As admissions officers search for new ways to interact with Facebook and other social networking sites, the results have been slow in coming. Efforts to create popular user “apps” have found few takers. Admissions offices are finding that their stretched employees don’t have the time to monitor the myriad sites and pages – let alone respond to every negative remark that pops up on collegeconfidential.com .
And now, the “College Prowler” incident demonstrates the potential misuse of social networking in college admissions. As reported on this Web site,  an online college guide called “College Prowler” created authentic-looking “Class of 2013” Facebook pages for over 200 colleges. Accepted applicants seeking to connect with potential classmates turned to those pages, and they (and some savvy admissions officers) noticed that these were designed not by admitted students, but by a higher education business interested in viral marketing.
Rather than a one-time scandal, this incident should be seen as a warning of potential pitfalls for admissions officers hoping to use social networking to attract the best prospects, and students who believe that social networks are a space they control. These cyber-squatters were probably interested in (the somewhat benign) goal of marketing specific products and services to targeted students preparing to enter college. However, it doesn’t take a large logical leap to imagine more controversial approaches -- including concerted efforts to disseminate negative information about colleges. Despite the overall collegial relationships among admissions officers across institutions, that next step seems possible, if not likely.
Understanding social networking requires an entirely new concept of communications. Facebook and social networking seem like the logical next step in the fast-evolving world of admissions marketing, but this latest incident demonstrates that social networking is a dramatically different form, unlike most of what colleges have done in the past. They differ in fundamental ways from every other communications mechanisms in use by colleges and universities.
In the pre-Internet age, from prospect letters, to viewbooks and high school visits, admissions offices controlled content. In the first generation of new media admissions efforts – e-mails to students, and Web sites – colleges remained in control of content. Even early “social networking” efforts by colleges and universities – including online chats and listservs – were a controlled medium. By hosting these discussions, admissions offices had inherent control over content, and the ability to respond directly to “problematic” conversations and to be responsive to concerns and questions.
In today’s social networking, the story is much different. Admissions officers face a more complex landscape of information distribution. In social networks, content is disseminated by dispersed actors, mostly unknown to the colleges.
The College Prowler incident is analogous to efforts to improve search engine performance. There are always going to be third parties that want to capture target audiences, and they will use an institution’s name to get it. As admissions and communications professionals strive to see their college’s name attain search engine dominance, they must find an optimal footprint in social networks for their institution. In search, the approaches usually focus on one primary objective -- inbound links. In social networks, the approach is more fluid and evolving -- a complicating factor for admissions officers.
There is also an irony in Prowler’s assumption that it would achieve its goals through piggybacking off of a social networking site. Our research suggests that social networking is not the most popular information source for college students, but the trend lines indicate growing importance – particularly in matriculation decisions. So what’s an institution to do, especially when its valued name can be hijacked relatively easily?
The most effective way for institutions to ensure they maintain control of their reputation in social media is to pass on treating the medium as a message distribution channel. Instead, they should view it as a public conversation forum where they can guide the tone through the value they bring to it -- value that comes in the form of content and personal connection. Thriving social networks have one thing in common -- a high degree of human interaction and behavior. That’s what makes them social.
Carpetbaggers – like College Prowler or other stealth members of the Class of 2013 – looking to use social networks as merely distribution channels will be rejected from these communities. An institution that carefully examines its brand as a personality, and develops associated social networking behaviors on everything from Facebook to FriendFeed and Twitter will help them establish the authenticity that provides a clear distinction from imitators. A single Facebook app won’t do the trick.
Admissions officers are looking for the “silver bullet” to uncover the secret to social networking. But, as this latest controversy illustrates, there is no magic solution in a space whose content is controlled by users, and policed by a community. To be part of the conversation of any social network to the point you can nurture your institution’s brand name, you have to bring value to it first. To do that, you have to think about your schools brand and reputation not only as what you say about yourself, but also how you behave. This is the best way to protect the brand from “rogue” elements like College Prowler, and use social networking to the institution’s advantage.
Doug Usher is senior vice president and director of research at Widmeyer Communications. Barry Reicherter is senior vice president and director of digital media at Widmeyer.