Social Media: Considerations and Implications in College Admission

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1 NACAC s Research to Practice Brief A RESEARCH SERIES OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR COLLEGE ADMISSION COUNSELING ISSUE Social Media: Considerations and Implications in College Admission Information in this Research to Practice Brief is based primarily on two sources: (1) Researching the Wired Generation: How Social Media is Changing College Admission a discussion paper written for NACAC by Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, Chancellor Professor of Marketing and Director for the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; and () Social Media and College Admissions: The First Longitudinal Study, authored by Dr. Barnes and Eric Mattson as a follow-up to Dr Barnes first study of the use of social networking in admission. All data and best practice information originate from these reports. Research highlights: Survey data indicate that most college admission offices consider social media outlets (i.e. blogging, podcasting, social networking, message boards, etc.) to be important tools for student recruitment, and consequently, are rapidly adopting these tools. A smaller, but significant, portion of college admission offices use these tools to research prospective students. In 008, 85 percent of college admission offices reported using at least one form of social media to recruit prospective students, up from 61 percent in 007. Sixty-three percent of respondents reported being very familiar with social networking, and 44 percent reported being very familiar with blogs. More than half (55 percent) of admission departments feel that social media is very important to future strategies. A significant proportion of schools research prospective students via search engines (3 percent) and social networks (17 percent). Best practices: Although social media tools are easy to use, incorporating them into a publicity or recruitment strategy requires advance planning and allocation of staff time. Social media should be part of a larger strategic marketing plan for an admission office. The marketing plan should guide the focus of the social media outlet, define the audience and explain policies regulating social media. Inside This Issue: 4 5 Social Media and College Admission Types of Social Media and Best Practices Social Media: Legal and Ethical Considerations Links The National Association for College Admission Counseling offers this publication to assist college admission professionals in three primary ways: (1) to provide a summary of research on recent growth in colleges use of social media tools; () to highlight best practices for blogging and the use of other social media and Web.0 applications for colleges new to these endeavors; and (3) to outline some legal/ethical questions that professionals should consider when using social media outlets to research prospective students. Admission offices should be prepared to spend a significant amount of time on social media initiatives, particularly in the early stages of implementation. Social media outlets require frequent updating to be effective. If posts have to be vetted by a PR or legal department, admission offices should expect additional time demands.

2 Social media outlets should be transparent, authentic and interesting, and they should allow for conversation with the intended audience. Policies and procedures for responding to audience comments (including negative ones) should be established in advance. The strategic plan for any social media endeavor should include methods of promoting the site, evaluating its success, and expanding or evolving to keep it relevant and interesting. Social Media: Considerations and Implications in College Admission Social media outlets have influenced the way that the current generation of graduating high school students communicates, gathers knowledge and makes decisions. Therefore, social media has also influenced the way that admission offices recruit and potentially select students. This Research to Practice Brief summarizes research on the extent to which social media tools are being used by college admission offices and provides best practices for admission offices planning to use social media as a recruitment strategy. Social Media and College Admission In order to keep up with the interests of the millennial generation, college admission offices are becoming more familiar with social media and rapidly adopting these tools as part of their recruitment practices. In 008, a majority (63 percent) of college admission offices reported being very familiar with social networking, and 44 percent reported being very familiar with blogs. In 008, 85 percent of college admission offices reported using at least one form of social media, up from 61 percent in 007, indicating the quickly growing popularity of these tools. Social networking tools (Facebook, MySpace, etc.) were the most common social media, used by 61 percent of admission departments. Forty-eight per- Social media outlets have influenced the way that the current generation of graduating high school students communicates, gathers knowledge and makes decisions. Therefore, social media has also influenced the way that admission offices recruit and potentially select students. cent were utilizing videoblogging, and 41 percent had a blog. Use of these tools is likely to continue, as more than half (55 percent) of admission departments feel that social media is very important to future strategies. Types of Social Media and Best Practices A blog is a Web site where regular entries are made (such as in a journal or diary) and presented in reverse chronological order. Blogs often offer commentary or news on a particular subject. A typical blog combines text and images, as well as links to other blogs, web pages and media related to the topic. Most blogs are primarily textual, but some focus on photographs, videos or audio. Best Practices for Blogs These best practices were identified by studying the work of experienced, successful bloggers. Planning: Decide on a focus and define the audience. An effective blog will have a clear purpose. A diverse set of goals may require the creation of several different blogs. Some admission offices have student life blogs, faculty blogs and staff blogs, or they have blogs targeting different audiences traditional students, non-traditional students, returning students, alumni or parents, for example). Make the blog part of a larger strategic marketing plan. An effective blog works as part of the overall voice of the institution. The marketing plan should guide the focus of the social media outlet, define the audience and explain policies regulating social media. Determine the policy regulating conversation on your blog. Policies and procedures for responding to audience comments (including negative ones) should be established in advance. If posts have to be vetted by a PR or legal department, or discussed with others outside the admission office, plan for additional time demands and delays on posting. 009: RESEARCH TO PRACTICE BRIEF

