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Why UK university websites need to include social media

Social media is becoming an increasingly important marketing tool for universities. Most young people are heavy users of Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It would seem logical that these sites could prove fertile for the recruitment of new students.

The purchasing of banner advertising spots on sites such as YouTube is becoming particularly important for the post-92 university sector (the former Polytechnics) who cannot rely on research reputation alone to bring in the punters. But whilst conducting an old-style, ‘one-way’,  banner advertising campaign during Clearing is relatively low risk, this is not enough.

Social media = risk

It is expected that universities fully engage in the community aspects of social media and understand that online communication is a ‘conversation’ rather than a lecture.

But going deeper and fully engaging with social media sites is not without its risks. The potential ‘damage to brand’ caused by a negative comment posted online can paralyse university marketing departments. The carefully constructed image that universities portray in a glossy prospectus can easily be undermined with a careless post or foolish Tweet.

Even though universities may not engage fully with social media sites, it is clear that their university students post to these sites. On the downside, students are encouraged to see themselves as ‘consumers’ of education. When a student feels that they are not getting ‘value’ (whatever that means!) it’s common to vent anger on social networking sites. This should be expected, although certain lines must not be crossed when it comes to posting potentially libelous comments about individuals. This is becoming a serious problem in all sectors of education. One hopes that universities have a clear policy and encourage responsible attitudes.

‘Authentic voices’ required

Whilst it’s very easy to focus on the huge number of risks presented by social media, there are numerous opportunities. I have seen examples where students have posted videos on YouTube showing funny clips of life in halls of residence and positive ‘reviews’ of university trips abroad. These act to  give a very positive view of life at individual universities and useful online ‘buzz’. Communication is conducted in a language that fellow students understand and it is totally authentic. Any attempt to replicate these types of videos by marketing departments will appear contrived and are sure to end in disaster.

So increasingly it appears that media-savvy students naturally seek out ‘authentic views’ as they search for potential places to study. The Times Higher (Deciphering Code, 19-25 August) states that universities spend huge amounts of money designing slick official websites which present a carefully controlled image of the ‘student experience’.

But the report suggests what prospective students REALLY want to know is what current students think about their courses .Universities have known this for years, but these days it’s not good enough to just include the positive views of a few carefully selected photogenic students.

Universities getting it right

THE praised Bangor, Cambridge, Edinburgh College of Art, Exeter and Falmouth for engaging with social media. These sites often made links to Facebook pages where a ‘warts and all’ view of the university experience could be found.

A separate article in the same issue of Times Higher (All About Me, Dot Com 9th-25 August), suggests that universities are not encouraging academics to blog or create their own sites.

Mike Thelwall of the University of Wolverhampton examined academics’ websites. He told THE:

“One of the biggest trends [in the last five years] has been the move by university marketing departments to insist on standardisation for departmental and personal homepages.”

There appears to be an online battle to control the public image.  Where academics are  ‘allowed’ to blog it is often insisted that they use a strict template with a consistent university branding and use a specific CMS.

This tends to discourage technically-minded academics from blogging, although in many cases academics would rather keep their blogs separate from their official work. Those academics without the technical skills need support, but this is often not something that is encouraged.

Whilst universities will continue to invest in online advertising, marketing departments at universities can be very conservative – only adopting social media once it has been proven effective and with only limited risk.

More ‘trust’, less ‘control’

Clearly, it is important that universities understand  that it is the ‘authentic voice’ and real experiences of existing students and academics on social media and blog sites which are surely the most powerful marketing tool. They should be trusted and encouraged to experiment with online tools and universities need to relinquish a bit of control of access to media. Alternatively, we have a situation where fears of  ‘loss of control of the message’ prevent effective marketing to potential students.

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One Response to Why UK university websites need to include social media

  1. minigamez August 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Its a pity you dont have a donate button, i would donate some.