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So…how’s that social media marketing plan going? Are your prospective students engaged yet?

If the goal of your school’s social media plan is to generate engagement from prospective students, then you’re going for page “likes” or “follows.” Once they’ve liked your page, your content—be it news, event coverage, videos, pictures or blogs—will show up in their feed, and depending on how they engage with your social media property, your information will show up organically in their friends’ feeds (even the ones who haven’t liked your page). This content will also reveal what your students and alumni (universal peers) have to say about your institution.

At least that’s the theory. In practice using social media to engage prospects isn’t so easy. In fact, I’d wager that if we were all honest with ourselves, many higher education marketers would admit that they feel like they’re wasting time and money on social media. The truth is, no matter how striking your campus Instagram photos are or how star-studded your basketball team is, many prospective students don’t want to engage. In fact, in some cases, the more they like your school, the less likely they are to like your school.

The problem with social media begins to become clear after looking at an E-Expectations Report from Ruffalo Noel-Levitz that covered over 1,000 students (and their families) as they went through their college search process.

The first indication of what’s wrong comes from their finding that social media by colleges is the least influential of all online media when it comes to forming opinions. While 75% of the survey respondents reported that the websites of the colleges they were looking at influenced their decision to attend, less than 20% indicated that Facebook had a positive impact.

On the surface, it gets even stranger when you look at how the people who responded to this survey “engaged” with social media. Approximately 37% of respondents reported “following” colleges that interested them on Twitter (up from 25% in 2013) and 51% reported that they’d visited a college’s Facebook page. Clearly they’re looking at social media. So why doesn’t it seem to have more impact?

One of the big reasons is that prospects are becoming less likely to engage. While 55% of survey respondents reported “liking” a college in 2013, that number plummeted to 35% in 2014. When asked why they didn’t engage, most responded that they were afraid of clicking “like” because they didn’t want to share personal information with the colleges they were looking at…a pretty reasonable assumption considering how little control we have over what shows up in our feeds and timelines.

Here’s the root of the entire problem with using social media in higher ed marketing: we want to engage with them, but they don’t want to engage with us.

What they are into is each other—and that network of friends they share can have a big impact on purchasing behavior. In fact, a recent study on Millennial social media habits by ShareThis found that 70% of those surveyed reported that they’d made a purchase based on content shared by a peer via social media!

But however (and whatever) students are sharing, one thing is clear: they want to talk to each other, not to your institution. People share with others in their networks because it serves a number of social functions that just don’t exist when interacting with brands. They have no incentive to befriend your institution because the costs (real or imagined) outweigh the apparent benefits.  

So is social media marketing a lost cause? Not at all! But in order to make it work for you as a marketer, you have to accept one hardcore truth: consumers don’t want to talk to you until they want to talk to you or (and this is the really hard part) you provide them with something interesting enough to share with their friends.

It’s that latter reason that’s been driving much of the surging interest in content marketing during the past year or so.  The only way to attract engagement on social media is to create content that’s 1) going to attract the audiences you’re trying to engage with; and 2) provide some reason that they’d want to share it within their social networks. It’s not easy, but it is possible provided you keep a few things in mind:

  • It all begins and ends with content. People share content because it provides value to them and their social networks. While the content should revolve around your school’s culture and history, it still needs to be relevant to your target audiences.
  • Start with those who have a built-in reason to connect. Current students and alumni already have a connection to your institution, so connecting with them over social media is a lot easier than forging connections with prospective students. These users then become influencers as their engagement propagates outward through their social networks to others they know.
  • Make it easy to share. Include social media sharing tabs throughout your website and make your content sharable on each channel. Make compelling images (or infographics) “pinnable.” If you can create short, tweet-friendly URLS, do so. Accompany a blog with a LinkedIn ready Slideshare or a YouTube video with a series of Instagram pictures. Package it.
  • Consider starting another social media page for content. This page should be similar to your school newspaper or alumni magazine, with a more detached and innocuous brand name, like “University Talks”, or “Speak Up!” 
  • Change your expectations. The goal is to get prospective students to follow or like your page then get them to share your content with their peers. If this all works and they end up commenting on your posts, it’s now cool for you to comment back.

Sean Carton is chief strategist for idfive, the founding dean of the School of Design and Media at Philadelphia University and a veteran professor with a dynamic perspective of where higher education and marketing meet.