Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Part 1: Facebook is changing: Are you changing with it?

Facebook has made some substantial changes over the last year, and many of these should affect the way student recruiters are using the platform to reach out to and engage with students. Facebook’s recent evolution has been motivated by its need to:

  • Monetise the platform;
  • Provide more value to the brands who use it;
  • Respond to users’ changing preferences for engaging with each other and brands they like;
  • Allow users to reflect, on Facebook, their activities on other social networks, and vice versa;
  • Adapt to users’ increasing use of mobile devices.

The changes Facebook has made can be roughly divided into two categories: (1) those that affect what users see and can do in their newsfeed, and (2) those that affect brands’ ability to reach out to target audiences.

We’ll look at each of these categories in turn in this post; and in Part Two we provide concrete tips on what to do and not to do as an institutional brand on Facebook.

What users see: Facebook has a brand new face

Facebook is shifting its emphasis on text-based news feeds to visually engaging newsfeeds. Effective Student Marketing sums it up like this:

“Facebook’s news feed redesign is going to make photos front and center …. The publisher’s logo is also going to be added to the corner. When you see someone become friends with someone else, the new Facebook news feed design will show a bigger profile photo and display your common friends. This will work well for pages, brands, and services.”

Effective Student Marketing uses the following screenshot to show how visual a “like” of a brand can be, including a larger photo of the user who decided to “like” it.


In addition, users’ activity on third party apps and sites are now more prominently displayed, which is important given the huge surge in popularity some visually based sharing sites – like Pinterest and Tumblr – have recently experienced.

Facebook is so convinced of users’ gravitation from text-based sharing to photo-based sharing that it bought Instagram (its main mobile competitor) last year. Of the purchase, an article in Forbes said:

“Here comes the much-needed integration: bigger photos, more detailed info about the filters, etc. Right now all you get when you post an Instagram photo on Facebook from your phone is a small link and a thumbnail image. A better integration will stimulate more sharing through Instagram.”

The purchase, combined with Facebook’s drive to enhance the visual interface of its platform, speaks to the continuance of a trend we wrote about last year: the explosion of photo-sharing among college-aged students.

Institutions must leverage students’ love of communicating via photos and videos to reach out to and engage them. As Chris Brogan, a leading commentator on Internet culture and co-author of Trust Agents, a New York Times bestseller, notes:

“The Internet is becoming a very visual environment …. The rapid rise of places like Pinterest, plus the over US $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, plus the ubiquity of photo applications in the Top 10 of the iPhone store are just 3 small indicators of how business should be considering their next moves in marketing, promotion, and communication in general.”

Also important for student recruiters, three more changes to what Facebook users are increasingly seeing, or will soon be seeing, in their news feeds:

  • Facebook is now highlighting users’ incidences of “checking in” at specific places – including, for students, their school’s lectures or school-affiliated events – with available images of these places and maps;
  • Users will soon be able to choose, and shuffle between, various types of news feeds to suit their various information needs, and one of these feeds is the “following feed,” which displays posts from all the pages they have “liked” (including their school or a school they’re interested in);
  • Upcoming events will be getting more prominent placement.

Social Graph Search extends potential audience, but other changes limit reach unless marketers adapt

Facebook has introduced a much-talked about feature called Social Graph Search, which allows users (particularly businesses) to search Facebook for different attributes and combinations of attributes, especially in order to target marketing outreach.

Attributes could include interests (including “likes”) and location – but they have to have been made publicly available in users’ privacy settings. According to Liz Gross, a higher education blogger who specialises in social media, Graph Search is particularly appealing for college and university brands because:

  • Students tend to “like” their university brand more than other types of brands (e.g., a personal injury law firm or car dealership): they are more likely to feel proud of their association with their school and thus feel comfortable “liking” it publicly;
  • The campus functions as a place and students tend to “check in” when they go to class or do other activities on campus;
  • Students are not as likely to keep their education choice private as other information about them, making it easier for them to turn up in Graph Search.

In a blog post devoted to the potential of Graph Search for colleges and universities, Ms Gross provides these examples of searches and what could be done with them:

  • “People who attend Marquette University and are interested in Politics”: An advisor could use this to recruit new students to the political science major, or a student activities professional could send an invitation to an SGA meeting.
  • “Music people who attend Bridgewater State University listen to”: A campus activities group could plan what bands to invite to campus to ensure a higher turnout.
  • “People who went to Stanford and currently work at Google”: A career counselor can quickly find alumni that work at companies of interest.
  • “People who went to UW-Stevens Point and currently live in London”: An alumni association officer can get a list of possible candidates to start its first international chapter.

Obviously, Facebook’s Social Graph Search is a tool student recruiters will want to explore fully. This is the link with which to begin.

Paying for the privilege

While Social Graph Search is a way colleges and university recruiters can reach more prospects, another Facebook change has the potential to drastically reduce the effectiveness of institutional branding on the platform: the declining visibility of unpaid posts, or at least posts that aren’t inherently very engaging.

Silicon Cloud, a digital marketing strategy company, puts it this simply on their blog: “If businesses want to stay in the game on Facebook, it looks increasingly like they will need to pay to promote posts,” and provides this illustrative example:

“Recently, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton noticed that his posts on Facebook were not getting as many likes and shares as he was used to receiving. Many of his posts received over 500 likes and well over 50 shares, but suddenly those numbers plummeted. Despite his subscribers growing from 15,000 to 400,000, his posts began to receive less than 100 likes and shares combined. Bilton decided to try an experiment. He paid US $7 to promote a post, and guess what? His likes and shares shot back up.”

What is driving this change at Facebook? Two factors: Facebook needs revenue to continue to exist and adapt, and it’s in Facebook’s best interest to prioritise content users actually want to see.

Facebook changes its news feed algorithm in response to data telling them which content users are really engaging with. Branded content is often not what they want to engage with, even if they have “liked” a page. The solution for college and university marketers is some combination of the following:

  • Post lots of photos – and have students do the same – with tags specifically identifying the school (this is even more important now that Facebook has once again changed the algorithm in favour of photos).
  • Create engaging content – the more fans interact with a brand, the better it performs on news feed algorithms (and the more you will have genuine, rather than mere “likes-based,” fans, a sign your social network investment is actually effective).
  • Consider sponsoring certain important posts for maximum word-of-mouth reach.

Please see Part Two of this article for a list of what to do, and not to do, on Facebook in 2013.

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