Social media account proliferation
Over the past 15 years universities have become prolific social media users. Most institutions now have ‘official’ marketing and communications accounts as well as faculty, staff, student organisation and sports team accounts. Larger universities can have thousands of individual accounts operating across multiple networks, putting out new content every day.
In the absence of formal social media governance, account proliferation generates a number of concerns:
- new accounts may come into existence without an ‘approval’ process
- on-going account maintenance responsibilities may be unclear.
- meeting branding or content quality standards may be difficult
- account activity may be sporadic or posted content inappropriate
- neglected accounts and their stale content may remain public indefinitely
All of these factors create reputational and, even, potential legal risks. And, with constantly shifting communications priorities, social media staff turnover and changing social network popularity, the set of social media accounts potential students, alumni, current students, academic staff and others are accessing may not communicate a consistent and accurate impression of the underlying institutions they ‘represent’.
At many universities a central marketing and communication group will only have influence over official social media accounts. But, official accounts typically represent a small fraction of all the accounts linked to public-facing pages across a university’s website or websites.
To mitigate reputational risks and even improve overall social media effectiveness, institutions should know all the social media accounts they own or operate. A sound understanding of an institution’s social media landscape will ensure that relevant data informs social media governance policies.
What social media account audits reveal
Links to all of a university’s social media accounts are embedded in webpages across of a university’s website domains and sub-domains. By visiting each of these pages and finding the social media links an institution can compile a comprehensive list of all of its social media accounts.
In practice, this approach generates a list of social media accounts ‘representing’ the institution (for example, Institute of Development Policy) and well as accounts representing external entities (for example: a link to the UN’s Twitter feed). On eliminating external accounts, the resulting list will comprise the social media accounts of interest.
In practice, building an account list means systematically visiting relevant website pages, recognising the mix of current and legacy social media accounts, handling the multitude of non-standard social media implementations and extracting and storing the relevant data and metadata.
A comprehensive audit can involve visiting and scanning tens or even hundreds of thousands of pages to have a high degree of confidence the relevant social media accounts have been captured.
For this article we ran a variation of the social media account audit described above. Instead of examining one institution’s website, we examined 2,350 different website homepages: the homepages of the EU’s higher education institution, as drawn from the ETER project’s database.
Our audit followed exactly the same process as it would for an individual institution, save for the added complexity of traversing pages generated by a diverse set of content management systems and some liberal interpretations of social media account link implementations.
The modified process allowed us to make a number of observations about how the EU’s universities use social media – for their official accounts – and offer benchmarks for social media activity: which we will discuss in a subsequent article.
Five Main Social Media Networks
We can readily identify a dozen current and legacy social media networks, but it is clear that only five networks have a significant presence across the EU’s higher education institutions.
Lesson one, the key social media networks in EU higher education are, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.
In Chart 1 we plot the proportion of the EU’s 2,350 higher education institutions with an official account on each one of the five main networks. The chart should be read as 97.7% of EU universities have an official Facebook account, 84.3% of EU universities have an official YouTube account, etc. Hover a cursor over the bars in Chart 1 to see the values for each social media network.
Chart 1: Official social media network account adoption at EU Universities
Lesson two, the situation is slightly more complicated for many European universities, as many operate two official accounts. One in the institution’s home language and another in English. For this and the subsequent article, examining typical social media account activity, we only report results for the accounts in an institution’s home language.
Almost all EU higher education institutions have a Facebook account and four out of every five universities have a presence on YouTube.
Lesson three, we can’t find a meaningful correlation between network adoption rates and how long a social network has been in existence. LinkedIn is the oldest of the networks coming into operation in May 2003, Facebook started in August 2004, YouTube opened in February 2005, Twitter began in July 2006 and Instagram emerged in October 2010.
Main Social Media Network Combinations Encountered
Lesson four, relatively few institutions (4.9%) rely on only one social media network to reach their intended audiences. Universities use various combinations and permutations of social media networks and from our analysis of European higher education institutions, the most frequently used combinations are:
- Just over 40% (41.0%) of all universities audited have official accounts on all five of the social media networks examined.
