16 minute read

Social media for business schools

With season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast firmly underway, and Sarah Seedsman from Media Minds Global back as a returning guest, here's a recap from season one's episode on business school social media:

In season one, episode five, International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Adrian Barrett, Stephanie Mullins and Dan Stobbs our in-house social media expert, along with Kate McNamee of Alliance Manchester Business School and Media Minds Global's Sarah Seedsman shared their top social media tips for business schools.

Here's what they had to say

Adrian: Today we're going to be looking at the topic of social media. And social media, as we all know, has absolutely revolutionised the way that organisations of all types, and particularly business schools, market themselves and communicate with their target audiences. But how well are they doing it? And how could it be made better?

Well, today, we've got Matt Symonds and we've got Steph Mullins here with us, but we've also got insight from business schools around the world who think that they've got the inside story on how to make this work. So let's not hang about. Let's go straight in with Matt, over to you.

Matt: Thanks, Adrian. I think you really might have missed your calling that there's a late night radio show you could do but I mean, very, very late night.

Social media, yes. With the first wave, I remember actually creating Facebook group accounts for the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Wharton before they had them and then quickly had the schools rushing to create their own. Now, of course, there's an absolute bevvy of opportunities and as you have the voices of Deans, faculty, students and alumni on Twitter, the visuals that we're starting to see through areas such as Instagram, and clearly some business schools do social media a lot better than others. Steph, this is a key communications channel for the business schools.

Steph: Absolutely. It's not just sharing the content and articles we've produced for our clients, maximising their reach, but it's also a great way to engage with potential current and former students and faculty. Some schools are really good. They have thousands of followers. Others barely utilise their platform at all and it's a missed opportunity.

One thing that's been apparent in recent years is just how useful LinkedIn is. Schools can use their platforms to publish articles and really become thought leaders in different areas. The platform is already there for them to use. Social media on the whole is very important for direct communication and that's really not about to change.

Matt: Well, I guess as with other BlueSky podcasts, you've been out talking to experts to gain tips and insights, like you were just sharing on LinkedIn. So let's hear what they have to say.

Kate: I'm Director of Marketing Communications at Alliance Manchester Business School. And my team looks after all of the brand marketing communications activity that raises the profile of the business school, and also all of the marketing and recruitment of our fantastic students.

Steph: Brilliant, thank you. So in this episode for our business education podcast, we've been talking about social media and its importance for business schools, I wanted to hear your thoughts on how it can really help support a school's goals.

Kate: Sure. So, it can absolutely be invaluable but, like most things, it's not a panacea. And I'm sure many people who work in business schools will think about times that they speak to the dean and the leadership team, and you hear the cry of, we need to be doing more on social. And really, I think it's key that people take a couple of steps back and think about social media and activity on social as part of a broader integrated campaign.

Steph: Definitely. I totally agree, Kate. So in terms of best practice for business schools who use social media, what would be your top tips?

Kate: Yeah, so best practice, really interesting, and I guess I could put it into three different buckets. The first is really, as I say, about taking those steps back and putting it in a more strategic context. The second is around the holy grail of all marketeers, measurement, and indeed all the exciting stuff that can be done with tracking, for example. And then the third category is really about content.

So, if we start with the first, always a good place to start, and thinking about that more strategic context, and this applies to all marketing communications activity really, which is, what is the business objective? What is the change in behaviour that you're trying to achieve? And if people start by thinking and couching everything they do in that context, you're not going to go far wrong. I think more broadly, I talked about social being part of integrated campaigns. Now, social activity in isolation is all well and good and you know, you'll probably gain some traction. I think it really comes into its own when it's part of a broader campaign that includes other paid activity. So that might be paid search, for example, or other paid advertising. It also would bring into play your other owned channels, the all-important website and, of course not forgetting, earned activity – media relations. So I think I take us back a couple of steps to emphasise the point that social is brilliant and can be incredibly powerful, but it really has to be part of that broader campaign.

Steph: That's brilliant advice, and definitely describes a holistic approach that I really like. It's got me thinking, do you think there are some traps then perhaps that business schools are falling into on social media? Are there tactics or messages that schools are putting out there that maybe aren't effective?

Kate: That's another interesting one. And I guess I wouldn't look to specific tactics because if we think about business schools will have very specific objectives in mind and what might work for one organisation perhaps won't be as effective for another. Perhaps I'd look more to, for example, tone of voice I think is really interesting to look at. So we all know, there are tools out there, like Amplify for example, and Amplify enables you to share content – and easily share content, your leadership team could tap into use it, you could licence it through your alumni. Now, in principle, that sounds great. And when it works well, it works brilliantly, but I think one thing to stay clear of is if content looks, and I'm going to use a technical term here, a little copied and pasted. So by that, I mean it begins to lose its authenticity. And you know, authenticity is an overused word, but when content has brand integrity, and by that I mean links clearly to your brand and brings your brand to life and the tone of voice matches. That's when you get that sweet spot and you see content that really sings and engages with audiences.

