Social media is such a pervasive part of our modern lives, that we are no longer surprised to receive notifications, email reminders, and suggestions of profiles to follow multiple times a day. From shopping suggestions to family group chats and even work-related communications, social media is no longer reserved for the purely ‘social’ elements of our lives. And this seems to be even more true for younger generations. Students that are in university now were largely born between 1997 and 2000, meaning that the youngest of this cohort would have been only seven years old when the first iPhone was released. Their experience of the world has always been saturated with technology on a level far advanced to any generation before them – and not just in the way that every generation is exposed to more advanced technology than the last. The current climate is exponentially different from the one that students only 15 years ago experienced, and the biggest factor is certainly social media and its flurry of influences.
From the immediacy of communication to the fact that we are constantly connected to one another, the amount of data that students deal with on a day-to-day basis is staggering. So in this profuse environment, how does the important stuff get noticed? Universities themselves now rely heavily on social media to remain engaged with their students, but how do they navigate the minefield, especially in the long period over the summer during which most of the student body is no longer on campus?
A great example of the successful use of social media to engage with students comes from the University of Glasgow, which regularly tops polls as the UK’s leading university for most influential social media. This accolade is certainly a feather in the institution’s cap, and reflects the great deal of time and resource investment put into their social media plan. Emma Gilmartin, Head of Social Media at the University, mentioned that it is these resources that are a large part of the University’s social media success: “[One of] the main reasons I believe we’ve been successful is that we’ve invested in the right skillsets and technology to turn around content in-house quickly, and have the capacity to create reactive content,” she said. And it is not only dedicated social media team members that have a profound impact on the success of the programme: “We have the support from right at the top of the University, including our Principal and Vice-Chancellor, which has empowered us as a team to be bold and innovative and just try things,” she said. This support network is essential for a solid foundation, and trying to build a cohesive strategy without the pillars of upper management is somewhat risky.
The art of comms
However, although this foundation is incredibly important, built upon it must be a strategy of engaging content. This includes ensuring that the right channels are used for the right communications. Ido Peled, Vice-President at Ex Libris campusM, talked about being able to reach students via channels they already engage with: “Students are already using social media, so it makes sense to engage with them on the channels they are using every day,” he commented. This is especially important over the summer break, as students will be far less likely to keep up to date on the university’s own native communications, such as emails and website updates. This means that social media is the best way into the students’ consciousness, especially those who have not yet started their studies: “Over the summer period, social media is a great way to make new students feel a part of the university before they arrive in campus, building familiarity and connections,” Ido said.
This idea of community is one which seems to pervade most conversations about universities’ use of social media. Although it is essential for students to keep up to date on the university information they need, such as reading lists, lecture times, and event schedules, it is just as important to ensure that they feel as though they are a part of the university community, and are able to connect with their peers in meaningful ways. Although this is possible through various social meetings both on- and off-campus, it is clear that digital communications play an incredibly large part in students’ social lives, and that this can’t be ignored. Simon Horniblow at Campus Life commented on the importance of social media in making students feel comfortable at university, and in allaying fears about moving away from home for the first time: “We were speaking to [a group of] students recently, one of which has some mental wellbeing issues, and due to the information they were able to find on social media about the support systems in place at the university, they felt much more excited to go, because they could already engage with these systems, or knew about them at least.”
Both prospective and current students benefit from this community-building. For example, Kingston University run a shared reading scheme called the Big Read. Each participant receives a special edition copy of the chosen book by post during the summer break. A spokesperson from Kingston University commented on the impact of the scheme, and said: “Details about the scheme are shared across the University’s social media platforms during the summer break, helping all our staff and student body feel connected and providing a conversation topic for everyone to get involved in.” This idea of having a shared connection is something which is definitely a benefit of social media, especially when many students that will be sharing classes and accommodation are from different parts of the country, and even the world, meaning that contact before university starts is heavily reliant on digital communication.
“If there is one message to take from the social media discussion, it is to listen to your audience, find out what they want, and respond to that.”
So how do universities make sure that students are actually receiving and engaging with the information they’re putting out into the ether? Simon at Campus Life suggested that one of the most important criteria is brevity: “Make [the content] as straightforward as it can be, because people are not reading long posts. You have to get that information across instantly,” he said. The ‘TL;DR’ (too long; didn’t read) phenomenon is very real on social media, and in order to make sure that busy students are going to get through the information you are conveying, especially during their own free time, short, sharp and to-the-point posts are the way to go.
Emma from the social media team at the University of Glasgow agreed, and also made note of the fact that the tone you use for content is essential. For instance, it is almost inevitable that at one time or another, something will go wrong. Whether that’s a typo in your post, a complaint posted publicly, or an inability to answer a question, you need to be prepared for all eventualities. Emma commented that being honest and transparent in all your communication is the key here: “Sometimes things can go wrong, or you don’t have all the answers at your immediate fingertips, despite audiences thinking you are the oracle, but it’s about how you manage and essentially ‘own’ these situations,” she said.
It is also important to make sure what you’re posting is relevant to your student body. Simon mentioned that some of the most effective social media engagement he has seen come out of universities has used the most important assets at their disposal: their own students. University of the Arts London is one such success story: “Some of UAL’s social media channels are actually given over to students at certain times,” Simon said. “So it gives the students a chance to curate the content, and communicate with their peers. You can really tell when a university does that; it’s no longer that corporate voice from the university, but it feels more real, more genuine.”
That seems to be the most important element of all. If you want to connect with students, you need to be on their level, speak their language. Students today are so digitally and media savvy that they can see through insincere attempts to capture their attention, and they have so much access to different types of content, that it is easy to ignore a certain outlet. So if there is one message to take from the social media discussion, it is to listen to your audience, find out what they want, and respond to that. After all, we all know that when it comes to content, you gotta read the room.