From Snapchat scavenger hunts to live Facebook Q&As, social media engagements help students feel more connected with their PSE community. Communications professionals in higher ed institutions reach out through these platforms every day to enhance every aspect of the student lifecycle, from recruitment to retention to alumni engagement.
To learn more about this vital aspect of student engagement, we recently surveyed our StudentVu panel about their attitudes and behaviours on social media. From the 1,706 responses we received, we learned about the significant shifts happening in where students are choosing to engage with postsecondary schools. We also received compelling testimonials about students’ most memorable social media interactions with their schools. This feedback provides valuable insight to anyone looking to better support students in their higher ed journey.
Forging bonds before students arrive
Many communications professionals use social media to connect with students during application, acceptance, and orientation. This effort is well-placed, as a number of StudentVu panelists said that their most memorable PSE social media exchanges were ones that happened before they even arrived on campus. As one Brock University student recalled, their notice of acceptance came along with a memorable moment on Twitter:
"When you're accepted, they ask you to tag them and show a picture of you with confetti. I saw a good amount of students do it." -Brock Student (Twitter)
A student at Loyalist College also noted that seeing photos of the previous year’s Frosh Week on Facebook had helped them feel mentally prepared for what was to come:
"…they had pictures of the frosh week the year before. Everyone looked like they were having fun and there was bubble soccer." -Loyalist Student (Facebook)
As fun as it is to create unique social media campaigns that go viral, our research has shown that students’ top two reasons for connecting with their school on social media are to find information and ask questions. This means that during the application period, a communications team’s availability to students can make the difference between an application and a passing interest. One international student at the University of Waterloo noted how valuable it was that their university offered a virtual campus tour on Snapchat.
"I was given a tour around the school campus and it was important, for as an international student I would not be able to do that myself in person before school actually started in September" -UWaterloo Student (Snapchat)
A student from the Ivey School of Business at Western University pointed out how their school made itself directly available to students and applicants.
"The Ivey School of Business held a live Q&A on their Facebook page." -Western Student (Facebook).
For Kayla Lewis, Manager of Social Media and Media Relations at Toronto’s Seneca College, inquiry-based social media interactions continue to form the vast majority of social media teams’ connections with students. "The volume of questions we get just continues to skyrocket," says Lewis, “and more and more we find that students would prefer to take to social to ask a question than to email somebody, pick up the phone, or even do a Google search. They would much rather just come right to us on social and ask their question. Their expectations in terms of timeliness and response-level is incredible.”
Comments like these demonstrate the impact that social media can have, especially when forming part of a student’s very first impressions of a new school.
Using social media to engage directly with students
Once students are on campus and busy with their day-to-day school lives, getting their attention on social media gets increasingly challenging. However, many schools have managed to create engaging campaigns that capture the interest of students. One such example is the McMaster University Alumni Twitter account, which runs an exam-time wish granting campaign that a number of students have highlighted in our studies.
"Exam time wish granting - tweet the McMaster alumni Twitter account for your exam wish and they will bring it to your location." – McMaster Student (Twitter)
Meanwhile, a student at Queen’s University applauded their school for running a weekly scavenger hunt Snapchat contest:
"They had a weekly giveaway competition where you needed to snap them back or take them on Facebook or Instagram with a picture of what they wanted you to find for that day (i.e. a picture of you wearing a Queen's toque)" - Queen’s Student (Snapchat)
These engagements offer opportunities for students to interact with social media teams in ways that they find meaningful and memorable.
As Lewis notes, that the demand that this interaction can place on social media teams presents a challenge, but it also signals a new retention and engagement opportunity for schools willing to get involved in social media strategies. "The fact that we can keep people, in some cases, involved in a constant two-way conversation for sometimes their entire time as a student here, just on social, is obviously a great thing for the institution," says Lewis. “It’s also something we always try to remember is helping our retention as well.”
The greatest strategy of all: student-driven content
While it might be enticing for communications professionals to shoulder the job of social media engagement by themselves, having current students play an active role can be very valuable.
"Audiences really seem to engage with student-created content the most, because they view it as authentic," says Lewis, who notes that this content can often take the form of student “takeovers,” where students take control of posting to a school’s account. Lewis adds that this approach can resonate with students because they view it as unfiltered and spontaneous. However, Lewis notes that “any student that we're inviting to do a takeover, we're obviously going to vet them and make sure that they're going to be representing the institution in a positive way and share the type of content that we're looking for.”
Further, Lewis says that student takeovers can be ideal for visually-oriented platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, where the demands of creating a constant stream of visual content might be too much to ask of communications teams. This type of student-led social media interaction was key for one of our panelists from Lakehead University, who said that their most memorable interaction with their school was through a student-driven Instagram campaign:
"They dedicated a week for each category of programs and gave them the account to use for the week to show what it is like to be apart of that program, ‘a week in the life of a ... student’. This taught me a lot about the different programs and helped me make the right choice for me." -Lakehead Student (Instagram)
For experts like Kayla Lewis, communications teams can often support the search for student takeover candidates by:
Soliciting recommendations from faculty
Finding students who are highly active on social media
Finding students whose social media persona is a good fit for the institution’s engagement goals
Liaising with student government
Finding students who are already using social media for purposes that overlap with the school’s engagement goals
Based on hundreds of comments from real PSE students, it’s clear that social media can play a very meaningful role in helping students feel more connected to their institutions. Achieving this goal requires higher ed professionals to be ever-aware of students’ changing needs and attitudes, which is not always an easy task. But with solid research and a commitment to innovation, communications professionals from across the country have the power to ensure that students feel supported in their higher ed journey.