The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education

social media butterfly The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher EducationThe following is a guest post by Director of Web Communication the Director of Web Communication & Strategic Projects in the Office of Public Affairs at State University of New York at New Paltz.  Director of Web Communicationwas kind enough to share her recent completed report.  You can contact Director of Web Communicationthrough email (rachel.reuben at gmail dot com) or connect through twitter.

This summer I did an independent study research project in pursuit of my MBA (expected graduation is May ’10). The focus of my research was the use of social media in higher education, specifically for marketing and communication.

This guide originally started with the premise of being co-authored with my sponsoring professor, and we planned to seek publication in an academic journal, and to present it at an upcoming conference. Unfortunately our schedules did not work out for the original concept, so I hope the guide as it turned out will still be useful to high level administrators in academia. We do plan to beef up the data analysis section and re-visit its focus into an academic publication later this year.

In July I produced a survey that was distributed via three listservs (uweb, HighEdWeb, SUNY CUADNet) and Twitter, asking what tools colleges are using, which offices maintain them, how often they spend maintaining them, and what target audience(s) they’re primarily using them for. I ended up with 148 unique colleges/universities responding to the survey.

the conversation prism The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education
The Conversation Prism

The tools I focused on for the purpose of this survey included Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogs, and (now This research project culminated into writing a guidfe geared towards high level administrators in higher education, such as President’s and VP’s who have heard about social media, but need a complete introduction to the concept and potential. However, I do believe the data presented provides some solid statistics for mid-level Web, marketing and communication professionals to use to convince their supervisors that some forms of social media may be very beneficial to their overall marketing and communication mix.

Download: The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education (PDF)

Key Takeaways:

  • Facebook has great potential for our purposes, and just over half of those surveyed already have a Facebook Page for their University. MySpace is not only loosing ground with the general population in terms of the number of active users, but it’s also not popularly used in higher education.
  • YouTube has enormous capabilities and potential. This is an area where you can really see a lot of ROI with no real post-production costs and an infinite audience (vs. creating CDs/DVDs, paying for postage to mail, distributing at fairs, etc.).
  • Higher education hasn’t quite found the right niche for Twitter yet. It has great potential in the future, and there are a few ideas floating out there that may take off in the coming months – it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
  • In this guide I discuss concerns and implications for adopting (or not) social media, and illustrate some best practices in the higher education industry.

68 Responses to “The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education”

  1. Says:

    Thanks for sharing your research, Rachel! Can’t wait to read it.

  2. Says:

    Very good report… I will definitely promote it, but I just have to point out that Facebook has not surpassed MySpace. That “elistist” Facebook thing you mentioned (thank you for doing so) has also affected the way the media covers MySpace… and set of data they report on.

    1. Facebook got more unique visitors in April, but not registered users. MySpace still surpasses Facebook. In the United States, MySpace has 70 million active users, Facebook has 40… globally it is 110 to 90 million.

    2. Anyway… the real point is that higher ed is making a huge mistake by shunning MySpace… what no one seems to know - which shocks me on almost a daily basis - is that every college and university in the country already has a MySpace community through MySpace Schools:

    Depending on the size of your school, you will have anywhere from 1,000 to 65,000 current students and alumni on MySpace in your community… chatting about your university and professors… and higher ed has been completley absent from this conversation.

    3. The Facebook vs. MySpace thing is tragic really… especially when one considers race and class… the diversity is on MySpace. It’s not one or the other… it’s both. Some use MySpace, some us Facebook…nd the fastest way to get new fans to your fan page is to use MySpace!

    Fcaebook pages do have great potential, but only if you design them correctly… you have to use html… 99% of the pages I see don’t.

    Anyway… very good article… just wish that someone in higher ed that has power would write about MySpace Schools.

    In terms of ROI, every one of my higher ed clients gets more website traffic, more email newsletter subscribers, more new members to their alumni community, more online activity from their MySpace, than Facebook… and they didn’t expect that.


  3. Says:

    Heather - thank you so much for taking the time to write this feedback! I have a few comments.

    I spent countless hours/days/weeks on MySpace plowing through School pages (that already exist without most colleges knowing). None had the volume of activity, the amount of “fans/friends” or types of interaction that I saw on Facebook Pages. The typical activity on MySpace pages were “thanks for the ad.” I thought I referenced some research I found that showed an actual breakdown of demographics between typical MySpace and Facebook users, but maybe I ended up leaving out that tid-bit in the end. I’ll have to see if I can dig that up.

