It’s hard to understate the importance of social media in higher education marketing.
Because teens – in other words, the ideal target audience for most higher ed marketing campaigns – use social media a lot.
According to Common Sense Media, US teenagers average almost 7.5 hours of screen time daily, with about 16% of that time browsing social media. A further 39% is spent streaming video and TV on sites like YouTube, another social platform.
It’s hardly surprising usage is so high, given that 95% of teens now have smartphones and 88% have access to home computers, according to Pew Research Center.
So, social media is a massive opportunity for higher education marketers.
Are you looking to get more from your social media efforts? Check out these 20 top-notch campaigns from universities across North America.
1. University of Iowa
According to RivalIQ’s Social Media Industry Benchmark Report, the University of Iowa has been America’s top university for social engagement for four successive years. So we simply had to include it on our list of the best higher education social media accounts.
The institution performs strongly on Instagram and Twitter, but its Facebook presence is the true standout.
So what’s it doing so well?
A lot of things. But one brilliant tactic is its use of high-profile alumni to promote the university:
Research from Common Sense and SurveyMonkey found that teens are just as likely to listen to celebrities, influencers, and personalities as friends, family, and news organizations.
So showcasing big-name former students can be a highly effective promotional tactic. If you can encourage them to tell their followers how much they loved their college experience, all the better!
2. James Madison University
Virginia’s James Madison University (JMU) is the top dog for higher ed Instagram, according to RivalIQ.
Artsy campus shots are its specialty. But it’s not just about the images themselves; it’s about the post format.
Specifically, JMU is a big fan of Instagram carousels. In a review of the account’s 50 most recent Insta posts, we discovered that 42% were carousels.
For comparison, the University of Iowa — ranked third for Instagram engagement and first overall by RivalIQ — incorporated carousels in 34% of its 50 latest posts.
Why does JMU lean so heavily into carousels?
Because when you add multiple images to a carousel post, Instagram re-serves those posts to users who didn’t interact with them the first time. That makes them a fantastic vehicle for driving social engagement.
3. University of Georgia
When it comes to higher ed social media, everyone loves a winner.
RivalIQ’s research discovered that posts featuring big “wins” produced engagement lifts across all the social platforms it studied.
As the home of the national championship-winning Bulldogs, the University of Georgia is more fortunate than most when it comes to winning big.
And it’s not afraid to shout about it, as a glance at its Instagram account will confirm.
Of course, only one school can have the country’s top football team a year. Plenty of institutions are far more renowned for their academic prowess than their sporting achievements (remember, NYU doesn’t even have a football program).
But “wins” don’t have to be confined to the sporting arena.
If one of your students has received a special prize, or you’ve won a notable award, that’s something to celebrate.
4. University of South Carolina
Despite having almost 85 million users in the US, TikTok is still comparatively underutilized by higher ed institutions.
According to Higher Visibility, the University of South Carolina ranks number 7 on the list of most popular colleges on the platform. It’s one of the relatively few schools to have developed a solid TikTok presence.
That’s because it takes time to create native content that resonates with users on TikTok. A great example is this cheer video, which has notched more than 270,000 views at the time of writing:
5. Central Michigan University
Sticking with the TikTok theme, another school that’s smashing it on the fun-sized video platform is Central Michigan University (CMU).
Higher education TikTok accounts generate a median engagement rate of 6.7%. That’s extremely strong by the standard of other platforms. But it pales in comparison to CMU’s astonishing 16.85% engagement rate:
Despite having just 14,400 TikTok followers on TikTok, the school has more than 900,000 likes, with one of its videos generating a staggering 5.5 million views:
This post highlights TikTok’s strongest suit: its ability to help brands reach new audiences that don’t follow and might never have heard of them.
Sure, not every video you produce will generate millions of views, and CMU’s second-highest performer has a comparatively paltry 10,800 views. But the more you create, the more likely you will learn what works and bring in big numbers.
6. Brigham Young University
Another institution that punches above its weight when it comes to generating likes, shares, and comments is Utah’s Brigham Young University, which was rated as the top school for Twitter engagement in 2021:
Twitter isn’t known as a video platform, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.
