It’s hard to understate the importance of social media in higher education marketing.

Why?

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 a day, with about 16% of this spent 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.

Image source 

So, clearly, social media is a massive opportunity for higher education marketers.

Looking to get more from your own social media efforts? Check out these 10 top-notch campaigns from universities across North America.

1. 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 has built a whole social content campaign around it.

The Discover Nebraska series features native Instagram videos that use a combination of clean, striking design, engaging imagery, and attractive graphics to showcase the best that the state has to offer.

Image source

It also gives the university an opportunity to promote highlights of its events calendar, feature profiles of former students, and get more eyes on its news stories.

2. University of Manitoba

Universities are some of our oldest institutions.

Take the University of Manitoba, which was 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. Like, 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:

Image source

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.

3. Baylor University

Baylor University tops the tree when it comes to its social media marketing strategy. Or at least, it did in 2016, according to research from Engagement Labs.

The study awarded Baylor a higher score than any other college for its Facebook presence, and also placed the university in 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 helped it rack up the most likes and comments per 1,000 fans of any university.

This approach is clearly still central to Baylor’s higher ed marketing plans – and it still bags the university a ton of engagement:

Image source

The lesson here? Once you’ve found what resonates with your audience, keep doing it!

4. University of Phoenix

The biggest reason for going investing in higher education is to get a better job.

That might sound obvious, but it’s important to remember what your audience actually wants to hear. What would persuade them to choose your institution over a rival?

The University of Phoenix clearly recognizes this. It’s been running a Facebook ad campaign to promote its Career Optimism Index, which the university says was created to “address broad, persistent and systemic barriers to career advancement”. Obviously, this is an area that’s of massive interest to potential students.

Image source

This whole campaign is a fantastic example of thought leadership on social media. Those ads are littered with juicy stats, all generated from original research.

The ads link through to the Career Optimism Index landing page, which contains a ton of additional insights on the theme of career progression.

Image source

All of this paints the University of Phoenix as a real authority in career development, and as an organization that genuinely cares about helping people get more from the world of work.

5. 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):
Image source

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 exactly the point 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:

Image source

Think about it: every time someone downloaded one of those images and used it as their video call background, they were promoting the university. An amazing tactic!

6. Binghamton University

Humor is a powerful tool in higher ed marketing (provided you get it right).

That’s not just my opinion – it’s scientific fact.

For instance, one study from the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice discovered that humorous social video content is received more favorably by viewers than serious entertainment.

Now, 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, but Binghamton University is clearly comfortable with using them, such as when it jumped on the Bernie Sanders meme that blew up in January 2021:

Image source

This worked for a couple of reasons:

  1. The university posted it before the meme format became played out.
  2. There’s actually a legit reason for posting this – Bernie taught at the university himself 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 also advancing the university’s message.

7. University of Michigan

Sticking with the humor theme is this next example from the University of Michigan.

Just like the Bernie example above, the University of Michigan proves sometimes the best opportunities on social media are the ones you don’t plan for.

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 picture on Instagram back in January 2019:

Image source

Not only does this video tap into something topical, but 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.

8. New York University

New York University (NYU) famously doesn’t have a football team.

That seems like a massive oversight when you consider college football is America’s second-biggest sport by fan participation, with nearly 48 million people attending fixtures in 2017.

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 football program was discontinued back 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:

Image source

Highlights include a World Archery competitor, an award-winning baton twirler, and a Nascar driver.

9. University of Central Missouri

This campaign from the University of Central Missouri demonstrates the value of speaking to your audience’s pain points in higher education social media marketing.

So what are prospective students worried about?

Well, according to research from Mission.org, their top two concerns are:

  1. Choosing the right major
  2. 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:

Image source

That’s a really effective piece of copywriting.

What’s more, the ad reassures its audience by speaking to the university’s heritage: “Trust 150 years of quality education.”

It’s all effectively saying: “We understand your concerns, and we’re here to help you out.”

Conclusion

This is a pretty diverse selection of social campaigns, despite them all coming 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.

All of this goes to show that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to social media in higher education marketing. What works for you might not work for anyone else – it all depends on your audience and brand.

That’s why it pays to research what your audience actually wants and to try a wide range of tactics to learn what resonates.


Interested in more content like this? Make sure to sign up for our Social Media Strategies Summit Higher Education, happening this October 18 -21, 2021.