    I’m not so sure the power of using Facebook Pages is in using HTML or “designing them correctly.” One of the biggest attractors to Facebook is its clean interface. Sure, they give us the ability to ad Flash & graphics now, and with their FBML static app’s we can customize the page further, but I don’t think the basic foundation should be messed with that much, or the die-hard Facebook users may run for the hills when they see it & it’s so grossly different from what they’re used to seeing on that site.

    Don’t think I’m someone with power writing about Facebook, just someone who has been in higher ed administration for just over a decade, working on my MBA, with a great interest in finding out all I can about social media & its potential for our higher education community. Didn’t mean to shun MySpace, but the data & articles I read, along with the site views I performed, don’t support giving it much credence at this point.

  4. Says:

    Thanks… I didn’t mean to imply that you shunned MySpace… higher ed in general does. You’ve been the first to even mention the word “elite” and it had to be said! This is actually a very political, deeper conversation… MySpace and Facebook… how diffferent they are in terms of style, purpose, philosophy, etc.

    The trick with MySpace Schools is setting up a MySpace profile… and then going into MySpace Schools and sending all of those current students and alumni friends requests, right?

    Example… a university in California (the west coast is much more friendly to MySpace… it’s regional as well) just decided to set up a MySpace profile. They have 26,000 alumni and current students in their MySpace School community… so they are hiring a student worker to go in over the next 6 months and send 26,000 friend requests… now, MySpace is a numbers game… 26,000 will generate likely 2,000 per month of people that haven’t even registered for the MySpace School… that is a very powerful MySpace. Schools isn’t where the activity will happen… the point is to draw your alumni/current students/prospective students out of MySpace Schools to your university’s profile… and build and nurture the community there… and design your MySpace profile to drive traffic to your website, insert a subscribe e-newslettr box… use html in every blog post, comment, bulletin and update on MySpace. This also allows the current students/alumni to put their school in their top friends, right? That’s how profiles go viral on MySpace… it’s all about the top friends! You can’t put a MySpace School in your top friends… MySpace Schools basically function like Groups… which aren’t popular on MySpace like they are on Facebook. The two sites are night and day!

    Higher ed could follow the example of nonprofit organizations and how they are using MySpace:

    Also, if a unviersity starts a profile > Adds the School > then every time that university logs in they are alerted when they have “New alumni! New current students!”… all the university then needs to do is send them a friend request… and people on MySpace want to put their School in their top friends.

    The thing with fan pages… you can’t send fan requests… you have to promote your fan page… which is exactly why Facebook launched them (and for revenue)… that’s where the surge in traffic is coming from… nonprofits, universities, businesses, bands sending emails, using MySpace, websites, etc. ask them to join their Facebook Page… thus a lot of people are clicking on Facebook… hence, a “unique user”.

    As far as race and class… Danah Boyd. She did the research and she got a lot of flack for it… it’s not a comfortable subject, but I am MySpace and Facebook 40-50 hours a week… and it is obvious.

    Notice what nonprofit organizations are doing with Facebook Pages as well and the “Profile HTML” App:

    By using this App or the FBML app… you can insert subscribe boxes, website links, widgets of all sorts, etc. It doesn’t take away the basic Facebook design, just allows universities to get more data from their fans… hopefully new subscribers, donors, etc. Drive them to your Web 1.0 tools… the website, email newsletters, and DONATE NOW buttons.

    Anyway, great article… glad you are on it! MySpace is just a huge missed opportunity for higher ed. I know Facebook came out of the Ivy League and higher ed… but higher ed communicators needs to realize that they have tens of thousands of friends/fans on MySpace too. Whatever their personal preference is for social networking, a successfull social networking strategy by a university needs to have a presence on MySpace. And the fact that Schools flat out show you where you’re alumni and current students are on MySpace… that’s an incredible service…. that is free.


  5. Says:

    Director of Web Communicationyou have done a great job here. Congrats to you in seeing the extreme benefit of contributing the school to the social media world. There should be more open college execs out there like you. Proud to have graduated from NP with such an open-minded administration.

