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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

The Credibility of College Info from Social Network Sites (or Lack Thereof)

22 Oct 2009

written by Karlyn Borysenko

The Credibility of College Info from Social Network Sites (or Lack Thereof)

Last month at NACAC, I got my hands on a copy of the Hobsons Domestic Research Report 2009-2010. It’s a fantastic report that every admissions professional should get their hands on, but one set of numbers specifically stood out to me. Hobsons asked sophomores, juniors and seniors about their perceptions of the credibility of college search tools. All you social media cool kids may find the results surprising:

High School Sophomores

Somewhat Credible Very Credible Total Trust Ranking
Institution’s Website 35% 49% 84%
Online Planning and Advising Tool 40% 36% 77%
Campus Visit 8% 65% 73%
Friends/Family 44% 29% 73%
Education Websites 36% 36% 73%
High School Counselors 31% 39% 70%
College Viewbook 34% 34% 68%
College Admissions Counselors 30% 38% 68%
College Rankings 33% 35% 68%
College Guidebook/Directory 39% 27% 66%
College Fairs 31% 23% 55%
Discussion Boards/Forums 18% 10% 29%
Social Networking Sites 12% 3% 14%
Chatrooms 9% 3% 12%
Podcasts 9% 1% 10%

High School Juniors

Somewhat Credible Very Credible Total Trust Ranking
Institution’s Website 46% 42% 88%
Campus Visit 16% 71% 86%
College Guidebook/Directory 43% 34% 78%
High School Counselor 43% 32% 76%
Friends/Family 38% 34% 72%
College Admissions Counselors 36% 36% 72%
Education Websites 42% 28% 70%
College Rankings 42% 26% 68%
College Viewbooks 39% 28% 67%
Online Planning and Advising Tool 37% 29% 66%
College Fairs 38% 23% 61%
Discussion Boards/Forums 21% 13% 35%
Social Networking Sites 12% 9% 21%
Podcasts 10% 4% 15%
Chatrooms 9% 5% 14%

High School Seniors

Somewhat Credible Very Credible Total Trust Ranking
Campus Visit 16% 70% 85%
Institution’s Website 42% 42% 85%
College Viewbook 47% 26% 75%
College Guidebook/Directory 47% 26% 72%
Friends/Family 42% 29% 71%
High School Counselors 39% 29% 68%
College Rankings 42% 26% 68%
College Admissions Counselors 40% 25% 65%
Education Websites 41% 20% 60%
College Fairs 37% 21% 58%
Online Planning and Advising Tool 36% 21% 57%
Discussion Boards/Forums 26% 17% 43%
Social Networking Sites 13% 4% 17%
Chatrooms 11% 3% 15%
Podcasts 11% 2% 13%

What This Means

Well, clearly this data means that admissions offices shouldn’t be spending resources on social media.

Just kidding icon wink The Credibility of College Info from Social Network Sites (or Lack Thereof)

I’ve shared this data with a few people at conferences and their first reaction has been something to the effect of “well it all depends on how they asked the question” or “what was the methodology?!?!” – in other words, absolute disbelief that these numbers could be valid.

I only know what the report tells me – that the research was conducted in the spring/summer of 2009 and was synthesized by data from more than 900 high school students in 47 states. But I’d suggest that if you immediately dismiss the research as invalid, stop and think for a moment:

  1. Hobsons has been around for a while and clearly dedicated resources to producing a quality report. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they know what they’re doing.
  2. Even if you don’t think they know what they’re doing, how do you explain that social networking sites lag the most credible tool by 65-70 percentage points? That’s a pretty giant gap by any standard.

These results don’t surprise me at all. Here’s why:

  • Teenagers have always made a really clear distinction between things they use for their social lives and things they use for “business”. Friends are for social media. Colleges are “business.”
  • You’ll see lots of opinion leaders listed as more credible than social media – friends, family, high school counselors. Do you think they’re directing these kids to look at a school’s Facebook page as their primary source of information? Of course not. It’s a generational thing – there’s still a lot of skepticism out there.
  • I don’t think there are many colleges out there who do social media really well. Until there’s a higher level of execution across the board, it is what it is.
  • Did you really think that Facebook was going to be considered more credible than a campus visit? Or friends and family? Or college rankings?

