Facebook makes the market cheap for new students. But it is expensive for colleges.
When social media emerged, higher education marketers quickly recognized the value of building communities and audiences around their brands. For the first time, multiple audiences – potential students, donors, alumni, parents – were available and delivered to us in the same space. We may market our institutions and target messages to these groups and individuals based on their likes/dislikes and interests they have voluntarily shared with Facebook. It was a fever dream to keep up with the fast-paced, ever-changing social media channels that held so much promise.
And the price of this marketing utopia? Cheap. Higher education marketers have increasingly shifted our strategy towards paid social media marketing. Enrollment marketers have relied on the traditional practice of our colleagues in admissions of buying lists of names of students who have taken the ACT and SAT. We’ve used these lists to deliver targeted messaging and build lookalike audiences, finding qualified, like-minded students in the hopes that they (or their parents) will join our intake funnel of potential students. The result was complex campaigns that crossed the boundaries of social media, like Facebook, and our own channels, like university websites or institutional emails. We used web beacons to track a prospect’s actions, then retargeted ads to them based on their stage in the application process.
Everything seemed too good to be true. And maybe that’s because it was.
Facebook turns 18 this year. Anxiety about his ethics has been around since almost its inception and privacy issues surfaced as early as 2007. But it was a new world with new tools. Marketers have felt the pressure to evolve at an unprecedented rate to keep up with platform and algorithm changes and haven’t necessarily felt able to stop and consider the consequences.
Still, as Facebook matures, it’s fair to think about the company motivations, ethics and actions. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress in 2021, where she explained how the company has failed to stop the spread of misinformation, is aware that apps like Instagram are harming teens and has algorithms that are constantly tweaked to deliver content that is engaging but problem. These concerns became even stronger with the company’s change of name and strategy, which rebranded itself as Meta. Investors have lost faith in business leader Mark Zuckerberg. The public too. According to Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 Survey of over 36,000 people in 28 countries, only 37% of respondents say they trust social media as a source of news and general information.
The implications for colleges and universities are twofold. We have aligned ourselves with a partner who is in direct opposition to the values claimed by higher education: truth, curiosity, democracy, critical thinking and debate. Yet we have become so reliant on Facebook’s advertising ecosystem that many higher education professionals feel pressured to stick with it at the expense of developing other more sustainable online channels and platforms than universities. possess or that give them more control, such as their own. more private websites or social media tools.
It’s time for higher education to look at the cost of being associated with a brand like Facebook. Higher education is one of the cornerstones of the country’s democratic ideals and fertile ground for civic engagement and civil dialogue. What does it say to us that we continue to use these tools to reach our audience when Facebook has shown us that its values do not match ours? the public perception of higher education has eroded over the past two decades. The organizations we align with, both institutionally and industry-wide, are important. Would you choose an ad or branding agency with a Facebook track record?
Colleges and universities have built a house of cards on leased land. We’ve become an industry spoiled by over a decade of easy money from social media marketing. However, this leased land is more expensive than it looks. Take, for example, companies that were so dependent on Facebook that an algorithm change destroyed their businesses.
Higher education expenditure billions of dollars a year on advertising. This economic influence is powerful, but we don’t use it to protest corporate actions that go against our philosophy. Higher education could enact a boycott of services in response to practices we disagree with, or pressure social media companies by threatening to take – and then take – our billions in ad spend elsewhere if they are not heard. But without a collective effort, perhaps championed by an industry association or lobby group, organic adoption of these measures would be necessary. This could be difficult for campus marketing teams who already find themselves underfunded. Awareness and radical thinking are a good starting point. From here, we can chart a path forward, seeking strategies that will elevate our collective work into a new era of using marketing tools and building partnerships with intent.
The alternate realities that Meta offers are meaningless if we cannot address our current reality. We are too used to quick wins. Marketers need to take this time to reset, reflect on past strategies that have worked well, and find new partners that align with our institutional values. Could quitting Facebook cause problems for colleges that rely on tuition revenue? Perhaps. Will institutions that choose to do so be criticized? Perhaps. But we can’t be held hostage by the and if. We must be institutions worthy of public trust if we hope to rebuild the reputation of higher education.