Social media and the college search: real insights from real students

2012 Nov 5
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“How do students actually use social media throughout their college search?” This is a question we often hear while working with our higher education clients.

To dig into this topic, along with a host of other subjects, Lipman Hearne gathered together a panel of 20 high school juniors and began to follow them through their college search and decision-making process. The panel—comprised of a diverse group of Chicagoland high school students from various backgrounds—has allowed us to gain insights into their journey in real time.

Last month, we talked to our panelists about social media and the role it plays in their search. What follows is a sneak peak into what we heard.

To learn more from our panelists, join us at next month’s AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in New Orleans where we’ll lead an advanced marketing session, IN THEIR OWN WORDS: High School Seniors Talk About Their College Search Process – A Live Focus Group.

Key insights into social media activities and the college search:

Engaging with an institution through social media. Panelists are less willing to engage with institutions by way of social media. They see their relationship with a college or university as professional and formal, so many don’t like the idea of interacting directly with a college or university via social media because they consider their personal pages as their private space. Some panelists also believe colleges and universities don’t “belong” in social media because it’s too casual.

Evaluating what they’ve already heard from an institution. Of our panelists who use social media as a college search tool, the majority are using the tweets, posts, and other content as a way to assess the accuracy of the messages they’ve already received about a college or university. Having solidified their consideration set, social media becomes an important means of assessing the fit of various schools during senior year.

Connecting with peers. Panelists are most eager to connect with peers by way of social media. Since social media is most often used to assess fit, the majority of panelists reported connecting with friends and other students close to their age on social media because they feel they can better relate to those individuals and their experiences. Thus, our panelists may be influenced more by the information they see on their peers’ pages versus what they see on a college’s official social media page.

Seeking a glimpse of reality. Our panelists are most interested in using social media to see pictures or stories that give a realistic depiction of everyday campus life. Current college students are important in offering a “real” perspective that high school students seek. As one panelist noted, “I would be interested in connecting with current students on Facebook, so that I could get a ‘friendly, honest’ view point about the college.”

Interacting with a college through social channels. Students are more likely to engage with colleges and universities via social media when they initiate the contact with the institution on their terms. But they aren’t likely to make the first move until after they’ve been accepted or enrolled at an institution.

Responding to relevant content. In short, for our panelists, it’s “all about me.” Panelists who follow universities on social media did so because those institutions created content and images centered around themselves and their interests. For example, some panelists follow colleges because they are fans of that school’s sports teams, while others search on Facebook to judge a school by its football games and Greek life. Conversely, panelists were turned off by content demonstrating that they don’t belong. Noted one student, “I don’t like… all the inside jokes or events which I obviously don’t understand.”

Samantha Hacker, Research Associate

Learn more about Lipman Hearne’s Research & Planning practice as well as our higher education expertise at the Lipman Hearne website.

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