I suspect that social media can be a huge influence at the bottom of the admissions funnel, but this data pretty clearly shows that it’s not a credible source of information for students at the top of the funnel. In the long run, I think that social media will probably gain some ground. But much to a web geek’s dismay, I don’t believe it will ever make it in the top five most credible sources for prospects at the top of the funnel.

Don’t misinterpret this data as proof that social media doesn’t work – it has its place in the process. Schools need to be in this arena, but they also need to have realistic expectations about what they will achieve through sites like Facebook and Twitter. By the way, this is not that much different than other elements – the campus visit is important for sophomores, but it’s critical for seniors.

This has sort of become my mantra lately, but you can’t get so enamored of the tools that you lose site of the big picture. Admissions is a huge game and there are so many different touchpoints on these kids during their search process. Just because you personally like social media, does not mean it’s the number one tool an admissions office can use to recruit students. Look at things objectively and then consider how you can best integrate it into your overall marketing mix in a way that plays to its strengths.

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0 license


About the author

Karlyn Borysenko

Karlyn is loving life as the marketing manager for Eduventures and as a staff writer for .eduGuru. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Boston University, a Master of Business Administration from Norwich University, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Psychology from Capella University.

To quote a friend of hers: "Karlyn is a super rad ninja marketing genius who will make your target demographic submit to your every whim through sheer willpower. Oh, and she's smarter than you."  We're not sure about the smarter part, but "super rad ninja" is true enough.

Compulsory disclaimer: The views expressed in Karlyn's posts are hers and hers alone, and do not represent those of anyone she earns a paycheck from. Yes, it's true - the girl has a mind of her own. 

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  • http://insidetimshead.wordpress.com TimN

    Interesting stuff! I’d wager the 17 (or so, methodology blah blah) percent of high school seniors are the ones who use it most regularly, always show up on the Fans page asking questions, etc. It’s a not insignificant audience for that reason, but not a replacement for traditional efforts.

    I’m glad it also points back to the importance of an institution’s Web site. The college Web site ain’t all new, shiny and buzzworthy, but it’s STILL where the rubber meets the road and where investments of time, energy and resources belong.

  • http://highered.prblogs.org Andrew Careaga

    Karlyn – Thanks for sharing this report and your take on it. Social media channels didn’t rate too highly on the 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer, either, and as more entities flood into social networks, I suspect the trust level may not go much higher. Sooner or later, those we’re trying to connect with — whether they’re prospective students, current students, alumni, whoever — will likely fall victim to the “engagement fatigue” Michael Stoner blogged about recently.

  • http://itrookie.wordpress.com Tiffany

    Just sent this to our counseling staff. Fascinating data! Thanks!

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    I think this survey may misrepresent social media, not because of any flaw in the methodology, but because of a false dichotomy between social media and the other categories. Consider how Facebook and other platforms integrate and share actions. A prospective student may see an alumna friend interacting with a group for alumni or supporting her college’s sports team. Such an interaction may improve that high schooler’s impression of the school, but the credibility does not come from the social network, it comes from the friend. Social media is a platform for relationships — not an end to itself. However, its golden virtue is in the fact that relationships and interactions can be observed by others, making it as much side-facing as front-facing.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Scott – you could say the same thing of a campus visit – the credibility comes from the interaction, not the platform – yet campus visit is still extremely high on the list.

  • http://www.morethangrades.com CRios

    As a blogger for the website http://www.morethangrades.com , a site dedicated to providing students with college information, I find this data interesting but curious. While I agree that social networking sites are not the main area students look at, students are doing the bulk of their research online. Our experience shows that students want to find the information they want, ask questions of individuals who have no vested interest, and then discuss their findings with their parents. Social websites by their very nature do not provide factual information. It is sort of like asking your neighbor for a restaurant recommendation. Ultimately, I thing social websites serve the function of sending students in a direction -to get more information rather than provide it. Only time will tell if these morph into something more.