  6. Says:

    Very interesting report about how colleges and universities are using social media!

    I am the founder of and my company has a vision toward bringing education and social interaction with classmates to social media. However, we are approaching it from a different angle than what is currently being done.

    Instead of using multiple platforms independently to to reach out and engage with students or prospective students, we see the future as one in which colleges and universities have their own applications that work across multiple sites (social media agnostic) simultaneously.

    With open platforms provided by Facebook and Google’s OpenSocial, this vision will become a reality.

    Imagine students, no matter where they choose to spend their time (whether it’s Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) being able to interact with classmates, access course material and get notified of updates to course content, with a universal look and feel.

    With their own applications, colleges and universities can enjoy a branded presence in all social media sites that their students frequent. This is the kind of distributed technology Podclass is developing, starting with Facebook.

    I’m encouraged to see colleges and universities finally embracing social media.

  7. Says:

    Great stuff!

    I know that undergrad schls are embracing social networking in a big way BUT what are you seeing with graduate schools?

    I appreciate your insight

  8. Says:

    @Director of Web Communication- as someone who use to run a myspace page for a college admissions office, I can say that most of the action goes on where you can’t see it. I got questions from kids ALL THE TIME on there, and they were usually questions that the kids didn’t ask over other mediums (for some reason, i don’t think it hit them that they were ACTUALLY talking to an admissions person). I agree strongly with Heather’s assertion that colleges should be on MySpace too and if the only reason you can give is that kids can put you in their top friends, that’s good enough for me.

  9. Says:

    @Tom I didn’t single out grad schools vs. undergrad with this round of research for this guide. That would be very interesting to look at in a future research project (for me or someone else!). Some of the trends I was reading about inferred that the use of social media is most popular with the teenage crowd, but did read some stats on the growing number of adults in the ~30 year old range embracing social media, which could lead to more adoption on the grad school recruitment level.

  10. Says:

    @Celeste Thank you :D

    @ctbarber Thank you for the mention! Honored to serve as inspiration…

    @Gary This is an interesting concept — as long as it is a time saver for those of us in the roles that would support it. If it’s just “another” tool to add to the already overflowing mix to support/check, good luck getting buy-in. But if it’s a tool that goes out and checks all these other sites & lets us post there without having to go to each one directly, I’m interested in hearing more.

    @Head of Marketing That’s very interesting. I didn’t see anything like that in all the research I did. Not saying it’s not true - just didn’t encounter anything like it. In fact, it was the total reverse - prospective students ask all sorts of questions they don’t ask in other mediums on college’s Facebook Page (especially mine). Speaking of “mine,” I purposefully left out any mention of what I’m doing & seeing at SUNY New Paltz because I didn’t want the paper to seem biased.

  11. Says:

    @Director of Web Communication- I have no doubt they do on Facebook as well :-)

    I think there’s just not a lot of info out there about MySpace because there weren’t really that many colleges using it and then Facebook became the (perceived?) dominant force anyway. I guess I would ask why a school can’t/shouldn’t have a presence on both?

  12. Says:

    @Head of Marketing If there’s a person/group with enough time to support both (in addition to one or all of the other social media tools/sites out there), I’m all for it. When given the dilemma of picking one to support & having a concern of time commitment, the research I did leaned in favor of Facebook.

  13. Says:

    @Director of Web Communication- I use to spend, at most, 15 minutes a day with MySpace…most of the time there wasn’t much of anything to do…add a few friends, approve some comments….answer question or two. The only time it took longer was right after I first launched the page and it was still new. FWIW…

  14. Says:

    @Head of Marketing & Director of Web Communication- We have a Facebook and MySpace page. I’ve done a little pushing along of both and the numbers just can’t lie. We have over 800 fans of our Facebook page and barely over 100 of the MySpace. When I talk to students around campus they kind of turn their nose up at MySpace where they spend countless hours on Facebook.

    If I really need to prove this point, I could dig up the data that shows individuals on Facebook are more likely to be college educated where individuals on MySpace aren’t as likely.

    I’m not saying don’t spend any time on MySpace, but it’s hard to ignore the numbers that say Facebook is much more likely to be beneficial to our needs. I’m not saying Wofford is the norm and there are probably a lot of schools (community colleges come to mind) where the data probably looks a lot different and the user base to support MySpace is there. What is obvious in mine (Wofford’s) situation is that the numbers are obvious that my efforts have shown eight times higher return on Facebook.

