The Digital Campus

The Digital Campus

8 Creative Ways US Universities Use Social Media

I recently wrote a short version of this blog post for swissnex San Francisco’s blog nextrends. If you are interested in reading more about each example with more details than you can think of, than just keep reading. And if you only have five minutes, feel free to move right over to nextrends and read the short cap with a slideshow!

If you hold a university degree, chances are your alma mater didn’t have a Facebook page or Twitter account when you were enrolled. They do now. But before you start to feel old, let me remind you that the Facebook “Like” button just turned four and that Facebook only launched pages for universities in late 2007.

Although universities sometimes appear as bastions of tradition, they actually embraced social media rather quickly, especially in the US. They realized early on that social media was the way to engage the new, technology savvy generation and to stay relevant.

By 2011, 100 percent of American colleges and universities had a social media presence. Universities in Switzerland, however, didn’t become very active on social media before 2010. So US universities are the ones to watch. They have a tendency to jump on new technologies earlier than their counterparts abroad, as recently seen with MOOCs.

Here are eight creative and innovative ways American universities use social media, any of which could be applied to business brands looking to engage their own unique audiences. A note: universities in Switzerland are very quickly gaining ground, so let’s dive right in before I have to change the title of this post!


#1 Brand Visualization on Pinterest


A newer kid on the social media block and probably not your first guess when you think about communication platforms for universities, Pinterest offers a seemingly  infinite number of creative ways to get students’ hearts beating for their brand. There are many reasons to consider the virtual pin board, above all record-high user engagement and the fact that pictures are social media gold. Universities use it to provide students with affordable and easy recipes, design their dorm rooms, encourage them to study abroad, and to get them to express their love and pride for their university. Check out this list of best practices and tons of examples for educational institutions eager to start pinning away.


#2 Let’s Talk Food

BU dining badges

 As Franz Kafka once said “as long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being.” One university has understood how important food is on campus and has turned its food provider into a little social media powerhouse.

Boston University Dining Services is present on Facebook, Foursquare, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and of course Twitter. Newbies are welcomed with a warm tweet, hungry students can earn the Munchies or Greasy Spoon Badge on Foursquare, and budding photographers can brag about their talents with a contest on Instagram.


#3 Living History


My favorite example comes from the University of Nevada at Reno. They created Facebook profiles for two alumni from the 1910s to show what it would have been like if social media had been around at the beginning of the last century. One of the profiles is for Leola Lewis, who graduated in 1913.. She is “in a relationship” with Joe McDonald, who also has a profile and who frequently comments on her posts. Donnelyn Curtis, the university’s director of research collections, came up with the idea. It “helps history come alive a little bit for students,” Curtis says. The two profiles not only promote the university’s research collection, but also engage people from the community outside the campus, who comment on the posts frequently.

Ohio University has a similar example on Twitter. The university tweeted daily in the voice of their first female graduate, Margaret Boyd, based on a diary she kept during her senior year in 1873.


#4 Giving Students a Voice 

student blogs

When I was deciding which university to go to, I consulted university websites, attended information sessions, and visited campuses. Quite limiting compared to the abundance of information channels today’s students have access to. The best in my opinion? Raw, unfiltered, real experiences from students for students, found on blogs.

Universities like Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas, and the University of Basel took the plunge and put their students behind the keyboard to write for prospective students. OK, I smuggled in a Swiss example here, but I could not resist. The University of Basel recently launched the student-written blog “Beast” (“Be a Student”).


#5 Digital Interns


Stanford University’s former Director of Internet Media Outreach, Ian Hsu, has taken the previous example to the next level and hired those who really know how new technologies tick. Today’s students, whether you call them generation Y, millennials, or generation C, are truly connected through digital technologies and interact and socialize on digital devices like no other group. Why not hire them to man the official social media channels?


#6 Office Hours on Facebook

open office hours


Stanford University also launched something called “Stanford Open Office Hours” on Facebook. Stanford posts a video from a faculty member on their Facebook page, that faculty member then invites questions from participants, and in the following weeks the questions are addressed in one or more videos. Williams College has implemented a similar service on Twitter with Tweetups.

#7 Tweeting Presidents

Tweeting presidents

Asking the university president to tweet might be unacceptable for some universities. But according to Michael Stoner, a higher education consultant, a tweeting prez might soon be the norm, at least in the US. Tweeting presidents can personalize a university. Biddy Martin, chancellor at UW-Madison, has almost 6,000 followers and engages with them on a regular basis through Twitter. E. Gordon Gee, the president of the Ohio State University also tweets regularly and doesn’t seem to leave even one follower question unanswered. Who doesn’t consider studying at a university where the president turns to his Twitter crowd to ask for movie suggestions?


#8 Let’s Play 


Life on campus is serious enough, why not mix it up with some games? Many universities in the US use SCVNGR (pronounced “scavenger”), a social location-based gaming platform for mobile phones that can help new and prospective students explore campus. Similarly, Harvard University was the first university to partner up with the company Foursquare to reward students with badges and points for exploring the campus.

Ok, I’m wrapping it up now because I said I’d only list eight examples. But there are many more out there. Tell us about your favorite uses of social media by universities in the comments below!


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