Social media obviously plays a significant part in business marketing and consumer engagement, but the reality is that most colleges and universities fail to maximize it in their various outreach and communications strategies. The sooner higher education makes a serious investment in social media, the better the results will be.

Social Media Equals Opportunity

It seems like social media can’t get any bigger as an industry, yet it seemingly does so every year. There are now 3.196 billion people using social media across the globe, which represents a 13 percent year-over-year growth rate. (For the record, there are 4.021 billion internet users. This means four out of every five internet users is an active social media user.)

Each second, 11 new people start using social media. That amounts to roughly 1 million people per day, the majority of which are young students. These new users will eventually come to spend just over two hours per day on social media, which is the average across all users.

In the all-important 18-29-year-old demographic, 88 percent of people say they use social media. More than half of those in the 18-24 range say it would be hard to give up social media.

By 2019, social media marketing spending in the U.S. alone will reach $17.34 billion. Unfortunately, only a very small sliver of this pie belongs to higher education. And in a world where social media equals opportunity, this represents a missed chance to engage students, prospective students, faculty, and donors.

Utilizing Social Media in Higher Education

To continue overlooking social media is a major mistake – the consequences of which may not be fully understood until years from now.

“Social media has become the younger generations’ primary means of interacting with the world,” digital marketer Jylian Russell explains. “Unsurprisingly, they’re also actively applying their love for social to their post-secondary lives—using it to inform everything from their school selection to course choices. For professional communicators working within post-secondary, attention to this shift is critical.”

If you work in higher education and have influence in an area like marketing, recruitment, fundraising, or student engagement, you need social media.

Here are some tips, ideas, and examples of what this looks like:

  • Market an Experience

Experiential marketing is what works in today’s marketplace. Whether it’s a consumer product brand or a research university, the key to successful marketing is to create an experience and involve people in it.

Chicago’s Rush University is a good example of this. They’ve branded their student life and engagement as the Rush Experience and use their social media channels to share and promote their supportive learning community to prospective students and other key stakeholders.  

Every institution of higher learning should be using social media to push an experience. If you aren’t, this is an area where you can make some quick and effective strides.

  • Promote Research and Innovation

With all of the money and time that today’s leading institutions pour into research and innovation, it would be a shame to not maximize exposure. Social media is a channel through which many universities choose to promote their progress and findings.

Canada’s University of British Columbia is one institution that does a rather effective job of utilizing social media to elevate awareness about their research. Just browse their Twitter profile,and you’ll see exactly how they use it.

  • Connect With Students and Alumni

One of the keys to continued success for most colleges and universities is to engage alumni and keep them close to the institution. In doing so, they’re able to generate funding and forge healthy connections within various communities around the country and world.

While email, mail, and phone have long been used to stay in touch, these are inefficient systems for a dynamic, fast-paced world. Social media allows schools to stay in touch with alumni without being overly intrusive. This is often done through slow drip campaigns and the formation of groups (typically based on graduation year).

  • Propel Fundraising Campaigns

“Columbia University is one great example of a university making good use of social media fundraising,” Russell points out. “During their 2012 Giving Day Campaign, the school’s 24-hour fundraising day, the University launched a website to serve as their primary fundraising hub. To spread the word, Columbia then mobilized the campaign via their social media channels.”

The 2012 Giving Day Campaign targeted both new and existing donors, faculty, and staff. Alumni were also challenged to participate in donor match initiatives, and live streams of university leaders were pushed out for all to see.

Within the brief 24-hour period, Columbia raked in $7.8 million in funding from across the United States and 53 other countries. It was a game-changer for the school’s fundraising efforts and has served as a model for countless other institutions around the world.

  • Stay Current

Honestly, one of the best parts about social media is that it allows institutions of higher learning to stay connected with what’s happening on a cultural level. As opposed to being stuck in a bubble, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat give administrators and faculty the chance to peer into what’s happening on and off campus. As a result, they can better shape their approach to outreach and engagement.

Making Social Media a Priority

Social media isn’t something that can be ignored. It’s part of the fabric of modern society and you must learn to strategically leverage it if you want to reach, engage, and influence the people that matter most. All colleges, universities, and leaders in higher education are advised to lean in and get involved.