What is a digital community? While there is no single definition, and much will depend on your student base and its needs, a digital community is made up of current and prospective students and the voices behind your school’s online channels like your social media accounts, blogs, and website. A digital community encourages participation from both sides, and creates a sense of belonging.
Many schools are already well on their way to building a digital community without even realizing it. Does your school interact directly with students on Twitter? Do you use student-generated content on your blog or Instagram? If so, you’re already engaging in some activities which will help you to cultivate a strong online community that could become an invaluable tool for both student recruitment and retention.
Read on to learn more about how to turn your online channels into a vibrant and active community.
The Power of Creating a Strong Digital Community for Student Lead Generation
The importance of digital communities for education lead generation cannot be overstated. When a prospective student visits your website or other digital channels and sees you interacting with students in a fun way, sharing students’ pictures and experiences, or producing highly relatable content, they’ll want to become a part of the conversation. In a way, digital communities help create a FOMO (fear of missing out) that drives student interest in your school and its unique online personality.
These online spaces are also essential for current students, offering them a place to interact with classmates and make new friends, seek help from tutors and support staff, and take a more active role in life on your campus.
In addition, digital communities can be especially valuable for recruiting and retaining online or blended learning students. Because they won’t be on campus every day like a traditional student, being a part of a digital community can help foster a sense of belonging and inclusion, something many online students struggle with.
Finding Your School’s Unique Online Voice
The first step to building a successful digital community is creating a distinct online voice and personality for your institution. The goal is to humanize your school, so prospective and current students feel like they are interacting with a person, rather than an anonymous social media account.
Your school’s personality and voice should be in accordance to your branding and policies, while also being relatable for your target personas. A prestigious law school geared towards professionals, for instance, will likely not use the same tone as a beauty school promoting to recent high school graduates. Finding your school’s unique personality will help you stand out from your competitors and capture the attention of prospective students.
For schools with a less formal brand, humour is an excellent way to connect with students. A healthy mix of academic-related content and tasteful jokes or well placed humour help show that while your school is invested in students’ academic success, you want students to have fun along the way.
Example: Florida State University thanks its online community on Social Media Day. The post is coupled with a funny GIF from the popular millennial show, Adventure Time.
Content Students Find Useful Will Help Create a Valuable Community
To form a digital community that students want to be a part of, it is essential to create or curate content that speaks to their unique needs and concerns. In a 2013 survey conducted by The Guardian that reached out to 300 current and potential students, some of the most concerning comments about schools’ digital efforts were “I don’t find enough useful information that relates to me” and “they do not talk about the things we need to know”.
This demonstrates that there may be a disconnect between what schools are posting, and what students actually want to see. With this in mind, schools should work to create content that is both effective for recruiting students and has a positive impact on their online visibility, but is also informative and useful.
Example: In the Undergraduate Admissions section of its website, Vanderbilt University created a blog that makes the admissions process easier and clearer for future students. The blog offers a checklist and some helpful tips for securing financial aid.
Increase Engagement Using Student-Generated Content
Almost everybody likes getting comments, replies, and likes on their social media posts, but it’s especially exciting and special when a post, picture, or video is featured on another social media users’ profile. Schools can tap into this by using student-generated content.
By sharing students’ posts about life on campus, you reaffirm that they’re an important part of your digital community, while also encouraging them to keep sharing content related to your school. To top it off, by sharing real students’ posts, you provide prospective students an authentic look at your school, and studies have shown that 51% of millennials trust user-generated content more than other communications from a company’s website, advertising, or news articles.
Sharing prospective or future students’ social media posts about your school is also a smart tactic. Retweeting a picture of an applicant with their acceptance letter or sharing a photo of them wearing their new school t-shirt are two easy ways to invite future students into your digital community before they even start class.
The school in the following example demonstrates the power of curating user-generated content to create a fun and buzz-worthy piece of content that welcomes students into the school’s community.
Example: The Daily Pennsylvanian, the University of Pennsylvania’s newspaper, created a montage video of future students’ reactions to receiving their acceptance letters. YouTube videos that utilize user-generated content get ten times more views than those that don’t, and this particular effort has garnered over 61,000 views, as well as hundreds of likes and many comments.
Student blogs also present a unique opportunity for schools. There’s no better way to make students feel at home in your digital community than allowing them to contribute their own experiences, advice, and insights to your school’s online channels. This will also help with higher education lead generation, making your content appear more organic and less overtly promotional, which builds trust among prospective students.
Example: The University of Warwick in England has a number of contributors who post to its student blog on a regular basis. The blog topics range from students’ reactions to receiving test results, to their experiences during work placements.
Using Social Media to Create a Vibrant Digital Community and Increase Student Lead Generation
Social media is an incredibly versatile tool when it comes to building your digital community. You can use social media for content distribution, announcing contests, or even just interacting with followers.
It is also especially powerful for answering questions and resolving issues among both current and prospective students. A study by J.D. Power found that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 are 43% more inclined to use a brand’s social media for servicing interactions like troubleshooting and Q&A.
By keeping your school available through social media, you open the lines of communication and make it easier for users to get the information they need. To personalize the experience ever further, have your social media moderators sign off replies with their initials or first name. This will make it feel like users are speaking with a real member of your digital community.
Example: The University of Arts London’s Accommodation Twitter account answers a student’s question regarding accommodation payments. The staff member personalizes their response by addressing the user by name and signing the tweets off with their own first name.
Another creative way schools can use their social media to bolster their digital community is by requesting students’ input by asking questions or creating polls. By seeking out their opinions, you make students feel like they are making an important contribution to the school and campus life, while also benefiting from actionable feedback that you can use to improve recruitment and the student experience.
Example: The University of Wisconsin Marinette asks its Twitter followers to contribute their thoughts about what events the school could offer that would be helpful for prospective students.
One of the best ways to band an entire digital community together is with hashtags, which allow prospective or current students to link their own social media posts back to your school. When creating a hashtag for your digital community, make sure that it’s easy to remember, unique to your school, and fits easily into many different types of content. The best hashtags for your digital community should align with and compliment your school’s current marketing and promotional efforts.
Example: Georgia State University uses the hashtag #GSUncommon to build excitement among its digital community. Upon searching the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, you’ll find hundreds of users using the hashtag in posts about everything from applying and receiving their acceptance letters, to graduating from the university. One student shares a photo with her official acceptance letter on her Instagram account using the hashtag #GSUncommon.
Running Fun Contests for Your School’s Digital Community
Contests are a great way to encourage engagement and get followers comfortable with interacting with your school through digital channels. They can also be a great way to prompt users to share their images and videos that you can then use to create student-generated content for your blog, website, or other social media accounts.
Example: The University of Glasgow ran a social media contest encouraging students to submit photos of their Halloween costumes using the hashtag #uofgtrickortweet. On Instagram alone, the hashtag was used in over 100 posts.
Building an online community will help your school make more meaningful and personalized connections with current and prospective students. By creating content that students find useful, speaking to them in your school’s unique online voice, and enticing them to take part in and contribute to your digital community, you can encourage increased student lead generation, engagement with your online channels, and make your school’s digital community something prospective students eagerly want to be a part of.