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    @Karlyn I see what you mean, but I think I wasn’t clear in what I was saying. It seems that the value of social media may be diluted across other categories in the survey. If a student is influenced by a family or friend toward a school, he/she may attribute it to the friend without considering that social media was the venue (as opposed to the living room, cafeteria, or library). I don’t think campus visits would be diluted in the same way, since the platform and the interaction are integrally tied together.

  • Bob

    this is really cool. i see social media more for those already at college rather than as an admissions tool.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Scott – But the attribution is telling then. If the friend or family member was going to influence them towards the school, than they would have done it one way or another. The medium they choose to do it over wasn’t important to the student. The original source of the information was. I’ll go back to the campus visit example – if a student visits a campus with a friend or family member, and while they are on that visit (say eating lunch in the dining hall), that person convinces them that its the right school, would you expect the dining hall to get credit?

  • http://www.varsityoutreach.com Mark Rothbaum

    This is interesting stuff. My big question regarding the social networking scores is whether these students are primarily interacting with the official channels of the school or with user-created channels. A Facebook Page run by the school is obviously different (and likely considered more trustworthy) than a group created by “admitted students” (as we’ve seen with the FacebookGate incidents, it’s often not actually students, but companies).

    If a HS student’s main interaction is with “strangers” in these unofficial groups, the scores make a lot of sense and I would guess they won’t change going forward.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Mark – why would you assume that the official Facebook page is considered more trustworthy? Kids are very astute about when they are being marketed to and they don’t like it.

  • http://www.varsityoutreach.com Mark Rothbaum

    @Karlyn — You could make the same argument about a university’s website (especially the admissions section), yet it’s Total Trustworthy rank is the highest for every student but seniors (where it’s second).

    In what you’ve shared, I don’t know how the question was asked. But I’d guess that the information on an official university Facebook Page is credible, in the sense that it is correct. On the other end of the spectrum, information gleaned from unofficial chatrooms, Facebook groups, and discussion boards is rightfully viewed as less trustworthy (i.e. more likely to be incorrect).

    Additionally, most campus visits are coordinated by schools, meaning the school has a major role in what the student sees and who they interact with. Campus tours are typically not led by students who are unhappy at the school. Do you think students realize that they are being marketed to during the campus visit?

    Now, the question of whether it’s a sanitized or controlled version is another issue.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Mark – Most admissions sites out there are more factual information about process than marketing. I WISH colleges had more marketing stuff on those sites – it would make my job of helping them to market themselves be a lot easier.

    Again, you’re making as assumption about how prospectives view official versus unofficial channels on social media. I’d be interested in if you had data to back it up.

    Have you ever trained tour guides? Because I’ll tell you, it’s damn near impossible to get those kids to understand what is OK to say and what isn’t. Tour guides typically have facts and figures memorized, but its not remotely a polished marketing performance.

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    @Karlyn If a friend or family member is intentionally recommending a school, then sure, the medium is irrelevant — they’ll just do whatever is most convenient. Your example of a friend in the dining hall does illustrate that the other categories can overlap too, but that’s an outlier (having a friend persuade you is not an integral or even expected part of a campus visit).

    Like I said earlier, the key is that social media lets you “overhear” others’ interactions, whether that’s opinion leaders in a peer group or older alumni friends. What I’m saying is that those taking the survey likely thought of “social networking” in terms of official Facebook pages — forward-facing marketing. That’s not where the greatest value lies in social media, though. The greatest value lies in creating a movement that others observe and can join in on — side-facing marketing. Also, because we can set up the connection points for those who already are in favor of the school to promote the movement, we can direct the conversation more easily than we can offline.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Scott – First, I disagree with your argument that haven’t someone persuade you on a campus visit is an outlier – in my days as an admissions counselor, I sat in on more interviews than I care to remember where the ONLY purpose of the visit was a friend or family member trying to convince the prospect it was the right school.

