By Senior Analyst, Brian Fleming
The effectiveness of social media as a channel for engaging adult learners is questionable. Here’s why, according to our latest research:
- They appear to be swayed very little, if at all, by whether a school uses social media, with the exception of LinkedIn which is perceived as more “professional.”
- They are more guarded about distinguishing their personal and professional identities online.
- They are less apt to “shop around” than traditional age students, often applying to only one or two schools based mainly on pragmatic factors such as costs and location, which any form of social media may do little to sway anyway.
What channels do adult learners use to make decisions about higher education?
In Eduventures’ most recent national survey of adult learners, we found that:
- Among 20 potential channels, social media ranked 10th overall with only 21% of respondents indicating they would even consider using this channel to learn about colleges or universities.
- These results were significantly outpaced by websites and search engines, which ranked 1st and 4th overall with 56% and 41% respectively.
- Word of mouth ranked 5th with 39% indicating they rely on conversations with others, including colleagues and professionals in a field (face-to-face or online).
- Age, of course, matters, with younger adults ages 25-29 favoring social media nearly twice as much as older adults.
Those surveyed also appear far less apt to formally reach out to a school through social media, with only 5% overall indicating that they have reached out to a school through one of these platforms in the last six months. A likely scenario may be adults going from search engine to website to email, omitting social media altogether or with social media functioning in the background as a nice-to-have, but hardly a need-to-have. Even among 25-29 year olds, we found that only 10% have used social media to reach out to a school in the last six months.
But what about specific types of social media? Facebook? YouTube? LinkedIn?
Through a series of six focus groups conducted nationwide, Eduventures found that adults were, by and large, “turned-off” or “neutral” by the suggestion that schools might use social media channels to reach them at all. Privacy and the need to maintain a personal identity separate from one’s professional life were two primary concerns. Facebook was also perceived as “cheapening” a brand, “kinda gimmicky,” and something “my kids might use.” YouTube was “intriguing,” but few adults indicated that use of this channel would actually sway their decision to attend a certain school. LinkedIn was the only exception to the rule. LinkedIn, a unique social media outlet, stood out among the rest as “more professional” and “more useful” for making career-based decisions, which is typically the primary reason adults pursue higher education in the first place.
LinkedIn is a win, but don’t neglect your website or the power of “word of mouth.”
This is good news for institutions seeking to maximize their use of decision-making channels. Adult learners don’t seem to care much about a pervasive social media presence and institutions, we find, can hardly maintain, let alone maximize, all these channels anyway. Selectively using certain tools may prove more useful than focusing broadly on several different channels. Our recommendation is to only use social media outlets that appeal to adults, which will free up your marketing and social media experts to focus on other things that will be of higher value, such as how to:
- Maximize your web presence and website user experience, which is both the most common way adults will learn about your programs and also will allow you to collect significant data about what programs they find most compelling and why.
- Harness “word of mouth,” online and offline. Word of mouth does not just entail analyzing comments shared online (By the way, did you know Yelp.com offers reviews of colleges and universities?), but also leveraging valuable face-to-face channels such as job fairs, conferences, and professional networks and associations, which for adult learners still matter more than you may think.
- Use LinkedIn as a way to help cultivate a more professionally-oriented brand. While this likely means abandoning Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other channel may distract you from what actually matters to potential adult learners (or at least focusing less on their use), chances are what you will gain by focusing your efforts here will will produce a far greater impact than your 10,000 Facebook “Likes” anyway.