Recruit & Retain (Mansfield University)

Engaging With Social Media

As the social media manager for the Department of Communication at Mansfield University for the past several years, I’ve seen a fair share of platforms come and go. While it’s impossible to predict what will be the next latest and greatest, one thing has become clear: social media is a tremendous asset to meet current and prospective students in the places they’re accustomed to while interacting with the people they are most familiar with.

When social media first came on the scene a decade or so ago, it provided more questions than answers. And that’s still the case. Although universities see the potential it provides, many are still unsure how to use it to attract new students and retain those they already have. Most university social media audiences are broad and general and, therefore, difficult to target. Academic departments, on the other hand, engage with a narrowly defined and familiar audience: students and faculty see each other in classrooms on a daily basis.

Building the Brand

Recently, more of my colleagues are getting on social media, either as an individual or as a department, and whether they know it or not, using it as a means to reinforce their role as brand ambassadors. At a smaller institution like mine, we can’t simply put the entire burden for recruitment and retention on the administrative offices. We have to compete with schools that are bigger and have more resources than we have.

In order to recruit new students, our department social media accounts let prospective students and their parents get a sense of our personality and academic community. It’s great to have a family come to campus, but even a full-day visit doesn’t provide an accurate picture of the faculty, fellow students or the programs. Social media offers a means for them, on their terms, to see the work we’re doing, unfiltered, and engage us if they have questions.

Perhaps more even effective than recruiting new students is retaining those we already have. Once they’re officially part of the family, we interact with them constantly through direct messaging, tagging and mentioning, posting pictures, sharing their posts and commenting on their GIFs. We conduct polls, highlight campus events and congratulate our student-athletes for their achievements on the field and court. It’s time consuming, but rewarding; our students respond by liking, commenting and sharing our posts. And, at 4 percent, our average Twitter engagement rates are above the desired 1 percent.

Staying Connected

Finally, social media has been a godsend to help keep our alumni involved in our program. Having them continue to be immersed in our department is invaluable. Maintaining an open line of communication via a department alumni Facebook page allows for regular posts that include employment opportunities and invitations to recruit prospective students, as well as providing an avenue to help them stay connected to one another.

For now, the three platforms the Mansfield Department of Communication uses regularly are Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Facebook generally commands 5-10 posts per week for current students and slightly less often for our alumni page. Instagram is 1-2 posts per week. Twitter on the other hand requires regular interaction, and our faculty and departmental pages generally tweet seven to 10 times per day, while also engaging students on the tweets they share themselves.

It may seem overwhelming to think about planning and adding these duties into an already heavily packed workday. But instead of thinking about it as one more thing you must do, consider the items you’re doing already and how those items can be fodder for a post.

Students giving a presentation? Take a picture with your phone and write a quick caption to provide some context. Is your department considering a new course? Initiate a poll with students and alumni to help them feel part of the decision. And memes about back-to-school, finals or studying are always a huge hit and can be found pervasively across the Internet already. A little trial and error will quickly give you the feedback necessary to understand which posts are resonating and which are falling flat.

While the anecdotal evidence is clear to us, there’s still much that could and should be researched on social media’s impact not only on a departmental level but on an institutional level as well. As I prepare to enter my sabbatical for the 2017-2018 academic year, I look forward to examining more closely the planning, testing and researching that could help aid in university admissions, gleaning greater insight into how to best tap this resource, and building on the success we’ve already achieved at recruiting and retaining our top students.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Bia Bernum is an assistant professor of communication at Mansfield University, in Mansfield, PA, where she is in charge of the department's social media strategy. She recently received recognition from Ragan Communications for the department’s social media efforts.

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