    We don’t have any information to know whether those who took the survey were instructed about whether these were official pages or otherwise, so that’s an assumption.

    I agree with you that social media is great for creating a movement…but this is COLLEGE ADMISSIONS, not the presidential election (or even a David versus Goliath battle between a Vermont brewery and a billion dollar corporation). I said pretty clearly in the post that I think social media is a very valid tool to use at the bottom of the admissions funnel, but this data shows it is not as effective at the top.

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    @Karlyn: When I talk about creating a movement, I’m using it in the sense that Geno Church (http://www.brainsonfire.com/people.aspx?id=13,4) uses it. Every organization — whether presidential candidate, Fortune 500 company, or higher ed — has a brand, and admissions is simply our industry’s final step in recruiting people to choose that brand. Why do so many people aspire to Harvard? Because it’s a good education, yes, but even more so because of its brand. Obviously most of our institutions aren’t going to be Harvards, so our brands are going to look very different, but the idea is the same. In my view, our role in social media is less about the “direct sell” (like websites, viewbooks, and college fairs) and more about brand promotion.

    You are right about not knowing how the question was asked — I was merely conjecturing what might be the case. However, whether or not it’s already happening, I’m suggesting that the lesson we ought to take away is not that social media is less important than we thought; rather, it is that the “friends/family” segment is where our social media efforts should go. Let’s use social media tools to promote those human relationship-based referrals.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    @Scott – Bringing Harvard into a conversation about higher ed brand is like comparing someone to Hitler into a debate – it nullifies everything. There is only one Harvard. There are 4,000 other schools out there that are not, nor will ever be Harvard.

    I think the message we need to take away is that there is an appropriate use of social media where it can be really valuable, and that’s at the end of the funnel. I don’t think you’d gain much headway by using it to promote the school to credible opinion leaders, since most of them (particularly parents/aunts/uncles and high school counselors) don’t consider it a credible source of information themselves.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn Morissette

    BTW, you talk about people aspiring to Harvard, but Harvard doesn’t have the lowest acceptance rate of college out there. The Coast Guard Academy does. That means they have more applications per available slot than Harvard does, yet we don’t often talk about the brand of the Coast Guard Academy. Just saying.

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    @Karlyn: I think we’ve pretty much hashed out all we can. It’s been helpful to think through these things, though.

    I only used Harvard because it’s the biggest, most obvious example of a brand that everybody knows about. (It’s the Coke/McDonalds/Kleenex of education.) Even your local community college has a brand, though. It’s just a more limited audience.

  • http://www.varsityoutreach.com Mark Rothbaum

    @Karlyn Unfortunately, I don’t have the data you’re asking for. Also, just to be clear, I actually agree with many of the points you make. I think the impact of social networking is probably more pronounced for students in the decision phase, not the search phase of the college admissions process. I also agree that it’s just a tool, not some magic wand that a school can wave and suddenly get more applicants and enrolled students.

    I also am not questioning the raw data results. I, like you, am hypothesizing about the meaning of the results. I’m wondering about some of the implications that can be drawn from this data if we don’t know what the respondents are referring to when they talk about “social networking sites”.

    Is it the unofficial groups respondents are typically referring to? Again, based on the data you provide above, I don’t know because it’s not clear. If so, one might conclude that colleges should be doing more on social networking sites to improve the credibility of information gathered on these sites since it is so low.

    Is it official university Facebook Pages respondents are typically referring to in the survey? Then, a completely different set of implications may fall from this data. It could be that official Pages are viewed as pure marketing attempts and therefore discredited by students, like you mentioned in one of your comments. It could be that the information on many college Facebook pages is not relevant to prospects, but more targeted to alumni. It might even be that students don’t consider Facebook a place that they want to search for colleges at all.

