Is your institution using the right social platforms to engage students?

In the ever-changing social media landscape, platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are gaining more traction than ever, challenging Facebook’s dominant role, while others, like Twitter and Google+, have seen a steady decline amongst youth.

While lots of research regarding which platforms are most popular among PSE students exists, much of it is US-based and may not apply in a different national context like Canada (just ask all of the enthusiastic Friendster users in India, Malaysia, and the Philippines).

With this in mind, we asked our StudentVu panel about their social media habits, and more specifically, how they used social media to interact with PSE institutions. The survey received 1,706 responses from across Canada and revealed that platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have nearly caught up to Facebook in terms of student usage, particularly for students under the age of 17—a key age group for schools looking to use social media for student recruitment. Even more importantly, the survey showed crucial trends in how students engage with schools on different platforms.

A look at the numbers

Our study revealed that Facebook remains the most common social media platform among all students, with 89% of all respondents saying they had used the platform within the past 3 months. Instagram and Snapchat were in second and third place with 67% and 63% respectively, with Twitter coming in a distant fourth.

Upon closer inspection, our team found that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. When we divided the StudentVu respondents by age, we found that among those 17 and younger (a key demographic for recruiters), Instagram and Snapchat were virtually neck-and-neck with Facebook.

Among students aged 17 or younger, 81% used Facebook, 77% used Snapchat, and 74% used Instagram. These numbers held fairly steady for those ages 18-19, with a 4% increase for both Instagram and Facebook.

Snapchat and Instagram dropped sharply, however, among those aged 25 and older, while the use of Facebook grew. Google+ and LinkedIn usage was also significantly higher for older respondents, while the use of Twitter also dropped among older respondent groups.  

It's too early to know if these changes in platform usage among different age groups are the product of younger cohorts having more exposure to newer platforms, different platforms appealing to different age groups, or both.

Finally, when we asked students how often they used different social media platforms, there was virtually a tie between the top three platforms, with 65% of Snapchat users saying they used the platform multiple times per day, compared to 64% of Facebook and Instagram users.

Interacting with their school

Based on their usage habits, how do students feel about interacting with their school via these platforms? Overall, Facebook had the largest proportion of users who said that they used this platform to engage with their PSE institution (30%). Instagram (16% of users) and Snapchat (6%) had significantly lower proportions of users who engaged with their school, trailing platforms like Google+ (25%) and LinkedIn (24%) for this type of usage.

These findings raise some compelling questions for social media professionals in higher ed. Do students interact with schools via Facebook more than Snapchat or Instagram because the platform is more suited to this use, or because social media professionals are more familiar and comfortable with using it? Further, what do these interactions with students look like? Are students just passively reading a school’s content and moving on, or are they engaging in more meaningful ways?

To investigate these questions and more, we connected with Kayla Lewis, Manager of Social Media and Media Relations at Seneca College.

Asking the expert

In our interview, Lewis noted that she was surprised that Facebook was still the most popular platform among students. She notes that in her experience heading up social media at Seneca, “we find that Instagram is really leading the pack right now in terms of the engagement with our social media audience. While Facebook might still have the most users … we find our audience is most passive on Facebook.”

Comments like this serve as an important reminder that quality engagements are what help create relationships between a school and its past, present, or future students. To delve further into the issue, we asked Lewis how a school could create some of these relationships on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

Do they even want to engage with post-secondary on Snapchat? I think that in a lot of cases, the answer is no.

Lewis noted that she was also surprised that Snapchat was as common as Instagram in its overall use among younger students. When she looked at how often students engaged their school on Snapchat compared to Instagram, she noted that she wasn’t surprised students used Instagram for this purpose more often:

“I think you have to look at the motivations for why somebody would choose to have a Snapchat account and use it on a regular basis, right? … Do they even want to engage with post-secondary on Snapchat? I think that in a lot of cases, the answer is no. It's not a platform for that. They want Snapchat for interacting with a close group of friends, and essentially doing what they would do over text message, which is share a text update and attaching a photo or video.”

That said, Lewis says that there’s still a lot of room for institutions to find new and better ways to engage students through Snapchat. But with Instagram Stories now introducing much of the same functionality as Snapchat, she says she will continue to monitor whether Snapchat maintains its popularity.

Finally, we asked Lewis how an institution can leverage visually-driven platforms like Instagram and Snapchat when text-driven platforms like Facebook and Twitter have traditionally required fewer resources for producing content. Lewis noted that Seneca has had great success with “student takeovers” of its Instagram and Snapchat accounts, as students are able to go out and create the visual content that communications officers might not have the capacity to do on a regular basis. Further, having students take over these accounts can lead other students to feel like the engagement is more authentic:

“At our last open house, we actually had current students take over our Snapchat and Instagram accounts for the whole open house day, and actually do live coverage from their campus, showing their program and the facilities, and inviting students to ask questions. That type of live student takeover has been really successful, and we actually see a lot of engagement, a lot of questions, and a lot of views and likes for example.”

Lewis notes that creating Instagram and Snapchat content around events is particularly useful because events can reliably produce opportunities for creating visual content. It is also important, Lewis notes, to train the students who take over the school’s social media accounts to properly represent themselves and the school.

More insights from our interview with Kayla Lewis and our StudentVu social media research will be available in our next piece, as we dive into some of our panelists’ personal stories of engaging with their schools via social media.

It all starts with a deep understanding of the sector, the institution and the stakeholder groups. We’ll bring our two decades of applicant and student survey data and combine it with custom research that is specific to the challenge you’re facing or strategy you’re considering.

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