We previously described collecting the principal social media account data for 4,245 US colleges and universities. We assembled the data in a two-step process:
- We checked each website's home page to find and record the social media links. Across 4,245 individual websites this uncovered 15,180 unique accounts within 12 different social networks.
- For each social media account discovered, we collected the associated publicly available activity statistics. Step two made about 55,000 data points available for subsequent analysis.
Help yourself. Download a spreadsheet with 99 institutions, their social media accounts and activity data: US Higher Education Sample Dataset.
The data aids in ranking the post and follower performance for each social network. And, for each higher education institution we assembled location, institution type, Carnegie classification, accreditation and student population data  so that a range of institution-specific benchmarks could be developed.
This post discusses and dissects our observations for the four most important social networks to US higher education institutions: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube (FITY).
Higher education communications and marketing teams work hard to build data-driven campaigns, but the data for each network’s analytics is institution-specific and there is often only a general awareness of how peer institutions rank or perform.
The key ‘numbers’ that we highlight below for each of the four main social networks are designed to be practical and useful performance or engagement measures.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are individually the dominant networks, as shown in Chart 1 and emerge as a collective set of leaders, as shown in Chart 2. The majority of higher education websites using multiple networks use the FITY combination.
Chart 1: Relative proportion of all US higher education institutions with an official account for each social network.
Chart 2: Relative proportion of all US higher education institutions with multiple social network accounts
The Essential US Higher Education Social Media Network Numbers
Our list of institutions comes from the US NCES Integrated Postsecondary Data System database. IPEDS assigns each ‘institution’ a unique identifier. For multi-site institutions, the identification codes represent distinct locations. Separate locations may operate independent social accounts or they may not. As a result of this practice, the number of unique accounts is smaller than the total number of accounts in use.
Looking at all institutions we observe 96.3% have Facebook, 66.8% have Instagram, 85.8% have Twitter and 75.3% have YouTube.
We discovered and collected data for 3,571 unique official Facebook accounts across 4,245 distinct institutions. Over 95% of US colleges and universities have an official Facebook page, but engagement, as measured by ‘Likes’, is relatively modest.
Chart 3 shows a histogram of the number of Likes across 3,571 Facebook pages. The skewed distribution suggests that average values won’t be very helpful in benchmarking engagement. Instead we highlight two observations:
- The largest cluster of university and college Facebook accounts has between zero and 5,000 Likes.
- Approximately half of all US college and university Facebook pages have accumulated fewer than 10,000 Likes.
Harvard University with over 5 million Likes is a higher education outlier and not a good benchmark for most institutional Facebook activity.
Chart 3: Histogram of the number of Likes official US higher education Facebook accounts receive
We only gathered data for official Facebook accounts (or more accurately, the Facebook account linked to an institution’s home page), but colleges and universities have dozens or hundreds of other Facebook accounts. Our full data set includes results for smaller institutions that may prove to be appropriate benchmarks for the anticipated engagement and activity levels of ‘unofficial’ accounts.
We discovered and assembled data for 2,391 official Instagram accounts.
Instagram provides three publicly available activity measures: posts, numbers of followers and the number of accounts being followed. It is not clear what following numbers tell us, but we’ve provided a histogram of the data for completeness’ sake.
The largest cluster of US higher education official Instagram accounts (about 25% of the total) have between 250 and 500 posts.
The Coastal Carolina University’s official Instagram feed has the largest post count at just under 6,000. In practice, 99% of US higher education Instagram accounts have fewer than 3,000 posts.
Chart 4: Histogram of the number of posts official US higher education Instagram accounts make
Across all US university and college Instagram account follower numbers concentrate in the 1,000 to 5,000 follower range. As chart 5 shows 75% of official Instagram accounts have fewer than 5,000 followers.
Breaking the entire set of US universities and colleges into student populations quintiles reveals that the follower numbers increase with student numbers, but even the largest 20% of institutions plateau at 10,000 Instagram followers. As with Facebook, Harvard University is an Instagram outlier with over 700,000 followers.
