Social Media Marketing for Colleges: Learn from the Best

Too often in the marketing business, you’ll have this scenario: you set up social media accounts for a business, organization, or higher education institution, hand them the accounts and they designate a social media manager from inside the organization. You check back later, and the feed will be one of two things: dead, because whoever was in charge of posting “ran out of ideas” or was “too busy,” or still active, but with just monotonous self-promotion and self-congratulation.

Both kinds of accounts would have minimal token followers and no engagement. We ask what happened to the account and get responses that remind us of an old Star Trek episode:

Well, it’s not that it’s broken, it’s that maintaining a social media account and making it stay fresh and attractive takes a lot of creativity. People are eager to show off how creative they can be, which is deceiving because anybody can be creative for a short while. But staying at that pitch-perfect level for days and months and years… Everybody burns out and hits that wall eventually. It is exhausting to sit down every day at 8 AM and be consistently perky and clever.

This is why most companies retain a social media expert or content marketer, sometimes even a whole media relations department. But many colleges aren’t quite seeing eye to eye with the value aspect. It is tough to justify an expenditure like a Twitter account that doesn’t seem to yield tangible results in direct student recruitment.

It’s okay for somebody within the college to manage the social media feeds. But it’s not always best left up to the Dean, or the superintendent, or higher-up staff. It’s better to find somebody from the communications or media student body and have them maintain it with staff supervision. The best social media feeds, however, take some skill with multimedia content production, so it’s good to have a union of arts and technology.

First, we’re going to review marketing for college social media set-ups that we find admirable and point out what they do right.

At the end of the article, we share some lessons that we gleaned from these universities and tips so you can refine your social media strategy. You can use this article for inspiration, especially on those days when you’re just out of ideas.


University of Michigan: Bold and Present

This is the best example we’ve seen of a solid, coordinated social media presence with attention to every last detail. The U of M Twitter feed liberally uses their athletics team’s old-school “M” trademark letter in their classic gold and blue color scheme. Then they carry on the same motif in many images throughout the feed, maintaining strong branding. They have a variety of content, so it never gets stale.

Note how even graphics relevant to current news maintain the school colors. Note that their Twitter feed is heavier on the textual content, focusing on news items, which suit Twitter well.

Now switch over to the U of M Instagram feed. Instagram is far more image-oriented, so the feed there is a showcase of the school’s people, community, and sports team.

Here’s one post from a series of funny Valentines the school shared, still themed after the school’s colors.

Moving on to other platforms, all of their channels are accessible from their social media webpage. Which itself is a brilliant media piece. More clever tricks await your discovery, like the customized SnapChat mascot or the stimulating YouTube channel which features science and nature stories centered on faculty research, and interviews with students and alumni. They also keep the student body engaged with fun games, hashtag contests and challenges, and polls for opinions on various issues.

Overall, it’s a fun, engaging, and enriched media experience. Their feeds bring together creative photography, graphic design, current events, journalism, and school spirit all wrapped together into a perfectly composed, strongly branded package. Ask any marketer what their favorite social media account for a college is and they’ll often list the University of Michigan in the top spot. This is an example to look up to.


West Virginia University: Personal touch

Now for the smaller-scale approach. West Virginia U’s Twitter shows that you don’t need a whole art department to create an engaging social media experience. It’s a one-man show, from president E. Gordon Gee. He delivers video media and texts filled with thoughtful messages, reaching out to each student as if they were all his family.

How could you go wrong when you have your very own version of Mr. Rogers? Here’s the obligatory joke Valentine’s post:

Yes, he’s that much of a pop culture icon that there are Valentine’s cards making puns on his name—and he has enough of a sense of humor to pose with it. Of course, he’s serious about school spirit as well.

Obviously, the whole campus loves him. Not every school is lucky enough to have a hip, grandfatherly figure to act as the school’s own local celebrity. Chances are that most schools will struggle to fill Gordon Gee’s bowtie, but it does go to show what one person can do. The important thing is that you have an authentic, genuine connection between your social media personality and the students and staff. Young people naturally look up to sincerity.


University of New England: Down to Earth

Here is another one-man show, James Herbert, also the university president. However, his work at the University of New England’s Instagram makes him seem like he could be one of the faculty, maybe even just a proud parent of a student. Posing for a school team spirit shot here… No flashy outfits this time, just a regular guy hanging out with the alumni. In fact, he’s so unassuming that he can be the only person not dressing up for Halloween.

The secret ingredient with president Herbert is that he always puts the focus on everybody else around him. He makes a good host but never steals the spotlight for himself. The feed is a stream of support for students, faculty, accomplishments on the campus, and other worthy subjects. He can be that humble even when walking with presidents:

So here again, we have a regular ordinary person who doesn’t put on airs, and yet wins over an audience just by being sincere. No fancy graphics, no props, but we’re guessing he has an unseen photography assistant. President Herbert sells by underselling, promotes school accomplishments with a simple snap, and just lets the passion do the talking for him.


University of Vermont: Grounded in Place

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to be in a state where the natural landscape around you does all the marketing for you. University of Vermont’s Instagram is mostly about photography both on and around campus. When moved to post a video, such as their Christmas card, the campus is breathtakingly blanketed in snow.

They also host student photography contests, which is a great way to keep followers engaged. But if they have nothing else going on, a campus shot of the sunset will do.

It’s pretty clear that U of V understands that visual engagement is what sells on Instagram. On their Twitter page, it’s much more about news, announcements, and events. There’s a place for everything in UVM’s content marketing plan, and that plan puts the visual media where it gets appreciated the most. This Instagram channel does more than show off the state’s sights; it gives UVM a sense of being someplace. It drinks in the atmosphere and lives comfortably under the maple tree branches. It recruits by inviting the eye.


