The social media revolution is arguably the central technological shift of the last decade. Having a well-crafted social media presence is now as essential as having an attractive and functional website was in the early 2000s. Yet many people still express some bewilderment as to how social media for universities can coexist comfortably with the image of them as formal institutions, conveying prestige and tradition without seeming stuck in the past.

There are many ways to build a successful social media presence

A quick Internet search will uncover numerous lists of Top Institutions on Social Media. features a rundown of the top 25 American colleges from the perspective of social media presence; presents a list of 50. Methodologies vary, but common metrics include the aggregate number of likes on Facebook, and the number of followers on Twitter and Instagram.

However, easily discovered metrics such as these have their drawbacks — they don’t control for a school’s preexisting reputation, which can slant results toward Ivy League institutions. It’s no surprise that Harvard is number one on BestCollege’s list. Looking deeper at metrics like responsiveness and engagement, Harvard barely makes the top 30, according to Engagement Labs’ assessment. Simply looking at followers can be deceiving, as they are easily purchased through online mills, and followers can cease to be active without disappearing from the rolls.

What really makes a social media strategy successful?

Everyone has their own philosophy when it comes to social media management. But some tips come consistently from a variety of experts, especially with respect to institutional social media presence.

Allow a degree of autonomy to departments and individuals managing social media accounts.  

The #1 recommendation from Hootsuite, a top Twitter desktop application, is to grant departments autonomy over their social media presence. This can impart a personal feel to the social media stream, which is integral to the ideal social media experience.

Develop a comprehensive social media policy.

Experts often recommend striking a balance between autonomy and individuality with centralized control over messaging through a well-designed social media policy. Without any overarching guidelines about the image the school wants to project, an institution’s social media presence can appear schizophrenic and disorganized.

Responsiveness is key to a successful social media presence.

No one likes to feel ignored, and on a platform designed around continuous, fast-paced updates, tweets and posts can feel like a cry in the wilderness. Getting a timely response when a potential student reaches out to engage can make a huge difference in breaking down the impersonal feel that many universities struggle with.
It’s often recommended that a social media clearing team be designated to deal with inquiries and other interaction.

Focus on integration with all aspects of administration and campus life.

Make sure your social media profile page isn’t a dead end. On platforms like Facebook, there should be more than just posts—a link to an outside page is necessary to provide a portal to direct engagement with programs and department administration. A social media profile page is about image, friendly engagement, and a first point of contact that directs interested students to more comprehensive resources.

Social media users use your page as a contact point or springboard to the information they are looking for, which is likely found elsewhere. Many young people like to ask for information directly rather than searching for it. Directing someone to a general information page in response to a specific question is a bad idea, and will make you look rude and out of touch.

Keep it fun and interesting.

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to bear in mind that your institution’s formal image doesn’t translate easily over social media.Social media is often used for entertainment, and your profile is just one among many in a user’s feed. If you want people to tune in to important messages, you have to engage them regularly to keep them paying attention. It’s also important to remember that social media platforms can be selective about what they show to which users, and this often has a snowball effect, causing your viewership to dwindle imperceptibly.

Consider integrating higher-impact platforms

As a final comment, YouTube is often overlooked in social media for universities. Video content conveys a lot more than a twitter feed and is more engaging, and many of the most successful institutions on social media include a video link right at the top of their profile. Video content can capture an audience that is more intently focused on researching universities, rather than casually monitoring a feed.

How to evaluate success

In order to achieve success in any endeavor, it’s important to lay out clearly the results you are looking for. Are you:

  • Alerting users to events? Social media can replace mailing lists and link to registrations.
  • Trying to increase undergraduate enrolment? Try posting bright, clear pictures of student life and attractive campus buildings.
  • What about attracting graduate students? Highlight research opportunities and special programs, and develop strong departmental accounts. An active community of grads on social media can also really bolster interest for prospective students.
  • Improving alumni relations? Developing a positive media profile through news and research results can encourage alumni to stay in touch as they build their careers.
  • Fostering community? Strong affiliate college accounts focusing on campus life and members’ activities can evoke an inclusive feel over social media.

In particular, enrolment figures should be readily available for your institution. If you want to evaluate the success of social media by this metric, it’s possible through a little bit of elementary analysis to track the impact of a campaign. Or if you have the budget, there are numerous online analytics providers with easy-to-use campaign tracking tools.

What about Canadian Institutions?

Population sizes being what they are, many online resources focus exclusively on American colleges. However, the smaller number of Canadian institutions allows for comparison with relative ease. A quick survey of Facebook profiles shows that McGill University the enjoys a large community of engaged followers, with the University of British Columbia not far behind. The University of Waterloo‘s profile stands out with a decidedly technology-oriented feed, fostering some of the best community engagement over social media at a Canadian institution. 

Social media campaigns can do a lot to build or maintain an institution’s image, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Don’t imagine that a little bit of PR can counteract pervasive negatives in the student experience at your school. If there are problems within your institution or department that go deeper than image, then no amount of messaging will undo the damage.

The Upshot

Overall, running a university social media account doesn’t appear to be rocket science. People like bright, clear pictures, positive messages, responsiveness and humour. The best approach would likely be to hire people dedicated to social media who are skilled in digital marketing, outline your goals and communicate them, put a policy in place to govern things like response time, tone, diversity, and so on, and then let them go to town. And if social media management falls to you, prepare to set aside some time, keep it light, and let your personality infuse your feed.

In need of some more inspiration? Read our free guide containing 13 tactics from some of North America’s most innovative professors.

Catherine Carriere

Catherine Carriere