Three Lessons Marketers Can Learn from College Social Media Successes

college social media success
college social media success

With the school year underway and before traditional college rankings are delivered en masse, there’s a new metric that prospective students are considering before casting their applications next fall: Which schools have the highest grades on Twitter? But prospective students aren’t the only ones who should be paying attention; colleges and universities can look to their social accounts to improve their social media efforts.

At a time when the world’s leading brands put millions of dollars into improving marketing strategies, a university’s social media score can no longer be ignored. It may seem trivial, but college social media rankings are key to understanding social media savviness in general.

Applying social media analytics to rank the social media scores of the top 150 colleges in the country yielded interesting results. Specifically, how are these schools using Twitter as extensions of their academic profiles and as snapshots of community engagement? Examining how these universities engage with their myriad constituencies provides insight into the best social media practices across all universities (and by extension, brands). After crunching the data, here are the top five:

  1. University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  2. University of Wisconsin – Madison
  3. Texas A&M University – College Station
  4. University of Texas – Austin
  5. Syracuse University

What accounts for these colleges’ successes digital savvy, and more importantly, what can we as marketers and communications professionals learn from them?

It’s important to take the initiative: Today’s students are tomorrow’s business and thought leaders.

Find Your Zeitgeist

One question to ask is: “Can you tap into the zeitgeist?” Trends that are embraced socially become dominant beliefs and ideas, so making decisions based on these trends is quickly becoming a winning marketing strategy. Trending terms are more than ephemeral; when viewed and analyzed, they predict business and marketing trends.

Tapping into the zeitgeist entails paying close attention to what has happened, what is happening, and the indicators (quantitative and qualitative) that illustrate what is likely to happen. Reactive marketing is a thing of the past. Seizing the marketing moment comes from keenly observing external data points, the business equivalent of playing where the hockey puck is going to be. Colleges that grow large and powerful bodies of social ambassadors don’t tweet ad nauseam; they reply to relevant conversations. They don’t overwhelm social platforms with an abundance of content; they analyze content that resonates and apply that analysis to topics likely to resonate in the future.

UNC took advantage of the zeitgeist when the university leveraged its NCAA Championship win to outperform other schools as a socially trending brand. But even after this event concluded, UNC continued to demonstrate its social media prowess. Throughout the year, UNC curated content with on-brand hashtags, such as #UNCSpring, for students to engage and post photos of their campus and school spirit. UNC’s high-performance social marketing was reflected in its ability to ride the coattails of a successful event, then adjust their focus onto shareable experiences based on what subjects were poised to become trending.

Focus on the Quality of Your Content

A report conducted by, suggests that Harvard and Stanford are vying for the top spot on the social media totem. The Crimson has four times as many Facebook likes as Yale, and Harvard is neck-and-neck with the Cardinal on Twitter.

Social media accounts are more than reflections of a college’s brand. Great priority is being placed on these social accounts resulting in a steep decline of short posts and reactive tweets.

Harvard demonstrates the new standard of content quality: On Facebook, the Cambridge-based school regularly posts crossword puzzles written by a professor. The thinking here is simple; content that compels engagement has a bigger impact than content distributed sporadically and without focus.

Publishing engaging original content is fundamental, but interacting with followers through retweets and replies is also necessary. Brands that excel at identifying and connecting with their various audiences across myriad platforms do better than those that don’t.

Know How to Scale on Social

Of course, universities generally represent smaller audiences than Fortune 500 brands. Still, curating a dedicated following of engaged users is becoming more and more valuable at scale. Universities aren’t focused on how many visits to their handles and accounts they get. Instead, they’re focused on the right visitors, their students and prospective students. Volume can be interpreted in a couple of ways—noise doesn’t always equal clarity of voice, and high quantity doesn’t mean top quality. So 500 of the right people following and believing in your message is a more desirable metric than 5,000 random people who only hear it, or worse, gloss over it.

With so much overlap between traditional media and social media, the need to cultivate relationships with constituents is the same—it’s the delivery that changes. Social is a natural extension of both marketing and public relations initiatives. The challenge is aligning both efforts and applying social listening to discover opportunities and create content specifically for those audiences.

Strong business and university communications teams have something else in common: When it comes to social media programs, it isn’t the kids’ game anymore.

If you’re interested in benchmarking your brand’s social engagement against those of your competitors, request a demo.

A version of this article was posted on Forbes Community Voice, it is edited and reprinted with permission of the author.