Boosting Student Engagement through social media Adam Kensington - Content Strategist by Adam Kensington, Content Strategist

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So now that you’ve got your email campaign strategy sorted, what can you do on social channels to boost engagement? The battleground for the hashtag, retweet, like or share is intense so how can you stand out from the other institutions competing for eyes and ears?

Again this comes back to being helpful, authentic and relevant – with a dash of out of the box thinking. Your social media strategy needs to be joined up with your other marketing output in a way that promotes the very best you have to offer. 

For example, if you are wanting to promote a great facility you have (e.g a science department that has made great breakthroughs in research), then look for ways that your social voice amplifies this. 

Look for stories of breakthroughs that are already “out there” on social media and look for possible tie-ins to your own social, email and blog content and so on. 

The debate – particularly with reference to Millennials and Gen Z – is whether to disrupt or align with their social media activity. 

You need to get your message heard but there is a fine balance to strike so you don’t appear too pushy. The holy grail of social media engagement is collaboration. This is where your student voice becomes all the more important.

1. Student ambassadors.

Existing students can be your strongest advocates (and your worst critics). A good social media campaign needs to understand the voices of your students, harness them and show what you do to work with them.

There are some great examples of student led campaigns out there but a few that spring to mind are Leeds Beckett’s “100 days to go Freshers Countdown!” which provided advice to new students on unique activities they could do on each of the 100 days leading up to Fresher’s week. The results of this accounted for almost 10,000 new page views. 

The University of of Salford ran their #Salfie Campaign where Polaroid-style frames were hung around the university campus. Heart templates were included in welcome packs and students were encouraged to take a selfie with the frames and post on social media with the hashtag #Salfie. This was incentivised with a competition for best photo. 

The University of Sheffield’s #WeAreInternational Campaign encouraged students to spot posters and banners across the campus and post their pictures on social media using the hashtag. This was timed during the EU referendum which had seen feelings of xenophobia rising in the media. In a survey by QS Enrolment Solutions, 67,000 prospective international students were surveyed of whom 29,020 where considering studying in the UK – 82% said that the #WeAreInternational campaign positively influenced their perceptions of studying in the UK. 

Some years back, our own BeCambridge campaign sought to break down the perceived barriers to joining an “elite” university. Content was generated by a diverse range of student ambassadors who faced perceived barriers to entry like ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography, religion and even mental health challenges. This took an omni-channel approach and encouraged students to interact using the hashtag #becambridge. 

What all of these campaigns share is that they are student led, and align with topical and relevant conversations. 

2. Building social community.

Once students are attracted and are using these channels, the hard work is almost complete. But, I hear you ask, what about the detractors? The beauty of social platforms is that they are open to all. That means all opinions can be voiced – positive and negative. The reason I encourage social media engagement is that debate is (mostly) healthy. 

If a prospective or existing student airs particularly negative views towards your college or university, there is a strong chance that your advocates will challenge their views openly. 

If not, then you have the opportunity to step in and perhaps highlight the ways you are there to support them. I would recommend however that this comes from an admissions or pastoral care department rather than someone in marketing. 

Remember also, that if you keep hearing the same negative comments, it’s probably time to do something about it. If you come up with a winning strategy that addresses issues, social channels are a great place to demonstrate this. 

Community management is vital for organisations in the Education sector, where the audience is largely young, opinionated and social-savvy – and there’s a lot of them. Tools like HubSpot allow you to centralise your social channels and manage all your social interactions in one place. 

You can stay on top of social conversations, new followers, interactions and much more while posting across channels using just one tool. 

3. Engaging in existing conversations.

There are many tools out there that will help you figure out what’s important to your different student personas. 

Social listening apps like Critical Mention or SEMrush can help you evaluate how your earned media is performing. CRM tools like HubSpot allow you to link popular marketing tech tools together to give a richer understanding of motivations and views of your prospective and existing students. 

Even without these tools, it isn’t too difficult to find out what conversations are trending on Twitter, Medium or Facebook. Simply type “University Name” or #CollegeName in to one of these platforms and you’ll see hundreds if not thousands of conversations that you or your student ambassadors can contribute to. 

Again, look for ways that you can truly add value – address needs with genuine solutions. 

4. Find your influencers.

We all know the value of getting mentioned by influencers in social media channels. Influencers have built authority in a given subject area and usually have thousands of disciples who will follow and act upon their advice.

