I’m pleased to publish a guest blog post by Mike Richwalsky, assistant director of public affairs at Allegheny College, a small, private liberal arts college in the United States. Mike provides a US perspective on a topic which often generates heated debate in the UK – the role of Facebook in higher educational institutions.
Facebook Usage by US Colleges and Universities
First, thank you to Brian for allowing me to use this space to talk about how we at US colleges and universities are using Facebook. I’ll be presenting a session at IWMW 2009 (on cloud computing, not social media), and I’m interested to learn more about how schools in the UK and Europe are using tools like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with different audiences. Here we go…
Several years ago, in its infancy, Facebook was all the rage among students on campuses large and small across the United States. At that time, many schools were panicked about what services like Facebook and MySpace allowed students to do, often with an eye towards potential liabilities the school may face due to photos being posted, thoughts being shared, disagreements and much more.
Fast forward to today, and a large majority of schools have changed their tune about Facebook. Yes, we still worry when students post photos of themselves drinking and the like, but now we in college administrations have adopted the site as an effective way to reach students, both prospective and those students already attending our schools.
I’d like to examine how schools in the US are using Facebook and share some thoughts and experiences I’ve had from managing my school’s presence there.
First, why are schools using Facebook? First, it’s where the students are. College students today in the US live and breathe Facebook all day long. For us, using it to reach them makes sense – after all it’s a medium they are comfortable in. Second, it’s free for our institutions to use. Finally, the tools that Facebook offers have developed to the point where it’s become a compelling communication platform for us to use to reach a large number of people very easily.
Now that we’re in the golden age of social media, many colleges are developing strategic plans on how to use Facebook. At Allegheny, our adoption of this medium and the successes we’ve had have been very organic. We didn’t jump right in with a set plan, instead we started small, just creating an official page before someone else did. As we got more comfortable with the tools, we added more and more and have grown to the presence we have today.
When Facebook launched its Groups tool, many schools, mine included, created a group for not only our institution but many offices across campus, such as career services, student life, libraries and more. The groups behaved much like they do today, we could post events, participate in discussions and more.
Eventually, Facebook created its Fan page platform, and many schools transitioned their main institutional presence from the Groups tool to the new Fan page format, which offered many similar functionality but added new tools like video, wall posts and most importantly, analytics.
At the time I write this, we have just north of 2,100 fans of our institution (http://facebook.com/alleghenycollege). Our largest number of fans are in the 25-34 age group, which includes graduates of the last several years, so it makes sense that number is high. The next largest group is the 18-24 group, with the 35-44 group a close third.
The smallest age group is 13-17, which is interesting since that’s an audience we actively market to since they are the college students of the near future. 2% of our college’s fans fall in that age group. It’s great that 45 or so people have indicated they are a fan of our institution, I wonder why that number isn’t larger. Perhaps people of that age don’t want to commit to a college in this way, or they are still into their college search research and planning.
This past academic year, we actually had a student working in our office 10 hours a week that posted events and news to our Facebook fan page. The student worked under close supervision, but it worked out well for us and gave our presence some authenticity and a voice that even someone in their early 30′s can’t provide.
As I mentioned, our college moved its institutional profile from a group to a fan page, but that doesn’t mean Facebook Groups are no longer used by offices on our campus.
Our most active group is a yearly “Class of” group – this year its the Class of 2013 group. For several years prior to this one, incoming students would create an unofficial group for their class and use it to start to get to know each other. The challenge for us as marketers and admissions folks was that we didn’t want our new students to think that group was sanctioned by the college or an official voice of the college, so in 2008, we created the official Class of 2013 group, with several people in different offices across campus serving as administrators. Now, it’s become a very useful tool for communicating quickly with that group of students. Our student orientation program leaders use it to answer questions, be a part of the conversation and post reminders and prod the students to complete tasks like completing necessary paperwork or registering for fall events.
We’ve also had great success in our career services group, who have used Facebook to promote employment fairs, recruiter visits and other employment-related activities on campus. They have seen program attendance increase over previous years, and Facebook has been a great way for them to reach an audience they otherwise may not have been able to be in contact with.
Hopefully, as Facebook grows they will continue to develop new technologies and ways for us to communicate. I think they’ve done a good job of it thus far, but it highlights one of the perils of social media in general – things in this area change very quickly and without warning. It can require a bit of work to keep track of all the new features, rules and more.
Four years ago we had no idea of how to use Facebook and two years ago we didn’t know how to use Twitter. There may be a new tool that’s being developed right now that may come along and change everything we’re doing and we’ll look back and say “wow, we didn’t even think about how to use X two years ago.”
Mike Richwalsky is assistant director of public affairs at Allegheny College, a small, private liberal arts college in the United States. He is also a technology fellow at NITLE, the National Institute of Technology in Liberal Education. He has a blog at HighEdWebTech.com, is on Twitter at @mrichwalsky and Facebook at http://facebook.com/mrichwalsky.