Twitter’s figures show more than two billion video views on the platform daily, with video posts generating 10X more engagements than non-video posts.
Brigham Young regularly posts video content on Twitter, such as this bird’s eye view of LaVell Edwards Stadium, which has generated more than 12,000 views:
That means roughly one-sixth of its Twitter followers have watched it.
7. Harvard University
The school’s average Facebook post generates nearly 1,600 reactions and 165 shares, so it’s doing something right. The University regularly showcases news and events from around the university.
A good example is this post, which highlights members of the class of 2026 during their first day on campus:
This simple collection of images has generated 28,000 reactions and more than 7,000 shares at the time of writing, demonstrating the value of having “boots on the ground” creating content when anything important happens at your school.
8. Berry College
The phrase “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” definitely applies to the world of higher ed social media.
We’ve already looked at how the University of Georgia has taken advantage of showcasing its sporting achievements.
But few schools can compare when it comes to the sheer size and beauty of its campus, which makes up an astonishing 27,000 acres, covering everything from rolling foothills to babbling rivers to forested parkland.
Unsurprisingly, this is a prominent feature of the school’s social media content, especially on visual platforms like Instagram:
The message here is clear:
Every school is great at something. Figure out what you do better than most, and make that the focus of your social strategy.
9. University of San Diego
As you might imagine, USD isn’t shy about highlighting this trait, particularly on Instagram:
Because who wouldn’t want to spend their time at college surrounded by palm trees and striking Spanish Renaissance architecture?
10. Tarleton State University
Social media can be a great leveler.
Smaller institutions can outperform their larger rivals on engagement with a smart strategy and a little (okay, a lot) of effort.
Tarleton State University (TSU) is an excellent example of this, one of the smaller institutions to make RivalIQ’s list of the top 10 schools on social media.
Look at Tarleton State’s Facebook page, and it’s clear that the school’s marketing team has paid close attention to branding.
TSU’s purple-and-white color scheme is apparent across pretty much every image on its feed:
This might seem like a minor point, but branding matters. It helps followers pick out your posts from their busy social feeds, making it easier to build an online community.
11. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Regarding social media reach, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ranks number two, based on research by Awario.
MIT dedicates its Twitter presence to highlighting the unique research conducted by its scientists.
As well as generating plenty of reach and engagement, this approach helps to cement MIT as a world leader in science and technology.
12. University of Nebraska-Lincoln
A big piece in the higher education marketing puzzle lies in figuring out the best way to position a given town, city, or state to prospective students.
Do you highlight the fantastic social life? The history and culture? The beautiful scenery? The friendly attitude toward students? Or something else entirely?
Rather than just discussing this in a few throwaway posts, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln built a whole social content campaign.
The Discover Nebraska series features native Instagram videos using a clean, striking design, engaging imagery, and attractive graphics to showcase the best of the state.
It also allows the university to promote highlights of its events calendar, feature profiles of former students, and get more eyes on its news stories.
13. University of Manitoba
Universities are some of our oldest institutions.
Take the University of Manitoba, founded back in 1877.
While all that heritage has a lot of benefits from a higher education social media marketing perspective, it can also have its downsides. How on earth do you go about rebranding an organization that was around when Billy the Kid was still stalking the Old West?
The University of Manitoba decided to use social media to communicate and explain its recent rebranding:
As well as showcasing visual elements of the new branding, this campaign directs viewers toward a dedicated landing page that explains the new logo and goes in-depth on how it came about.
14. Baylor University
The study awarded Baylor a higher score than any other college for its Facebook presence and placed the university third for its Twitter strategy.
In particular, Baylor was applauded for its “high-quality content,” focusing predominantly on campus life and the successes of its sporting teams. This focus helped it rack up the most likes and comments per 1,000 fans of any university.
This approach is still central to Baylor’s higher ed marketing plans – and it still bags the university a ton of engagement:
The lesson here? Once you’ve found what resonates with your audience, keep doing it!
15. University of Phoenix
The biggest reason for going to college is to get a better job.
