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My daughter has reached the end of her college selection process. She’s our first student headed off to college, so it was a learning process for all of us. She did a great job and she was accepted to her “college of choice” and she is relieved and happy. But I can’t leave well enough alone. As a self-appointed social media expert, I spent a lot of the time watching how she navigated the Web and what made her decision to attend the school that she did. As I did so, I kept wondering whether colleges are waking up to social media. Without naming names, I can tell you that many clearly are not.

I was struck by how all the college Web sites sounded the same. Most have a “lovely campus” and an “ideal location” and “involved faculty” and “innovative instruction.” Most seem to offer internships for every student and their immediate families.

And even when they do try to differentiate from each other, they still end up sounding the same as a lot of other places. Big schools have “unmatched course selection” and “world-renowned faculty.” Small schools won’t “treat you like a number” and they never have classes taught by teaching assistants.

My daughter tuned out all of these slogans very early on. She stopped looking at the college’s own Web sites. She rightly concluded that all of this was just marketing B.S. and could not be trusted. She quickly went to social media to see what students were saying.

Her favorite site soon became College Prowler, but she also frequented message boards and other places where students and prospective students gather. She laughed at colleges’ lame attempts to connect in social media by asking her to follow them on Facebook or sign up for their fan page. She told me that Facebook isn’t that useful for picking a college, because most of her friends are still in high school and the ones who are in college are not attending the schools that she wants to investigate.

At this point, I started to wonder about the social media strategies of many of these universities. They seemed to major in Facebook pages and YouTube videos that are just more marketing. May daughter didn’t want to hear from the colleges. She wanted to hear from the students.

It would be a lot more valuable for colleges to encourage their students to participate honestly in social media than it would be to produce another clever video. The message board are filled with disgruntled students. Students also need to hear from the students that are, er, gruntled. Businesses must encourage their satisfied customers to visit ratings and review sites and colleges need to do the same, not to manipulate the ratings, but to ask satisfied people to share their honest experiences (with real names) to balance the scales.

And colleges already know this. Every single campus we visited had actual students doing the campus tours, but how many apply the same logic online? Not many. They know that actual students are more believable when they run the tours and they know that sometimes the students provide unvarnished opinions that an admissions person would not, and that is good. The same thing is true in social media.

As my daughter closed in on her final decision, she was upset that her top choice has a reputation on the message boards as a “party school” and she headed to other message boards and to YouTube to see what others said. She eventually concluded that she’d be able to make her way socially even if she wasn’t interested in all the school has to offer, so to speak. But she’d never have made up her mind on that by talking to the admissions office or reading official college information, whether distributed through social media or not.

So, if you are in charge of admissions at a college, stop focusing so much on what you have to say and start thinking about what your customers (your students) have to say. And if you are worried that your students might not be all that positive, then I’d suggest that you have a bigger problem than marketing. If you run a different kind of business, you might take the same advice.

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Mike Moran

About Mike Moran

Mike Moran has a unique blend of marketing and technology skills that he applies to raise return on investment for large marketing programs. Mike is a former IBM Distinguished Engineer and a senior strategist at Converseon, a leading social consultancy. Mike is the author of two books on digital marketing, an instructor at several leading universities, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research.

3 replies to this post
  1. Congrats to your daughter on navigating the process, I too just went through it. Its amazing how everything starts to look and sound the same after awhile.
    The one surprising element was the huge amounts of snail mail and lack of engagement that would have really inspired my son, like videos etc…
    Some colleges “got it” while others were *way* behind the times with technology and archaic logins/control panels.

  2. Congratulations!
    I remember when I went through looking for the best college in town. We still had dial-up then and didn’t have much to work with. Now, though years from it, it would be my daughter’s turn to go looking for colleges.
    After applying for 6 colleges and universities and getting into 5, all I had to work with were their prevailing reputations.
    At least my daughter will have an easier and more reliable way to judge her future alma mater.

  3. Hi Mike,
    First off, congratulations to your daughter on successfully navigating the college applications process. I think that’s an education for both of you.
    Second, great point about her wanting to hear from the students more than the school. I think the same is true in many businesses (see the success of Yelp or TripAdvisor, giving customers access to other customers’ points of view).
    Finally, your post reminded me of how many creative agencies conduct “reverse mentoring,” where a more veteran employee gets assigned to learn from a younger employee and understand what matters to younger consumers. It sounds like you got a little of that learning from your daughter. Thanks for sharing it with us, too.

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