Social media and student recruitment

Facebook and Twitter aren’t all about posting holiday snaps and telling the world what you had for breakfast. Paul Govey at the University of Manchester found much more constructive uses of social media in sharing information with potential students.

Last year, the University of Manchester became an active citizen of the blogosphere, Twitterverse and kingdom of Facebook in a bid to extend our student recruitment activities. Although perhaps late to the social media party, a little time hovering in the doorway proved invaluable in helping us establish new communication channels for today’s students.

Our aim was to focus on the needs of prospective students, rather than establish a single corporate approach to social media across the university. Delaying our foray into social media  was partly out of concerns that we would look like Dad dancing at the proverbial wedding, but by not rushing in we were also much better able to analyse our customers’ needs and tailor our output accordingly.

For a year before our launch, we took a good look around to identify best practice, with a particular focus on activity in the US. We held focus groups with prospective and current students, ran online surveys and consulted with key stakeholders within the university. Central to this early work was identifying what we wanted to achieve by entering this arena. For us, it was to provide an additional channel to put out timely and relevant information for prospective students, act as an alternative admissions enquiry channel, and maintain transparency.

Social snapshot

Eighteen months in and with still only a toe in the water (or 7,000 'likes' for our admissions Facebook page and 1,500 followers on Twitter), we’ve already noticed definite changes in our interaction with potential students. People seem to find it easier, quicker, more convenient, and at times, less intimidating to enquire through a more casual forum. Users like that we get back to them quickly and personalise our responses, and with most of the messages being broadcast publicly we can answer queries on a mass basis, making life easier for both us and our followers.

Much of the traffic visiting our Facebook pages is as we hoped it would be – potential applicants looking to rule themselves in (or out) of a future at Manchester. In terms of demographics, our followers in various social media lean heavily towards international postgraduate students, possibly because students from abroad need to obtain information from every possible source due to their distance and lack of knowledge regarding individual institutions compared to home students. Younger undergraduate students still seem to be using social media as it was originally intended – social interaction – rather than an information tool, though I feel this trend is changing.

Status update: thumbs up for social media?

Crucially, a member of our student marketing team lives and breathes this work and has acted as our social media champion throughout. This has allowed us to adapt our behaviour according to the particular expectations of social media users and make a success of the initiative.

As for the less rosy side of social media, we prepared ourselves for the worst – constant spamming, negative comments, an unmanageable volume of enquiries. But the reality is that we have not really experienced these things, apart from a couple of very rare occasions. We look forward to a year-on-year comparison to see if social media enquiries have increased and in turn driven down email queries, which would be a pleasant by-product of what is already considered a successful and beneficial project.

Paul Govey, Head of Student Marketing and Admissions, The University of Manchester

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