That might sound obvious, but it’s important to remember what your audience wants to hear. What would persuade prospective students to choose your institution over a rival?
The University of Phoenix recognizes this. It’s been running a Facebook ad campaign to promote its Career Optimism Index, which the university says it created to “address broad, persistent and systemic barriers to career advancement.” These barriers are an area of massive interest to potential students.
This whole campaign is a fantastic example of thought leadership on social media. They included several juicy stats in their ads, all from original research.
The ads link to the Career Optimism Index landing page, which contains a ton of additional insights on the theme of career progression.
This campaign paints the University of Phoenix as an authority in career development and an organization that genuinely cares about helping people get more from the world of work.
16. University of California Los Angeles
Want a simple example of how universities can tap into current events to boost brand awareness? Look no further than this higher education marketing campaign from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA):
UCLA ran this ad campaign across Facebook and Instagram from late March to early April 2020, which, as you’ll likely remember, was right at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
This ad invited people to download a selection of images showcasing iconic UCLA buildings and locations to use as backgrounds for video calls.
The timing on this is perfect because late March was precisely when so many of us first started working (and learning) from home, causing search interest for the phrase “Zoom background” to spike through the roof:
Think about it: whenever someone downloaded one of those images and used it as their video call background, they promoted the university. A great tactic!
17. Binghamton University
Humor is a powerful tool in higher ed marketing (provided you get it right).
That’s not just my opinion – it’s a scientific fact.
For instance, one study from the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice discovered that viewers receive humorous social video content more favorably than serious entertainment.
When you think of humor on social media, you naturally think of memes.
Whether memes are a good fit for your strategy depends heavily on your audience and tone of voice. Binghamton University is comfortable using them, such as when it jumped on the Bernie Sanders meme that blew up in January 2021:
This post worked for a couple of reasons:
- The university posted it before the meme format became played out.
- There’s a legit reason for posting this – Bernie taught at the university in 1990, so it makes sense for Binghamton to get involved in the conversation.
In other words, this post managed to get the “funny” bit right while advancing the university’s message.
18. University of Michigan
The following example from the University of Michigan sticks with the humor theme.
Like the Bernie example above, the University of Michigan proves that sometimes the best social media opportunities are unplanned.
For anyone struggling to recall obscure moments in social media history, this Twitter post references how a picture of an egg became the most-liked image on Instagram back in January 2019:
Not only does this video tap into something topical, it also showcases locations around the University of Michigan, which means it’s effectively a double win for the institution’s higher ed marketing team.
19. New York University
That seems like a massive oversight considering college football a huge deal. While attendance declines, the average game still attracts close to 40,000 fans.
As such, the lack of a football program could put off potential students – not just potential college athletes but regular students craving the social side of college sports.
However, the NYU marketing team has had plenty of time to come to terms with this (the university discontinued the football program in 1953, so it isn’t exactly a recent occurrence).
Rather than ducking the issue, the university leaned into it with a Facebook video series highlighting all the other incredible sports on offer at the university:
Highlights include a World Archery competitor, an award-winning baton twirler, and a Nascar driver.
20. University of Central Missouri
This University of Central Missouri campaign demonstrates the value of understanding your audience’s pain points in higher education social media marketing.
So what are prospective students’ biggest concerns?
Well, according to research from Mission.org, their top two concerns are:
- Choosing the right major
- College fees and debt
This Facebook and Instagram ad speaks to both of these pain points while adding a third – the length of time taken to graduate:
That’s a compelling piece of copywriting.
The ad reassures its audience by speaking to the university’s heritage: “Trust 150 years of quality education.”
It effectively says: “We understand your concerns, and we’re here to help you out.”
This blog is a diverse selection of social campaigns from higher education institutions.
We’ve got humor in there; we’ve got heritage; we’ve got sports. We’ve got an egg rolling along the ground in Ann Arbor.
This wide array of examples shows there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to social media in higher education marketing. What works for you might not work for anyone else; it depends on your audience and brand.
That’s why it pays to research what your audience wants and to try a wide range of tactics to learn what resonates.
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