Opinion: Universities must speak the language of digital natives

Opinion: Universities must speak the language of digital natives

Tweet. Poke. Like. Comment. This is the language of today’s higher education students; the digital natives who would sooner use social media to inform their university preferences than rely on traditional news or official rankings.

According to Hootsuite’s 2019 Social Campus Report, 84 per cent of university students globally currently use social media as their main form of research when selecting a university of choice. It is their main source to understand student life, how the university is portrayed publicly and what others may think of the institution. 

Universities are discovering the advantages of integrating social media in their communication mix to engage more directly and impactfully with students and other university stakeholders. 98 percent of universities are using social media, and more than half of the institutions surveyed by Hootsuite are planning to increase paid social media advertising in 2020.

These campaigns are used to target prospective students, with Facebook and Instagram selected as the top platforms. Given how important these channels are becoming to the attraction and retention of domestic and international students, it’s vital that communications teams can leverage them right across the organisation to help drive enrolments and growth.

So how are universities using social media to attract future students?

Digital marketing strategies are being used to connect with an increasingly diverse range of students; with a specific focus on prospective students. 

Recent OECD research suggests 381,000 international students were enrolled in tertiary programs in Australian universities in 2016, and there is stiff competition to attract international students, with Australia ranking below the US and the UK with a 9 percent share of the market.

If Australia is to grow that market share, social media will be a vital tool to reach international students at many points of the student journey; from awareness and recruitment to engagement and advocacy.

We’re seeing Australian universities adopt a number of key social media strategies in order to reach more international students:

Advocacy through student alumni - many universities are sharing the stories of current and former students to connect with future students in a more natural and relevant way. The University of Western Sydney’s Unlimited campaign was a great example of how inspirational storytelling can be used to build an emotional human connection with potential students in a way that data and rankings could never do

Hyper-personalised - social media teams are investing in data insights to better understand their potential student pool and ensure the content and channel mix is tailored to them, the time of posts is optimised for target time zones, and content is available in multiple languages.

Leveraging AI to deliver personalised experiences - if we look at the communication preferences of digital natives, they often prefer to use messaging apps rather than face-to-face or over the phone options. A myriad of universities are discovering the power AI can have in regard to automatic messaging platforms. For general and regularly occurring questions, an immediate response can be generated, resulting in the student feeling heard and acknowledged immediately. 

What’s holding universities back?
Universities are large, complex and established institutions, so it’s not always easy to effect change. While there are some inspiring campaigns and programs being spearheaded by university social media and communications teams, lack of widespread social media adoption across universities can be a real challenge. Departments tend to operate in silos and social media use can be dictated by the individual faculty, student, initiative etc.

When the approach is divided, it can create discrepancies in voice, tone and messages; or even worse, contribute to gaps and lost opportunities, or even reputational risk. A focus needs to be on universities adopting social media at an industry level. 

Australian universities that speak the language of digital natives, and experiment with how best to reach and build connections with them, will reap rewards in the long term. It’s more than a plan on page, it's about creating a social-first culture, staying on top of the latest developments and adopting a test-and-learn approach to strategies.

Heather Cook is the General Manager APAC of Hootsuite.