michael Fienen, a web marketing manager at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, 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.
“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.”
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