As part of a big education project, I was recently looking into how institutions are staying digitally relevant, with many still learning from the advantages and, indeed, the disadvantages of this sped up tech world we now live in. An overwhelmingly positive outcome from the transition into this new era, is increased connectivity. Marketing and student recruitment has not changed, but the channels and format of communications we use have. Social media being particularly noteworthy (and the focus of my blog today, funnily enough).

At this point, it’s important to note that there are major cultural, language and geographical differences when it comes to technology. International recruitment marketers now need to not only be digitally savvy, but also contextually aware. A truly global outlook does not simply assume that all prospective students within a certain group will have access to the same channels, types of content or devices.

Social media is, however, an integral part of the western youth’s day to day lives, by means of socialising, as well as gaining information. So, how can universities leverage this large audience and influence to their advantage? Firstly, by being there. By simply being active on the platforms that your audiences spend a large proportion of their time on, you are tapping into their network, bringing your institution to the forefront of their attention.

Whilst students are pondering their choice of universities, social media can offer a unique insight into that institution. As they endeavour into one of the most difficult decisions they have to make in their younger years, digital channels offer a 24-7 view and the opportunity to connect. There are two primary ways in which universities and colleges tend to use social media to influence; to provide an inside look into the daily lives of students, including campus and lectures (if deemed appropriate), and using it as a real-time communication tool to chat direct.

Much of the traditional marketing activity around student recruitment can be offered in a digital format either to complement ongoing traditional activity or to replace it. Social media can host Q&A sessions, akin to graduate fairs and open days, but without the need for travel. Virtual tours offer those unable to attend the campus a feel for the facilities and setup.

By building close relationships with potential students, you are already welcoming them into a community that they have often dreamed of being a part of (for many). You can also gather applicable information into what exactly it is that students want and need in order to help them make their choice on institute.

So, which universities are using social media well? We've pulled together some examples we like:

The University of Southern California responded to enquiries surrounding their accommodation by bringing the once-great show ‘Cribs’ back to life, with a USC twist; students allowed a camera into their dorms to show prospective students the living conditions on campus, whilst showcasing the diverse students that attend the university. A nostalgic trip into the potential future!

A university closer to home, that’s topping the leaderboard of most influential institutes in the UK is the University of Glasgow, who not only are incredibly interactive on Twitter, but are also proving they are more digitally clued up than most (with plenty of live streaming, vlogging and a Snapchat channel to boot - I’m a big fan).

A great way in which they are responding to the needs of potential candidates is via video content, showing off their incredibly advanced facilities; investing in the power of intrigue; and building tours via video on Twitter.

The University of Birmingham offers a similar glimpse into their campus, giving a great feel of what day to day life could be like for prospective students. Their video offers snippets of information, that pop up throughout the video, to familiarise yourself with the buildings before you even step foot in the city.

UCL have clearly recognised the importance of engaging existing, as well as prospective students. From expressing their passion for environmentally friendly practices and how they are personally responding to global sustainability, to giving an insight into the life of a student by hosting question time with people currently enrolled. They’ve even invested money into a social media survey, with a cash prize; if that’s not going to drive engagement, what will?!

But, one of the most appealing posts I’ve seen so far from a university is this one from Baylor University. Not only does it offer a sense of family strength within their institution but also shows them actively caring about students; this acceptance video is a great way to engage future students, with the added touch of ‘welcome to the family’ for extra appeal.

With so many universities upping the ante when it comes to recruitment via digital resources, it's a shame to still see many universities struggling to leverage the power of social media.

It takes time to establish a tone of voice for your brand; a tone that is both applicable to your many target audiences and easy for multiple people to emulate at the same time, whilst also staying relevant above all else. This tone of voice needs to be as flexible as you or I, adapting to the context of communication and audience in a human and personal way.

This tone of voice needs to be direct, informative, youthful and inject an element of fun and approachability. This is no easy feat for universities, especially when they have so heavily relied on alternative methods for student recruitment prior to the boom of social media. It requires dedication, commitment and understanding. And, this requires resourcing, up-skilling and a shared vision. An element that can be difficult to justify to boards who rely on tangible outputs rather than brand awareness and engagement metrics.

But, the proof is in the pudding (as they say). Universities are now seeing the overbearing value that social media holds and are implementing full teams to run their accounts day and night. They are responding to the needs of their audiences, recognising that the usual 9-5 operating hours are not when many of their audience groups wish to engage and that traditional channels like email are oft ignored.

Take the University of Hull, for example, who make sure their Twitter is manned from 8am-10pm. This is a great step forward to demonstrate both their dedication to current students but also to effectively purveying a positive attitude and social experience to prospective students.

Moves like this will mean that your institution can pave the way in exemplar digital behaviour for all universities to eventually adopt, as well as providing less time consuming and more cost-efficient ways to recruit future students.

So, who do you think is leading the way when it comes to student recruitment?

Let us know by joining the discussion over on our social channels.