5 major trends in higher education’s use of social media

New report studies close to a thousand different institutions to provide a detailed snapshot of 2015’s dynamic college and university social media use.

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[Editor’s note: This story has been updated for 2016. Read the newest version here.]

If you want to know how other colleges and universities are using social media today, know this: they’re using it like any other media-savvy millennial. From a spike in “giving days” and crowdfunding campaigns to a heavy focus on multimedia, higher education has become a social media heavy-hitter.

But measuring success is another issue.

The findings are part of a yearly report (currently in its sixth year) conducted by CASE, Huron Education, and mStoner, Inc.—written by Jennifer Mack, senior researcher at Huron Education and Michael Stoner, co-founder and president of mStoner—on higher education’s refinement, prioritization and expansion of their social media habits.

According to the 2015 report, which surveyed a random sample of 28,000 CASE members in the U.S. and abroad and received 894 responses across all types of institutions (almost 50 percent of respondents work in universities, 27 percent in 4-year colleges, and 15 percent in independent schools), social media advancement has gone mainstream in higher education.

“Furthermore, schools, colleges, and universities continue to refine their use of social media channels as they learn how to use these powerful tools more effectively to engage constituents, communicate about institutional goals and priorities—and raise money,” note the authors.

Here are 5 trends revealed in the 2015 report:


1.A Big Growth in Campaigns

According to those surveyed, the number of institutions using social media in campaigns, which the report defines as a planned strategy to achieve a specific goal, continues to grow, with 70 percent indicating they used social media in campaigns–up from 50 percent in 2012 and 59 percent in 2014.

Also, in 2015, 91 percent of institutions that rated themselves as “highly successful” with social media reported using one or more social channels as part of a campaign.


2.There’s a Need to Measure Success

The authors emphasize that there’s a struggle for institutions in knowing how to assess their overall success with social media tools.

The data shows that 58 percent of respondents consider themselves “somewhat successful” in their use of social media; 23 percent are “very successful,” and 3 percent say that they are a “model for successful use of social media.” And among those who say their practice is either very successful or a model for others, a key characteristic of success includes a likeliness to plan, having goals, and measuring outcomes.

Other characteristics that distinguish the institutions self-labeled as successful include:

  • Using more channels: more likely to use YouTube (87 percent use it, as opposed to 67 percent overall and 63 percent of the less successful institutions), Instagram (83 percent versus 54 percent overall and 49 percent of the less successful), blogs (44 percent versus 28 percent overall and 26 percent of the less successful), Vine (13 percent versus 7 percent overall and 4 percent of the less successful), and SnapChat (10 percent versus 5 percent overall and 2 percent of the less successful).
  • Posting more frequently: 64 percent post to Facebook at least once a day (compared to 49 percent of institutions overall); 68 percent share on Twitter more than once a day (vs. 44 percent overall); and 34 percent post to their social media aggregator webpage more than once a day (vs. 24 percent overall).
  • Posting more images than text: Successful institutions post more images (52 percent of their posts) relative to text (33 percent of posts), as opposed to less successful institutions, whose posts consist of 43 percent images and 45 percent texts.
  • Having socially active leaders, especially on Twitter: Leaders of the successful institutions tend to be more active on Twitter (33 percent vs. 23 percent of those less successful).
  • Using social media in fundraising: 64 percent of successful colleges and universities raise money using social media, versus 57 percent overall; 31 percent raised over $10K-$50K in the previous fiscal year through social media; 51 percent have “giving days” versus 42 percent overall; 33 percent have engaged their ambassadors versus 22 percent overall; and 75 percent use social media for stewardship of donors versus 62 percent overall.
  • Using social media in campaigns: 91 percent of institutions successful with social media use one or more channels as part of a campaign, versus 70 percent overall and 63 percent of less successful institutions.

“We’ve [also] heard some discussion among advancement leaders about attempts to assess the level of connection individual constituents have with the institution,” say the authors. “This is sometimes referred to as ‘engagement scoring.’” This year, 34 percent of respondents said that they assign some type of engagement scores to alumni and/or donors. Some of the most common engagement scoring elements include: giving; participating in person at events; volunteering in person; participating in mentoring, internship, or employment programs; engaging with social media; engaging in recruiting prospective students; et cetera.

But in terms of measuring social media effectiveness, colleges and universities still use numbers of followers/friends/connections/comments (89 percent), click-throughs to a website (75 percent), and anecdotal evidence (55 percent). Only 9 percent tie information back to a CRM system. 54 percent of respondents rely on free software platforms like Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, and Hootsuite to derive their data on social media effectiveness.

(Next page: Visuals, Channels, and Fundraising trends)

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