The opportunity of student comments on Instagram

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A survey of student commenting on a sampling of university Instagram accounts found that nearly half of student queries to universities filed via the social platform went unanswered
  • Seven in ten queries related to admissions processes; specific subject and course information; and the social life and environment of the university

With teenagers and twenty-somethings posting and commenting on Instagram posts every day, sometimes multiple times a day, sound strategy around this enduringly popular social platform is a must for educators. A whitepaper from The Access Platform (TAP), a London-based peer recruitment company that works with universities, zooms in on the potential that exists when schools respond well to students’ comments on their Instagram accounts.

The whitepaper, How prospective students use Instagram comments, discusses TAP’s research that looked at “a random selection of comments on posts on the Instagram accounts of 18 UK universities.” The research explores what kinds of questions students are asking in their comments and whether universities are answering these enquiries as well as they could be.

In short, the research found that many universities are not leveraging the comments sections of their Instagram posts, which means there’s a lot of opportunity being left on the table – opportunity to engage students and convert their interest into enrolments.

The potential of engaging with comments

TAP notes that Instagram comments – specifically questions asked in comments – present “a huge amount of potential value” for universities:

“They are indicative of strong engagement on the part of the prospective student, and offer the opportunity to strike up a two-way, conversational interaction.”

A significant number of questions

TAP found that international students’ comments made up 34% of total comments observed, compared with 66% of domestic students. Given that international students make up only 19% of higher education students in the UK, their questions make up a disproportionate share of total enquiries. The takeaway here is that international students are definitely using Instagram as a way of finding out information that will influence their decision-making regarding study abroad.

The whitepaper considers that the reasons underlying international students’ relatively heavy use of Instagram comments may be “the immediacy the interaction offers, despite the restriction of geographical distance, and the fact that a lower command of written English is necessary to compose a short question.”

Top topics

More than 70% of all enquiries filed by prospective students – both domestic and international – fell into the following general areas:

  • Admissions processes;
  • Specific subject and course information;
  • Social life and environment of the university.

Another 21% were questions concerning accommodation, scholarships, and facilities, while 9% consisted of requests for further content, conversations, and assistance.

Looking for community, accommodation, and scholarships

International students commenting on Instagram posts were particularly interested in knowing how many students from their home country or ethnic group were already enrolled at the university. Other topics raised in comments were about cultural/international student societies and the availability of pastoral support. A general line of questioning had to do with wondering about social life on campus as well as what local attractions were popular for students.

Not surprisingly, students from emerging markets often require some financial aid to be able to study abroad, international students often asked about the availability of scholarships as well as individual eligibility requirements. Cost came up as well in their queries about accommodation; they are naturally motivated to find out if they will be able to afford living in a country/city while studying there.

Opportunity lost

TAP found that only 55% of questions submitted through comments on Instagram posts were responded to by university staff, with 45% going unanswered. TAP’s Head of Community and Content, Dave Musson, commented on the significance of this finding:

“Not only is it best practice to answer genuine questions on social media – and to do so within 24 hours if possible – but it’s even more important when it comes to Instagram comments. Why so? Well, those comments are publicly available – they’re ideal for those prospective students who might not feel confident enough asking a question themselves but are keen to find out as much information as possible. Not only that, it just doesn’t look very good if questions are being left unanswered; social media is a space for engagement and conversation, not just broadcasting messages.”

The TAP research did find, however, that when university staff took the time to answer students’ questions, they generally did a good job at it. Mr Musson adds that,

“Our research also highlighted how good universities are at that engagement piece when they do answer questions; they give out information about courses, accommodation, campus facilities, admissions and plenty more and these answers are almost always helpful and really add value – not only to the person who asked it, but to anyone else who might come across it too.”

Barriers to best practices

Regarding the lower-than-ideal response rate on the part of UK universities to Instagram comments, the TAP report points to the significant amount of “noise” – chatter and comments that hold no significance masking those that demand a response – surrounding popular university posts. TAP suggests that,

“Questions asked by prospective students in a post’s comment section could be augmented and capitalised on more effectively by universities if ‘triaged’ in a more strategic manner. This may require greater coordination between marketing/social media and recruitment functions within the institution.”

Further, in comments to ICEF Monitor, Mr Musson notes that,

“It’s fine for an initial answer to a question on social media to be something along the lines of ‘thanks for your question, we’ll check with the relevant team and come back to you as soon as possible.’ Not only does it buy you time to get your answer, but it’s a great way to acknowledge the questions and make a commitment to answering it, which is excellent for building trust with your audience.”

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