Despite Facebook having its roots in universities, the education sector has an uneasy relationship with social media.

We’ve been spending some time recently looking at how universities and colleges use social media, the result of conducting an audit of social spaces on behalf of Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to help it grow its social presence and audience, and what the education sector does to attract applicants or stand out from the crowd.

The answer is surprisingly little. Social learning is the latest buzzword in education, most universities include some kind of collaborative learning technology, and all have a presence online.

When you think that the notoriously hard-to-reach 16-24 year olds hang out on Facebook more than anywhere else, it seems blindingly obvious that social media would be the place to reach them.

However, despite the fact that Facebook’s base was in universities, the education sector has long had an uneasy relationship with the social network, mostly as a result of security, privacy and control issues. They’re been fairly reluctant to open the doors to a more social world.

It is changing, but slowly. We have a few interesting clients in this sector which show how attitudes are shifting. As well as GCU, we work with the London Business School and the Scottish Qualifications Agency, which is developing an avatar help service, and using social media to measure its reputation.

A cursory look around Facebook shows that the major universities all have a presence here, and on the face of it that’s a good thing. Look more closely though, and the sites are often badly maintained, spammy, and lacking in any kind of real engagement with students. It’s a tick-box exercise.

Again, there are exceptions. For example, Cardiff University’s Facebook page states that this is a place where students and other fans can interact with the university, and gives a window onto the university world (with photos, discussions, videos etc) that you couldn’t get from a campus prospectus.

And that’s the lesson. For any university, or brand for that matter, the social experience has to be more than just a brochure, or a static page, it must be engaging. I mean that in the proper sense of the word, not just as a 'new meedja' buzzword.

People must actually want to interact with the brand. Stanford University’s Facebook page is interesting, its ‘Office Hours’ initiative encourages interaction between students and professors, offering direct access to staff and exclusive content.

Stanford professors post a two-part video of themselves on the community: part one discusses their work, after which students can ask questions (via comments on the post); and part two answers the students’ questions.

It’s likely to become more important as funding gets tougher to find. The competitive (and lucrative) overseas student will be easier to attract if he or she has a way of getting a real feel for the university before arriving at its gates.

Social communities will provide a way to keep in touch with alumni (and raise funds from happy ex-students). And for second or third-tier universities, social media could be a really interesting way of creating a reputation in a specific area that will increase its visibility to new markets.

Students are driving the social media agenda for universities, too, with initiatives like the viral ‘Lipdub University’ (started by Furtwangen University in Germany)  where students film a showcase of their own university while lip-synching to a soundtrack (this one, filmed by L'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) has had more than 8m hits on YouTube). 

Universities and colleges will take their lessons on social behaviour from the big consumer brands, and their own students. They’ll have to, or risk alienating a new and young audience.

Steve Richards

Published 14 February, 2011 by Steve Richards

Steve Richards is MD of social media agency Yomego and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (6)

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Peter Parker

I think a better example of a university pushing Facebook that extra mile is that of the University of Glamorgan Facebook page - it's updated frequently and has some great additional pages (like campus videos). They've got all the locational aspects built in too so I can see which of my mates are checked in.

over 7 years ago

Steve Richards

Steve Richards, MD at Yomego

Thanks for your comment. Using Facebook Places to allow users to check in is a nice touch, and the University of Glamorgan have also made great use of video content in the "Campus Tours" section of their page.

over 7 years ago


Lucy Temple

I definitely agree that universities could be making much better use of social media and are slow to react to this opportunity, mostly because of fears over control and because of the complex, multi-departmental structures of universities.
As a former Web Manager at Derby University, we undertook a project to refocus our efforts on Facebook, putting in place clear aims, measurement and carefuly considering the audience we wanted to reach: potential students, and then going out and recruiting these as fans. The results were good and well worth the time invested.

over 7 years ago



I work right in the center of this issue here at Inigral. The author and commenter Lucy above make really good points. Universities are starting to see the value of a strong social media presence, but complicated organizational structures and caution have prevented schools from reaching their students where they already are.

We try to solve this by providing a private space within facebook for universities and have seen some really great results for students and schools. If anyone would like to talk we're happy to share our experience.

over 7 years ago

Daryl Irvine

Daryl Irvine, Digital Creative Director at The Walker Agency

I've done quite a bit of digital work for some UK universities and still have some concepts on the drawing board that fuse models like DIGG with social interaction and even AR for student orientation - all great ideas utilised at just the right point in the 'lifecycle of a student' to maintain relevance, and engagement.

The problem? Fear.

Generally stakeholders are so concerned at handing over any control of their presence to the public that even when they do jump in it's in a very contrived way. In social terms people tend to sniff that out a mile away. The concept of a two way conversation is great and having a site shaped by content that users feel is relevant (and inspires them to contribute and share) is the ideal - but until universities take a few more risks they won't see the benefits in full.

over 7 years ago


Alex Murphy

Hi, I'm the Online Marketing Manager for the University of Glamorgan (thank you for your kind comments Steve, we've worked hard to bring our social media presence up to date and useful for our users).

Whilst I feel it is true that universities, much like any other large organisation, are sensibly fearful of the perceived lack of control that is inherent in the use of social media, I feel that they should be applauded for the way that many have fully embraced it. Compared to most public sector organisations, universities in general are light years ahead (though it doesn't take much). Indeed, while the businesses who can afford entire teams of e-marketers will always be the forerunners, I feel a lot of the innovation in the channel will ultimately come from universities, particularly because the of the varied applications of social media that are possible with such a unique and diverse institution as a university.

over 7 years ago

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