Universities Are Using Social Networking Sites and Other New Media to Recruit Students
Tuesday, September 11, 2007.
By Shola Adenekan
Starting a degree this year? You might find that a strange 42-year-old man is trying to be your friend. He's a Leo, he lives in Coventry and his occupation is 'University'. His name is Warwick. He's rather popular; he already has 457 other friends (and counting).
Warwick University is one of the first in the UK to put its profile on MySpace, one of the most popular types of 'social networking' websites. The university is aiming to boost its standing among prospective undergraduates by allowing those addicted to MySpace to add the university as a 'friend'. This way, they can keep up with the latest news, find out who else is interested in particular courses, ask questions of current students and even watch videos of the campus.
Technology is changing the way students are socialising with one another. Ten years ago, anybody wanting to make friends at a university open day would probably just ask for a person's mobile phone number - that is, if they had a mobile phone.
Now, sites such as MySpace allow the personal to become public; you can make contacts, organise a birthday party or even announce a break-up with two clicks of your mouse. Even deeply personal sentiments such as grief are widely shared; after the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead, over 40,000 users on college-based networking site Facebook congregated in a single group to share their condolences.
As the global student recruitment market becomes more competitive, many admission managers in Britain and the US say that these social networking sites, and other new media are the way forward for student recruitment.
And at no time is this more important than when a young person's real world set of school friends are about to be replaced by a group of friends found at university.
"We need to communicate with them on their own terms if they are to buy into our institution," says Anja Bailey, the head of marketing at City University, which last year launched a text messaging service targeted at prospective nursing students. "We should always endeavour to use and understand the latest technology."
UCTV, a UK-based student information portal, aims to create a connection between young people looking to attend the same open day or university, and between school friends that have chosen different higher education options.
Tony Lee, its CEO, believes 'web 2.0' - a generic name for these kinds of sites, where users don't just passively consume but get actively involved in the creation of their own online content - is proving to be the next frontier for all those marketing to students.
"Traditional media like television, radio and magazines are fast losing young audiences to sites like ours," he says. "Social networking sites have the ability to open up two-way marketing communications and are completely permission-based."
As well as getting involved with social networking, Warwick University includes links to podcasts created by students and academics, and 'interactive' videos. It also has a presence on video sites such as YouTube and Blip.tv.
"We are bringing the academe to audiences in a very new and exciting way," says Tom Abbott, content editor at Warwick. "This is a rich window into what the university experience is, which may be impossible to articulate in a brochure."
Mr Abbott's view is shared by many admission officers and experts on the other side of the Atlantic. Many universities looking to create stronger links with prospective students and their parents have launched blogs and recruited undergraduate bloggers. Blogging has become one of the hottest trends in university admissions - it is yet another way of making the recruitment process interactive and personal, as blogs generate comments and debate.
In addition, a new study led by Noel-Levitz, a consultancy in the US education sector, suggests that other tools such as instant messaging, blogs, podcasts, online chats or virtual tours can greatly enhance the overall effectiveness of recruitment.
"These tools allow students to ask questions and get responses very quickly," says Stephanie Geyer, an executive consultant at Noel-Levitz. "Some institutions are moving some of their student calling team away from the phone and onto the computer to handle the volume of messages." Matt McGann, associate director of admissions at MIT, agrees.
"We have had a very positive experience with our blogs," he says. "We've been able to show MIT as it really is, to give students insight into what life is like on campus. We've also been able to better counsel students about the admission process."
But not every student recruiter is buying into the hype. Some warn that dabbling in new media can prove expensive and time-consuming. It can create more work for admissions staff without eliminating any of their old tasks, like answering enquiries and sending out prospectuses.
"I feel that potential students, being very media-savvy, would see universities' use of social networking and text messaging as intrusion into what they use as a recreational space," says Barrie Clark, Swansea University's UK recruitment manager, who has over two decades of experience in the business. "I don't see this trend as likely at Swansea University in the near future. I'd counsel caution here."
Technology experts are warning universities that new media is simply another channel, not the only one. They say institutions need to first gauge its impact before using it as part of their recruitment strategy.
"If these tools cannot contribute to your school's culture, they will not survive," says Scott Leamon, a senior interactive media designer at Stamats, which advises American universities on marketing.
"Marketing folks are often distracted by new, shiny web tools. This is where the fundamental questions should be asked: Does it have longevity? Will it build relationships that we cannot develop through other means?"
Admissions managers using new media say that they recognise these issues, and that they are sensitive to the issue of intruding into students' personal space. "We believe allowing people to view and interact with us will create ambassadors for our brand amongst the community in a more organic manner," says Helen Aspell, the head of digital marketing at Southampton University, which has promotional videos on UCTV.
"We use the technologies associated with youth marketing and web 2.0 but we focus very heavily on creating a sense of community amongst our prospective students. We are not using technology for technology's sake. Just because we can doesn't mean we will."
Main picture: The University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.
This article first appeared on The Guardian website.
Shola Adenekan edits The New Black Magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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