Social Media College Enrollment

How Social Media and College Students Are Evolving

When marketing higher education, your target age demographic is pretty cut and dried:

For-profit schools can count on 80% of their students being under the age of 40. Public 2-year and 4-year public + private nonprofits can count on that percentage being even higher. At this time, that means the oldest Millennials are beginning the march to middle age, while Generation Z is emerging into the front and center of your potential student pool. This may make for an awkward time to be advertising to both groups because they have radically different attitudes.

In this article, we’ll focus more on Gen Z because even the youngest Millennials are starting to age out of the ideal continuing education window. Of course, let us remember the usual caveat that there are outliers of every generation and some mixing of values in those born right on the cusp between generations.

As we all know in marketing, you have to promote your message using the same medium the target audience uses. For higher ed, that pretty much means drop everything and head for social media. Here are some eye-opening stats from HubSpot:

3/4ths of them burn free time online, spending up to 10 hours online per day. 2/3rds of them report using more than one Internet-connected device at the same time. This sounds weird, but they’re probably pumping Netflix to the TV, keeping an eye on work email on their laptop, and talking to their friends on Snapchat all at once. Living the dream!

Notably missing from the late-Millennial / early-Gen-Z media diet: newspapers, magazines, radio, and cable or satellite TV. So your only chance to reach them is the little glowing rectangles they keep in front of their noses every waking hour. Naturally, the rise of smartphones has contributed to this media shift. The phone has typically become a one-stop office, social outlet, shopping portal, entertainment center, and gaming console.

We do see some schools maintaining a social media presence, but not nearly as many as we would expect. For an industry that almost exclusively targets the younger adult audience, it’s surprising how little they invest in social media. When we do see higher ed on social media, there’s about a 50/50 split between those who are using social media effectively and those who seem lost in the social media sea.

If you want to up your social media game, you need to know how social media has evolved and the current trends. So, let’s get a snapshot of the social media landscape for 2020. What’s hot, what’s not, and what do we do with it?


Evolving Trends in Social Media

Business Insider has a poll up from the summer of 2019:

This is a good starting point, but we suspect even this data has changed by the end of 2020. COVID-19 made us all even more reliant on Internet services, with more of us working from home, remote learning, and ordering goods and services online. Social distancing and stay-at-home quarantines have restricted our contacts in many ways, so there might be a couple of angles to the way the pandemic has impacted social media use.

The biggest change is that Facebook is dwindling in popularity with younger audiences. Now that most of the world is on Facebook, the youngest set is steering clear of it except for keeping a tether to their parents and older acquaintances. Facebook, to put it bluntly, just isn’t cool anymore, despite being born on the Harvard campus as a medium specifically for college students only 15 years ago. There is always a tendency for young people to steer away from media platforms that have become too popular.

However, we see that Facebook was very wise to acquire Instagram in 2012. Instagram, native home to the “social media influencer,” stays on top of the market, at least for now. Instagram differs from Facebook in having a radically image-focused interface. You can’t make an Instagram post without providing an image or video. The photographs and videos also tend to be of a higher quality with users creating highly curated and groomed profiles. People go to Instagram to find inspiration as well as show off their accomplishments and style.

YouTube is the second most popular social media platform, and indeed the world’s second most frequently used search engine. YouTube is obviously centered around video content, with no alternative media. It is the platform that has enabled the great change in video accessibility; a user’s video blog from the couch can show right next to professional studio content and even music videos and movies.

Snapchat has been another disrupting force to the social media market. According to Snapchat, 90% of 13-24-year-olds in the U.S. have used the app. It is a privacy-focused platform, featuring end-to-end encryption, password-protected sharing, and no long-term archive of past content. No matter what you say on Snapchat, it’s gone in 24 hours. The ephemeral nature of Snapchat lends itself to conversations with friends and content that you typically wouldn’t broadcast to the world.

Twitter is still the old reliable standard for small communications. Multimedia content can be posted, but the great majority of Twitter content is simple short texts and emojis. Twitter, being one of the first recognized social media platforms to gain worldwide popularity, has played a massive role in global politics, from the Arab Spring Middle Eastern protests to the communications of US presidents. It’s the primary news network of social media; breaking news often breaks there first.

TikTok is another new platform whose popularity has skyrocketed in just a few years. Users create short 60-second videos of lip-syncing, dancing, impressions, pranks, you name it. It’s immensely popular with Gen Z with more than 60 percent of users under the age of 30. Its influence is also spreading to other channels; Instagram recently launched a similar feature called Reels that is picking up usage. It’s clear that people want technology that will allow them to create unique video content.

Discord is the puzzle platform in the social media scene. It is a texting app for instant messaging, with video and voice calls. It also hosts servers and private chat rooms. It has a stripped-down, textual interface that reminds you of a terminal command line. If you’re saying “that sounds just like the old IRC,” you’ve pretty much got it. Discord is favored strongly with the STEM set, gamers, programmers, techie geeks, and almost no-one else.

Last, we have Tumblr, which is one of the oldest blogging platforms. It does qualify as a social media platform because users frequently engage each other via following feeds, and re-blogging content from each other. Tumblr, of all platforms, lends itself to activist causes and is notorious for being the soapbox of choice for niche cultures.

Round-up: Which platforms are most important to higher ed marketing?

