Universities are more than just teaching and research institutions. They are part of the fabric of their local communities, a home-from-home for students, and important players on the global stage.

In a world where visibility matters and where discussions are played out in public, issues can go viral on social media and quickly appear in national press. Under increased scrutiny, universities are realising that fostering a good reputation online is more vital than ever.

When academia becomes business

With a degree now costing nearly £10,000 a year, not only are students becoming increasingly discerning, but institutions need to compete with a vast array of other HE options, too. Apprenticeships, or degrees from institutions across the globe may now seem comparable or even better value to many young adults.

To compete, universities need not just to evolve, but to conduct themselves much more like commercial businesses. With a reliance on student income to fund much of their work, there’s a lot riding on getting undergraduates through the door. And with the pandemic forcing open days to go virtual, and face-to-face interactions replaced with online chat, prospective students are receiving much of the information about the course, campus and culture digitally.

All of this points towards reputation management and development needing to sit at the heart of a university’s digital marketing strategy. Taking control of the conversation and being an active player in a news story has become essential now that reputation has real commercial impact.

Opinions matter: building prestige with a diverse audience

But it isn’t just what a university says about itself that matters. It’s also what other people say. Universities need to be seen to be doing the right thing if they want to lead the conversation and influence their own standing.

During the pandemic, universities faced the logistical problems of teaching remotely and caring for students forced to isolate alone in halls. But they also faced reputational crises from reports of wild student parties in breach of lockdown restrictions, and of students not receiving adequate meals or pastoral support.

As these stories spread like wildfire, it was essential for universities to be part of that conversation. To be on hand, giving the right advice and information around regulations to appease local residents, and reassuring students (and parents) who were finding the circumstances extremely tough.

A social media account is seen by many as a direct voice from a large organisation, and as such – if used well – it is an important way to build and enhance reputation, by clearly setting out the university’s position as a situation unfolds.

Trends in social media

As students, and society as a whole, turn to cancel culture to express frustrations, disapproval and disagreement, speed comes into play here, too. Universities need to engage with the conversation quickly. With the power of social media, opinions and social movements can build momentum extremely fast.

According to the UCAS Media Student Lifestyle Report in 2018, 100% of students use some form of social media. With such complete coverage through one channel, there is a massive opportunity for universities to make themselves relevant to applicants and undergraduates. However, 32% of universities say they don’t know how many people have access to, or manage the content of, their own social media channels. And 23% aren’t aware of how many social media accounts represent the university.

With halls, schools and departments, sports teams, societies and other organisations across campus, there could be hundreds of social media accounts to monitor and manage. This poses an enormous risk to reputation, consistency, and even security for universities, to say nothing of the lack of management in marketing and communications strategy. In recent years there have been several instances of employees ‘going rogue’ and posting inappropriate comments on their employer’s high profile social media streams, causing embarrassment and drawing public attention. However, with social media management software such as CrowdControlHQ, only authorised personal are given access to accounts, and rules-based approval algorithms mean that content that could cause reputational damage is routed for approval before publishing,

In a fast-paced online arena, responding to comments, news items and stories quickly helps to keep universities relevant to their audiences. Response times are one of the most important indicators to the algorithms driving social media platforms that a piece of content or an account is relevant and interesting to their users. But 69% of universities say they don’t record response times across their social media accounts. Without monitoring and optimising response times, an institution could get left behind and become irrelevant. And the only thing worse than having a bad reputation, is having no reputation at all. Using CrowdControlHQ social media management software ensures a timely response to any issues on social media before they can cause reputational damage, and keeps universities relevant and respected.

In short: Universities need to take ‘an enterprise approach’ to social media. The most forward thinking institutions are those who are harnessing social channels to recruit the best students and maintain their standing in the wider world.

New opportunities for social media in higher education

Download our Reputation, Reach & Engagement in Higher Education guide, where we shine a light on three key business objectives to highlight where and how social media fits and the role it has to play in today’s organisations.