December 12

Engage Your Audience: Finding Your School’s Community Watering Holes

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Community is about belonging.

“Communities are people. They are not abstractions. They are not rhetoric. They are human beings.” — Nina Simon, The Art of Relevance

Our perception of community has undergone a drastic evolution in the digital age, not to mention the COVID effect on physical spaces. But Simon’s words are as valid today as they were in 2016.

We all have active interests and ideals, and most want to connect with others who share those same passions. And that includes your prospective students.

Last year, Diego Fanara, Cofounder & CEO at Unibuddy, echoed those same sentiments in our interview on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast:

“We believe that students consider an institution because of [the school’s course offerings], their location, or a lot of [other] parameters, but they convert for the community.” – Diego Fanara

But before prospective students can become a part of your community, you must meet them where they are. First, you have to find them.

I’m sure you’ve already processed multiple Google searches of your school, and it’s no secret that as of this writing in Fall 2022, TikTok is the hottest social media platform on the planet.

So, what watering holes might you be missing? Where else can you go to find your school’s mission-fit students?

Digital Watering Holes

Especially when considering factors like the rise of the nontraditional online student, online communities are a hotbed for higher ed marketing.

Of course, social media platforms have now become the go-to communities of the internet.

But as we approach 2023, Twitter is in complete turmoil, and Facebook is struggling. So, it may be time to look at reasonable alternatives that have flown under the radar.

Reddit

Once self-proclaimed as “The Front Page of the Internet,” Reddit boasts over 52 million active users.

However, Reddit’s biggest user appeal, promoting communities for practically everything (like this subreddit dedicated to orange cats), could be considered its biggest marketing drawback for many brands.

But that’s not necessarily the case for higher ed. With 18 to 29-year-olds making up the user majority, the website is teeming with higher ed marketing potential.

And whether they know it or not, hundreds of schools have active communities.

For example, take a look at this subreddit for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, r/UIUC.

Source: Reddit

While not sponsored by the university, this subreddit is over 72,000 members strong.

Members discuss all kinds of topics relevant to both the school and the local region. They also have a sidebar (pictured below) packed with helpful resources.

Source: Reddit

A Community of Communities

Thanks to this Reddit page, UIUC marketers and administrators can easily keep tabs on current issues concerning their students and alums.

And like every other social media platform, Reddit is brimming with data.

While anonymous usernames protect each member’s personal information, you can view every person’s post and comment history across every Reddit thread.

If your school has a dedicated subreddit, take a few minutes to browse the profiles of its active members and take note of other subreddits in which they’re engaged.

Every one of those subreddits aligned with your school’s mission and offerings is a potential watering hole.

For instance, you may notice several users are active in a graphic design subreddit, and you have an excellent graphic design program. Find a brilliant example of one of your students’ projects and post it there using an official school account!

An official Reddit school account can also generate some exciting leads. For example, if a prospective student replies in a thread, you can message them directly!

Your marketing team could certainly create a subreddit for your school if no such page exists. However, bear in mind that any good online forum needs active moderators (or an automated one), so weigh your resources before taking that plunge.

Discord

Discord was created as a voice chat and messaging alternative for gamers in 2015.

While still popular among gamers, the platform has spread its wings since its launch. The app is now a hub for thousands of servers covering everything from finance to fashion.

However, it still boasts a male-centric collective audience, which has been an elusive demographic in higher ed marketing. As of early 2022, 65 percent of Discord’s user base was male.

With over 140 million active monthly users in 2021, there’s a good chance your prospective student is familiar with Discord.

And as you can see from the video below, it’s an incredibly user-friendly vehicle for interacting with communities through video or audio:

So, how can you use this tool to find prospective students?

Public Discord server listings are easy to find – it’s simply a matter of narrowing down your mission-fit demographic.

For example, if you’re looking for prospects for your computer science program, you can find dozens of servers dedicated to the topic.

And if you have student ambassadors in that program, they can request an invite to any relevant servers and inquire about leads. However, there’s a good chance those students are already part of an appropriate server or two!

Once a prospective student expresses interest, your school’s Discord server administrator(s) can send them an invite link to continue the conversation.

Discord isn’t as accessible as other popular platforms like YouTube, and the app doesn’t allow ads – yet. But as its popularity exponentially explodes, it shouldn’t be discounted.

Zeemee

Many of you probably remember that Mark Zuckerberg and his crew initially created Facebook in 2004 as an exclusive platform for college students. Well, what’s old is new again.

Zeemee was founded in 2008 to allow prospective students to spice up their school applications by adding content like video, pictures, and custom text.

As a mobile app exclusive to college students and prospects, Zeemee has partnered with over 165 colleges and universities to connect students and schools.

Zeemee also has integrated chat and a roommate search function.

And as a top social media app among Gen Z, Zeemee has retained more users YOY than Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.

Not only can Zeemee give you unprecedented access to prospective students, but you can also actively promote your brand on the platform.

Physical Watering Holes

Online communities may be the darlings of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, but we’re still a three-dimensional species that thrive on in-person interaction.

While my digital examples were very practical, I want to encourage some out-of-the-box thinking concerning finding prospective students in physical spaces.

Community Marketing With a Mission

In our interview with Dr. Michael Rice at Duquesne University earlier this year, we discussed connecting with underserved communities.

The Director of Admissions for Duquesne’s Osteopathic Medical School, which opens in 2024, talked about their mission to help underserved communities:

“Part of that, in terms of a community-based type of recruitment, means that I’m going to [go to] barber shops and make them aware that we’re here to stay. That this is our commitment to you and to our community.

I want to go into local churches and synagogues and mosques to give them the same message showing that there’s a partnership [between us and the community].” – Dr. Michael Rice

Those called into the medical field have a servant’s spirit, so the folks at Duquesne know it’s not enough to entice prospective medical students with flashy promises.

In helping marginalized community members, the people at Duquesne are reaching their audience by putting their mission into action.

Ask yourself: How can your school apply its mission to reach the hearts of prospective students in the local community?

Here are some potential physical watering holes your school could actively engage or partner with:

  • Church youth groups
  • High school teams
  • Clubs (ex. Boys & Girls Club)
  • Community centers
  • Locally owned businesses
  • Food pantries

Canvass Your Campus

The ideas I’ve covered here are terrific starting points for finding your target audience and building a sense of community.

But ultimately, your greatest asset for helping find prospective students’ watering holes is right outside your office door: your student body.

Their fingers are on the pulse of not only your school’s community but their peers’ digital and physical hangouts.

And student ambassadors are perhaps your most significant resource in familiarizing yourself with your prospective students’ watering holes.

If you don’t have a student ambassador program (you really should!), talk to club liaisons or sports team captains. Ask them what made them fall in love with your school community, and inject that feedback into your enrollment marketing strategy.

And if you’d like more insight on anything I’ve discussed here, reach out to me, and we can find your watering holes together!


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