    Do you have the actual question that was asked by Hobson’s? I’d love to see it if you do.

    Also, in reference to your campus tours comment, it’s not whether they are trained to give the “official” view or not. It’s that you probably only picked students that liked the school and generally had positive things to say. If someone was considering transferring, I’m guessing they weren’t giving campus tours. Is that a fair assumption? So it may not be a polished marketing pitch, but it’s definitely not an unfiltered one.

    On a side note, I really appreciate your engagement with commenters on this blog. I’m impressed by the speed with which you respond to folks. A big plus for this blog.

    • http://www.albany.edu Brian Smith

      I agree with Mark and Scott here, I also am not questioning the raw data results but the author’s analysis of them. It provides students belief in medium as a whole, not of u/college sites on the medium, or the information they receive from institution officials thru the medium. I think the students are wise in their beliefs, anyone familar with Facebook and MySpace would have to agree with them. Take anything you hear from that medium, in general with a good bit of skepticism.

  • Joe

    Karlyn, do you think that advertising your Facebook page on your .edu is adding to the trust that prospects have in social media?

    >>You’ll see lots of opinion leaders listed as more credible than social media – friends, family, high school counselors. Do you think they’re directing these kids to look at a school’s Facebook page as their primary source of information? Of course not. It’s a generational thing – there’s still a lot of skepticism out there.

  • http://www.karlynmorissette.com Karlyn

    @Joe I think that”s an interesting question. I have to believe that it would add credibility to it, if the users took that path to it, but don’t have any data to back that up.

  • http://buildingmarketingstrategies.wordpress.com/ Rick Hardy

    Karlyn, thanks for your post. I agree with your assessment. Social media is by far not the most effective way to recruit students. However, it is one of the ways.

    Credibility comes with learning to be trusted over a period of time. I wouldn’t expect social media to be as credible as most of the other ones listed. However, students aren’t using those platforms to find out credible information. They are finding out things about your institution, exchanging ideas, listening, discussing, building relationships with others who are interested in your institution. All these things have potential to further connect that student to your institution. That’s huge! But that’s not what is being asked here. And just as all of us wonder about online product reviews in terms of who is writing them, prospective students have to be careful not to read too much credibility into what is said in social media (your website, admissions counselors, etc. may be able to confirm that information).

    All that being said, I question the validity of this data without knowing how the questions are asked. Hobsons has a vested interest in this data which at the least seems to mix apples and oranges (how and who referred), and raises some eyebrows in terms of the results.

  • http://buildingmarketingstrategies.wordpress.com/ Rick Hardy

    Karlyn, thanks for your post. I agree with your assessment. Social media is by far not the most effective way to recruit students. However, it is one of the ways.

    Credibility comes with learning to be trusted over a period of time. I wouldn’t expect social media to be as credible as most of the other ones listed. However, students aren’t using those platforms to find out credible information. They are finding out things about your institution, exchanging ideas, listening, discussing, building relationships with others who are interested in your institution. All these things have potential to further connect that student to your institution. That’s huge! But that’s not what is being asked here. And just as all of us wonder about online product reviews in terms of who is writing them, prospective students have to be careful not to read too much credibility into what is said in social media (your website, admissions counselors, etc. may be able to confirm that information).

    All that being said, I question the validity of this data without knowing how the questions are asked. Hobsons has a vested interest in this data which at the least seems to mix apples and oranges (how and who referred), and raises some eyebrows in terms of the results.

  • http://www.eyefruit.com/ Scott Buchanan

    @Rick — I agree completely. The data “at the least seems to mix apples and oranges (how and who referred), and raises some eyebrows in terms of the results.”

