Higher Ed Social Media Pros’ Tips on Engaging Audiences

Students at a library

Creating in a sense of “family” in your campus community, whether they’re matriculating or currently enrolled, does wonders for recruiting, retaining and giving. Not only are you capturing the hearts and minds of the best and brightest now, but after they’ve ventured out into the world they’re more likely to give back to the their alma mater, paving the road for generations to come. A 2014 study by the University at Buffalo found that even small institutions that properly utilize social media can pull in the kinds of dollar amounts once only attracted by big name universities.

To get a sense of what strategies are working in the #HESM world, we put out the call to some of our friends, asking for tips on how they leverage social media to cultivate and nurture their campus communities. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Create a sense of belonging

The social media teams at Penn State and Colorado State University reach out to students long before they even step foot on campus. By cultivating a sense of family, universities are able to not only welcome incoming students, but they also help squelch any nerves students might feel as they enter such a monumental phase of their lives.

The Rams of Colorado State University have created a hashtag, #ColoStateBound, to welcome incoming students and allow them to share their journey to the school.

“Social media plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere where students feel like they belong here,” said Kimberly Stern (@KimberlyLStern), CSU’s Director of Social and Digital Media. “We are there with our fans every step of the way as they enter our RAM-ily.”

Bill Zimmerman (@ThisIs_BillZ), Social Media Manager at Penn State, says that leveraging the power of social media to welcome new students is one of the most appealing parts of his job.

“A student can get a sense of the atmosphere, interact with current Penn Staters, and generally feel a part of the family before even arriving on campus,” said Zimmerman.

2. Create meaningful experiences

Students today grow up with social media personas. Giving them ample opportunities to show off their connection to your school is a badge of honor.

“We’ve learned that [when students] land on our Instagram- whether we repost one of their shots or capture them in an image- is as major accomplishment among students. It’s bucket list stuff.” – Bill Zimmerman, Penn State

Emily Truax (@Emilytruax), PR Associate at Boston University, explains the school is leveraging their popular Instagram account to not only engage students, but to involve them.

“#TerrierTuesdays highlights one member of the BU Community each week in a short, but meaningful post,” said Truax. “While there’s no doubt that our students are impressive, it often shows that they’re human – they have fears and face difficulties, too. It furthers our goal of community building across our large and varied campus. We’ve heard from past participants who have been approached by their fellow students offline as a result of seeing the post, thus forging meaningful connections.”

Gemma Acheampong (CAS’15) is a member of #TeamGhana and Bronze Medalist at the 2014 All-African Championships. What you don’t know about her? During her time at BU Gemma suffered from severe #depression and she credits BU Track with saving her. Her message to the BU community: “It’s OK to change your major. You’re not alone in feeling the way you do. Failing isn't the end of the world. You don’t have to handle everything on your own. And you’re not alone.” Gemma is being featured as part of our new series #TerrierTuesdays highlighting the real stories behind members of the BU community. Want to be involved or nominate a fellow Terrier? Email social@bu.edu Follow Gemma’s journey at activelygemma.com

A photo posted by Boston University (@bostonu) on

3. Create content for graduates

Don’t forget those individuals who are no longer on campus. Social media is a great way to stay in touch with your graduates. Direct person-to-person social media connections instill that the sense of community is alive and well for alumni.

“It’s a primary way to stay in touch with the goings-on of the Institute long after students graduate,” says Jenny Li Fowler (@TheJennyLi), Manager of Social Media Strategy at MIT. “Not only does social media give alumni channels to stay on top of research and news, but it allows them to keep experiencing the quirkiness and inside jokes that make MIT so unique.”

The StoriedU Takeaway:

As CSU’s Stern put it, engaging with students is an art, not a science. Every university, and often many departments, must figure out how they are going to stake their claim in the social media sphere. Whether by being the funniest geeks in the room, or by shouting out loud about how amazing your alums become, #HESM is fast becoming the way that those you care about engage with your school.

Treat these people as a part of your family before they arrive on campus and stay connected with them after they graduate. Those students who feel they were a part of something will carry that family with them always.

To put it succinctly, Stern and her team follow an elegant philosophy when it comes to running their shop: “Listen deeply, share meaningfully, and build community.”

"Listen deeply, Share meaningfully, and Build community" - by Kimberly Stern, Colorado State Social Media

About John Tolley

John Tolley is an editor for StoriedU, concentrating on the fields of content marketing and social media strategy in the realm of higher education. He is particularly interested in how schools leverage their various... More about John Tolley »

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