The trouble is these influencers are notoriously hard to, well, influence! If they generally agree with your messaging then you stand a chance of getting an @mention or even a link to your site but the chances are slim (especially given the similarities you may share with competitors). So, should we give up on influencers altogether? 

Our answer is, no! The key here is to understand the difference between different types of influencer. Macro Influencers (the one’s many marketers target), are household names. Businesses target them to feature their product or service on their social media profiles with a contextual caption mentioning their brand. They will then promote this to millions of people. 

Micro influencers are normal people that usually have 500-10,000 followers. They are still hard to reach but are more likely to promote lesser known brands. A strategy here is to look through your aumni, and see if any of them has made a particular impact on the world (whether through research, the arts, media or whatever). 

See if there are ways that you can highlight their positive influence on society (remember how Loughborough University did this with #LboroFamily?). Existing students – who aren’t ambassadors as such – may also be highly active on social channels. 

There are apparently also nano-influencers but the experts point out they aren’t experienced in working with brands and so have the potential to decrease its value. 

The musician Example attended Royal Holloway University and regularly went back to play at their Summer Ball and other gigs throughout the year. He actively pushed this news and related content out through his social channels which focused thousands of young eyes on the gorgeous campus buildings and incredible Summer Ball scenes. 

5. Advertising on social channels.

When devising your strategy, keep in mind the intrinsic benefits and drawbacks of each social channel. Also consider the pros and cons of paid advertising on each platform. After all, you’re looking to get your brand message into the right places. 

Here are a few popular social platforms and their pros and cons for ad targeting. 

Platform Pros Cons
Facebook
  • Hugh reach (including the broadest range of audiences)
  • The best targeting options in online advertising
  • Primarily for B2C but also suitable for B2B marketing
  • Engaging ad formats
  • Facebook advertising and Google Ads work well together
  • Almost zero organic reach
  • Fewer ads on the News Feed in 2019
  • Not as popular with Gen Z
  • You need to create a lot of visual content
  • Advertising could be viewed as invading private space
Instagram
  • Fast-growing user base
  • Excellent targeting options
  • High engagement
  • Connects you with Millennials and Gen Z
  • A great visual branding tool
Twitter
  • Highly-engaged audience always on the lookout for new content
  • Great platform for promoting lead generation content
  • Quick reaction from your audience
  • Engagement revolves around conversation
  • A good source of traffic
  • A great B2B branding tool
  • Organic reach means you’re not entirely dependent on ads
  • Content lifespan is short (although you can republish)
  • Twitter traffic often comes with low purchase intent
  • Twitter advertising can be pricey
  • Requires a lot of content
  • Limited analytics
LinkedIn
  • Business-minded user base (good if you offer business degrees)
  • Excellent targeting options
  • Allows you to target decision-makers and high-value prospects
  • Written content is less demanding than more visual networks
  • High CPCs
  • Exporting analytics data needs to be easier
  • The interface isn’t as intuitive as it should be
  • Not really designed for a student population – unlikely that general students will inhabit this space
YouTube
  • Second-largest search engine
  • Cost-effective, low-risk TrueView ads – you only pay when people watch
  • Relatively low CPCs
  • Solid user targeting options
  • Your videos can rank in Google Search
  • Integrates Google Ads
  • Video production can be expensive – though it doesn’t have to be
  • Some ad formats are intrusive
Snapchat
  • Popular among under-25s
  • Engaging ad formats
  • Strong targeting options
  • Weak discoverability
  • Snapchat engagement has dropped since Instagram unveiled similar features
  • No native analytics, few paid options
  • Advertising could be viewed as invading private space

Conclusion.

Social media is an enduring way to connect and create community with past, present and future students. 

The key to success in this space, is to engender a sense of authenticity and effectively manage your community. 

The more your student community engages with your messages, the more likely they are to promote your college or university positively. Treating participants as individuals wherever possible will help turn detractors into advocates – particularly if you solve a genuine challenge that they have.  The main point is to see social media channels in the round – they aren’t likely to win over a student population in isolation but can go a long way towards identifying key trends that you need to align with, or challenge. Remember also the power of influencers – spend as much time as possible identifying these individuals and use their profiles to actively engage with social conversations that are already happening. 

Watch out for the last in this series – “Boosting Student Engagement through Marketing Automation”

Download our free guide on boosting student engagement in 2021 and beyond.

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Adam Kensington - Content Strategist by Adam Kensington, Content Strategist
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