  15. Says:

    Also feel the need to state that Rachel’s report shows some great data, but it’s important to realize that the means of gathering the data (through blogs, social media, social networks, and list servs) probably skew the data a little on the higher side.

    I don’t think this discredits her amazing research in the least I just feel the need to advise people to analyze the TRENDS and not the specific numbers (It’s the analytical guy in me I know).

    The trend data says Facebook. Now could this mean that MySpace is an untapped and ignored network with a lower entry level to succeed? Absolutely, but I’m not putting my money in that pot.

  16. Says:

    Thanks Kyle… Wofford is a perfect example… you have 1,793 alumni and current students on MySpace:

    Have you added you School to your profile? I can’t tell:

    Have you sent them friend requests?

    Also, since you have hidden your comments section and have no blog posts… there isn’t a whole lot your friends can do on your MySpace… no offense! Th ecommunity aspect is gone. I tell colleges all the time to keep their MySpace classically designed… when they look like websites with all the activity funtionality turned off… MySpace users just feel marketed to… you won’t get results… they want authenticity… nice design though… very few people in the country know how to do it!

    Once you send the friend requests… and get your community to 1800+… then ask them to join your fan page and put you in their top friends!

    Also, see:

    Again… my point is use both and use them together to maxmize results. College educated folks use MySpace too… honestly!


  17. Says:

    P.S. Nothing in here said discredits her research… this is just a conversation… and a useful one at that. It’s a great report… and I going to promote it like crazy… but I was just pointing out that higher ed is missing the boat on MySpace.

    It’s not a Us vs. Them or Facebook vs. MySpace… it’s that higher ed doens’t know how to utilize “MySpace Schools”. MySpace is the third visited website in the country, is free, has “Schools”… why wouldn’t you use it now the Pew has pretty much de-bunked the sexual predator on MySpace myth:

    Anyway… thanks for the great report!

  18. Says:

    I’m with Heather….it’s not about MySpace vs. Facebook. I’m not opposed to Facebook in the slightest, just think schools should be doing both until they get hard data that shows that one is a waste of their time. I think part of it is demographic, as Founderpoints out - and I’m not sure Wofford’s demographics skew in the MySpace direction. Would also suggest that it is possible to have a small group of engaged users on one and a large group of unengaged users on the other….which would rather have? I also don’t buy the “we don’t have enough time to do both” argument - until you’ve tried it you don’t know how long it will take!

    Also, like others are saying, not trying to discredit the report in any way. I think the report is good. Just enjoy the conversation :-)

  19. Says:

    It surely is a great report. very detailed and comprehensive. I understand how some things could potentially be abit exagerated. I personally believe in the power of social media to connect people but at the same time I am skeptical on whether the future of social media will reseble the current situation.

  20. Says:

    I Love the Conversation Diagram!

    I am a student a Grand Valley State University and I have a big Presentation coming up dealing with how communication has changed.
    I love your illustration on “The Conversation; The Art of listening, learning, and sharing” I would love to use it to help better communicate the many different variations of communication with the introduction of the internet. I don’t know if you would be able or willing to email me a larger file size (perhaps a vector image)?I would like to be able to blow it up and show my class and professor. If you could that would be amazing! Thanks a million,
    - Nate

  21. Says:

    Nate - you didn’t leave your contact info, so I hope you see this reply.

    The conversation prism is not mine — I reference Brian Solis, who developed it. He posted multiple sizes on Flickr here:

    Here’s his article about it:

    Good luck!

  22. Says:

    Hey Rachel, sorry my email is Thanks,
    - Nate

  23. Says:

    Best of the best

  24. Says:

    Good work guy!

  25. Says:

    We are trying to get off the ground with at least one social network site. We are short of staff (me and I manage our web content as well) and a lack of leadership support in this effort (our Director of Community Relations left for private industry). That said, everyone seems to think it is a good idea.

    Two questions for the group: does the fact that we are a community college with a *very* diverse population (age, race, education level - you name it) does that effect which way we should be headed. Second, since we have little name recognition, it has been suggested that we may get lost in the many schools that are already established on Facebook and MySpace. How about the pros and cons of going with a newer social networking playform like ning?

