Colleges Try to Find Their Voices on Pinterest

Schools look for ways to be active on social media's rising star.

Pinterest is now the third most popular social network in the United States, behind only Facebook and Twitter.
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Pinterest has erupted into the mainstream, recently being named the third most popular social media network in the United States, behind Facebook and Twitter, according to a new report by Experian Hitwise, which looked at the total number of visitors in March 2012. Pinterest acts as a virtual pinboard that allows users to collect and share images, videos, and other objects pertaining to particular themes of their choice—such as travel, food, and health, among others.

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For colleges and universities exploring the possibilities of joining the social network, the number of visitors to the site is intriguing, but crafting a strategy to target a specific audience onsite is difficult.

"The demographics [on Pinterest] do not work in our favor in terms of marketing," notes Ma'ayan Plaut, social media coordinator at Oberlin College in Ohio, who runs the school's Pinterest page.

For schools looking to promote admissions, people between the ages of 25 and 34—which would traditionally be alumni—make up nearly 30 percent of Pinterest's overall users, according to comScore; users between the ages of 18 and 24 make up about 17 percent, and users between 12 and 17 years old make up about 4 percent.

"Our primary motivation with Pinterest is to connect with several of our audiences, including our current students, alumni, and prospective students," says Aaron Jaco, digital media specialist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Drake University is one of the more visible schools on Pinterest, with nearly 1,500 followers and more than 500 pins. The university created boards around themes such as studying abroad, cooking for college students, exploring Des Moines, and a collection of bulldog images—Drake's mascot.

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"We want to provide images that people who have come here will be familiar with, and we want to give a sense for those who have not been here of what the community is like, both in Des Moines and here on campus," Jaco says. "Our priorities are to ensure consistent messaging, that what we are pinning on Pinterest reflects the university's brand, and to reflect the culture of the university."

But some students are skeptical of whether universities can use the platform effectively. Helena Hounsel, a junior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that colleges and universities are more geared toward Facebook and Twitter to promote their schools.

"I don't necessarily think that colleges, in particular, should be on Pinterest," Hounsel says. "When it comes to an actual university using it, unless it's really focused, and they put a lot of time into it, then there's not really a point of having it ... I don't think it's going to help expand their brand."

Schools using Pinterest to boost sales or admissions are utilizing the tool incorrectly, Jaco notes, who acknowledges that Drake is not on Pinterest to "sell the university."

"We're not selling jerseys and event tickets [on Pinterest], and we certainly are not selling admission to the university," he says. "We would never imagine that this platform is going to directly relate to any of those sorts of sales results."

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Colleges and universities will be the most successful on Pinterest if they stick to the plan of pinning content their followers want to see and materials that embody the cultures of the respective schools, says Maria Opatz, a sophomore at Drake.

"If you pin everything you find interesting, the pins that best represent the university will get lost in the clutter," Opatz notes. "Because Pinterest is not intended to endorse, the virtual pinboard is a great outlet for exposing potential and current students to the lifestyle of the university community."

When Oberlin College joined Pinterest, the goal was to tell the school's story through the voices, and pins, of other people, Plaut notes. As a graduate and employee of the school, she says she appreciates the perspectives she can use, outside of her own, to "help explain and present this place to everyone."