Social media: Colleges’ newest battlefield for students, alumni donations

Seventy percent of higher-ed officials say colleges should engage students using social media.
Seventy percent of higher-ed officials say colleges should engage students using social media.

Colleges’ unending campaign to attract more students and alumni donations has higher-education officials looking to two technologies that consume a growing chunk of people’s free time: social media and video games.

University admissions officers are fielding prospective students’ application questions on Facebook and keeping alumni up to date with multiple daily tweets that could grow campus coffers if graduates feel more connected to their alma maters.

Some colleges lure potential students with walking, talking digital characters, or avatars, that guide visitors through an application process that sometimes frustrates prospective students and results in hundreds of unfinished online applications.

Admissions and marketing officials at colleges nationwide said higher education has been slow to embrace social networking, in part because larger institutions thought a Facebook or Twitter presence might tarnish the campus’s prestige.

But over the past year, research universities and community colleges alike have brought their marketing message to the online forums that many students are constantly connected to using their iPhones, BlackBerries, and other smart phones.

“[University decision makers] don’t want to bring down the institution by participating in something that ends up being a flash in the pan or makes us look silly,” said Aaron Ragan-Fore, a web communications editor in the University of Oregon’s office of admissions who lobbied campus officials to create social media accounts and appeal to prospective students who spend hours every day on Facebook.

“There was an appropriate lag, in some sense, so we didn’t sign on to something … that was just a random collection of ephemera,” he said.

Oregon now has 860 “fans,” or Facebook users—many of them prospective applicants—who can follow university updates in their personalized Facebook news feed. Most applicants post their questions on the university’s public wall, like Traci Lewis, who asked why her online application status was listed as “incomplete.”

“What should i do. cuz i sent everything in. when the status says incomplete does that mean i did not get in to oregon?” Lewis wrote March 30. The Oregon admissions office suggested she call the admissions office’s 800 number for clarification. Another prospective student following the exchange told Lewis he had called, and wrote that he “called and they said it takes them at least [a] few days to actually get … through all the mail.”

Other applicants who follow Oregon on Facebook had questions about foreign-language requirements, SAT scores, grade point averages, and financial packages. Most queries were answered by an admissions staff member within a few hours of posting.

“I want them to see we’re there and we can talk,” Ragan-Fore said. “And we’re always looking to generate conversation.”

Admissions officers should find a middle ground between inactivity and overactivity on Facebook, experts said. Too many posts and personal messages can drive potential students away, and infrequent posts risk losing students’ interest.

“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.

Keeping students’ attention with digital characters

Wooing potential students on Facebook might get them to a college’s online application page, but many campuses haven’t been able to decrease the number of applicants who “X” out of the page before they’re done filling out vital information.

Even for those applications that are completed, admissions officers find a bevy of mistakes that require follow-up eMails and phone calls to prospective students.

Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs uses a friendly digital character named “Addy” to guide applicants through the school’s in-state residency application process. Pikes Peak officials said the campus has seen a 7 percent increase in completed applications, and an 80 percent decline in application mistakes, since using the interactive technology from CodeBaby, a Colorado-based company specializing in eLearning software.

“So many students now have had their own experience in gaming, so they’re totally comfortable with dealing with digital characters,” said Mike Whitt, head of CodeBaby’s educational online engagement division, adding that company analysis shows web users are four times more likely to engage with a web page containing a virtual character like “Addy” than a page full of text. “The conversational approach has really caught on,” he said.

Using software to cut down on the number of application errors can save a campus thousands of dollars over the course of a school year, said Audrey Dalton, a CodeBaby spokeswoman. The drop in application mistakes at Pikes Peak, she said, saved 20 hours of staff work every week—meaning the college saves $40,000 over a full year.

“That’s significant for any college right now,” Dalton said.


University of Oregon Admissions Facebook page


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