Just as corporations, global organizations and my parents gradually get to grips with the power of social media, so too are higher education marketing teams in an effort to stay up-to-date with online trends and better appeal to active-online digital natives.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Following tuition fees rise and market saturation, universities face ever fiercer competition to recruit the best candidates using increasingly innovative approaches. Higher education marketing teams with a more personal approach to online marketing campaigns can stand out by using social media platforms to interact with potential applicants. If done well, social media marketing can help institutions appear more relevant and up-to-date than their competitors, as well as simply meeting the fast-evolving expectations of digital natives.
Meeting student expectations
Although campus visits have long helped solidify students’ university choices, many prospective students no longer see this as an essential part of their university search. According to one recent survey of international students, 45% said they had no plans to visit a campus before applying and 22% said they wouldn’t visit even after being accepted, despite 60% stating that their main motivation for studying abroad was to attend a particular campus.
Not only does this highlight the impracticality of campus visits among overseas students, it also further stresses the importance of providing all the relevant information (and images!) online, as this is sometimes the only way students can get access.
The importance of informal approaches to information provision is vital. After all, digital natives are well aware that they have multiple sources of information at their fingertips, and they will draw on a range of sources before making a decision. The more platforms you have a presence on, the better.
Well-run social media platforms will aim to show a ‘real’ version of the school, with an emphasis on student experience and social life, while still providing concise, timely and reliable information.
Demand for online authenticity means video marketing campaigns across social media platforms can be incredibly influential, helping students get a truer feel for a school, while also lessening the need for campus visits, therefore opening doors to the growing numbers of internationally mobile students.
Communication, communication, communication
While traditional higher education marketing methods remain important – such as university rankings, official websites and email campaigns – social media marketing is fast-emerging as a big influencer for prospective students, both internationally and domestically. While adapting to this arena has proved to be relatively smooth for marketing experts, the pace of change in the education sector overall has not always been so fast.
Some 80% of students state the importance of ongoing communication with schools throughout the application process. Here, it should be remembered that social media is ultimately no different than any official email, letter or face-to-face conversation. The biggest difference is in student expectations of response time.
While school representatives may be able to get away with replying to an email within a week, on most social media platforms users expect an entirely different experience, where the conversation continues on their own terms rather than the university’s.
This reflects the new landscape, in which the student/user is in a position of much greater power. It also demonstrates that, if run well, social media has the ability to act as one of the most efficient points of communication between schools and applicants, providing informal yet reliable information almost instantly in response to the needs of each individual.
Geo-targeted social media marketing
An interesting finding in 2014’s Students Online: Global Trends report is the variation among students from different world regions in their social media usage. In Africa and Latin America, for example, respondents were more than twice as likely to view social media as essential to their university search than those in the US and Europe. This suggests that social media marketing campaigns may be particularly important when recruiting from certain regions.
A consistent factor across all borders, meanwhile, is with the information students struggle to find online during their university search. Scholarships and funding in particular are areas of biggest concern for prospective students internationally, according to the 2014 report, although for African students it seems the difficulty is even more pronounced. Another common issue for students in Africa, Asia and Latin America is in finding information about student visas. In Europe, meanwhile, the largest online concern is with finding information about applications and admissions, while in the US and Canada the priority is course content.
From this range of responses it’s clear that practical information remains a high priority for prospective students everywhere. Ultimately it rests on universities to help provide this, across a range of channels and with as much personal engagement as possible, to make the university search and admissions process as straightforward as possible. In recruiting the coming generations, the most successful universities will be those with the strongest dedication to meeting their audience’s needs and expectations – in terms of both content and platform.
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