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As Facebook celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, it’s worth looking back at how far it has come and what recent changes will mean for higher education institutions. From humble beginnings in a Harvard dormroom as Facemash, hacking into private dormitory images so fellow students could choose who was the “hotter” person, Mark Zuckerberg has relentlessly evolved his social network to reach its present international ubiquity. As chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, recently stated, Zuckerberg “always said Facebook was started not just to be a company, but to fulfill a vision of connecting the world.”

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A brief history of social media

Facebook has been a phenomenon since it began, spreading rapidly from Harvard to other Ivy League colleges and then most universities across Canada and the United States in its first year. By September 2006 it was open to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address. Since then, it has spread like wildfire around the world to its current 1.23 billion users, turning into a full-fledged revenue-generating enterprise in the process. It may still be your go-to source for funny cat pictures or captivating anecdotes about what your friend had for lunch, but it has also proven to have diverse practical purposes, such as the sharing of immediate, uncensored truth during the Arab Spring, or for crowdsourcing content, resolving problems, finding old friends and much more.

It has emerged as an integral social media tool in higher education, allowing colleges and universities to engage with their various audiences in unprecedented ways. By 2011, 100% of universities had a social media presence, informing prospects, current students and alumni about events and campus offerings, creatively engaging with dynamic blogs, pictures and videos, and interacting with virtual tours and other innovative applications. It is easy for each club, alumni group and academic department to have their own personalized pages for communicating relevant information with their specific audiences or raise school spirit with timely photo-enhanced posts. Facebook contests are a fun way of encouraging interaction and accumulating Likes for your page. The platform has proven to be a particularly effective tool for reconnecting with alumni, helping them network for employment opportunities, and spreading important messages, including fundraising campaigns.

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The year of sharing

The advent of social media has meant that everyone now has potential access to countless millions of viewers if their content is deemed interesting enough to be shared. The news feed has become a highly desirable media channel in its own right, and as more people go mobile in their online activity, the time spent creating and consuming content has exploded in the past few years. Some have cutely dubbed 2014 the “year of sharing” and content strategy and development is certainly a hot marketing concern. Fresh, unique, timely content engages, particularly short videos, fascinating photographs and stimulating infographics. But of course you have develop good relations with your community and optimally promote it (at effective times of day and week) in front of key influencers.

The competition to get yourself in front of viewers is ever stiffer, but there is no guarantee that your audience will see even the highest quality content. Schools should aim to make engaging posts that inspire emotion and viral shares but as this isn’t easy, they should at least optimize their “About Me” section to be informative and keyword-rich, and add engaging calls to action on their covers. Facebook is slowly but steadily becoming a predominantly paid media channel, as advertisements move from the sidelines into news feeds and observers wait and see how much users will accept.

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The game of getting noticed

The latest news feed algorithm shows fewer text-based status updates from Pages (like colleges and universities) but more from users, in an effort to get people posting more of their own updates. Schools can respond to these changes by sharing more multimedia and links, using the link share tool rather than embedding within the update text for a richer consumer experience. Some colleges questioning their Facebook engagement levels are beginning to shift their social community building budget in the direction of paid advertising. Marketers are wild about the specific targeting potential that social media provides – remarketing advertising can get your ad to show up in the feeds of prospects who have already visited your site, calls to action appropriately advanced to further in the sales funnel. This type of lead nurturing ensures your brand stays top of mind for your prospects. Facebook Exchange is an ad system allowing for real-time bidding and third-party data integration, accessible through its selected demand-side platforms.

Here are four quick steps to remarketing:

  1. There are many remarketing technology companies who will insert the necessary javascript remarketing tag into your HTML to accumulate lists; a cookie is dropped on the user’s computer when they’ve shown purchase intent.
  2. Segment your web users into narrowly targeted lists, such as visitors to your admissions page or that of the graduate engineering program.
  3. Develop messaging, visuals and calls to action according to visitors’ place in buying process.
  4. Test and adapt continuously, measuring cost per click and conversion rates, considering the value of return on investment.

Some schools have found that adding a link to their Facebook page rather than their website in other advertising gains from the social aspect –thousands could be exposed to your ad when one of their friends associates with it. Even with the quickly rising ad price, targeted Facebook marketing can deliver impressive costs per click. Use Google Analytics to track just how much of your web traffic is coming through this channel to justify your expenditures. It isn’t easy to correlate enrollment numbers with social media advertising but there remains a significant potential for wide exposure.

Becoming a teenaged wasteland?

One troubling fact when considering Facebook marketing is that it isn’t attracting new teenagers, a primary focus of student recruitment efforts. Over the last three years, teens (13-17) on Facebook have declined by over 25% (3 million in the U.S., 11 million total). Even Obama was recently overheard saying that young people don’t use it anymore. It seems it just isn’t cool to get friend requests from your mom. Parents and teachers concerned with cyber-bullying and privacy violations have made the social network not worth the trouble, so teens are flocking to under-the-radar messaging and photo-sharing apps, such as Snapchat, where posted photos and micro-videos vanish after a few seconds.

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After Snapchat rebuffed Facebook’s buyout offer, the latter cloned it instead in 12 days, but the lack of organic community and lingering privacy concerns led Poke to die a quick death. They still own the photo-sharing app, Instagram, which is popular with teens and whose new monetization integrates data from Facebook to target ads. But Facebook mobile-optimized apps are just getting started. Last week, Zuckerberg said, “One theme that should be clear from our work on products like Messenger, Groups and Instagram is that our vision for Facebook is to create a set of products that help you share any kind of content you want with any audience you want.”

Apps of the future

Their newest app takes aim at the vulnerable newspaper industry. Paper was launched this week to read news and stories, which the Facebook news feed has become anyways, with suggested articles giving context to world events like the newspaper used to. Checking the news is a multiple-times-daily hyperactive user behaviour, of obvious appeal to a giant like Facebook, exploiting user data with their ever more advanced algorithms. Mobile is undoubtedly the future but it remains to be seen whether Facebook can leverage its immense power to continue to be an integrative part of people’s lives. Higher education marketers will be watching closely its engagement levels, particularly in regards to the next generation of internet users and prospective students.

The New York Times just created this handy video summarizing Facebook’s first decade:

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What will be your school’s Facebook strategy going forward?