Universities aren’t going to be successful in using social media for recruitment if everything goes through the communications office

This interesting article in the Guardian Higher Ed reports on empirical data which supports something I’ve believed for quite some time: communications offices are, at least in some respects, ill suited to using social media for student recruitment. Their role as an official channel and concern to manage the corporate brand leaves them tending towards sanitised offerings which have little impact on the decision making of potential students:

Our research, conducted with online student community The Student Room, surveyed over 300 potential and current students about what information sources or channels influenced their choice of university. We found that although 65% of students use social media channels several times a day, students rated universities’ social media presence as less influential and less trustworthy than more traditional sources such as prospectuses or open days.

Prospective students are keen to engage with their university through social media channels, with one fifth of students saying that universities don’t make enough use of social media in recruitment, which meant they currently didn’t expect or look for information there.

What’s more, many of the students we surveyed were clueless that their chosen university even had a Twitter or Facebook account – showing that there is a need for universities to ensure their social media presence is clearly signposted to attract the widest audience.

There is also a question to be asked about what kind of content is relevant for social media profiles. We found that fewer than one in five students were influenced by university Twitter accounts and only one in four were influenced by Facebook pages or blogs.

Comments we received from students included, “they do not talk about the things we need to know” and “I don’t find enough useful information that relates to me”. This suggests that many universities are using social media to try and engage with too many stakeholder groups at once, and consequently not being tailored enough about the updates they are sending out.

So how else can social media be used for student recruitment? Facilitating digital activity at the departmental level would mean that the structures which will overwhelmingly shape the day-to-day academic experiences of students are rendered open in a way that they previously have not been. Putting resources into encouraging undergraduates, postgraduates and staff to blog about their work and their shared working life within a department would paint a publicly accessible picture of what it will be like to be part of that department. Taking photos and recording audio from events, using a Twitter feed to curate the public life of the department and being open to online engagement with potential students would, I’m convinced, potentially have a much greater impact on the decision making of students than official messages which are centrally produced. The expansion of  marketing/communications in higher education is happening at the same time as many ensuing professional outputs have a declining purchase on the decision making of the target demographic. This is a specific instance of a much broader point: doing communications well in contemporary higher education demands so much more than just hiring new comms staff and giving the comms department more resources.

What frustrates me is this department level academic technologist function (something which I’ve done in the past on a part time basis, found immensely rewarding and hope resources are made available for others to pursue similar roles) is that its novelty means that it falls between the cracks. It just doesn’t occur to anyone that this should be a priority. Whereas I think there’s an incredibly strong business case to be made for this on a number of levels.

Edited to add: I think this is symptomatic of a broader failure to understand the decision making processes of A level students. One unexpected spin off of my PhD research (longitudinal interviews with 18 students over 2 years looking at internal conversation and decision making) has been some great qualitative data about this, which was theoretically quite thought-provoking. One of the first things on my ‘PhD spin off papers to write after I finish writing my actual thesis’ list.

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