Higher Ed Social Media Blunders

According to a recent survey by YouVisit, more than 68 percent of students use social media to narrow down their post-secondary options. What is it they’re looking for when they visit your school’s platforms? An engaging, relevant, consistent storyline. Social media channels are essentially creative spaces where hosts and users engage in conversation, exchange ideas, and share items of mutual interest – in other words, ongoing narratives.

Without effective story-telling, there can be no engagement or rapport – and according to Hootsuite, building rapport and trust is the primary objective on social media, not “selling” prospective students on any particular course, program, or campus.  Business Insider’s recent social media survey reveals that most organizations (including colleges and universities) spend far too much time promoting themselves, and far too little genuinely engaging with followers.

In order to engage that growing 68 percent of social media-focused decision-makers, higher ed marketers must zero-in on strategic storytelling as an essential approach to building a consistent brand, attracting new users, and maintaining follower loyalty. Here are a few story-sabotaging blunders to avoid:

Sharing a Link without a Message

A shared link is really only half the story: it’s up to the higher ed admissions or social media marketing team to provide context, and frame links in meaningful and engaging ways. This is part of what Social Times calls having “brand personality,” which involves articulating your thoughts on relevant issues, and inviting students to do the same – thereby establishing a recognizable voice for your school.  Here is an example from John Cabot University that shows how an effective message can really enhance a Facebook share:

John Cabot University

The message accompanying this share is so effective because it prompts action – both to check out the shared story and contribute to the narrative with personal examples and commentary. The “likes,” comments, and re-shares demonstrate the power of framing thoughtfully curated content with personalized, persona-oriented messaging.

And here is an example of what happens when content is shared on social media without such careful narrative framing:

Sheridan College

In terms of ROI, it makes little sense for marketing and admissions staff to spend valuable time researching and sharing interesting content on social media, if that content fails to start conversations. On the other hand, it only takes a moment to consider how your college’s personas will connect with the shared content, and include a message that speaks to those interests.

Lively exchanges around intriguing shared content show prospective and current students that your page – or more specifically – your “story” is worth following.

Ignoring the Hashtag

Up a whopping 46% since last year, usage of Twitter and Instagram among college and university students has outpaced engagement with any other social network. And when it comes to social media few tools wield as much story-telling power as the hashtag – used on both these increasingly influential platforms.

Hashtags link users to similarly themed content, categorized and curated for easy-access. Higher ed marketers who ignore the hashtag miss out on valuable opportunities to associate their brand with relevant and trending content, and connect with target personas on Twitter and Instagram. Colleges and universities can also use hashtags to launch campaigns around themes they know will interest their audiences, like this excellent example from John Cabot University, an American university in Rome:

JCU hashtag

 Instead of the direct promotion of campus or programs, the emphasis here is on the timeless beauty of Rome – and all of the fascinating stories embedded in its monuments and historical artifacts. Through the hashtag (and beautiful image), John Cabot U orients itself within a community of fellow art lovers on Twitter, inviting current and prospective students to join in, and explore those ongoing conversations. The hashtag extends the Tweet from a mere announcement, to a rich informational resource.

Here’s another good example from Stenberg College:

Stenberg hashtag

Here, Stenberg College uses #WorkWeds to organize content about career advice, interview preparation and job postings – which helps shape its branding story around career training and successful transitions from student to professional. And of course, #PracticalNursing helps connect followers with like-minded users who will share their own tips, observations, and anecdotes about the profession. Instead of simply announcing the upcoming information session, Stenberg leverages hashtags to provide useful resources to its student personas. Over time, this kind of engagement builds trust, attracts followers, and supports student recruitment.

Now take a look at a Tweet with no hashtags:


And that’s it. The story stops there. Without hashtags, users have no routes to additional content. On Instagram and Twitter, where posts are so compact and abbreviated, a message or photo without hashtags is a missed opportunity for higher ed marketers to extend the reach of their content and connect with a growing body of users – who could easily become next term’s applicants.

Mixed Messages & Inconsistent Branding

Coherent messaging on social media channels is an integral part of brand-building for institutions of higher learning. Your social media followers (and prospective students) want a consistent story – a narrative they can associate with your core values and commitment to students. Across platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, visuals, messaging, and tone must all align with a clearly defined brand. Think of it as maintaining a united front.

PageModo reminds us that in many organizations (or colleges) the job of creating social media profiles is often divided between staff members, which can easily result in inconsistent branding. It’s important to make decisions about visuals together before styling individual platforms. Take a look at this example of branding inconsistency from Trillium College – their social media profiles all have different covers and colors:


Trillium Youtube


Trillium Twitter


Trillium GooglePlus


Trillium Facebook

Also, the Trillium College user name varies across its social media platforms, which in an increasingly crowded and noisy online space, may cause brand confusion among current and prospective students:

  • LinkedIn: Trillium College
  • YouTube: Trillium Representative
  • Facebook: Trillium College – Registered Private Career College
  • Twitter:  Trillium College

 Now, take a look at Trillium’s homepage, which tells a much clearer story about their purpose and mission:

Trillium Homepage

Trillium’s brand story is about quality targeted skills training that helps students find fulfillment in rewarding careers. Its social media platforms should reinforce and elaborate on that story with consistent visuals and engaging content.

Considering the limited attention span of most internet browsers (current and prospective students included), it’s more important than ever to recognize and leverage the narrative power of visuals on social media. Colleges and university must provide visitors and followers with a consistent character snapshot from one platform to the next. Because let’s face it – when confused online, we simply x-off the page and browse to another.

How consistent is your college or university brand across social media? In what ways do you build rapport with students online through strategic story-telling? Let us know how you engage users in meaningful ways, and  avoid the promotional-pitfalls that plague many institutional social media initiatives.