  • http://ydop.com Steven Wolgemuth

    To reach the right conclusions, you have to ask the right questions. Here are some suggestions for survey questions that may yield answers that show results that coincide with information I’ve seen from Forrester Research. Ask a high school student…
    1. If a large majority of student reviews on ratemyprofession.com concluded that a professor was no good, would you believe a college’s website that said otherwise?
    2. Would you be more interested in a college whose staff engaged with you in social media channels or a college who ignored you on these channels?
    3. Are you likely to be influenced by information you get on social media channels, especially if it is posted by friends?
    4. Would you be likely to check out a college outside of the college’s official website? Could this affect your enrollment decision?
    5. Would you trust forming an impression about a college’s personality (and your compatibility with it’s culture) by chatting with current students or by reading information that the staff posted on the official college website?
    Students don’t use social media channels to get official information, like tuition costs, start dates, course offerings, etc. But that’s not reason to pull back from social media marketing.

  • Hugh Jarvis

    Hi, Karlyn. We’d love to read the report you cite. Is it online..? I haven’t had any luck tracking it down. Thanks!

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/Finding-Niche-Keywords niche keywords tutorial

    This is acceptable in terms of SEO. Nada seems to bother towards them compared to this.Interestingly, this is just was talked about several years ago at the hack con about search engines in ’95.

  • http://mcat-review.org MCAT Review

    Social media is low cost and can reach out to more people, while stuff like campus tours cost more time and money. The credibility of social media is pretty good for what it is. Plus, You can always provide a “virtual tour”, where students can view 3D panoramas of the campus.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pearsestreet social networking design

    Thank you for sharing the great information with us.
    keep up great writing,.

  • http://business.socialterrain.com Renata Pachucki

    That’s a very interesting post that you have. I stumbled on a new one the other day. They look open , but very similar to linkedin.com with more of a social business directory look and feel. Nice clean interface though. Found it at SocialTerrain.com

  • http://www.culturalresearch.org Clyde Smith

    Obviously the discussion is over, the sp@mmers are taking over and the author has left the building. Nevertheless, since I just found this blog, I’d like to respond to a couple of points in the post by Karlyn Morissette:

    ““well it all depends on how they asked the question” or “what was the methodology?!?!” – in other words, absolute disbelief that these numbers could be valid.”

    I can see these numbers being valid yet I would have to ask the same questions in order to determine what they mean. Without having the questions you don’t actually have the “raw data”, you’ve got part of it and not enough to do more than speculate, as the ensuing discussion reveals. Though it’s an interesting discussion, most of the strong points seem to made by pointing to other info sources, experience, etc.

    “Even if you don’t think they know what they’re doing”

    I have no opinion since I’m not familiar with the organization. In the absence of a bad reputation, I have no way of forming an opinion because I don’t know what they did. I do know that even the Pew Internet folks’ data doesn’t always look so straightforward when you look at the actual questions and methodology and I’ve seen similar problems with other respected research institutions.

    On the subject of whether or not one finds a particular source credible, the Web is obviously too big and even social networks are too big and varied to say whether or not one actually trusts the Web or social networks.

    If you asked a bunch of young folks how they would react to an announcement on their favorite band’s fan page that a college concert was canceled while the Institution’s site said it was still on, who do you think would win that credibility contest?

    The info from the social network or from the Institution site? I would say the social network in such a case.

    A closing anecdote about sources and credibility: back when I worked at National Evaluation Systems (great coworkers, clueless management), I remember telling a coworker something I’d read that was pretty startling. She asked me my source and, being the pain that I am, I simply said, “oh, I read it on the web” and, since she didn’t believe it in the first place, she let out this knowing “oh” that communicated the fact that she didn’t believe the info and that the source confirmed her disbelief. I then followed with “on the New York Times website” and she went silent.

    Later I followed up to confirm that my interpretation was correct. She had assumed it was wrong when I said it was the web and then accepted it when I said the NY Times. Personally, I’ve seen so many inaccuracies in the Times over the years that I’ve learned to evaluate information separate from the credibility of the source, though that also plays a role.

    So, yeah, none of us knows what this really means without more information but that doesn’t stop us from using it to confirm the beliefs we already hold!

    Know what I mean?

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