3 Choose responders carefully. Attention must be paid to who responds to readers when they comment. The decision on who responds will depend on the purpose of the blog, resources, legal considerations, and the nature of the posts on the blog. Mechanics/Basics: An effective blog will have frequent posts. To keep readers coming back, blog posts should be relevant, interesting and unique. Several voices can ease the burden of updating blogs. Choosing several contributors among admission staff, faculty and students can ease the time demands of a blog and ensure that posts are not delayed. Make sure your audience can find you. Define a niche and formulate a tag or classification so that readers can search posts based on content. High visibility key words and tags help potential readers find the blog. Tags also can be used in RSS or subscriptions. Conduct a competitive search to make a final decision about key words and tags. Growth: Publicize the blog. An admission blog should be widely promoted. Some schools have t-shirts, business cards, pens, or other leave-behinds promoting blogs for distribution at college fairs or for high school visits. Plan for the blog to evolve. The blog should grow and evolve in order to stay relevant and interesting. Consider adding video or podcasting or introducing new media/mobile technology. Also, create a plan to expand the number of contributors and visitors to the blog to keep the conversation vital. Use blogs as barrier breakers. Some schools are running blogs in other languages to reach markets where traditional marketing may be costly or difficult. Encourage campus blogging. Some schools are encouraging students and faculty to start their own blogs. Of those, some are choosing to focus on specific areas of research. These blogs are particularly successful in targeting niche markets like graduate students. Connecting with the audience: A blog is an invitation to debate, discuss and exchange. The interactive nature of a blog creates the value added over a passive Web site. Young people and their parents want to talk about the realities of college life. Use the blog as an opportunity to connect with students and parents. Helping prospective students and parents understand what daily life is like at your school can create strong relationships that continue when the student arrives on campus. Take advantage of the variety of digital media that can be used to reflect your institution, such as pictures, videos, words and links. If possible, allow students to write with only minor oversight or supervision. The most successful admission blogs follow this format and are called student life blogs. Students who feel like an admission blog is authentic, honest and interesting will contribute to it and form relationships with authors. Students know when they are being talked at, marketed, or deceived. Students want admission blogs to talk honestly and candidly about all aspects of college life. Keep in mind that online conversations about your school will happen outside of the sites that your school controls. Be aware of these conversations and participate in an honest way when appropriate. Define a niche and formulate a tag or classification so that readers can search posts based on content. High visibility key words and tags help potential readers find the blog. Social Networking Social networks are online communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. The concept has revolutionized the way people communicate and share information with one another. Various social networks exist targeting a whole multitude of niches and audiences. MySpace and Facebook Any organization or individual can join MySpace and create a profile page, including a college. Profile pages can include any combination of text, pictures, video and audio, and links. An admission office utilizing MySpace can change the layout of the page to resemble the college s homepage, so that visitors will associate the two sites. 009: RESEARCH TO PRACTICE BRIEF 3