Steph: Yes, that sounds like the dream for best practice business school social media. Absolutely.

Kate: Ha! It sounds so easy. And it surely isn't easy.

Steph: No, it is a massive challenge that a lot of business schools are trying to tackle at the moment. And you've offered some excellent advice there. Is there anything that you would like us to finish on today?

Kate: Yes, I guess I'd finished by saying less is more. By that, I mean, it's all too easy to churn out buckets and buckets of content and post it across all of your different social channels. But I think if people focus on less is more, so creating less content and thinking about repackaging it, and repackaging it in terms of audience, i.e. what does it mean to that audience? And where are they in their decision-making cycle? And also matching it and repackaging it for different social channels, so it sounds very obvious, but what's going to work on an Insta story for example, I suggest would be a little different to perhaps longer form content that you might be posting on LinkedIn for example.

Steph: Definitely, it's something really important for professionals to be aware of. Thank you so much Kate McNamee from Alliance Manchester Business School.

This podcast is designed to be full of useful tips so I've got Dan Stobbs here with me now. He's our resident social media expert, guru, all things Twitter, LinkedIn and everything. And so Dan, you actually have a look at how business schools do on their Twitter and various social media accounts. What do you see that they do really well? And what top tips would you offer them?

Dan: One of the key areas for business schools on social media is the whole content curation and production aspect. I think this is the most essential part of a social media strategy in the business education sector. And I think one of the things where a lot of business schools tend to fall down on is how they utilise their content. I mean, social media is a sort of a two-way street, whereas a lot of business schools end up sort of pushing it one way, so it's all about blasting the audience with the latest courses and events. But there's still business schools that do really well, they try and stimulate debate and conversation by pushing out content that really adds value to the students and alumni.

Steph: Interesting, so they engage with various people on these platforms?

Dan: Exactly, yeah. I mean, one of the fantastic things about business schools is that they've got so much research and data out there that instead of just, for example, pushing out one of the latest white papers or blogs, why not push it out and then put a question at the end? Because, again, I've seen when business schools do that, a lot of the current students and alumni like to engage back, add their own insights and own experiences that way. And also, it's about fostering that community spirit. When you're putting on an event as a business school for, for example alumni, and the alumni might tweet live on Twitter, make sure you’re not just pressing like, make sure you retweet and quote tweet that because I think it's got a fantastic power in terms of alumni and lifelong brand champions, because they know that when they post on social media, it's really valuable for a business school.

Steph: Definitely. I imagine there are hundreds and thousands of people who have studied at these institutions that could be engaging, so the content needs to be there for them to engage with in the first place. What schools do you see doing this well?

Dan: One of the schools actually was Saïd Business School. They recently put on an event for current business students and they were retweeting and quote tweeting people with photos of the speakers and what was going on in terms of the debate. So, when you're logging onto your Twitter feed, you're constantly seeing that stream of what's going on at that event, at that moment in time, and because the way Twitter works as well, when it's getting high engagement, the next time you log on – for example the next morning – a lot of those tweets are going to be front of mind, right at the top. So again, it stays in your audience's minds.

Steph: Nice! That sounds like they're doing a really good job on that!

So, without naming names, can we talk about mistakes that business schools might be making on Twitter? What can they watch out for, make sure they're not doing?

Dan: I think quite often, business schools, particularly when they've got a small amount of staff or marketing communications team, they have the approach where they put the same content out on each platform. So, for example, a person may post on LinkedIn and post it word for word on Facebook but, the way all the different algorithms work now, they've all got their own sort of different nuances and how you should proceed and use content for them. It's all about aligning your content to each platform. So, for example, I've seen business schools have great success on Facebook. They're using a lot of videos because video content is prioritised in the newsfeed, because the way Facebook works is if you're often posting something that links to an external website – some sort of blog or piece of press coverage – Facebook knows that you're trying to take the user off the platform and onto a different one too often, it pushes that down into the newsfeed so people don't often see it. Transforming that by getting one of your researchers to discuss some of the findings in a video that appears top of the feed gets a lot of engagement that way.

It's all about looking at a platform and how the algorithm works and tweak and tailor your content towards that.

Steph: Awesome, it sounds like you definitely help the clients that you work with really make the best use of their social media. Is there anything else that you'd like to add today?

