These days, it’s not uncommon for a university to have at least a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, and a YouTube account – maybe even a Pinterest page and a Tumblr, too. But a recent survey shows that for recruiting purposes, the number of social media accounts might not be nearly as important as what colleges and universities do with the technology.
About two-thirds of high school students use social media to research colleges, and more than one-third of those students use social media to help decide where to enroll, according to a survey conducted by Zinch , an online scholarship- and school-matching service run by Chegg , and Inigral , a tech company that focuses on student engagement online.
Of the more than 7,000 students surveyed, nearly three-quarters said they check Facebook at least once per day, while more than half never use Twitter, the next-most-visited network. Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram were even less popular. A study  published in The Journal of College Admission that looked at the top 100 colleges and universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, found that universities use an average of 3.7 social networks, with one university using as many as seven different sites.
Gil Rogers, director of College Outreach for Zinch, said universities should look at the results from the student survey and perhaps reconsider their social media strategy. “While it might be free to create accounts on these new, popular social media sites, universities should focus recruitment efforts on where they’re going to get the highest return on investment,” he said.
According to the survey data, the way to get a high return on investment is to focus on engagement. Prospective students, the survey shows, want to be able to communicate with people. “Students want to be connected with other students,” Rogers said. “You can post a picture of an athletic event, but you also want to be able to connect students to ways that they can be part of that event or be part of that campus.”
Who prospective students want to communicate with differs, however. White students were the most likely to want to communicate with current students, while Hispanic and black students wanted to connect with admissions counselors; white and Asian students were more likely to want to network with other admitted students than were black and Latino students.
Rogers, who previously worked in admissions at the University of New Haven, said that, based on anecdotal experience, he believes black and Hispanic students might be more interested in connecting to an official, while white students are more interested in connecting to peers.
“Those students are drawn to someone they can identify as an authority and someone who is a resource,” he said. “They’re more likely to want to connect to an admissions counselor via social media because that is the person who has facts and answers.”
Knowing the way different groups use social media could help shape universities’ online strategies, said Michael Stoner, president of the strategy company mStoner , whose explanation for the demographic differences was similar to Rogers’.
“It could be that there’s more need for that information on the part of Hispanic and black students because as a group they’re less knowledgeable about the admissions process and they have fewer peers they can reach out to,” he said. “If you’re an institution that really wants to reach out to those students, this could be a very effective way of informing your outreach and communication strategy.”