Universities are attracting students with coordinated, well-funded social networking campaigns, bringing their campus marketing message to sites such as Facebook without pushing teenagers away with an authoritative approach in an informal environment.
Attendees at the annual InfoComm Conference in Orlando gathered during an EduComm session June 16 analyzing how some universities have caught students’ attention on the web sites that have drawn millions of teenagers and young adults in recent years.
Diane C. McDonald, associate director of marketing at Texas A&M University, told the group of educators and IT officials that the campus has transferred about 80 percent of its marketing budget to online advertising, while cutting back on print ads.
Before the internet became ubiquitous, college officials largely depended on word-of-mouth advertising among current and prospective students. Now, with most students connected to at least one social networking site–such as MySpace or Facebook–McDonald said schools should focus their marketing on "word of mouse" advertising.
Creating a legion of "online evangelists" for a college or university is the key to spreading positive marketing across social networking sites and blogs, she said.
"That’s a huge step in our efforts," McDonald added.
Texas A&M launched a Facebook page and a site called DoYouWonder.edu last year. The DoYouWonder page invites students to share their experiences, which means user-generated content such as videos create an interactive atmosphere that brings students back daily or weekly.
"We’re not in control as much as we’re facilitating," McDonald said, adding that social networking-based marketing campaigns mean colleges "no longer have [control over] 100 percent of the message that goes out."
The reach of even one college student can mean the university’s message is spread exponentially on social web sites. If a student has a Facebook profile, a personal blog, and accounts on Flickr, a photo-sharing site, and LinkedIn, a professional networking site, he or she can potentially reach thousands of people, who then could spread the message to thousands more, McDonald said.
McDonald said jumping into the increasingly popular Facebook pool is not as simple as creating an account and watching students join as group members. Texas A&M has student employees constantly monitoring the site for provocative posts from students or visitors from rival campuses.
Maintaining a "non-authoritative" Facebook presence, McDonald said, was key to attracting potential students to the page and making them feel invited to return again and again. Administrators shouldn’t push college coursework or administrative news through a college’s Facebook page, she said.
"As soon as we start acting like mom and dad, we’ve destroyed that [social networking] spirit," McDonald said.