How to Market a University in the Age of Social Media

Marketing a UniversityUniversity Marketing in the Age of Social Media By Cynthia Fobert

Research shows that people are suspicious of slick brand messaging and resent interruption advertising.  According to Martin Brossman, social media guru and co-author of Social Media for Business, they regularly block, skip or mute it.  Instead, consumers rely on what some anonymous reviewers say about your product or business online because these sources are assumed to offer authentic unbiased accounts. Unflattering comments on social media can override commercial marketing messages, and this phenomenon holds true for any branded entity, including universities.

It is not a stretch to suppose that if prospective students are checking reviews to decide where to go for lunch, they might also consult Google or Yelp regarding which university they should attend.  Although social media may be a preliminary source of advice when selecting a college, not all universities are paying close attention to what is being said about them in these online forums.

 To arrive at a plan to help turn around declining enrollment at a large, public, research-intensive university, I conducted an analysis of its social media profile.  Let’s call this institution U-One.  Searching Yelp for reviews of all universities in that city, I found two rival institutions were represented, but U-One did not appear at all. Certainly, in-state students would know about the existence of U-One from local media coverage and advertising, but for any out-of-state or foreign students for whom Yelp serves as a preferred platform for reviews, U-One was invisible.

 There were Google reviews posted about U-One, but these were problematic.  Not only was U-One’s overall rating weaker than its cross-town rival, the top three reviews and the only ones visible when you opened the window were scathing and unanswered. Although the effect of these reviews is difficult to measure, U-One was not in a position to ignore them.

 I recommended that U-One establish a system of monitoring and countering negative reviews with statements written and posted by students who hold very different opinions.  Social media staff should be in the business of canvassing faculty for successful students who might be called upon to write occasional positive reviews or to provide timely responses to attacks.  These responses must be real, honest and entirely authentic.  Little should be managed beyond the timing.

Just based on size, U-One’s Facebook and Twitter numbers should dwarf those of the small public university with which I am most familiar, North Carolina Central University (NCCU).  But this was not the case.  Despite having one-sixth of the student and alumni populations of U-One, NCCU had more Facebook likes and 14 times more Twitter followers.  A review of U-One’s Facebook content revealed why.

 Social Media Performance Comparison



Student Population



Alumni Population



Facebook Page Likes



Twitter Followers



 Prospective students will check out a university’s Facebook page to see what is happening on campus. It is a critical engagement and marketing vehicle.  At the time of my review, U-One’s Facebook timeline included a post of the CEO’s formal statement regarding an on-campus shooting.  Living 1,000 miles away, I would never have known about this incident had it not been for this post.  How many prospective parents and students learned of this episode this way?

 Other posts exhorted students to complete their senior surveys.

 Facebook offers a golden opportunity to showcase for prospective students what a vibrant and exciting life is in store for them if they choose to attend.  Consistent with the medium’s culture and message properties, content should be fun, social and full of great photos.  Posts should suggest things to do and see on campus and follow up with pictures and news about what they missed.  Primarily, the interests served by the posts should be those of your followers.  Otherwise, why should they follow you?

 Communication such as the CEO’s response to a serious incident on campus, crime reports, surveys and deadlines is better disseminated through segmented mass email.  Targeted email and web-page announcements are the workhorses of business communication. In an emergency, Twitter, phone and text messages, email, webpage alerts, and on-campus video and loudspeaker announcements get the job done.  Let Facebook be Facebook.

 U-One recently launched a slick, professional branding campaign with perfected photos and sanitized student, faculty and alumni statements. An illustration of the changing times in marketing today is the comparison of the number of YouTube views received by one of U-One’s professional marketing videos — less than 3,000 — with those garnered by an amateur, unsanctioned student production — 60,000 views.   How much less would it cost and how much more effective would it be for U-One to offer technical assistance to student interns to produce authentic videos marketing the university in a way that reaches those who regularly block, skip or mute obvious branding messages?

by Cynthia Fobert, a Graduate of The Social Media Management Certificate Training