- Almost 1 in 4 (23.6%) universities use various combinations of four social media accounts, of which the most popular combination comprises Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.
- Around 17% (16.9%) of universities rely on three different social media networks of which the most common combination is Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
- About five percent (4.9%) of higher education institutions use only Facebook as a social media channel.
- And, around one percent of the institutions audited have no readily discoverable social media presence.
Issues Auditing EU University Social Media Accounts Uncovered
In a late 2019 webinar (Insights from analysing 160 university website homepages) we revealed that 90% of US and UK university website homepages use social media icons located in the page footer to link to their social media accounts. This approach may or may not represent the optimal user experience, but does provide consistency for site visitors.
In contrast, across websites in 28 EU countries we found a greater diversity of homepage icon placement – top, mid-page, bottom and no icons – along with a number of recurring implementation anomalies.
Lesson five, adding social media accounts to webpages without a regular audit or checking process means that implementation errors creep in that eventually degrade the user experience for site visitors.
Among the issues we identified in looking at 2,350 EU university homepages are:
No social media accounts visibly present
A university’s home page had no social media account links visible to site visitors (affecting as many as 10% of all sites), but scanning the page’s underlying code revealed social media links to be machine readable.
No visible or hidden social media account links existed on a homepage (an issue with about 5% of all sites), but manual follow up showed the institution had active social media accounts. Perhaps these institutions wish the website and social media presences to be entirely independent, or perhaps not?
Partial social media accounts visibly present
Alternatively, we encountered homepages on which links to some official social media accounts were present, but further investigation showed the institution to be active on all main five networks.
We also encountered other homepages with links to legacy social networks still in place, but a site visitor clicking on the links would experience page connection errors.
Finally, many universities have official LinkedIn accounts, but do not provide readily accessible links to their LinkedIn accounts. In our opinion LinkedIn is a popular network with recent graduates and other alumni and should be more readily accessible to site visitors.
Social media account links visibly present, but not working as might be expected
A further sub-set of universities have homepages with a full complement of social media account links present, but on clicking the links produces unexpected results: site visitors are either redirected to a social media account directory page or are exposed to pop-up warning pages requiring user consent before connecting to external links.
Social media sharing icons were present on the page, allowing site visitors to share content to social media networks. But, there were no links present to connect site visitors to the institution’s official social media accounts.
In a small number of cases the social media account links simply re-direct site visitors back to the homepage or to an error page.
The social media account links that were present directed site visitors to inactive official accounts (only dated content visible) or accounts other than official institutional accounts.
Social Media Network Adoption Rates Across EU Higher Education Institutions
In addition to five social media account website implementation lessons, our audit has created an EU higher education social media directory and allowed us to identify social media adoption rates for institutions in each of the EU member nations.
In the following set of maps, we’ve plotted the adoption rates – the percentage of institutions with an official social media account – for each network by EU member country.
The colour shading for each map indicates the degree of adoption, the darker the shade the greater the adoption rate. Hovering a cursor over individual countries will show the percentage of institutions with an official social media account on the relevant network in that country (as best we can measure).
Chart 2: EU university Facebook adoption for official institutional social media accounts, by country
Chart 3: EU university Instagram adoption for official institutional social media accounts, by country
Chart 4: EU university LinkedIn adoption for official institutional social media accounts, by country
Chart 5: EU university Twitter adoption for official institutional social media accounts, by country
Chart 6: EU university YouTube adoption for official institutional social media accounts, by country
Higher education institutions across the European Union have embraced social media as a powerful means to communicate with their diverse audiences. Enthusiastic social media experimentation and adoption can leave subsequent account management responsibilities unclear, see significant variability in content quality and appropriateness and a legacy of neglected or abandoned accounts and networks.
A social media account audit is an effective way to establishing the current state of play and ensuring that social media policies are informed by real world evidence.
In a following article, we will examine the typical activity (posts, tweets, etc.) and adoption (followers, subscribers, etc.) levels of EU university official social media accounts.