Dan: Additionally, not just organic social but paid social as well, I've seen a lot of ads from business schools that are quite generic and not tailored. When you need to do paid social, you need to do a lot of what we call AB testing when you've got, for example, between two to four variations of an ad to really understand what works best for your audience. So for example, if you're doing a student recruitment campaign, you could have four variations of one ad that's got different test copy at the top, and see which ones are getting the most click throughs. And then constantly, over time, tweak the copy that way, so you can constantly see what's getting the most engagement and leads, and not just doing generic advertising.

I've seen quite a lot of institutions on Facebook have success with an approach which I call ‘If This Then That’. They create a structured campaign with three different posts, and the first post is a video which is about a minute long. If the user watches more than half of that video – for example, a recent one I saw was about one of their students and how their business course transformed their career – if the user watches more than 50% of that video then, in the next day or two, they receive an ad with a downloadable prospectus guide. Whereas if they only watch less than half of that video, the next couple of days, they end up receiving a few more different Facebook posts, these are more the services and courses that they offer. It's all about looking at the interactions and then tailoring the approach for that, because that's the easiest way to generate leads on paid social.

Steph: That's really clever and paid social is certainly a really big thing now. It's definitely something that a lot of clients are asking more about. Absolutely. Thanks so much for those tips and advice, Dan.

Now, let's take a broad overview and look at some insights with Sarah.

Sarah: Hi, Stephanie. I'm Sara Seedsman at Media Minds Global, I work here leading our research and consulting team. We do market research and consulting largely to business schools.

Steph: I understand you have some research on business schools use of social media, can you tell us more?

Sarah: We do quite extensive tracking of business schools on social media. What I'll focus on for this is what we call organic social media, so it's the free posting that schools and individuals at schools do. I won't talk about paid social media and advertising and sponsorship. That's another stream of business and of work for business schools, but we'll look at the organic, the actual content that they share.

So we track a large number of business schools in terms of what they do on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. And in terms of the tracking, we track their audience numbers and the growth in that – so their potential reach – we track their posting, the activity, the contents and themes of what's being posted, and how the different channels are being used. And we track the engagement to then analyse across all of the posts, what sort of engagement levels, whether that's responses, comments, shares, likes, and so on. So we actually have an extensive body of data. We've been doing it for over 12 months now, so a lot of information at our fingertips. We've also got an index where we're tracking on LinkedIn, the deans of roughly the top 100 business schools to look at whether or not they're using LinkedIn as a platform for their schools and themselves or not. So again, their activity, their audiences, and so on.

Steph: What are the key things you'd say from those things would be interesting for business schools to know about social media and how do you think social media can help support a school's goals?

Sarah: In terms of supporting a school's goals, I think if you're using social media effectively, the first thing obviously is it can help raise awareness of your school. It can help raise awareness of the different activities within the school or activities of different staff members or research by faculty. That, in turn, can help attract potential students, potential staff, and keep corporate partners involved. It can help convey a very vivid and a very real sense of what life as a student is going to be like on campus, particularly the channels that use visuals in terms of, you know, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube and so on. It's a very powerful marketing channel in that sense of life on campus.

And then, really importantly, it can help engage your community, thinking about your current students, your staff and particularly your alumni who are globally dispersed around the world and not on campus. Social media offers you the opportunity to communicate well with them, keep them involved, keep them informed of what's going on. And then in turn, of course, an engaged alumni community can help you with the rest of your strategic goals, whether that's fundraising, whether that's helping refer candidates, whether that's advocating in businesses, so it offers a lot of benefits if you do use it effectively.

Steph: Definitely, social media can be really useful for business school goals. So, in terms of best practice then on how they can really do this well, what do you think are some top tips for business schools that using social media? How can they do it better?

Sarah: The top tips for business schools are probably similar to the top tips you'd offer any business using it. I think the first one is always think of your audience. So before you're posting, think about ‘who am I trying to reach with this’ and what is actually going to interest them or appeal to them. Don't just post for the sake of posting, don't post without thinking about the audience segment you want to reach.

Be consistent if you decide you are going to start using a particular platform, or have a particular person in the organisation start sharing content. Once you've decided to show up, you need to stay there and be consistent. I think stopping and starting and being inconsistent, really doesn't help you attract an audience and build a following.

I think you need to experiment. Because social media, the different platforms, the algorithms change quite regularly. And at the same time, user preferences and interests change. So you can't just settle on a formula and follow that. You need to experiment. You need to watch what works, what doesn't, and then develop what you're doing based on that. I do see business schools being quite surprised with some of their experimentation they thought wouldn't work take off. And things that they were sure would attract a high level of engagement, just fails.

I think the other thing is, ultimately, even though we're talking about business schools communicating, so official school platforms, don't sound too official. Don't make it too bland and vanilla. The whole purpose of social media is to converse and engage, so it needs to sound more personal, authentic and real. Don't over edit it to a point that it is so bland that it becomes boring reading. I think if we can bear that in mind, you're on a good path to some effective posting.

