Ryan Busch is a member of the Higher Education Management Group on Linked In. His work brings together elearning innovation, social media, and digital marketing. He’s also a ‘helluva’ nice guy. Ryan and I discuss higher ed marketing and social media, below.

KCH: How would you characterize the use of social media for higher ed marketing to date? What’s working? What isn’t?

RB: While I think that there is wide interest in the use of social media, I think that the practice of social media in higher education is all over the place. One of the best sentiments that I heard about the use of social media by higher education comes from the marketing director of a well known online university. He said “Unfortunately, we tend to look at social media as part of a checklist. Lead generation? Check. Email campaigns? Check. Social media falls somewhere at the end of the checklist. We don’t really know what to do with it, but we know we need to do something. So, we build a Facebook page and we check it off of the list–mission accomplished”. After talking with so many schools and marketing directors–I have to agree with this assessment. The problem is that the mission really isn’t accomplished.

To delve deeper–one of the problems here is that marketing directors are charged with devising the use of social media. This indicates that institutions consider social media a marketing tactic. While it is an important part of the communications process, if schools look to social media as way of directly delivering new enrollments they are going to be sadly disappointed. Pursuing higher education is one of the biggest decisions that most people make–right up there with buying a house. To assume that a people will choose to spend thousands of dollars and several years of their lives at an institution because they read a tweet about the school is quite optimistic–to say the least.

Social media can be part of the process in the following ways: educating prospective students, communicating with current students, and reaching out to missed connections. That might also be stated: new enrollments, student retention, and remarketing.

While social media won’t recruit a new student, it can educate them about the school and prepare better enrollment interactions before the admissions counselor makes first contact. Once recruited, social media can create open communication channels with current students–better communication makes for happier students–some organizations call this customer service. Finally, social media creates opportunities to reconnect with prospective students who never enrolled. Direct marketing works for this, but by creating passive engagement points the value of the communications increases because the prospect chooses to engage.

KCH: Social media – when it’s truly working – is typically highly decentralized and bottom-up. Traditionally, higher education . . . well . . . isn’t. Will this mismatch of properties ultimately limit the ways in which social media can be employed in higher ed?

RB: It is ironic that an industry designed to create free-thinkers can be so limited in this way. I see this first as an issue of control.  But control is an illusion. People are going to use social media whether a school is involved or not. If the school wants to have more control over the communications process–it needs to be part of telling its own story. This story is what I call the Voice of the University and the characters in are students, faculty, and administrators. If schools fail to embrace their own unique stories–to unlock their voices–then yes, this mismatch will mean limited uses for social media. But, if schools use social media to unlock their voices, then the opportunities become greatly expanded.

KCH: You’ve developed a very interesting strategy that links social media, learning opportunities for students, and higher ed marketing. How does it work?

RB: My strategy, an example of my consulting practice (www.HigherEdGadfly.com), is about freeing the voice of the university. This means that I seek to help organizations turn the massive amount of content created in the process of educating students into viable and useful content that can be deployed for use in social media channels. Let me further explain; consider an average online course. The course is maybe eight weeks long, filled will lessons and lectures, and grows even more interesting and full when we consider the concept of the discussion forum. Discussion forums are social networks. They are filled with students and instructors exchanging ideas via postings to the forum. All of this; the lectures, lessons, and discussions represent very rich content; the kind of content that truly represents the voice of the university. Think of it, if you are trying to choose between two different schools–what do you currently use to make your choice? Pretty brochures and websites written by marketing teams? How many ways can a marketing department differentiate the business degree of one school from that of another? In reality, the differentiating features are the courses, the content, the faculty, and the students–but these things are currently hidden behind closed doors and network firewalls. If a school really wants to set itself apart from its competitors, all it has to do is open the door. My strategy seeks to lift that veil, open that door, and unlock that voice.

This is more and more important and the environment in higher ed continues to  grow ever more competitive. There is a limit to the reliance on lead generation. Giving prospective students a couple of words, an information request form, and a high pressure enrollment process is not going to get any more effective than it is. We’ve reached an optimization point. Are these techniques important–yes, but they are not the only things that schools should do.

To give you an example of the potential of this strategy, I conducted an eight week test of this strategy for Piccolo International University (PIU, http://www.onlinepiu.com), a small licensed, but as of yet, unaccredited online university using the live video lecture platform eduFire (www.edufire.com). I taught the first course in PIU’s digital marketing program. The test included eight weekly live lectures and allowed members of the eduFire community to enroll in the lecture series alongside students of PIU. This blended social learning experience added 80 students in the course of eight weeks. Furthermore, the lessons were promoted using Twitter, Slideshare, Scribd, Digg, and StumbleUpon. While gaining 80 students should be evidence enough of the potential, the work in the course earned PIU page one search rankings on the four major search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing, and Ask.com). These search results were earned after only a few weeks of activity (rather than the months that many schools take to earn search optimization). The documents posted to the social media sites earned thousands of views. Most importantly–this was all done with a budget of $0.00. Since the class was going to run anyway, the only cost was the hard cost associated with teaching.

This format branded PIU, allowed more than seventy students to take the course for free (only PIU student seeking credit were required to pay), and unlocked the voice of PIU. That’s the power of this idea–represented in only a single course. Now imagine if a university embraced such a concept offering hundreds of courses in this manner.