How COVID-19 Did — and Didn’t — Change Higher Ed Social Media

Alongside students, faculty and families, higher education social media managers are also coming to terms with a new reality this fall. Commonly, audiences have used social media platforms to connect and engage with a school’s culture and community. But now, comms teams are also harnessing the medium’s reach and real-time speed to provide crucial updates about rapidly-evolving situations, from power outages to virus outbreaks — a type of communications known as issues management.

To determine whether this shift is a short-term trend or long-term change — and evaluate its implications for higher ed social media strategies — we analyzed over 1,850 social media posts drawn from eight universities across the United States. (We’ll refer to them with descriptive terms, rather than by name.) Here’s what we found:

1. Cultural and photo-driven posts perform better than any other content type

Across schools and regions, content that included campus photos, student profiles or campus culture updates (such as sports victories or annual traditions), did well on all platforms. Engagement levels for this type of content were more consistent and generally higher than issues management content, and also outperformed other content types, including faculty publications or other university news.

The reason for the success of this type of content is straightforward — visually pleasing, feel-good subjects are likeable, both literally and figuratively. Most importantly, they appeal to all audiences. A photo of campus at sunset resonates just as much with current students as it will with professors and alumni. This type of content naturally invites comments, shares and likes and epitomizes the core dynamic of social media: a give and take, two-way conversation between an organization and its audiences. To keep engagement rates high and algorithms optimized, this should be the dominant type of content across social media (except perhaps LinkedIn, although this type of content performs well there too).

2. Prior to COVID-19, issues management was mostly limited to Twitter

In our analysis of social media posts from January, all but one school used Twitter to communicate about power outages, parking restrictions and the like. In that same month, only about a third of the schools used Facebook to post similar updates, and only one school used Instagram (more on that below). Overall, issues management posts only accounted for about 2% of content across schools.

A large public university in the southwest stood out as the only school in our analysis that posted issues management updates across all social media channels in January. The cause was clear: the school reported an early COVID-19 infection. For most of January, the school rarely used any of its social channels for issues management posts. However, from January 26 – 29, it posted almost exclusively about the COVID-19 case. The university’s shifts in content and channel selection anticipated other schools’ changes in the coming months.

3. Today, issues management content is now cross-channel, but performs poorly

As COVID-19 spread across the country, almost all schools began cross-posting issues management content to their social channels. In particular, we saw schools embrace Instagram highlights and stories for this purpose.

Cross-posting makes sense for communications around a quick-spreading illness like COVID-19 — it demands a real-time, audience-agnostic approach. But typical campus issues, like power outages, tend to have more clearly defined audiences and timeframes. As a result, universities should be careful not to treat communications around those issues in the same way as COVID-19.

We recommend against posting too much issues management content on any channel, because issues management content rarely gets consistently high engagement rates, even though the posts provide essential information. Unlike the high-performing content described above, these posts function more as announcements, or one-way communications, so there’s not much reason for the community to interact with the post. This translates to lower engagement rates, which in turn affects how a university’s content gets prioritized and displayed in news feeds.

In our analysis, initial posts about a given issue occasionally performed well, especially when they expressed strong support for affected students or community members. Subsequent posts and updates, however, saw swiftly diminishing engagement. A large private university in the Midwest, for example, saw a 57% decrease in engagement rates for two posts about the ICE directive regarding international student visas. These quick hits of engagement simply aren’t a sustainable content strategy.

If universities are compelled to use social for issues management content, they could limit that content to a specialized “campus life” account, that expressly provides information pertinent to on-campus audiences. This allows updates to reach the correct audiences, without harming the main account’s algorithms.

Most of the schools we looked at understand this trade-off, however, and even today issues management content makes up only a small proportion of a university’s overall mix. The proportion has increased since January, but the fact remains that issues management content doesn’t — and shouldn’t — dominate any platform.

COVID-19’s persistence ensures that issues management content is going to be a component of higher ed social media for the foreseeable future. However, our research found that while a cross-channel approach makes practical sense for COVID-19 updates, posting a high relative percentage of this content on social media isn’t a sustainable content strategy, as cultural and community-driven content consistently outperform other content types. In order to make the strongest possible connection with its audiences, a university’s social media strategy is most effective when it prioritizes two-way communications and uses one-way updates only when circumstances demand.