University of Indiana, Bloomington: Blooming with Personality

You don’t seem to hear much about IU Bloomington on the national front. Indiana is one state that’s good at staying out of the headlines. That is, until you fall into one of the many, many inroads in the University of Indiana, Bloomington’s online presence, and then you wonder why people go anywhere else. The IU Bloomington Twitter feed is an eclectic mix of hip school pride…

…and wacky shenanigans up to date with the latest Internet memes.

Then they remind you that American author Kurt Vonnegut came from Indiana, and you realize that they have a claim to classic literary tradition, at the same time that they’re showing off the hundredth shot of their campus to demonstrate that nobody plants a flower bed like Bloomington.

We’re not kidding about the many inroads. Here is the university’s social media page. Yes, that’s all IU Bloomington. Each department gets its own social media presence. There’s the Gill Center for Biomolecular Sciences with a LinkedIn pointing to their own website. There’s an Instagram for the Art, Architecture + Design, School of Bloomington. The Biology Department gets its own WordPress blog. Here’s the Indiana Daily Student’s Pinterest feed.

These examples could go on forever. IU Bloomington is practically its own media empire. You’re tempted to joke that the bookstore must have its own Facebook, and then there it is. It’s a wonder people have time left to read books with all the social media feeds to keep up with. And on the website network, each department gets its own subdomain as well.

IU Bloomington takes a very interesting approach with its media saturation. None of its social media marketing channels are very deep, but they are very, very broad. This gives each department its own little corner of the kingdom to chirp about, empowering different corners of the campus to shape their own piece of the message. It harnesses natural professional pride from the staff and student body together under that strongly branded trident logo and red-and-white color palette. Meanwhile, the combined social media presence makes for an incredible draw for search engines.

While social media isn’t often thought of as a direct factor that contributes to search engine rankings, it does play a role.  Research from Hootsuite shows that there is a strong correlation between social activity (shares, likes, and comments) and rankings. So, before you write off social media, consider that it can help you with search engine optimization (SEO) and improve your organic rankings.


Stanford University: Standing on Science

We haven’t said much about colleges that keep their content largely academic. Stanford University’s Twitter is as good a place to start as any, having very little to say unless it’s about their academic achievements.

In the above Twitter post, they take you through their biomechatronics lab. With a tour like that, through what could pass for Iron Man’s research facility, you don’t need to reach very hard for engaging social media content. Exploring their Twitter page makes for a heady experience as you encounter one international-prize-winning researcher after another sharing their passion and discoveries.

Of course, not every school attracts such a strong current of top-notch academic minds from all over the world. But every school is good at something, and this is the lesson to take from Stanford. Whatever your college teaches, show it off in social media. You have all the content you need.


Marquette University: Social intelligence

Finally, let’s take the example of this Jesuit school located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an example of engineering in social media itself. Like IU Bloomington, Marquette has a large number of social media channels, but they’re put to a different use. Marquette uses social media analysis algorithms through Sprout Social to track results, tuning their feeds to be catchier with both alumni and prospective students alike.

Starting from their media hub, we find a labyrinth of accounts sorted by department. You have the Marquette University Career Services Twitter page, the residence hall association (RHA), and then another Twitter straight from the president.

Nothing appears different at first, but what’s going on here is that the school mixes typical promotional social media activity with thoughts for the day, the odd pet photo, and inspirational messages. Most of the feeds are student-generated, curated by a team behind the scenes carefully sculpting the school’s image.

Thus, instead of being a university promotion first and a social media channel second, their social media channels are based on being engaging and viral first, working like any regular student’s personal Tumblr blog. Then you subscribe to the feed and, thanks to the understated branding, only then discover you’re following a university.

What we can learn here is that a university marketing and social media presence doesn’t even need to be a relentless self-promotion machine. It can borrow ideas from the Internet at large and blend them into the mix, coming up with a trail mix of generally pleasing content that just happens to be a school feed.


Social Media Marketing Tips You Can Use

Before we go any further, we should mention that you’re not alone in managing a social media digital marketing campaign. There’s a whole conference for this: the Higher Education Social Media Conference is an online conference where the top minds in college digital marketing get together to share their most viral tricks of the trade.

Another great resource is Hootsuite, the popular social media management software, which has a page on using social media in higher learning marketing. We mentioned Sprout Social earlier, which also shares information about social media branding for campuses.

In this article, we’ve taken you on a round trip view of the many ways social media can be used to promote your higher education institution. You’ve seen a balance of plans both wide and narrow, for budgets large and small, using all kinds of ways to create interest and provoke engagement.

A few pointers we’ve picked up along the way:

  • Show off your best aspects to the world, whether that’s your location, your academics, or your fun community
  • Let the faculty, students, and alumni be the stars of the show
  • Strong, consistent branding helps
  • Engagement is important, so host contests, poll readers, ask questions, play games
  • An academic focus gives you thought leadership status
  • Build morale by featuring spirited student shenanigans
  • There’s no reason you can’t post non-scholastic content too
  • Use the platform to keep a personal touch with the campus community
  • Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy and let your human sideshow

Above all, have fun. Content marketers in every industry agree that if the content is fun to produce, it will be fun to experience too. The daily grind of social media content production will show if the content creator does not have their heart in their work. Luckily, producing social media content is enjoyable enough that most of us do it voluntarily for free, so it shouldn’t be hard finding people within your institution who are good at it.

Behind this fun is a serious business. Social media today is the most far-reaching media, including some one-third of the world’s population as the potential audience for every tweet. That’s more than viewers of your local TV station or listeners to your local radio. With a phone in every pocket, particularly among young generations, digital marketing is nearly the only marketing you need.

If you want help refining your content marketing strategy or social media strategy, feel free to contact us. We’re eager to help you attract and engage prospective students through effective digital marketing strategies.


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