Steph: Definitely, I think there's a lot that we all could learn. I know you touched upon it a little bit there but it's always interesting to hear about whether there are some traps that business schools are falling into on social media. I mean, are there tactics or messages schools are putting out there that maybe aren't effective?

Sarah: Yes, there are some easy traps to fall into without even realising it. I suggest people keep an eye out on the converse of what I've just said on tips. A trap is not understanding your audience. What we do tend to see in business schools that can consider themselves to be short staffed and say, we don't have many people working on communications. They'll often allocate social media to someone very new, young and junior. ‘You grew up in the digital generation, you can do social’ and suddenly this person is thrust into communicating with an audience that might actually be very senior and experienced business practitioners. They might be alumni who've been working for 20 or 30 years, they might be Executive MBA candidates. Unless there's a bit of guidance and assistance, you can find that people creating the posts don't quite understand the audience they're trying to reach. So watching out for that would be the first trap.

I think the second trap is trying too hard to sell. Whether you're looking to reach out to an audience of prospective students or whether you're communicating with alumni, too much hype, trying too hard to sell something – whether it's a programme or whether it's an alumni event – doesn't work well, doesn't engage people. A simple trick for that is if you've got too many adjectives in what you've written, you're trying too hard to sell something, strip out the adjectives and let the message speak for itself. Don't oversell.

We've seen that actually quite recently on LinkedIn. We've analysed over 3000 posts made in the last 12 months by 10 schools around the world, looked at the different sort of content streams, from rankings announcements, school news and updates, faculty thought leadership, business content and direct programme marketing. And what we've actually seen is the schools with the highest growth in followers over that period, had consistently 40 to 50% of their content on LinkedIn was business related and faculty thought leadership. And with that, they achieved three to five times the growth in followers than business schools that had 20% thought leadership or less. So there's a real correlation. On LinkedIn, you need to aim for close to half of all your content being relevant to business and thought leadership, if you really want to grow your audience, not to direct programme marketing and sales.

Steph: It’s the stories and the insights that bring people in.

Sarah: Yes, something that's relevant, something that's useful, something that makes you think about what you're doing at work.

Steph: Really good advice. Thank you.

Sarah: I think one of the other things that flows on from what we've just said about the content and sharing relevant content, that we're watching with interest on LinkedIn at the moment, the use of hashtags, which took off originally with Twitter in terms of putting a theme into your tweets with hashtags then sort of migrated as Facebook and Instagram launched them many years ago, and LinkedIn have recently launched them. What we do find is most people don't think about the hashtags they're putting in. They just think I'm writing something, now how many words can I hashtag? Which is really not the way to use them because they serve a distinct purpose to categorise your content and ensure that it's distributed to a relevant audience. They're not a form of punctuation to say, let's hashtag 10 words in this post we think are important. And, in fact, research we've seen by bigger global sources suggests that when you're working on LinkedIn and writing on LinkedIn, you should aim for no more than two or three hashtags at most, not the lists that we sometimes see of 10 to 20 at the end of a post. Yeah, so it's something we are working on at the moment, working with business schools to be very purposeful, be very focused, do not over hashtag what you're writing.

Steph: Yeah, choose carefully.

Adrian: What comes across to me is the fact that social media has just completely transformed everything, the way that schools talk to all their key audiences and everybody thinks they can do social media because everybody's just immersed in it on a day to day basis. But really, how good are they at it professionally? Out in the real world. I think we have some, as usual, some really great insight in the interviews. Dan, Sarah, Kate at Alliance Manchester. But you two, what do you think are the key takeaways from this?

Matt: Yeah, I think you make a great point because we're all, in some ways, engaged on social media, we have this false notion that we actually master it. And I think schools can take small steps to begin with, it's not that they will need to get all of their faculty engaged on social media, in fact, many might resist. So find your champions, look for those ambassadors that that will engage and, little by little, I think that you can build that out and get more involved, clearly identify within the institution your spokespersons and then, not forgetting the other important stakeholder of students and alumni, because you know that they're really looking at this stuff that help to give them a voice.

Steph: Absolutely. And I think it's so important that schools and professionals really keep up with how social media is changing, the different algorithms, because there's so much information out there on the best practice for social media that you really need to read the most up-to-date things.

How many hashtags is the most optimal number on Twitter, for example, a few years ago it was two but most recently, it's four. As things change and social media changes, business schools really need to keep up.

Adrian: It's a constant reinvention, isn't it? Which is absolutely key to this because it just moves so fast.

Listen to the full episode



Season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast will be hosted by BlueSky Education's Stephanie Mullins and Kerry Ruffle, and International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, with guests from top business schools across the globe. Watch this space for the release date...

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