Times have changed in college admissions. Gone are the days when a prospective student could be targeted, contacted, and recruited all with a single pamphlet in the mail. High schoolers can now learn a wealth of information about a university just by logging onto Facebook and peering into conversations taking place.
Not to be outdone, college admissions offices have embraced the social media site, with more than 80 percent of colleges using Facebook to connect with, recruit, and research potential students, according to Kaplan Test Prep's 2010 survey of college admissions officers.
With the change in communication between the typical college and student, many universities have bought into the importance of building a Facebook community for past, present, and future students. The traditional ways colleges recruited prospects will not work in the future, says Gary Vaynerchuk, social media entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author of The Thank You Economy. "The way colleges have always worked is they've pushed their message down the consumer's throat," says Vaynerchuk. "It's very obvious that if they don't start understanding they need to create a community to spread their message, then they're not going to be relevant."
[See photos of unique college Facebook pages.]
Recent statistics from Web analytics company comScore's "2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review" found that more than 150 million unique visitors within the United States visited Facebook in December 2010. Most notable for schools, the under-35 Facebook crowd continues to grow, increasing 2.3 percent from 2009 to 2010, and now makes up about 53 percent of Facebook's U.S. monthly traffic. These numbers don't even account for the roughly 70 percent of Facebook users that are outside of the United States, according to statistics from the social media site.
The likelihood that students are accessing a university's website on a consistent basis may be slim, but statistics do show where students spend their time online. According to comScore, each unique U.S. visitor averaged 35.5 visits to Facebook during December 2010. "Facebook is the home base," says Michael Jaindl, chief client officer at social media marketing firm Buddy Media. "If someone wants to find out something about your brand, or they want to complain about your brand, or they want to say something positive about your brand, they look to Facebook first."
Some colleges and universities have been cautious about opening their network to social media, as it may make them vulnerable to negative attacks. But, according to Harvard University Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Christine Heenan, schools cannot afford to be mute. "To be absent on those channels sends a strong signal about a university's commitment to innovation," says Heenan. "It's not just a ticket to play. It's a ticket to win."
Harvard's efforts on Facebook—including engaged interaction with fans and a commitment to providing timely content—have been quite successful when comparing fan bases among the top 100 national universities in U.S. News's 2011 Best Colleges rankings. The nation's top-ranked university also tops the list with the most Facebook fans, with more than 315,000 members as of April 5.
While much can be credited to aggressive social media strategy and implementation, universities with strong brand awareness have an advantage in the Facebook market, says social networking expert Vaynerchuk. "Social media is a word-of-mouth ecosystem where top brands like Harvard are going to win because of what they've done," he says. But, he adds, there "is a big opportunity for [a school that] doesn't have that legacy."