4 Facebook has networks for all colleges and universities, their alumni, and now high schools and major cities. Essentially anyone can join, but your profile must be tied to a certain network. A Facebook profile generally contains the same information as a MySpace page, but it is not an option to change the general layout of the page. YouTube YouTube functions differently than MySpace and Facebook. The purpose of YouTube is to allow the public to post and share videos. Recently, YouTube expanded to let colleges and universities create pages, or channels, as they are called. An institution can set up an official channel on YouTube for no charge by signing an agreement with the company. YouTube also allows for customization of the page. Since the site s content is all video, most schools post lectures and virtual campus tours. itunes itunes also functions differently than MySpace and Facebook. The itunes Music Store has recently offered a new outlet for colleges and universities called itunes U, which is focused on educational content. Anyone with an itunes account can access itunes U, where users find free lectures, language lessons, audiobooks, and more, all downloadable to an ipod, iphone, Mac, or PC. Universities and colleges must enter into an itunes U Service Agreement before eligible to use the itunes service. Currently, there are over 70 colleges and universities participating in itunes U. Best Practices for Non-Blog Social Networking Follow all best practices for blogging. The best practices for blogging presented earlier in this brief also apply to other social media applications. Frequent updating, transparency and conversational nature remain the priorities. Do not underestimate the power of video. Most social networking sites allow video, so take advantage of it. Video is often a better alternative than text for information delivery and an appealing way to attract attention. Concentrate on a streamlined and consistent design. The most effective site provides continuity from the homepage to the social networking site. Any school representation should have the same feel (colors, themes, layouts, etc.) Link everything. The social Web is all about connectivity. Link to your social networking sites through your homepage, and vice versa. Think of any page as an extension of the college s main Web site. Get input and content from a variety of sources. Students, faculty and staff should all work together to provide a mix of information and viewpoints. Everyone should have an opportunity to talk about his or her university. Do not be afraid to show off. Post accomplishments made by faculty and staff but especially by students on social networking sites. Use interactive content. Work with web development to utilize animation, games or message boards for your page. Giveaways for school t-shirts, hats or other paraphernalia get visitors involved and double as a way to gather addresses for potential students. The more ways students can interact with your site, the more they will visit. Know who is visiting your site. Utilize the power of information systems to measure your social network s effectiveness. Tracking who is visiting and for how long helps to evaluate whether you are reaching the target market. Update often. Providing new content and updates is critical to ensuring that visitors return to your site regularly. Get input and content from a variety of sources. Students, faculty and staff should all work together to provide a mix of information and viewpoints. Everyone should have an opportunity to talk about his or her university. Social Media: Legal and Ethical Considerations The use of social media to recruit students, promote colleges and universities, and communicate more effectively with students, parents and alumni is growing. The more difficult choices surrounding the use of social media have to do with making admission decisions based on information gathered online from search engines, blogs, social networking sites or other sources. In the 008 Barnes and Mattson study, a substantial minority of schools reported that they research students via search engines (3 percent) and social networks (17 percent). Most admission offices are using search en : RESEARCH TO PRACTICE BRIEF

5 gines and social networking sites to verify information or research candidates for scholarships or entry into high-demand programs with limited spaces. Considerations for Admission Offices Colleges that choose to make admission decisions based wholly or partially on information gathered from social media outlets should consider important legal and ethical questions. Unfortunately, there is little specific guidance to be found in case law because the issue has not yet been tested in court. An employer can legally decide not to hire an applicant based on a review of his or her Facebook or MySpace page as long as federal or state discrimination laws are not violated. However, this situation is not directly analogous to the admission decision and leaves many questions unanswered. Colleges that plan to review information from social media outlets should develop formal policies after considering the following questions: Links NACAC Discussion Paper: Reaching the Wired Generation: How Social Media is Changing College Admission Marketplace/discussion/Pages/SocialMedia DiscussionPaper.aspx NACAC Knowledge Center KnowledgeCenter/Pages/default.aspx University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research How will information be systematically reviewed? How will verification of the applicant s identity or validity of information be checked? Who will conduct the reviews? What are the standards by which this information will be evaluated? Do those standards correlate to any measures of success in college? How much weight will be given to this information in relation to other factors? Can state schools document equal treatment of all applicants given the use of online information that often includes photos, as well as other materials? NACAC Knowledge Center Tap into the collective knowledge of NACAC s 11,000 members at NACAC s Knowledge Center a forum for sharing tools and resources for the college admission counseling professional. Considerations for Secondary School Counseling Offices Secondary school counseling offices should inform students about the potential use of information from social media sites in making admission decisions. It is important for students to understand that it is not considered an invasion of privacy for college admission officers or future employers to access information that students make publicly available on the internet. Students also should be aware that colleges and employers are not allowed to discriminate based on this information in any way that violates state or federal laws (i.e. gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.). Check out NACAC s Knowledge Center online at Submit materials to 009: RESEARCH TO PRACTICE BRIEF 5

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