Key takeaways

  • Social media is a dominant portal in the lives of today’s students.
  • Higher education providers can get greater cut-through with students across the lifecycle by engaging with them through social channels.
  • Authenticity and storytelling are crucial elements to a successful social media campaign.

Social media platforms are more popular than ever. With almost 90%  of Australia’s 18- to 29-year-olds checking in daily¹, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the generation that uses social channels most often is one that grew up in the digital age.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense that one of the world’s most popular social media sites, Facebook, was born of a Harvard student seeking to build a platform to connect university peers. As a portal into the lives of a key demographic, social media presents a huge opportunity for higher education providers.

It’s a gateway to connect with individuals on many levels: enabling one-on-one, tailored and direct conversations. So, 13 years after Facebook was launched, how are universities now using social platforms to engage?


When it comes to marketing strategies, the key is to know your audience and where they spend their time.

While university selection is based on factors ranging from reputation to course availability to location – student experience and social life plays a big part in choosing where to study.

By virtue of being instant, visual and potentially driven by the students themselves, social media can capture the student experience like no other medium and should therefore be included alongside more traditional marketing activity such as open days, direct mail-outs and other events.

The University of Michigan  has adopted a range of social media tactics that put students at the heart of the action. Recognising that Snapchat is used by more than three quarters of US college students each day, the university created an account, citing the channel’s storytelling power and the team’s “show, don’t tell” philosophy². It then launched the #AskUMich  campaign, which leveraged the concept of “campus influencers” by having students as the face of the channel, answering questions and providing advice for prospective students³.

Education is Australia’s third largest export. This means there is competition to attract recruits from countries like China, which makes up almost a third  of Australia’s international student population4.

Occupying 29% of all the time spent on mobile phones in China5, social messaging platform WeChat helps connect with distant recruits in their own language. The University of Melbourne, Victoria University and Monash are just some of the higher education providers that have built a following on their WeChat accounts. Similarly UTS InSearch in Sydney uses the popular Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo to attract new recruits, with its Hey China campaign featuring current Chinese students talking about their university experience6.


Universities have a major social media opportunity in helping students settle in, make connections and engage with their alma mater.

In 2014, the University of Melbourne was one of Australia’s first to open a Snapchat  account. To familiarise students with the campus, the account was used to drive a scavenger hunt, in which ‘snaps’ of a teddy were posted alongside prize offers to those that could find it7. The account netted several hundred followers, who were then encouraged to continue using the channel to communicate directly with the university when needed.

In fact, social media plays a crucial role in the way students interact. A 2015 report by Pew Research Center showed that texting and social media are the two preferred methods for 13- to 17-year-olds to communicate with friends, and that 57%  of all teens have made new friends online8.

There’s clearly a place here for social channels to help new students connect with each other and settle better into university life. This in turn could build confidence, reduce attrition and increase chances of academic success.

Using social media to connect isn’t just restricted to friendships. Consumers increasingly expect immediate responses from brands – and this extends to education providers, too. In 2014, the vice-chancellor of Britain’s Exeter University, Professor Sir Steve Smith,  said most students were choosing to tweet for help rather than communicate by email.

“They get in touch with us by social media,” he said, citing the example of prospective students tweeting for course information. “We’ve had to employ people to reply that way. We have a round-the-clock team of press officers and graduates savvy with social media.”9

Those that fail to respond to posts in an immediate fashion, or do so unsatisfactorily, also run the risk of damaging the university’s hard-earned reputation. Posts and replies are, after all, both public and shareable.


As an academic device, social media platforms create opportunities for exchanging ideas and collaborating with teachers and other students.

With a presence on Facebook, Twitter and a blog, Eddie Woo has almost 60,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. Wootube was originally launched to host videos of maths lessons for an unwell student, but interest in the recordings caught on. Sharing his expertise in such an accessible way, this school maths teacher has been ranked third most powerful education influencer by the Australian Financial Review10.

In 2014 two teachers at La Trobe University were seeking to engage their international students to read English texts more critically. “We believed Facebook could afford collaborative learning opportunities as it was already a familiar social platform […] one that could engage students beyond the classroom,” they wrote11.

Each week, students were invited to nominate a news topic to discuss with their peers. Time spent engaging with the Facebook group was built into the students’ timetables and participation was evaluated as part of their final assessment. Afterwards, 83% of students reported they were reading more news in English than ever before, and 78% felt more confident doing so. “We, like other educators, have often lamented that our students are more interested in their mobile devices than they are in our classes,” said Kerry Ryan and Jade Sleeman. “However, after using social media for learning in this project we feel that it is important to recognise a place for it in our classrooms.”


At the end of the higher education social media cycle is the alumni. By using social media to stay connected to this group, smart universities can enhance job opportunities for graduates, strengthen networking pathways and highlight successes of former students – a seriously powerful marketing tactic within itself.

That’s why many universities have set up social media groups specifically for this audience, helping to inspire pride and loyalty, and creating a community of influencers.

Whether it’s an article posted on Twitter about how Harvard alumni are keeping the wheels of government turning, or the University of Western Australia  congratulating a former graduate on Facebook for winning the prestigious Miles Franklin  award, the way universities tell the stories of past students via social media can be extraordinarily powerful.

to go social

With so many examples of social media being leveraged throughout the student lifecycle, it’s hard to deny that there’s a place for such platforms to support and enhance the higher education experience.

In reality, many universities find social media hard to get right. Content can feel forced, which is the antithesis of what social media should be about. The trick is to strive for authenticity.

It’s one thing to invest in the platforms and the teams to manage them, but equal investment should go into working with the students themselves. That way, you can understand how to incorporate social media naturally into their lives, reflect the issues that really matter, and let the stories be told by the protagonists themselves.



Berry Driessen

Berry Driessen is an experience consulting lead in PwC’s Experience Centre.

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