Students might not always think about engaging with a college or university when they log onto social media. But every year, institutions are finding clever new ways to make these platforms fun, informative, and interactive for people both inside and outside their academic community. And their applicants, current students, and alumni are taking notice.
To find out more, we asked the members of our StudentVu panel about their thoughts on social media and what sorts of strategies their schools can use to get their attention and build lasting relationships.
Not all platforms are created equal
Before asking students why they used social media, we narrowed our focus to the platforms that students are actually visiting. Among our 1,761 respondents from across Canada, 97% said they had used a social media platform over the past three months, and 57% of all respondents said they used social media today more than they did three years ago. The three most frequently used platforms were Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.
% of students who use this platform at least once per day
Students are ready to connect
Do you know how many social media accounts your institution has? Even if you don’t, your students likely do: the vast majority of surveyed students (87%) said that they had encountered their school’s social media account on at least one platform.
When asked why they used their preferred social media platforms, respondents replied that they used Facebook mainly for interacting with personal contacts such as friends and family. This wasn’t all they did on Facebook, though, as many panelists reported interacting with school-based networks. 61% of panelists said that they used Facebook to interact with other students from their school, and nearly a third said that they regularly used Facebook to interact with their postsecondary institution. Roughly one in ten said that they used Twitter and Instagram for this same purpose.
This is all good news for PSE institutions looking to build communities with their students via social media, as it shows that many students are open to this kind of engagement if it’s pursued in the right way.
So what’s the right way to engage?
We asked our panel to pick five terms that described the ideal postsecondary social media account. The most commonly picked term was “a source of campus news and announcements” (70%). This finding shows that many students rely on their school’s social media account for practical purposes, although it's also important not to underestimate the community-building power of spreading information.
After a source of campus news, StudentVu members most commonly described the ideal account as “a place to ask questions or comment” (50%), “friendly” (45%), “interactive” (38%), and/or “honest” (30%). These ideal qualities should resonate with institutional stakeholders, because they paint a picture of a social media account that makes students feel like they can communicate directly with their institution and receive authentic and honest responses.
% of students who selected the following term to describe the “ideal postsecondary school social media account."
Abandoning the professional, ivory tower persona on social media can seem quite risky for some institutions, yet students in general show little interest in visiting social media accounts associated with terms such as “serious” (7%), “a source of world news” (5%), and/or “aloof” (1%). They were also not interested in accounts that were “athletically focused” (6%).
Doing it right
Once we identified the top five qualities of a school’s social media account, we decided to dive even deeper and to ask students about their most memorable moments engaging with one of these accounts. One student from McMaster University offered a touching story of how their student union’s social media team went the extra mile to reach out to them during the busy and stressful exam season:
“During exam period, the McMaster Student Union did a "grant-a-wish" thing on Twitter for students who sent in requests. I got a smoothie while I was studying in the student centre. It was a very nice and thoughtful idea :)”
While this example took a little more legwork than may be possible at your institution, it shows how a school can use its social media to connect with and support students, resulting in a memorable encounter that can contribute to an enduring sense of loyalty to the school.
No matter what kind of platform you're using, staying engaged and keeping your institution’s accounts active is crucial. One student pointed out how the timeliness of an account can increase its value: “The Laurier Alumni page likes to keep things up-to-date on their page. I love that they snapshot the student life on campus and post about convocation and other events.”
This testimony helps highlight the opportunity that schools have to build goodwill with future and existing alumni using social media.
Finally, one StudentVu panelist highlighted the fact that any member of an institutional team can build community through the clever and authentic use of social media. This member highlighted the popularity of the security team’s social media account at Dalhousie University:
“The official Dalhousie University security account constantly tweets the funniest things, related to safety and security regulations, like parking regulations, but also shares a lot of important information. Specifically they had a humorous exchange on twitter a few years ago with a student [whose] car had been booted. They made light of the situation, while also reminding the student and all followers of the regulations, and the fact that this student had had multiple warnings before having their car booted.”
These three examples show that crafting an engaging, unique, and authentic social media presence is well worth the effort, and that there are countless ways schools can use social media to help their students feel supported and engaged throughout their postsecondary journey.
While institutions may differ in their online personalities and methods, this study’s findings show that students are most likely to appreciate social media accounts that engage them in an authentic and friendly way that makes them feel respected. PSE communications teams should gather targeted data and hold meetings dedicated to finding out which social media strategies resonate most with their students, with an aim to fostering a sense of community that will support students through their PSE years and create a lasting sense of loyalty when those students become alumni.
If you are interested in learning more about how Academica Group can offer a more tailored and thorough version of this study for your school’s social media or communications efforts, we would love to connect.
Just contact us as your convenience.