Social media saves money, boosts efficiency for college recruiters

A new study examines social media’s impact on college spending.

It’s no secret that teenagers today practically live online—so online is where college recruiters should go to find potential students, reveals a study about increased social media use among admissions officers at U.S. colleges and universities.

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth this month released a study that indicates significant changes in recruiting tactics as higher education warms up to social media.

The newly released data show for the first time that using social media cuts costs for college recruiters, and as a result, 86 percent of surveyed schools plan to increase investments in these tools during the next year.

From November to May of the 2011-12 school year, researchers conducted 570 interviews with admissions officers at four-year undergraduate schools. Schools included in the survey sample were 22 percent public and 78 percent private, and represented a range of enrollment sizes and tuition costs.

Seventy-eight percent of admissions officers surveyed reported that social media tools have changed the way they recruit.

“Social media is increasingly becoming the preferred way college-aged students obtain and absorb news today. Having a presence on social media outlets allows colleges to honestly be in the discussion when students are leveraging where to apply and enroll,” said Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at the University of Houston.

“The key is—meet them where they are,” said Jim Miller, immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

When he began his college admissions career, “it was all about letters, postcards, and phone calls,” Miller said. Since then, the conversation has moved to eMail, and then to social media and texting.

“So we’re just moving to the next stage,” he said.

The study shows that increases in social media use have reduced the cost of promoting the school through more traditional means: Schools reported spending 33 percent less on printing, 24 percent less on newspaper ads, and 17 percent less on radio and TV ads.

Ninety-six percent of surveyed admissions officers agreed that social media is worth the investment.

“Accounts are free, even the most expensive monitoring/reporting solutions are not very expensive, and the human resource investment is also not tremendously expensive right now,” said David May, web and interactive marketing manager at Chapman University in California.

May conceded: “It’s very difficult to evaluate the ROI of social media,” but pointed out that “it’s also difficult to evaluate the ROI of using office telephones and eMail accounts.”

Despite widespread changes to incorporate more social media in the college recruiting process, the transition has not yet become formalized. Only 49 percent of those surveyed have a written social media policy for their school.

Nora Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research, likened the need for schools to have a social media plan to the fundamental need for a financial plan or a marketing plan.

“The real issue is that social media now needs a seat at the table. It is an important element that needs to be part of the plan for promoting and recruiting,” she said.

Barnes said an effective social media plan must outline how a school will measure, monitor, track, and research new tools and trends. Schools also must consider how to hire the necessary expertise and incorporate social media use into their budgets.

Not all social media tools are created equal: Surveyed schools reported the most useful tools for recruiting undergraduates to include Facebook (94 percent), YouTube (81 percent), Twitter (69 percent), and downloadable mobile apps (51 percent).

Social media users are not created equal, either. In the time from 2009-10 to now, the proportion of schools monitoring online conversations about themselves dropped from 73 percent to 47 percent.

Barnes attributed the change to schools turning over social media responsibility from staffers to students.

“Students are great at blogging, posting on Facebook and Twitter, etc., but less likely to bother with things like measuring, tracking, and monitoring. Those organizations with full-time or dedicated social media employees do those things better,” she said.

The study cautioned against the decline of schools “monitoring online conversations about their school outside of their own portals,” saying that this practice “puts schools at risk of not being able to respond in a timely fashion to negative buzz, or inaccurate information.”

It stated: “Colleges and universities are active participants in social media, but need to listen as well.”

Fuller cautioned that while social media “should be one tool used in connecting with students … it should not be the only tool used in communicating with students.”

May explained the pros and cons of social media-based recruiting: “Social media is transparent and brings a ‘human’ element to an otherwise cold and intimidating process. The millennial generation … dislike being marketed to, and if they feel as though they are getting the ‘inside scoop,’ they are more likely to respond to the messages.”

Social media marketing shouldn’t replace traditional methods of recruitment, he said.

May cited data from his school, Chapman University, which suggest undergraduates still respond well to campus visits and live interactions with their admission counselors, and parents still like printed materials.

“Perhaps social media is not intended to replace college fairs, high school visits, and printed materials. Instead, perhaps it’s supposed to replace eMails and telephone calls,” he said.

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