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How Higher Ed Marketers Can Keep Pace With The Changing Social Media Environment

The EvoLLLution | How Higher Ed Marketers Can Keep Pace With The Changing Social Media Environment
The social media game has changed, but higher education marketers can still leverage it to great effect.

It has become increasingly difficult for smaller organizations to market using social media over the last five years. Despite the challenges, though, marketers in higher education can still use social media tools effectively—they just need to change their approach.

How the Use of Social Media Has Evolved

I used to tell marketers they could get results by creating great content with a compelling narrative and an emotional hook. If the content was carefully targeted to the right audience using the most appropriate platform, then the message would likely be effective.

Now, a marketer needs all of the above and more—particularly more money. If you don’t pay to boost your posts with advertising, then they simply won’t be seen as broadly as they used to. At the same time, social media platforms are becoming more and more alike. Most of the popular platforms allow you to share all types of content (video, images, text), as well as like and follow people, hashtags or keywords.

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica and Europe’s GDPR, new rules, regulations and limitations are impacting smaller firms’ abilities to broaden their audience reach and understand trends. Unfortunately, companies with large marketing budgets can often get around these limitations, and as such are still in a position to market effectively on social media. For smaller organizations, though, the field is getting more complicated and harder to manage on limited resources.

How the Users of Social Media Have Evolved

Demographically, we’ve seen a big shift in Facebook in the last five years. While young people still have Facebook accounts, they don’t use them as actively as they use other platforms like Instagram, SnapChat or, more recently, TikTok. Twitter has grown, at least in Canada, over the last five years, but it also remains less relevant for users under the age of 25.

New platforms, like TikTok, have emerged and others, like Tumblr, have grown in popularity among young people. Meanwhile Google+, which some believed might take off five years ago, is basically irrelevant now.

Social Media Is No Longer Quick and Cheap

It’s actually quite expensive to use social media well. In addition to having to pay to boost content, the content creation process itself has had to become much more sophisticated in order for messages to stand out. People now hire digital content firms to create slick content. It can be experiential content, where an installation is placed in a busy place in order to encourage wide sharing on social media, or it can be narrative content like videos, infographics, images, or blog posts.

Additionally, it’s become much more expensive to find effective social media influencers and have them engage with your brand. Five years ago, you could often engage an influencer by offering free product. Today, you pay social media influencers to talk about you—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the influencer in question.

How Higher Ed Marketers Can Leverage Social Media

Despite all of these changes, social listening can still present a good, if challenging, opportunity for postsecondary marketers. Using social media to listen to your students and potential students—and taking the time to engage with them when they reach out to you using online channels—is very important.

By being an active participant on the social media channels that your students use, you have the opportunity to participate in the conversations that they have about you, and position yourself as a reliable source of information.

But to do this effectively, you need to be willing to participate authentically in conversation. For those who do, the rewards are there. Students sometimes feel like just a number when they engage with postsecondary institutions, but social media provides institutions with an opportunity to actually let students know you care. By listening, you can make them feel cared for, thereby encouraging them to choose you over other institutions that they may be considering.

Three Keys to Leveraging Social Media Effectively

In order to benefit from using social media to authentically engage with prospects and students, you need time and resources. Social media has long been seen as “cheap” marketing, but to use it correctly, you need to invest in human resources and play the long game.

Broadcast or sales-style messaging should absolutely be avoided. Instead, make use of the dialogic potential of this medium.

So what are a few lessons higher education marketers can adopt from their colleagues in the corporate world when it comes to getting the most out of social media marketing?

  1. Listen to your (potential) customers

It’s not about you; it’s about them. People can smell sales messages from a mile away. They like to be heard, so take the time to listen to the people you want to market to. They’ll tell you what they want or need, and then you can meaningfully respond.

  1. Take calculated risks in order to create memorable content

The best content doesn’t try to be everything to everybody. Know your audience well (because you took my first piece of advice and listened) and then take a calculated risk to make content that will be memorable to them. By taking risks, I mean creating content that is truly different. It’s hard to do, but if you only create average content, you’ll be drowned out.

  1. Tell a story or build an emotional connection

People remember content that tells a compelling story or arouses an emotion. Again, after you’ve listened to your audience, you’ll get an idea of what kinds of stories resonate with them. Take the time to build those stories, remembering all the time that it’s not about you.