These days, any discussion of marketing and brand management among higher education officials is bound to end up colliding with the social Web. And it will most likely get stuck there.
As prospective students, current students, and alumni increasingly make Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube their portals to the world, many colleges that once balked at engaging their populations in the social media realm are now seeking to leverage these sites to attract applicants and boost fundraising efforts. “Put the words ‘social,’ ‘Facebook,’ or ‘Web 2.0’ in the title of any higher education conference session and you are guaranteed a standing room only crowd,” wrote Jennifer Copeland, general manager of the enrollment marketing firm DemandEngine, in a recent report.
But even as more and more colleges create profiles, fan pages, and Twitter feeds, the question of how best to take advantage of these adolescent technologies — and how influential they actually are in terms of recruiting students and prompting donations — remains largely unanswered.
And while plenty of colleges curate Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds, the absence of proven best practices has left some colleges leery of jumping into the social Web, says Sean Fitzgerald, vice president for business development at the marketing firm Spectrum Creative Solutions. “We’ve found that a lot of clients that we talk to are real apprehensive about using social networking tools because they don’t know much about it,” Fitzgerald says.
“It’s easy to be against something you’re afraid of, and it’s easy to be afraid of something you don’t understand,” says Brad Ward, CEO of BlueFuego, a consulting agency that monitors chatter about its clients (which include Abilene Christian University, Indiana University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and advises them on the "do's and dont's" of the social Web. “That’s where I think a lot of administrators are on this."
Other colleges have begun wading into Facebook and Twitter without having a coherent strategic plan in place — an approach that experts say could leave them at an even greater disadvantage than missing the boat.
Apps and applicants
Just because some colleges fear social media doesn't mean they are not wildly curious about it. Accordingly, software and consulting firms have come out of the woodwork to advise colleges on how to wield social Web tools to meet the expectations of students and strengthen their brands.
The software company Inigral , for example, is collaborating with colleges to deploy a Facebook application it calls the “lifecycle engagement platform.” The app is designed to connect students who share the same academic courses, play on the same teams, and belong to the same campus organizations — essentially creating a Facebook within Facebook, consisting of networks and news updates relating to a student’s individual experience at a college. In the case of prospective students and alumni, it would allow them to follow those miniature communities that they either wish to be involved with if they enroll, or were a part of before they graduated. Inigral has already partnered with a number of colleges on this, including Arizona State University, Stetson University, and Columbia College Chicago.
The point, said Michael P. Staton, Inigral’s CEO and co-founder, is to make students feel intimately connected to the institution before, during, and after their time as students. “We’re trying to accelerate the sense of belonging that incoming students feel,” which would “have measurable influence on both yield and retention,” Staton said. He added that "lifecycle engagement" through Facebook would also boost alumni giving by helping alumni stay close to their alma maters. If an alum is seeing updates daily from their college, "When it does come time to ask for money it feels like you’re giving it to a friend instead of someone you haven’t talked to in forever.”
And even if the proliferation of social media means colleges can’t control what is being said about them on the public record, it also means they can harness it, says John Maas, marketing and communications manager at consulting firm Earthbound Media Group . Maas says his firm has developed tools that can crawl Facebook and Twitter for comments about a client institution. That unsolicited feedback, which can offer valuable insight into how certain aspects of the college are perceived among particular demographics, is inherently “unbiased, authentic, and immediate,” he says.
“Maybe you just launched a media campaign yesterday, and suddenly people are talking about and they hate it,” Maas says. “You can change it immediately without having to wait for a focus group or a survey three weeks after the fact.”
Quantios , a company formed by two Duke University dropouts, is planning to re-launch its AcceptEdge app, which uses algorithms to quantify students' levels of compatibility with certain colleges and predict their chances of being accepted. While the app is aimed at students deciding which colleges to apply to, Jason Mueller, CFO and co-founder of Quantios, said the information the company gathers from students could also help colleges locate students who are likely to attend and flourish if accepted — thereby boosting yield and retention. "It really is a discovery tool for both sides," said Mueller, who added that Quantios is currently in talks with several colleges about providing this service (although he declined to say which ones).
The relationship-management firm Intelliworks , meanwhile, has created an app that allows prospective students to submit questions, along with information about themselves, through a college’s Facebook fan page. The system logs the personal information the prospective students volunteer and analyzes it in order to help the college develop targeted recruitment campaigns. Intelliworks has supplied this particular function at 15 institutions, including New England College, Florida International University, and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. Similar query systems have existed on college Web sites for some time, but adapting the service to Facebook “is going to where the audience is,” says Todd Gibby, the company’s CEO.
The medium and the message
Recent research suggests that although prospective students might engage colleges on social networks, they still do most of their research on a college’s Web site.
A 2009 report  from the education consulting firm Noel-Levitz and several partners, called “Scrolling Toward Enrollment,” polled over 1,000 high school seniors and found that while students believe colleges should maintain a social media presence, their main concern is being able to easily navigate the institution’s Web site. “Social networking is certainly no replacement for a solid, well-designed Web site,” the authors say, “but it can support your other e-recruiting efforts.”
Ward, the BlueFuego CEO, said that many people think social Web will take over college recruiting much quicker than it actually will. “Your dot-EDU web site is still your foundation,” he says. “You can have the greatest social web presence ever, but if you follow it back to you web site and can’t find [what they need], it’s going to be a failed effort.”
Tim Copeland, managing partner at DemandEngine, has argued that attempts to reach out to prospective students via Twitter is an overhyped strategy. The reason? “Teens don’t tweet,” he wrote on his blog  several months ago, citing statistics from the Nielsen Company indicating that as of June, only 16 percent of Twitter users were under age 25.
Copeland told Inside Higher Ed that DemandEngine recently surveyed high school junior and seniors on how they would prefer to be contacted by college admissions offices. Twitter was near the bottom of the list, and Facebook was in the bottom third. (The report on this survey has not yet been written, but Copeland discussed the findings in a recent Webinar .)
Another report  released earlier this year by DemandEngine, called “How to Lose Friends and Alienate Students,” suggests that the new medium is only as effective as the message, and many colleges are erring by “applying the same recruitment marketing playbook that dates back to the late ’70s.” Using Facebook as a one-way channel for pushing out formal notifications and news releases to a general audience, the report says, doesn’t resonate with prospective students. “Despite the evidence of how students want control over how they access information, colleges and universities are content to blast marketing messages in large quantities in order to wander into their audience,” the report says.
“You can’t take old communications methods and shove them through these channels,” says Copeland. “If I’m a high school student, I want something that shows me what it’s like to be part of the community there,” he added. “That’s what needs to come through there — not just another online inquiry form.”
Unlike some of the marketing firms that have registered a cautious zeitgeist of would-be social networkers among higher education recruiters, Copeland says he thinks too many colleges have eagerly rushed the new technology without first formulating a strategy for using it effectively.
“I’m not sure that colleges and universities are seeking advice, I think they’re seeking technology,” he said. “If these things add complexity,” he added, “and you have no other plan other than hey this is a tool you can use, our advice would be ‘Hey, don’t do it.’ ”