  • Instagram: Loved by all, it seems, needs to be in your social media strategy
  • Twitter: Its convenience and ubiquity make up for its smaller user base. Great for sharing news, commenting on events, and social discourse
  • YouTube: The leader in video content, it’s where 91% of Gen Z goes to be entertained
  • TikTok: The place for creative video content, use it to feature student ambassadors, host contests, and to hop on the latest dance trends
  • Snapchat: With 71% of users under the age of 25, it’s another great platform for video content, student ambassadors, and storytelling

Secondary platforms to consider:

  • Facebook: It still has some considerable reach, even if Gen Z doesn’t engage openly on it
  • LinkedIn: Young people avoid it like the plague, but serious career-minded Millennials can also be good post-grad studies candidates
  • Reddit: It’s still the web’s #1 communal news site, attracting intellectuals and activists of every stripe
  • Stack Overflow: A popular question-and-answer forum with STEM graduate types

Now that we’ve learned the social media landscape, how do we put it to work for higher ed marketing? The American University of Washington D.C. has a great guide on this, albeit a little less up-to-date on the platforms, so we have to give them a shout-out. Beyond that, let’s explore our in-depth strategies:


Ways Your School Can Use Social Media

As we point out often, universities should consider themselves digital natives. When the Internet was first starting up, education institutions formed half of the online presence, with the government occupying the other half. Over time, universities had a constant presence on the Internet to the extent of being the primary host for open source software projects, and the World Wide Web was created with the original purpose of making it easier to publish and share scientific papers for easy peer-review.

Just keep that in mind in online interactions. Nobody should be surprised to see a university on the Internet. You were here first.

Student-Generated Content

Your current students are likely to be your most dependable source of school-branded content. In the first place, publishing content can be an assignment or showcase for various branches of study:

  • Any media or communications class
  • Most arts will do well with multimedia content
  • Science programs can share their research
  • Degree programs can broadcast their publications and presentations
  • Medical programs can share their research
  • Various surveys and reports from other fields can be posted

Giving your students their own digital corner will encourage them to share more of their academic lives. On top of that, your school can sponsor fun activities such as contests or challenges and share them on social media. This is an important part of promoting campus culture during a pandemic anyway.

Inspirational feed: West Virginia University, which is bursting with color, school spirit, humor, culture, and branding, with most of that student-generated.

Faculty and Alumni Content

One of the most important questions on a student candidate’s mind is “What is the staff like?” Wherever possible, your professors should have their own blogs. They can share interesting lessons, publish findings, and have a soapbox to discuss their academic passions. Opening comments to students lets them have another channel to interact with the professor, a more important channel of communication since the pandemic.

Alumni should be tapped for a supportive blog post or at least an article or two in a journal. They can share their success stories, career insights, advice for new students starting in their chosen major, and sound counsel about the job market.

Inspirational feeds:

  • Crash Course is the rock star of academic YouTube blogging. Everybody loves them!
  • SchoolHouseTok is a collaborative TikTok channel community of educators.
  • @realscientists is a Twitter account hosting a different scientist each week for Q&A.
  • A Law Unto Herself is a blog run by an associate professor of law.

Student Ambassadors and Influencers

We’ve talked before about using student ambassadors as part of your higher ed branding, and the importance of influencer marketing in higher ed. Well, both of these strategies become more important as your marketing efforts shift towards social media.

Social media naturally shapes itself around a structure, where different users assume different roles:

  • The lurker: Least engaged, just watches and reads
  • The critic: Engages a little, still mostly a spectator
  • The engager: Likes everyone, follows anyone, reshares everything
  • The participator: Posts some content, mostly to journal personal stories or share a funny meme
  • The marketer: Just here to promote their business, not very popular
  • The performer: Produces a steady stream of professional content, hugely popular
  • The influencer: Melds the performer and marketer aspects together with a huge following

Young people tend to listen most to influencers, as opposed to marketing that is perceived as coming from the traditional corporate channels.

Generation Z is especially attracted to social media influencers, with some 44% saying an influencer recommendation shaped their purchase decisions, and 87% following at least one influencer. The concept here is that peers and colleagues are more trustworthy than a random commercial ad. The bottom line here is that a student ambassador influencer on a video social channel is likely to be one of your most important recruitment tools.


A Higher Ed Social Media Plan

Use this for a simple template in composing a social media strategy for your school. Campaigns benefit from structure.

Listen to the market:

  • Listen to social media channels to study what students talk about, what’s important to them, who they follow, what they like, etc.
  • Use polling features to survey students
  • Host an “AMA” (ask me anything) event to collect ideas about academic priorities and issues

Create a social media strategy:

  • Define your target audience and create a persona
  • Appoint a social media team of managers and creators
  • Develop brand guidelines and ensure that all involved staff is briefed on your brand voice
  • Identify and communicate how social media supports your broader organizational goals
  • Develop campaigns for both prospective and current students

Be the voice of your school:

  • Feature student, staff, and alumni accomplishments
  • Give students a voice and encourage their participation
  • Take a stand when needed and lead crisis communications (the pandemic has demonstrated social media’s role here)

Track your campaign:

  • Review data to see what methods succeed in engaging an audience
  • Conduct periodic audits of your social media campaigns
  • Be ready to adapt your strategy because social media changes with the wind
  • Read the audience, with an objective eye for what works in general without trying to please everybody

In conclusion, social media marketing is one of the most complex marketing venues ever. Gone are the days when you could just record a commercial and broadcast it on TV, or harvest leads from a page banner ad. Social media marketing gets your hands dirty; you have to get in there shoulder to shoulder with your audience and experience it through their eyes. Treat your social media audience well, and they’ll become loyal fans and promoters.



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