Emerging Trend: Social media teams focusing on key social platforms, not fads

This week we discuss the factors driving the trend and what this means for the industry in 2021.

We launched our 7th annual digital marketing and web survey report earlier this month and, for the first time ever, the results have revealed a consistency in the social media platforms that institutions list as receiving the most engagement from students and prospective students.

As the graph below shows, Instagram remains in the top spot in terms of the platform institutions receive the most engagement from, followed by Facebook in a distant second place.

 Which of these social media channels receives most engagement from students

Mirroring the findings from the social channel engagement results, our research has shown that, for the second year running, Instagram and Facebook are also set to be the channels of choice for the higher education industry this year, with just over half of the universities surveyed planning to focus efforts on Instagram and a further 27% on Facebook in the next 12 months.

In a further reflection of the engagement results, just 8% of those surveyed said they will be looking to focus activity mainly on Twitter and a further 6% on YouTube throughout 2021. That's not to say those platforms will make up some of the online marketing activity this year, but for the majority of institutions, Instagram and Facebook will be the focal point for engagement activity.

 What social media channels will you dedicate more time to in the next 12 months

What could be driving the rationalization of social media activity in higher education?

Could it be that 2020 was the time for consolidation and simplification and, with the world turned upside down, experimentation in a wider range of new or different platforms was not on the cards.

Certainly, the relative stability in social media engagement across key channels is likely to be driving the trend for institutions to focus efforts on a standardized set of social media channels.

But there could be many further aspects driving these trends. One such driver is likely to be the extremely high, and still steadily growing Instagram engagement amongst youth audiences, and the fact that the channel continues to increase its market share year on year. Facebook still holds its value but is still less used by younger demographics such as Gen Z students.

With engagement levels being seen as roughly the same as last year across the main social channels, it may be the universities are rationalizing their social media accounts and pouring more energy into just one or two to simplify and add a depth of content to these accounts as a way to differentiate themselves from competitors.

The pandemic brought about many unique challenges in 2020 too, and this has undoubtedly had an impact on the way higher education institutions have planned, invested in, and resourced social media activity across the year. For many, the pandemic has increased the pressure to generate a return on investment and, as a result, experimentation in newer social platforms has perhaps been deemed too risky at this time. As a result, it is likely that a number of institutions retreated to tried and tested methods of outreach on the main social platforms, where results are more easily predicted.

Another major factor affecting the industry across the board has been the additional challenges around resourcing and this is another driver that could have affected social channel activity. As marketing teams have been stretched, having to respond to the ever-shifting challenges brought about by the pandemic, it's likely teams have had to re-evaluate what can be achieved under the new circumstances and have scaled back activity or kept the same systems in place where necessary.

And, with this being one of the most challenging years in recent history, there's a high likelihood that institutions have had to focus on their home and local markets more, and international social media activity has, to an extent, become a challenge too far for most institutions except perhaps the most well-resourced marketing departments.

It's worth keeping in mind that the picture might be different when it comes to paid advertising, where demographic targeting remains strongest via Google (Pay Per Click and Display) and Facebook and Instagram, compared to other platforms such as TikTok which are still establishing themselves in the paid advertising space, despite offering huge audience reach.

Are higher education marketers mirroring the broader corporate trends?

The latest research findings from Hootsuite's Social Trends 2021 Survey show that, just like HE institutions, corporate marketers are following where the user growth is when it comes to channel strategy and investment and are focusing on familiar favorites, rather than experimenting with newer tactics and platforms.

However, unlike the majority of those surveyed in Terminalfour's study, the wider corporate audience still considers Facebook to be the most effective in helping to reach business goals, with the channel perceived as best performing for 78% of those surveyed. Instagram comes a close second in the Hootsuite survey with 70% of marketers listing the channel as most effective for supporting business goals.

Hootsuit report screen grab

What happened to TikTok?

Our report findings don't necessarily lessen the value of this ever-growing platform. We know students and youth markets are devoting more time to the platform, and we're predicting as the pandemic begins to come under control this year, we'll see institutions get back on track with their marketing plans and further experimentation will be happening in TikTok to increase engagement with prospective and current students. It's early days for the platform and universities.

the latest social media features that will help HigherEd social media teams

We've covered TikTik and its growing influence in several Terminalfour blog posts over the last few months as the platform continues to evolve and increase its audience share. In our blog post from November last year, we reviewed new features from TikTok, including a ‘learn' tab which encourages users to upload and explore more educational content. As the channel continues to develop this type of content strategy it's likely more educational institutions will want to get on board.

Will universities move to a more diverse, multi-channel approach in 2021?

As the education sector adjusts back into a more steady routine and is able to dedicate more resources, time, and funds to social media marketing activities it's likely we'll start to see more institutions experimenting with social channels and looking at the role each can play.

5 Great examples to inspire your future tiktok activity

For universities looking to experiment with or expand their focus on TikTok this year, this blog post gives some great food for thought when it comes to activity on the channel.

What plans do you have for social media this year? We'd love to hear from you if so.