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4 Social Media Marketing Lessons From the Top Colleges

Harvard University’s official Facebook page currently boasts over 2,437,000 ‘Likes.’ Lest that sound like just another big number, consider that the university has only 22,800 students. Still, of course, Harvard is a widely recognized name.4 Social Media Marketing Lessons from the top colleges

But so are Reebok, Miller Lite and The Avett Brothers (all of whom are quite popular with college-aged Americans and trail Harvard in Facebook followers).

Not surprisingly, Harvard sits atop a list of the ‘Top 100 Social Media Colleges,’ compiled and maintained by StudentAdvisor.com. After all, Facebook got its start there. They’re joined at the top by other schools like Columbia and Stanford, the University of Kentucky, Louisiana State, and John Hopkins University.

When you consider that most students applying for college today have grown up with a smartphone in their hands, at least throughout their high school years, it makes sense why colleges would be putting such an emphasis upon online social networks. The most recent stats show that two-thirds of prospective students check out their potential schools on their YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook channels during their decision-making process.

But if you’re not a college, and you’re not planning on going back to school, what does that mean for you? As colleges step to the forefront of the social media marketing movement, there are more than a few lessons any blogger, marketer, or small business can draw from their example:

Lesson #1. Share Your Good News in Real Time

Do you love Oprah? If so, and you’re a prospective student choosing between Harvard and Yale, you might be swayed ever-so-slightly by the glowing portrait Harvard’s Facebook page recently posted of the role model and public figure, announcing that she would be the principal speaker of this year’s commencement. That came a few days after Harvard posted the image of a soaring Christina Gao (currently a freshman) who is among the world’s most celebrated up-and-coming ice skaters.

4 Social Media Marketing Lessons

But it’s not all celebrity touting (which Harvard, understandably, can do plenty of). On the same day as the Gao post, they plugged a link to a story about the discovery of a super-massive black hole, complete with a compelling deep space image. The message: Come to Harvard, where science is both fun and cutting edge.

The Take Home:

Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back and share news that highlights the best aspects of you and your company.

Lesson #2. Build Followers Through Variety

If Yale’s Facebook page included nothing but basic news about the college, events and the admissions process, its posts wouldn’t regularly be garnering hundreds of individual ‘Likes.’ Instead, an average week of posts might include a story about saving white rhinos in southern Africa, sunrise pictures of a group of undergrads doing yoga atop a college building, and a link to an online chat about ‘The Secrets of Your Dog’s Mind.’

4 Social Media Marketing Lessons

Each of the posts underscores the school’s emphasis on diversity, fostering students with well-rounded lives, and intelligent discourse.

The Take Home:

What did you learn and enjoy today? Talk about it on Twitter through your company account, even if it doesn’t directly apply to what you do on a daily basis. Ensure that your blog posting, Pinterest tags and Facebook updates underscore your own well-rounded nature and how that reflects on your business.

Lesson #3. Keep Your Clients and Readers In the Conversation

Tags within Twitter and Facebook can be a powerful force, since they’ll alert the person about your post. It’s important to use these carefully — the last thing you want to do is earn an ‘Unfollow’ or get de-Friended for spamming someone — but when your tags bring people to relevant information or you saying something nice about them, it’ll typically reap rewards.

This can work well for students going through the application process. Rather than simply sending in a static, paper application, their ongoing activities worth mentioning can be called to the attention of admissions staff through social media. Similarly, after sending acceptance letters, a college may continue to court prospective students through social media tags and posts while the recruits make their decision about where to attend.

Perhaps the single-most influential factor (but still difficult to measure) may be the responsiveness of a school’s social media curators. When a student makes a comment or asks a question and gets a quick response in social media, they’re likely to judge that school as accessible (just as your business should be!)

The Take Home:

If you’re courting a potential customer or simply experiencing a gap between projects with a client, keep them in the loop by engaging them on your social sites.

