Ryan Lytle

Brand awareness and engagement prove successful for many colleges on Facebook

Times have changed in college admissions. Gone are the days when a prospective student could be targeted, contacted, and recruited all with a single pamphlet in the mail. High schoolers can now learn a wealth of information about a university just by logging onto Facebook and peering into conversations taking place.

Not to be outdone, college admissions offices have embraced the social media site, with more than 80 percent of colleges using Facebook to connect with, recruit, and research potential students, according to Kaplan Test Prep's 2010 survey of college admissions officers.

With the change in communication between the typical college and student, many universities have bought into the importance of building a Facebook community for past, present, and future students. The traditional ways colleges recruited prospects will not work in the future, says Gary Vaynerchuk, social media entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author of The Thank You Economy. "The way colleges have always worked is they've pushed their message down the consumer's throat," says Vaynerchuk. "It's very obvious that if they don't start understanding they need to create a community to spread their message, then they're not going to be relevant."

Recent statistics from Web analytics company comScore's "2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review" found that more than 150 million unique visitors within the United States visited Facebook in December 2010. Most notable for schools, the under-35 Facebook crowd continues to grow, increasing 2.3 percent from 2009 to 2010, and now makes up about 53 percent of Facebook's U.S. monthly traffic. These numbers don't even account for the roughly 70 percent of Facebook users that are outside of the United States, according to statistics from the social media site.

The likelihood that students are accessing a university's website on a consistent basis may be slim, but statistics do show where students spend their time online. According to comScore, each unique U.S. visitor averaged 35.5 visits to Facebook during December 2010. "Facebook is the home base," says Michael Jaindl, chief client officer at social media marketing firm Buddy Media. "If someone wants to find out something about your brand, or they want to complain about your brand, or they want to say something positive about your brand, they look to Facebook first."

Some colleges and universities have been cautious about opening their network to social media, as it may make them vulnerable to negative attacks. But, according to Harvard University Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Christine Heenan, schools cannot afford to be mute. "To be absent on those channels sends a strong signal about a university's commitment to innovation," says Heenan. "It's not a just a ticket to play. It's a ticket to win."

Harvard's efforts on Facebook -- including engaged interaction with fans and a commitment to providing timely content -- have been quite successful when comparing fan bases among the top 100 national universities in U.S. News's 2011 Best Colleges rankings. The nation's top-ranked university also tops the list with the most Facebook fans, with more than 315,000 members.

While much can be credited to aggressive social media strategy and implementation, universities with strong brand awareness have an advantage in the Facebook market, says social networking expert Vaynerchuk. "Social media is a word-of-mouth ecosystem where top brands like Harvard are going to win because of what they've done," he says. But, he adds, there "is a big opportunity for [a school that] doesn't have that legacy."

There are two national universities within the top 10 Best Colleges rankings -- Harvard and -- that have more than 100,000 Facebook fans on their official pages. The other schools among the top 10 have an average of roughly 27,000 fans.

Only one school among the U.S. News top 10 ranked universities, Harvard, was also among the 10 universities with the most overall fans on Facebook. "That speaks to the power of the brand," says Harvard's Heenan. "But we have to marry that with interesting, timely, high-quality content." None of the other nine universities with the most Facebook fans cracked the top 25 list of Best Colleges

Institutions such as the Ohio State University and the University of Texas -- schools with large enrollments and prominent athletic programs -- were among the top 10 most notable universities on Facebook. Schools that can use "sports and events that people are excited about" can nurture growth in a Facebook community, says Jaindl of Buddy Media.

"People on Facebook want to share content that makes their friends perceive them in a certain way." Hence, many Facebook users share content about their favorite college sports teams. It gives users a reason to connect with other fans and also provides them with a sense of community -- the ultimate goal of not just universities, but all brands, on Facebook.

While having large fan bases and engaged communities on Facebook can increase a university's exposure, does this influence prospective students during their college search? The jury may still be out, according to Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of admissions consulting company IvyWise. "The [Facebook] pages provide a way for schools to reach a student where they are," says Cohen. "And they also allow students to feel connected to the schools, which can increase applications and the number of enrolled students."

Although no concrete statistics have been unearthed about a student's decision being influenced by a college's social media strategy, some believe it to be true. "I guarantee a university that rocked it out [on social media] today would get kids to go to that school," says Vaynerchuk. "The colleges that understand how to create an environment where they're engaging with high school juniors and seniors are going to win. I firmly believe that."

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