For Now, Facebook Remains the Primary Social Network for Higher Ed

But as a result of recent changes at Facebook, higher ed social media strategists will have to work harder for their content to reach stakeholders

February 7, 2018

Have you found yourself checking Facebook less frequently in the past six months? Or perhaps you’ve left the platform entirely?

I ask because Facebook revealed some interesting data at the end of January. First, users are spending less time on the site (usage declined by 50 million hours last year) and for the first time ever, Facebook saw a decline in daily active users in North America.

Facebook has come under pressure in the past year, as you may know, as a result of the proliferation of fake news on its platform and the fact that Russia-linked actors used it in an attempt to sow discord and undermine the 2016 election.

You could say that Facebook’s current problems are the product of its success. They’re also a result of the unintended consequences of society’s wholesale adoption of a platform that’s intentionally engineered to capture our attention and sell it to the highest bidder through an intimate knowledge of our deepest needs. And we shouldn’t be surprised that Facebook technology works.

One of Facebook’s responses to these challenges has been to redesign the way its News Feed works. As the New York Times noted,

Facebook has introduced sweeping changes to the kinds of posts, videos and photos that its more than two billion members will see most often, saying . . . that it would prioritize what their friends and family share and comment on while de-emphasizing content from publishers and brands.

These and other changes to Facebook’s algorithms may or may not improve the Facebook experience for users. But it does affect the many publishers and brands that have invested in Facebook marketing, creating uncertainty about how their content will fare in the “new” Facebook.

The impact on higher ed

Nearly all colleges and universities rely on Facebook as the primary social network through which they engage a range of stakeholders. So what do the changes in the way Facebook operates mean for higher ed?

First, it’s important to note that these changes could have an overall positive impact. Chris D’Orso, assistant director of enrollment communications at Stony Brook University, observed, “Our Facebook presence is really focused on creating meaningful interactions between people. Whether that's between students and alumni, parents and staff, whoever — anywhere that we're getting meaningful interactions, it benefits everyone.”

But colleges and universities will have to work harder — and smarter — to create those interactions. Here are three observations.

1. Facebook will continue to be the most important social platform for colleges and universities.

Right now, Facebook is an important source for information about colleges for prospective students and is the main online channel for alumni engagement.

That won’t change, at least for now: Facebook will remain the foundation for online social engagement for higher ed.

Facebook is also integral to online fundraising, especially to the widely used “Giving Day” fundraising embraced by institutions around the world. In the 2016 survey of social media in advancement, 46 percent of respondents said that their institution used a Giving Day to raise money. As colleges grow more sophisticated in their approach to online fundraising, Facebook will play an even larger role. For example, Mike Nagel, from EverTrue, an advancement software and data company, observed,

We did a webinar with the team from Boston University where they showed how their investment in Facebook is paying off with 75% phonathon participation rates (when targeting engaged Facebook fans with relevant asks), is building a major gift pipeline, and helping recruit 100+ ambassadors for BU’s successful giving day.

2. Compelling content will be more important than ever.

Creating great content for Facebook has always been important, as colleges and universities who focused on strengthening their Facebook presence have learned. Strong content increases the opportunities for likes, shares, and comments by your audience. These, in turn, help to legitimize your content in Facebook’s algorithm, essentially building Facebook cred.

Now, doubling down on creating great content will be even more important. As Michael H. O’Neill, associate director of digital engagement, Alumni Affairs & Development, Cornell University, noted, “If anything, this strengthens what our strategy has always been. Create the most engaging type of content that our audience responds to.”

This, of course, requires paying close attention to what your audiences like and share and giving them more of it. And it may require you to develop and share different kinds of content.

For example, Nagel said that more EverTrue clients are “ . . . seeing video (especially Facebook Live events) and Facebook Events as good ways to break into the news feed because Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm still loves video.” And, he noted, “Live video is an especially great way to drive engagement and build connections among audiences. It's also important to leverage Facebook Events, especially around athletics and alumni events. They’re sharable ways for your audience to participate in what’s happening on campus (or on the road) and provide great intel for fundraisers, too." O’Neill reported that he expected to experiment with more live content at Cornell, too.

3. Expect to ask for, and spend, more money for advertising on Facebook.

Advertising on Facebook works and colleges that use it find that it’s the best way to reach their stakeholders.

You’ll need to become more familiar with Facebook’s advertising options to get the best results, whatever your goal. This will require time and energy, since these options are evolving, but it’s worth it.

For example, systematic use of Custom Audience tools allows you to import email addresses or Facebook IDs of your stakeholders into Facebook and create ads that reach them directly. Many institutions are already doing this — and more will. Here’s what Mike O’Neill says about his approach at Cornell:

We’re also using custom audiences more and more. Due to the bad actors of last year’s election, Facebook removed the ability to target certain groups of people for a short time so we had to rely on Custom Audience lists more. Which is better for your budget anyway since you know your ads will be placed directly in front of the people you need to see them.

O’Neill plans to start collecting Facebook IDs from alumni instead of emails, which will help Cornell target their stakeholders even more precisely.

Higher ed social media strategists have learned that success requires paying attention and being nimble enough to adapt to rapid and mercurial platform changes like these at Facebook. This is just the most recent example of how social media continues to evolve rapidly — and it certainly won’t be the last to impact how we use social media to further our institutional goals.

Michael Stoner is president and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first agency committed to tailored solutions that deliver real results.

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