  26. Says:

    @George - wow lots of open questions with no real right or wrong answer. I would definitely have to say thought that you need to come up with a gameplan and goals and measurement tools before you do anything. Then get your feet wet in every single media. Promote each and see which way your population migrates and then you will know what your audience wants and you can put all your eggs into that basket. Of course you don’t know this until you try and there isn’t a right answer because every school’s audience cares about different things.

    With that said I would assume that a community college might be more into MySpace than Facebook, but that’s just a guess and you know what they say about assuming.

  27. Says:

    Great info. It’s been established that Obama owes his spot in the White House to his campaigns effective use of these apps.

  28. Says:

    Social Networking has really boomed as not only a fantastic networking tool, but an excellent marketing tool, if used correctly. I do believe that you can utilize social networks incorrectly and jeopardize the work you are looking to create.

  29. Says:

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this site very often.

  30. Says:

    I’ve been searching for this type of information. I manage my own higher education blog myself and have been wondering how to market it effectively. It seems like the social mediasphere seems to be only friendly to some subjects and not very usable for others without it automatically being disregarded. Thanks for your post and inventive graphics.

  31. Says:

    This is really nice. Many Universities today are using Social Media sites, like Facebook, to interact with their students. But many still are afraid to use social media because of fear it could hinder educational growth with their students. I think it’s just a matter of properly educating the students on how to use it responsibly. Social media should help empower teachers and universities.

  32. Says:

    Any chance you’ll do a follow up or are looking for folks to do a follow up with? Perhaps explore the next level of 2.0 communication in higher ed?

    • Says:

      I’ve actually thought about that prospect over the last few months, as this data is quite outdated now. I’d definitely be interested after the first of the year when I finish my MBA, as my course load is too intense at this point and doesn’t leave much, if any, time for additional projects. In the meantime, my friends over at BlueFuego (@bluefuego, have released some data from extensive research they’ve been doing over the last several months.

  33. Says:

    Yes, I’ve heard of teachers accepting quiz/poll answers in class with Twitter.

  34. Says:


    Thanks for posting your paper; I look forward to reading it more thoroughly. Also, thanks for the resource at bluefuego

  35. Says:

    good post,i beleive that the imapct of social media has been observed in every walk of life since the last few years and its turning out to be a revolution

  36. Says:

    Really interesting post Rachel. I’ve actually wrote a post on social media for further education colleges that you may be interested in. You can find it at Net Natives offers social media consultancy to FEs in the UK. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  37. Says:

    Social Media has turned into a way of life for the younger generation and it is working its way into the main stream as well. Just like when the this whole “internet” thing started. You either embraced it or you got passed by.

  38. Says:

    Great information. I don’t think many in higher education aside from online schools really grasp the potential in social media marketing. They continue to spend millions on print and TV while Facebook where most of there potential students are sits untapped.

  39. Says:

    From my point of view today students are entering very easily in social media, i heard that around 92% of degree students have facebook, twitter accounts. around 78% students of high schools having orkut, around 60% of students from midnary schools have orkut and other discussion forums and groups…. and students are not strangers to social media

  40. Says:

    Thanks for sharing info it is useful to me.

  41. Says:

    The conversation chart is very interesting

  42. Says:

    Great Info guys. Keep up the good work

  43. Says:

    It is worth noting that a Higher Ed Social Network has been launched. Please check out:

    This is a social network site specifically for the higher education community.

  44. Says:

    This is wonderful!

    On a slightly different thread, my company provides nc dept of insurance continuing education and I have been researching diligently to integrate social media into our next phase. To create a “classroom” via twitter, facebook, et al.

    In any event, good work and keep it up! Its great!!

  45. Says:

    What an excellent post… Love your blog

  46. Says:

    students are no strangers to social media and all that it can do for our social interactions. 85% of students at 4-year universities have Facebook profiles. However, while populating most of the major sites

  47. Says:

    Rachel, thank you for this very helpful article.

  48. Says:

    Great report. Definitely agree with your section on concerns. Control over content and the Time Commitment must be considered in the planning stages. Might enjoy this post on planning. Good work and thanks.

  49. Says:

    Really great repot.. Thanks for nice post


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