How colleges can stay on the leading edge of social media

Nearly every U.S. college has an official Facebook page.

Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief of, recently interviewed Nora Barnes, a chancellor professor of marketing and director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, about the Center’s newest study, titled “Social Media Adoption Soars as Higher-Ed Experiments and Reevaluates Its Use of New Communications Tools.”

The new report is the outcome of a statistically valid study of the nation’s four-year accredited colleges and universities.

The study examined these institutions to quantify their adoption of social media tools and technologies. This is the fourth year that UMass-Dartmouth has tracked social media adoption by the higher-education sector. The findings are based on 456 interviews conducted during the 2010-11 academic year and have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

DT: Back in 2007, why did you create the first statistically significant study on the usage of social media by colleges and universities in the U.S.?

NB:  Intuitively, we thought the business world would be ahead with these kinds of technologies and so, being a college professor and our center being located on a college campus, it seemed like it made sense to do that one next. And it was nothing but surprises for everybody when we found out higher education was actually ahead of the business world and continues to be ahead of the business world in the use of these new technologies.

DT: What have been the biggest changes since your first study in 2007 and the most recent one in 2011?

NB: Virtually everything has increased. Everything. Probably the biggest increase was in podcasting, which has almost doubled. Between the 2010 and 2011 academic years, podcasting went from 22 percent to 41 percent.  Facebook is up to 98 percent usage, so virtually every school we talked to has a Facebook page. In just one year, this was up 10 [percentage] points. We now have Twitter usage at 84 percent. It was actually 59 percent the year before, so we’re looking at dramatic increases in Twitter accounts. And blogging’s increasing, too. About two-thirds of the schools currently have blogs.

DT: What do you think are some of the most significant highlights from this 2011 study?

NB: …I think [one] of the other things that [is] interesting is whether schools are creating a social media policy. It’s important that schools have some kind of basic guidelines on how social media can be used, and of course, this is more important than ever if they’re going to proliferate. If everyone’s going to have a blog and everyone’s blogging from a college campus, then the question becomes: “Are there any rules?” Is there anything that we should be doing that we’re not doing now?

More schools have social media policies now than have had them in the past, but the number is still small. We’ve gone from maybe 20 percent of the schools to 30 percent of the schools that have social media policies, sometimes as high as 40 percent. The majority of the schools have no such policy, and that’s a problem. That’s compounded by the fact that many of our blogs are run by students or student interns, or maybe students who work in the office.

DT: What are schools doing well, and where do they need to improve?

NB: I think they’re doing a really good job. I think the places for improvement are with their blogging. They don’t all accept comments, which I think is a little bit interesting. In terms of allowing comments on blogs, we probably still have 20 percent of schools that don’t do that. And if blogs are going to be a source of conversation and interaction, then we need to open them up for that conversation.

I think that, in terms of red flags, I worry about measuring of social media and the connecting of that to other important functions, like recruiting. Is social media bringing in students? Are students coming in via Twitter? The blog? Or the website in some ways we’re not seeing? There is tracking software now. I think schools right now are not doing a good job of measuring the impact of social media on their goals, so I think that needs to be looked at.

DT: What are some of the ways they’re leveraging social media to recruit and research prospective students?

NB: We find that schools are depending more and more on social media, and they are using it to get to harder-to-reach populations. For example, returning students or non-traditional students who might be more likely to be found on a Twitter site than on some more traditional means.

They’re also researching students. Every student should know that every time they have a public facing blog or Facebook page or Twitter feed, … these are accessible and viewable by a wide range of people—including the admissions people. Social media is an integral part of admissions right now.

DT: What do you think can be some of the definitions of success for social media for a college or a university?

NB: Colleges consistently they say social media has been very successful. But, when we follow that up with the question, “How do you measure all that success?,” the answer is, “We don’t measure it.” The sense is that it’s working for them. Intuitively, they feel like there’s an excitement or an increase or whatever it might be, but we haven’t been able to document that effectively. I think now there are tools in place that can do that better.

We need to begin to measure how a student comes in. This might be done through surveys that are conducted, and maybe once the student is accepted … we say, “What was your first contact?” or “How did you come in?”

DT: Overall, what would you say is some of your best advice to colleges and universities to improve their social media [use]?

NB: As a college or university thinks about its brand and having all of these people talking about it, how do you manage that? How do you strategize around that? My advice for colleges and universities is to think about that. Think about strategy now. It’s not so much grabbing the tools. Now it’s about the strategy. Now it’s about the risk. Now it’s about the measurement.

My advice is to move to I guess what we can call social media 2.0, or maybe social media 3.0, which is the next stage beyond comments and hits to measure on engagement—to measure interaction and to do some kind of quality connections, which we haven’t been doing before.

DT: Anything that we haven’t talked about that you think is important?

NB:  I think right now is an easier time than ever before to get help, advice, information, and examples from other institutions. Your site,, is a fabulous place to look at what other schools are doing. That is where you begin. You always begin is to look at your peer institutions. Look at some inspirational schools. Look at what they’re doing, how they’re using social media and again, sites like yours can help them to see that.

For those of us who are doing these studies, I think we’re going to have to change what we’re doing. We’re past the point where we can say, “Do you have a blog? Do you have a Facebook page? Do you have a Twitter account?” Because, depending on who you talk to on the campus, that answer may be different. Even in the admissions office, they may no longer be managing their message.

Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes is a Chancellor Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and has been named a Senior Research Fellow by the Society for New Communications Research. Working closely with businesses in the Northeast U.S., Nora and her students have provided marketing research assistance to hundreds of small businesses. She has published articles in academic and professional journals and proceedings, has contributed chapters to books, and has been awarded numerous research grants. Her work has been covered online and in print by Business Week, the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and Computer World, among others. is the home of the Top 100 Social Media Colleges rankings. All of its information, guides, and tools are free to the public.

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