US University and College Websites and Their Social Media Choices

image of mobile device and social media icons on screen

Higher Education Social Media (#HESM)

After identifying the content management systems 2,575 US universities and colleges use, we have extended our analysis to review the social media ‘habits’ of these institutions.

We confined our research to the social "channels" directly referenced on each site’s home page – the same home page from which we deduced the content management system being used to manage the main institutional website.

We recognise that universities and colleges run multiple social media accounts and link to many other accounts operated by faculty, staff and outside organisations.  In fact, we previously examined the site-wide scope and scale of social media activity at Canadian universities and colleges in: How Well Controlled is Social Media on Higher Education Websites? For the current post, we opted to examine which channels the institution had chosen to place on the main home page.

Social Media Adoption

Not all sites link to social media.  We checked 2,575 websites and about 3% (83 sites to be precise) have no links to social media from the website home page. The majority of these sites represent small religious training institutions along with a smattering of community colleges.  The balance of 2,493 sites used a total of 12 different social media channels to reach their audiences of interest.

A small number (55 to be exact) of the 2,493 sites with social media links, have implemented either a single image of their relevant social icons or set the social icons to re-direct visitors to a social media page or to a contact page deeper in the site, rather than connecting visitors to their social network of interest.  This design approach is mildly confusing for a visitor looking to follow or like an institution and is likely less than accessible for visitors using screen reading software.

For the 2,493 sites with social links we found the following adoption levels for each social channel:

Chart 1: Relative Levels of Social Media Adoption by US Higher Education Institutions (n=2,575 - data gathered December 2016)

To be clear, the chart should be read as follows, 2,355 of 2,493 sites (94.5%) of all the websites have a link to a Facebook account, while 1,120 of 2,493 (44.9%) connect to a LinkedIn account and 25 of 2,493 (1.0%) link to a Foursquare account.

In short, Facebook and Twitter have 90%+ adoption rates, YouTube adoption is close to 80% and Instagram is just over 60%.  The balance of social media channels have less than 50% adoption rates with this sample group of US higher education institutions. 

One element confounding our research is Snapchat adoption.  Through direct detection of code, images or icons on the home page only 3% (74 sites) explicitly indicate to site visitors that an institution has a Snapchat presence. From other research work we’ve carried out we know of a further 155 institutions in our sample that are on Snapchat. But connection and account details for these sites are on social media or even Snapchat-specific pages deeper in the website.  An ‘adjusted’ estimate suggests that this group's Snapchat adoption is closer to 9%. Nevertheless, a minority of universities and colleges currently choose to indicate their Snapchat presence on their main website home page.

It’s a Multi-Channel World

We next looked at the number of social accounts being ‘displayed’ and linked to the website home page. As noted above, about 3% of sites have no indicated social media presence. A further 4% of sites have a single social account – about 60% of these sites just use Facebook, with a further 30% just using YouTube. While we identified 12 different social channels, no site used all 12 and only 3 sites used the maximum of ten different channels.

Chart 2: Distribution of Number of Social Media Channels Used by US Higher Education Institutions (n=2,575 - data gathered December 2016)

Return on Investment in Social Media

The bulk of the sites sampled (77%) used between three and six social media channels as follows:

Table 1: Relative Popularity of Social Media Channels for US Higher Education Institutions Using Multiple Channels (n=2,575 - data gathered December 2016)

The table indicates the proportion of all sites using a particular channel.  In other words, for sites using three social channels, 95.2% of them use Facebook, 87.1% use Twitter and the most frequently co-occurring channel is YouTube (52.7% of the time). Similarly, for sites using four channels, Instagram is the fourth channel most of the time, for sites using five channels LinkedIn is used and for sites using six channels, Google+ is most frequently deployed.

Three observations are prompted by the data in Table 1.  First, it is difficult to believe that Google+ is an effective method of reaching the audiences typically addressed by university and college websites, therefore one must question the return on investing time in creating content for Google+. Second, we noted that LinkedIn connections would take visitors to a mix of ‘Company’, ‘Group’ or ‘Education’ pages on LinkedIn for different institutions.  Each of these LinkedIn page types is intended to serve different purposes and we are unclear that site visitors would necessarily be taken to the most appropriate page. Finally, creating and disseminating effective social content is difficult and time consuming and we know from surveys, such as the one published by TERMINALFOUR, that higher education social media resources are constrained. It is difficult to imagine that an appropriate return on investment is generated by distributing content to more than four channels, especially if time is taken to "tune" content to be most effective for each channel.

Resource Allocation

Given resource constraints in marketing and communications departments it is interesting to see how different sizes of institution have chosen to implement their social strategies. Our source data (IPEDS) recognises five sizes of institution: Under 1,000 (Very Small), 1,000 - 4,999 (Small), 5,000 - 9,999 (Medium), 10,000 - 19,999 (Large) and 20,000 and above (Very Large).  We note that for the 2,575 sites we examined about 70% fall into the very small and small categories with just under 20% being large and very large.

The chart suggests that smaller institutions have chosen to exercise slightly more control over the number of social channels they use than larger institutions, but as we speculated above, there is likely an optimal mix of four channels that will both reached the intended audience and showcase content most effectively for each channel.


Chart 3: Multiple Social Media Channel Use by Five Different Sizes of US Higher Education Institutions (n=2,575 - data gathered December 2016)


We welcome comments, so please leave feedback here or at LinkedIn or Medium, where this post will be re-published.

We can maintain this data and update it periodically if there is interest. Let us know. The software that powers our nascent higher education website quality assurance service gathers data that should be of interest to the higher education marketing, communications and IT communities.  If you have a topic of specific interest let us know.



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