Chart 5: Histogram of the number of followers official US higher education Instagram accounts have
One in four US higher education institutions follow 100 to 250 other Instagram accounts. Overall, 75% of institutions follow fewer than 750 other Instagram accounts. As we’ve written before the basis on which higher education social media accounts choose to follow other accounts and how these choices meet institutional communications and marketing objectives is unclear. Please feel free to respond to this implied question in the comments section.
Chart 6: Histogram of the number of accounts official US higher education Instagram accounts follow
We amassed engagement and activity data for 3,134 official Twitter accounts.
In addition to providing data on the number of tweets ‘published’, the number of followers, the number of accounts being followed, Twitter also shows the date on which an account came into existence. As a result, we can normalise activity levels for the age of an account and offer more meaningful comparisons.
As Chart 7 shows, a total of 16,000 tweets encompasses 95% of all institutional Twitter output.
The largest cluster of US higher education official Twitter accounts has produced between 2,000 and 4,000 tweets. With the median Twitter account coming into existence in August 2009 (about 3,100 days before the publication date of this post), typical accounts are tweeting once per day.
Chart 7: Histogram of the number of tweets from official US higher education Twitter accounts
Eighty percent of institutions have fewer than 8,000 followers: with the largest cluster having between 2,000 and 4,000 followers. By way of context, the median institution size is 1,523 students with a much higher average institution size of 4,593 students. Given the multiple potential audiences (future, past and current students, staff, faculty, media, research partners etc.) the observed number of followers seem low.
Chart 8: Histogram of the number of followers for official US higher education Twitter accounts
Approximately three-quarters of all US higher education Twitter accounts tweet no more than twice a day. It would be interesting to know if this observed output is a conscious strategy that demonstrable has the most impact or is a default position reflecting available material, resources or other factors. Again, please feel free to respond to the implied question in the comments section.
About 25% of accounts tweet every other day. We wonder if activity at this level engages followers or not?
Chart 9: Histogram of the number of tweets per week for official US higher education Twitter accounts
A further measure of Twitter engagement comes from the number of Likes a tweet receives. We have plotted a histogram of the number of Likes recorded per 100 tweets sent by each of the 3,134 accounts for which we collected data.
The median value is 20 Likes per 100 tweets. In other words, one in five tweets elicit a Like reaction. Likes represent only one measure of audience engagement and a specific institution’s audience may prefer to re-tweet or click on embedded links.
Chart 10: Histogram of the number of Likes per 100 tweets for official US higher education Twitter accounts
However, our conclusion is that engagement as measured by Likes seems low. It is only the top one percent of accounts that consistently achieve more than one Like per Tweet.
We gathered data for 2,658 unique official YouTube accounts.
Video content has been seen as one of the success of the shift to digital content. And, a YouTube channel has been a practical way in which higher education institutions can implement a video content strategy.
How has the adoption of YouTube worked in terms of attracting audiences?
As Chart 11 shows about 80% of all institutions have fewer than 500 subscribers. The largest subscriber base is just under 600,000.
Chart 11: Histogram of the number of subscribers to official US higher education YouTube accounts
However, YouTube channel and page visitors do not need to subscriber to watch content. The number of views may be a more informative engagement measure.
Chart 12: Histogram of the number of views of videos on official US higher education YouTube accounts
The median US higher education YouTube account came into existence in September 2009 -about 3,100 days prior to publication of this post. Daily viewing of a single item of video content equates to 3,000 views. This is broadly in-line with the lowest levels of content viewing shown in Chart 10.
An alternative perspective is provided by the number of views per week across all accounts, which suggests that they ‘typical’ YouTube channel is viewed 200 times per week.
Chart 13: Histogram of the number of views per week for official US higher education YouTube accounts
Mildly curious? Download a 99-institution sample to scratch your data itch: US Higher Education Sample Dataset.
Need answers? The entire dataset (4,245 institutions, 12 social media channels and activity data, about 67,000 data points) can be purchased here: US Higher Education Full Dataset.
 We recorded the following data elements for each institution: city, state, 2-year or 4-year, private or public, HBCU or tribal college or land grant, Carnegie classification, religious affiliation, accrediting organisation and enrolment numbers.
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