Lesson #4. Don’t Rely on the ‘Tried and True’

If you’re 25 or older and worked hard in high school, you likely remember the barrage of pamphlets, magazines and course descriptions that began arriving around your sophomore year from colleges around the country.

Today’s students, however, view much of that paper outreach like junk mail. After all, print marketing materials allow a school to portray themselves however they choose, while active social media outlets, with frequent comments and student involvement, can provide a far more realistic picture of what a school is actually like. As the advertising world changes, so do college admissions.

The Take Home:

In a business (and college) world that’s fueled by Tweets, comments and user reviews, marketing can no longer shine-up an inadequate product and sell it to the masses.

Fortunately, if you’re doing good work, the secret to success is to follow the example of the leading social media savvy universities to get the word out and build a following.

Guest Author: Allison Rice is the Marketing Director for Amsterdam Printing, a provider of promotional products to grow your business and thank customers. Allison also regularly contributes to the Promo & Marketing Wall blog.



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  • These are great examples. I didn’t know Harvard and Yale were doing so well in social media.

  • Hello Allison, Thanks for this insightful article. I remember checking rankings on usnews, sending preapps and pouring over brochures before deciding where to apply. Kids today have many options through social media.

    I think the onus is on the schools to up the ante where their social media presence is considered. Those with well managed pages will ‘glitter’ whereas a lot of otherwise high ranked programs might suffer if they do not have an active social media presence.

  • Thanks Allison for providing these tips,I was very much confused whether I can have a Facebook page for my website or not.Now I have decided to have one which will keep my audience engaged with the content.Thank You.

  • Social Media is all about engagement that is what I’ve read everywhere and that is kind of true. This article provides good insights of what should one do to get the desired engagement. Thank you for the great article.

  • Thank you for this great post, very useful information!

  • msilva1

    I consider Lesson 3 to be the most important. Being active and a part of the conversation is so crucial these days. It is important for a brand to remain relevant and responsive. It is also important to understand the need for engaging content to spark conversation. You have to keep customers and followers interested and involved. Responsiveness is key!!

    A.B. Freeman School

  • Mhairi

    As a student taking a social media class, this blog hits the nail right on the head. It is so exciting to be studying social media at a time where there is so many job opportunities in the field. I have recently been research the impact social media has on a business for my internship, and this post has lots of powerful takeaways. I think #3 is especially important, the is an interactive medium, what is the point of using social media if you are not staying in touch and creating conversation.

    Great post,


  • I’m actually working in the Higher Ed arena, so thanks for the links and info. The Top 100 list is awesome.

  • Nice tips! I like the idea of sharing also. It is essential to keep everyone in one loop so that no one misses a single information about you and what you do. But you should know the way it has to be done. Or else it will be a complete mess. Social media marketing is not easy as it seems to be. Learn it.

  • The search for colleges has changes a lot in recent years. Not 8 years ago, we were thoroughly searching through the various rankings of the best universities, searching though their websites and attending many conferences with the respective universities’ delegates. Now, we are following their Twitter profiles, checking their Facebook Pages and it gives us, in my opinion, a more personal and more clearer look at these universities (not that people are no longer checking their websites and various rankings lists).

  • Allison Rice

    Mhari and msilva1, you’re exactly right. Lesson 3 is often the most important – You can set the stage perfectly with relevant and eye-catching information and posts, but if you don’t stay in touch when people respond, you won’t create a lasting relationship. It’s one of the powers of social media that we can directly connect with our customers. Take advantage of that and set aside 10 minutes a day to respond to comments, and even to interact on other pages and sites!

  • I definitely agree with all these lessons. I believe that to know the ‘now’ of the college you are looking to apply to and to see the variety of activities, articles, and anything that is happening on the campus or with the students, alumni, and staff is very important. It’s also important to see that it isn’t just an institution but a group of people that are a community that interact with the public and its students and faculty. I wonder if this really helps with recruiters so that they can have a change up and be able to go where the potential students are located rather than where they think they are located. Even if you are just a representative for the college, it is very important to sit down and reply to comments as well as Allison Rice has commented about.