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How are international educators mastering social media?

“We have over 230 distinct Facebook pages that are run by our advisors around the world, almost 100 different Twitter accounts and more than 50 YouTube accounts,” relates Jarred Butto, acting branch chief for the extensive EducationUSA office. “We’re making use of all these different social media platforms, and then we have versions of each of those that are run centrally here from Washington as well.”

Illustration: Bea Ramirez

"We’re well past the point when students will be impressed that your institution appears on Chinese social media"

Butto represents the US State Department network of 400 international student advising centres in 170 countries and emphatically illustrates that engaging with potential students on their chosen social medium in every country in the world is a big task.

From the behemoths such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to Instagram, WeChat, and Weibo, there are a plethora of social platforms offering ways to engage.

“The biggest challenge with social media for language schools is identifying the best platforms for your audience, as there are so many different applications and some are more popular than others in different countries,” says Emma Buckby at IH London in the UK.

“There are only so many images of classrooms and school facilities that you can show”

She points out that a rise in picture-based platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest has also meant a new understanding of what “content” actually is.

Visual is vital

IH London is actively trying to improve its image and film output. “There are only so many images of classrooms and school facilities that you can show,” says Buckby. “Therefore, engaging photos of London is better for this with carefully researched hashtags.”

While many education institutions run their social media strategy entirely in-house, not all of them have the appropriate resources to do so, and there is a burgeoning industry around the outsourcing of a student-facing function to engagement experts.

“We help with [institutions’] overarching digital strategy,” explains Murray Simpson, of UK company Net Natives. “But obviously a key part of that is social media marketing.”

Specialisation strategy

Simpson observes that “so many people want to target the world” when planning their marketing objectives. “Actually, I think what a university should do is establish for themselves their identity and what they’re offering and to do research into which markets would respond best to that.”

What the third party operators also vouch for is the benefits in tracking engagement. However, Julia Pankiewicz, senior digital manager at AdGen in the UK, says there can be challenges when it comes to looking at the measurement metrics.

“The people who are holding the purse strings want to know what the return is”

“The people who are holding the purse strings want to know what the return is,” she says. “I think that is a huge deal because that path to conversion is not as linear as it once was.”

Technology does give institutions the ability to track referral sources, but they need to be mindful that multi-channels can influence a student: the Global Web Index survey conducted in 2015 found the typical adult has five social networking accounts and actively uses of 2.75 of them. “Now you have so many points of contact,” says Pankiewicz.

Personal and mobile

As well as evolving tracking methods and a trend towards visual content, another change of pace in marketing that social media is helping engender is a move to personal engagement.

Marketing was once a more direct method of trying to sell, explains Stephen Shortt, managing director at Alpha College of English in Ireland.

Using social media effectively is not about actively marketing, he points out; it’s talking to and sharing with a mobile, savvy audience directly, usually via their mobile device.

Even at a senior level, he observes, “CEOs, business leaders would historically have been on Twitter, and they would have been toeing the company line, being the professional face of the company, but they are starting to get a lot more personal, feel more comfortable showing the human side of what they do and showing the human side of the business.”

New interfaces are also giving rise to two-way communications allowing educators to harness and encourage the student voice through user-generated content.

UGC and student voice

Global educator, Kaplan, has very successfully used UGC to increase its social media profile, as Ido Simyoni, head of creative, content and social media at Kaplan International English, underlines when explaining the #KaplanExperience hashtag.

“Our students are our best salespeople because our students sell the product better than us,” he says. “If you’re an international student studying at our school in New York and you’re at the Empire State Building, you’ll post a selfie from the Empire State [with the #KaplanExperience hashtag] and for me it’s very easy, because I can just share the picture, I don’t need to say more.”


Students are utilised on Kaplan’s social media platform. Photo: Kaplan International English

“If I don’t get an answer from one brand, I will go to another brand, right?”

Simyoni also says a personal tone is essential when engaging with consumers on social media. “I think it’s very important on social media to keep it personal, to keep it down to earth; you’re not the big brand that is talking to you, it’s more about being very honest.”

He says Kaplan staff reply to queries using their name, to keep it simple, and emphasises the need for speed when replying. “If I don’t get an answer from one brand, I will go to another brand, right?”

Speed of response among education providers could be improved. Intead, a US student recruitment consultancy firm, carried out a ‘mystery shopper’ survey in 2014, posing as a student to test response times of 80 higher education institutions from the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, on Facebook and Twitter. The study found that 29% of the universities did not respond to messages on either platform.

Responding right

Benjamin Waxman, Intead’s CEO, elaborates on those that did do well: “Doing a great job meant they responded quickly, responded personally, in an engaging way, rather than just responding with ‘here is a link to our website’.”

The average response time for US institutions was 22 hours, Canadian institutions took on average four and a half hours, but performing the quickest were Australia and New Zealand, responding within two hours on average.

The University of Melbourne, with more than 190,000 likes on its Facebook page, was highlighted as one of the exemplary institutions in response time and style.

“We monitor our social media channels throughout the day including outside of regular business hours,” says Yves Makhoul, social media advisor at the university. “We strive to answer questions within 24 hours.” If the questions are more difficult, they are assigned to a member of the Contact Centre, via the Hootsuite platform.

China is unique

Institutions are now allocating additional resources to social media strategies focusing specifically on the world’s largest student source country: China.

“We’re well past the point when students will be impressed that your institution appears on Chinese social media and is posting in Chinese,” says Kim Morrison, CEO of Grok Global, an education and market entry consulting company based in Beijing.

“Now it’s about who puts in the most effort and provides the most useful and engaging content – the same as social media in other markets.”

“We strive to answer questions within 24 hours”

Online pushes offline activity

At Net Natives, Simpson says that efforts to engage on social media can be most effective to promote the all-too-important real-life interaction with universities.

“We ran some campaigns with a university in Scotland and found that when we flowed digital activity towards meeting the university in the country, students were far more likely to actually convert through to an enrolment than if we did digital activity without the face-to-face meeting or a follow up afterwards,” he says.

“The social media element I think is being used a lot to promote the fact that the university is going to be in that city at specific times.”

EducationUSA distributes a social media toolkit to its network of advisors around the world that includes some template tweets and Facebook posts and content that they can use to promote their virtual and offline study fairs on local social media platforms.

But staying on top of the social media engagement is an endless job.  “I think we are doing the best we can to stay current and stay up to speed,” says Kevin Barta in EducationUSA’s public affairs and strategic communications office. “And I think the US higher education sector is responding to the need to engage students in this way, but it will be a continual and ongoing process of being flexible and learning about where students are and how to better reach them.”

  • This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared in issue #9 of The PIE Review, our quarterly magazine.

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