University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia
The ability to use social media to strengthen offline relationships has been of great interest to me since I started using it. Online connections are great, but how can social media be used to create an impact in our offline world? It was this interest that led me to examine the concept in a Higher Educational context when I was part of a research team at the University of the Sunshine Coast exploring the use of social media by undergraduates. The results were interesting particularly now that we view the world through a COVID-19 lens. This is what we found:
Most students do not use social media to engage offline with their university communities
In fact, 82% of students in our study said that they never or rarely used the technology to facilitate offline engagement within their academic communities (Sutherland et al., 2018). This suggests that students are not using social media to build offline connections and that possibly using social media to promote events on campus may be a little misdirected. This is good news in the current COVID-19 landscape where offline events have been minimised.
The students most likely to use social media to engage offline with their university communities are in the final years of their degrees
Our study found that 66.7% of students in the fourth year of their degrees (e.g. completing Honours etc.) were most likely to use social media to facilitate offline connections at university in terms of attending events and spending time with their peers (Sutherland et al., 2020). This may be because students in the final years of their courses have had more time to develop relationships with university peers and a feeling of connection within their university community but it may also be because first year students have not yet learned how to use social media other than in a social context within their existing networks.
Students in the final years of their degrees have had ample time to acquire the skills (and experience the benefits) of using social media to facilitate offline interactions in their university community. Our study recommended university staff to be strategic and proactive in educating first year students about the wider benefits of using social media to interact with their university communities.
50% of students felt that university social media profiles helped them to feel part of their academic community
In our study 52.8% of students felt connected to their university community because they followed their institutions official social media profiles (Sutherland et al. 2020). This is a huge opportunity for universities to leverage social media to help to foster a feeling of belonging and connection with their current students. Sometimes social media activities in the tertiary sector focus too strongly on student recruitment rather than strengthening relationships with current customers.
Current students can be our most effective brand advocates by sharing their experiences with their friends, family members and their own social media connections. Current students may also be repeat customers if we cultivate a strong sense of connection for them with the university while they are studying and after they graduate.
While our study found that just over half of current students felt this connection via social media, it is definitely worth leveraging by targeting content to this audience, creating fun online groups for current students to engage with and providing other online experiences to help to solidify their position in their wider university community.
Please feel free to read the complete study:
Sutherland, K., Davis, C., Terton, U., & Visser, I. (2018). University student social media use and its influence on offline engagement in higher educational communities. Student Success, 9(2), 13-24.
Dr Karen Sutherland will be speaking at All Day All Night. View her session overview here.