Social Media and Universities

The best April Fool’s jokes tend to raise eyebrows, but not to an extend that they (the jokes, not the eyebrows!) are not believable. Yet, when Times Higher Education published their April Fool’s article this year on “Social media data to be included in new World University Rankings indicator”, my eyebrows remained in their usual place. Instead, I thought it was about time that the role of social media in university life was taken more seriously. Then I read the the note at the end of the article “Please note: the above article, published on April 1, is an April Fool’s Day joke. THE has no plans to add social media metrics to its prestigious World University Rankings” and then indeed my eyebrows almost left my face! Not just because I was disappointed to find out that this was a joke, but also because the note itself implied that social media metrics do not have a place in the “prestigious World University Rankings”. For what’s worth, I think Phil Baty’s article was making overall a good case for social media to be considered in rankings, but I agree that perhaps the metrics themselves may not be as developed as they might need to be (although quantitatively, they might be stronger than other university ranking metrics).

What isn’t a joke though is that Universities’ social media usage is increasingly becoming  a key element in engaging with prospective and current students, graduates and other audiences, communicating the impact and relevance of research and networking with businesses and arts and cultural organisations. When “about two-thirds of the class of 2012 used social media to research colleges and universities, according to a survey of 7,000 high school students by online education resources Inigral and Zinch” (read the full Digital Trends article), then how  many Universities can really afford to ignore or even have a lukewarm approach towards social media? And even from an intellectual point of view, what is the message that a University (a.k.a. a place of learning, research, advancement of knowledge and experimentation) sends out if its social media activity is nonexistent or out of touch with current practice and etiquette?

In my museum studies teaching, I often use a quote (from an unknown author): “a museum nowadays is a website with a building attached”. This is of course a dated statement (I’d replace ‘website’ with ‘web platform’), but it captures what we’ve come to accept: that if you don’t exist online, you don’t exist at all. Even more, merely an online existence (a social media unfriendly website, a silent twitter account or an ‘unliked’ FB account) may not be enough to keep alive an offline presence. I have often heard that this is not relevant to leading Universities, whose prestige and reputation are established and maintained by other activities (history of the institution, teaching excellence, research outputs etc). But then again, several top Universities seem to have a better relationship with social media, so they are not prepared to take any chances (Oxford University, University of Cambridge, LSE and UCL are in the top 6 of theunipod’s “UK University Social Media Rankings 2013”; Harvard University comes top in the StudentAdvisor’s Top 100 Social Media Colleges; and some of the usual suspects are topping the 4icu University Web Ranking, “an approximate popularity ranking of world Universities and Colleges based upon the popularity of their websites”) .

Through their web and social media activity, Universities have an opportunity to “feed” their brand and identity or perhaps even re-brand themselves. University of Salford seems to have got the point, at least in terms of numbers of followers across their social media platforms (Salford is 4th in theunipod social media rankings 2013). As Chris Larkin (University of Salford’s Director of Communications), put it: “Engaging students across those platforms which today form an integral part of their daily lives is an essential part of any marketing, recruitment and brand strategy. Ignore it at your peril”. The Global Language Monitor’s Trend Topper MediaBuzz indeed doesn’t ignore it. Instead, it uses “data from social media, blogs, and more than 175,000 print and electronic media outlets to gauge brand equity of 215 universities and 200 colleges. This information provides near real-time movements of an institution’s reputation or brand equity in the same way that consumer products are gauged”. No matter what one might think about the value and validity of these rankings and their metrics (most tend to rely on partial and solely quantitative data, which is, I think, problematic; e.g. theunipod counts numbers of Facebook Likes, Twitter Followers and YouTube subscribers that are linked to from the main University homepage or top search engine result) , it is clear that the value of Universities has come to be understood in different ways and social media play their role in this process.

In this context, I agree with Webometrics’s advice: “If the web performance of an institution is below the expected position according to their academic excellence, university authorities should reconsider their web policy, promoting substantial increases of the volume and quality of their electronic publications”. At the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (University of Manchester), we have been doing exactly that. But more on this in the next blog post. Now, I need to check our twitter account, which has been taken over by two student ambassadors who are zooming around the School tweeting what’s going on in today’s Open Day. Great fun and no joke at all!