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Are colleges waking up to social media?

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.

Complutense University of Madrid, founded 1293.

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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

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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