2017’s NAFSA conference took as its guiding theme ‘Expanding Community, Strengthening Connections’ – and few speakers illustrated the marketing subtext of this ethos as much as Jodi Ettenberg, whose session was titled ‘Standing Out in a Crowded Digital World: Telling Stories via Social Media.
Ettenberg is acutely aware of the contradictory forces at play in today's social media-saturated world. On the one hand, it's easier than ever to address potential students with up-to-the-minute, down-to-earth narratives framed in a medium that forms the fabric of their daily life. On the other, we’ve reached a level of social media saturation in which being heard by the desired audience is more about focused targeting than the loudness of the message.
The opportunity to reach out via social media becomes of keener interest in today’s climate of shrinking budgets and swelling competition. What marketers save in dollars through the use of these channels must be made up for in time and imagination. If institutions are adaptable enough to utilize or even pre-empt social media trends, this informal interface between recruiters and prospective students can pay off dividends.
While students may not realize it, many of their decisions about higher education start on social media. Of course, the primary function of social media is just that – social interaction – but the fact remains that social media platforms such as Facebook can influence individual – and their decisions - in a variety of ways. Whether it is a recommendation from a friend, chatting with teachers, or meeting current students that seals the deal for a potential recruit, there’s no reason why Facebook, Instagram, or the next big social site would not be the source of this encounter. Facebook can be a friendly and informal venue for a prospective student to start to become part of an institution’s community – which can be a particular game-changer for first-time undergrads or overseas students who are nervous about making a big move.
Indeed, even if this social media encounter is not the deciding moment, it is highly possible that this is where the student will make the first contact. Whether a prospective student happens upon a university’s Facebook Page or sends a casual inquiry in the form of a Tweet, a positive first impression can lead them to deepen their research into what the institution has to offer. It may only be at this stage that they send a more formal email or begin to peruse the information that has been so lovingly presented on the institution's official website.
Of course, every institution should have a social media strategy that will establish a strong brand presence, but this doesn’t mean you have to devote a major portion of your marketing resources to launch a full-scale social media campaign for recruitment. While it is vital to monitor and respond to inquiries made via these channels (a slow or lackadaisical response is counterproductive to engagement), cooperating with a marketing expert for some, or all of your social media campaigns related to recruitment can free up your internal marketing department to focus on campus activities and student retention. Smart university marketers will take full advantage of the unique potential of social media to tell stories. If there are ‘eight million stories in the naked city,’ how many are there on a thriving campus?
Having alumni or current students tell their tale, and presenting news stories and updates in a tone suitable for social media and which uniquely captures the voice of the school, is just the first chapter: the rest happens in the comments, the replies, and the conversations that continue elsewhere.
Story ideas should always be audience-oriented, and that audience is the potential recruit. The topics that will engage a student – news on new skills development opportunities, social initiatives, tips on how to apply or to find funding – are universal, which is why the school’s ‘voice’ becomes so important. What is special about what each particular institution has to add to the buzz? Indeed, a single, high-quality article, that optimizes your message and highlights the unique features of your school or programs, can do more to answers students’ questions than one-size-fits-all FAQs or information sessions.
We are in a transition time for student recruitment. Whatever the quality of the program and the integrity of an institution’s ethos, methods of communication and the economics or marketing are in a state of flux. Make sure that you have the tools and solutions that will enable to you to market and share your unique message efficiently and effectively.