Admissions Marketing in a Digital World: Have we lost our way?

Ok, I’ll just say it: I am worried about the use (abuse) of social media platforms in marketing colleges and universities to high school school students. There! I feel better already!

The use of technology in student recruitment is moving so fast that one dare not take a nap for fear of missing out on the latest trend. For my own sanity, I’d like to slow down for a moment, however, to reflect upon where we have been, where we are today and where we might be going.

I grew up in college admissions in the mid-’70s and 1980s. In 2009, after 35 years, I left admissions to head up marketing and communications at my son’s alma mater. I thought I knew it all. Boy, was I wrong!

From our first four-color viewbooks and admissions videos in the late ’70s, to the emergence of the web as a strategic marketing tool in the late ’90s, to multi-channel marketing strategies in the 2000s, my goal had always been to convey important information on academic programs, majors, and outcomes, while helping prospective students visualize themselves on campus. Our methods were pretty straightforward– story-telling, testimonials, data, requirements and showcasing faculty, current student and successful alumni. Information and anecdotes had to be “current,” of course. But in my world, “current” meant within the past year. That, I reasoned, made for an authentic representation of what our college offered and who we claimed to be.  Today, of course, “current” means 16 minutes ago!

Along the way, viewbooks became glitzier, technology allowed data mining to personalize print brochures to student interests, and personal URLs delivered targeted content on the web. Still, the focus was on programs and outcomes, while providing a glimpse of life on a residential campus as the marketing folks would portray it. The college could, in many ways, control the message (so we thought) or at least influence prospective student perceptions.

As the web became more interactive in the mid-2000s, college review websites like “College Confidential” gained in popularity. Here anyone could comment on the experiences they had in their college search, or simply state an opinion on a college for the whole world to see. “Control” of the message was slipping away. Anonymity fueled irresponsibility in postings, and damage control — asking current students or parents to post rebuttals — became one order of business.

Enter Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others in the mid- to late-2000s, and user generated content exploded. Recognizing the power of social media, colleges and universities slowly began their own presence on these sites. At first, these platforms were used simply as another way to push out institutional messages. But not so slowly, we began to realize the power of social media to reach our audiences — especially high school students, but also current students and alumni. If harnessed well and with integrity, these channels could serve our audiences and the institutions well.

What can happen, however, is that social media channels can become a “free-for-all,” used primarily to create buzz and engage in fun. We do want to show that our place has heart as well as a sense of humor, of course. But we must be careful not to crowd the these popular channels with scores of gimmicks while neglecting to get across important messages about our programs, our approach, student experiences, and outcomes.

Today, it seems like colleges and universities are trying to outdo each other with photo-contests, flash-mob videos to go viral, humorous presidential videos or blogs, “get the most tweets and win lunch with the dean of admissions” — the list goes on. With all of this “noise” bombarding our prospective students daily, we must — our success depends on it — find a way to break through the clutter and effectively convey our messages as well as our institutional personality .

While I can lament what I see to be the dilution of the higher education message in favor of an approach that reminds me of the popular ’60s jingle for Palisades Amusement Park (“swings all day and after dark”), I must remind myself that my entire career in admissions was devoted to attempts at out-marketing peer colleges in the quest for the best students. Whether it was a new recruitment video, an “edgy” viewbook, catchy taglines, or on-campus programs that went the extra mile, there was always a goal of being better than our overlap schools to “win” a higher percentage of admitted students or to attract more qualified applicants. Today is really no different.

Social media can be used effectively to convey the college’s programs and outcomes — its brand messages. It can also be used to create excitement and enhance community — to give prospective students a real sense of what it is like to be a part of our community and to engage alumni and current students in the excitement of being on campus. We must be careful to be genuine and measured in our approach, though, lest our messages get lost. And while we certainly cannot control what our “friends” or “fans” say, we can balance our institutional use of social media in a responsible and strategic way.

Above all, we must recognize that social media platforms are not ends unto themselves. They just provide another way to spread the word about our college or university. What that “word” is must be crafted as it always has been — through careful analysis, research and planning. Then, having “fun” on social media will produce real dividends for our colleges.