Social Media in Higher Education [Case Study @CarlowU]

Social Media in Higher Education [Case Study @CarlowU]

By: Guest
June 14, 2012

Social media in higher educationSocial media use in higher education fascinates us. So we talked our friend @JennyMacBeth, the comms project manager at Carlow University, into sharing this case study so that you can see what’s worked, what hasn’t and maybe get some food for thought that will help with your own social media efforts. To our way of thinking and pretty much across the board, the things that Jenny has shared in this case study are applicable whether you’re using social media in the higher education space—or anywhere.

The Back Story – More About Carlow University

Carlow University is a comprehensive Catholic masters university that prepares students for leadership and compassionate service in professional and personal life.

With an enrollment currently around 2,200, and a student-faculty ratio of 12-1, students enjoy small classes and individual instruction. The student population is culturally diverse and contains traditional and nontraditional students, and more than half are first generation.

Step One: Know Your Audience

The Carlow community that we want to engage via social media channels is defined as prospective and current students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and many Pittsburgh businesses. We deal with a wide range of demographics and a global audience with ages ranging from 13 years old to 65+. It’s a difficult feat to engage such a diverse audience at the same time. Each age group has different needs. Our challenge is to be able to appeal to all groups with our postings in social media channels. Where some posts may appeal to all, we also try to include more targeted posts, such as events aimed towards traditional, nontraditional and graduate students.

Step Two – Listening

In 2008, we introduced Facebook and Twitter to Carlow University. At that time we focused on building an audience, and then we listened. We heard what our students were discussing, what they were concerned about, and we started to build our strategies around our audience conversations.

“When social media first made it big there was a lot of noise about the importance of companies listening to their customers talking on these channels. That dictate to listen is the foundation of everything you do in social media – at least, it is if you want your social media program to be successful.” – Radian6, Nine Rules of Social Media

Step 3: Targeted, Strategic Engagement

At Carlow, we listen and engage differently, depending on the demographic we’re hoping to reach. Here are some examples:

For Parents

Carlow surveys all prospective students and their parents when they visit the campus. According to the results, parents collaborate with their child’s college search efforts. Not only are the prospective students following us on Facebook, so are their parents.

We have found parents’ top priorities consist not only of academics but also safety. Therefore, we focus on language that shows that the Carlow community is a supportive home away from home.

Generally, posts are designed to include:

  • Campus photos tagging, “Beautiful day on campus.”
  • Supportive tips for finals
  • Health option tips to relieve stress, eat right, be active
  • “Shout-outs” to specific current students for their accomplishments
  • Safety tips
  • Photos of Pittsburgh and the community
  • Highlighting service center events

For Prospective Students

Forty-seven percent of Carlow University’s audience is between the ages of 13-24. According to our campus visit surveys, prospective students in this demographic want to hear about activities: “What’s happening on campus?”

Carlow has a small campus and is often perceived as having few student activities. Facebook allows us to show off in a bigger way.

We create posts by:

  • Sharing photos from campus events, such as:
    • “Spring on the Green”
    • Athletics
    • Alternative Spring Break
    • Student Government Activities
    • Photos of “Life as a Carlow student”
  • Residence Halls – Holiday door decorating contests
  • Student Activities – St. Patty’s Day Parade, sport events, concerts, etc.
  • Commuter Students’ Events
  • Forming sub-groups for various activities and promoting students to join
  • Sharing local events, including other universities in the area
  • Inviting current students to share in day-to-day happenings via posts and photos allows their friends to participate in the conversation; taking Carlow viral.

For Alums and Current Students

Carlow University’s Alumni and current students play a big part in our community engagement. Alums stay connected with Carlow through Facebook and bridge the Carlow community through engaging our students on all levels. Alums give advice, support, share stories, and spread the word. In addition, alums network with current students, helping them with internships and job opportunities. Both past and present students ‘Like’ and share many of our posts. If we want them to contribute to the conversation, all we need to do is tag a post, “Hey Alums” or “Hey Carlow Students,” and they are there – almost immediately.

Now that I’ve shared a few of our strategies, here’s what our audience likes and doesn’t like. We’re always testing our activities on our social media platforms and reviewing our trends.

Step 4: Analysis. Data is Our Guide

One of our keys to success at Carlow is that we don’t guess at what works—we pay a lot of attention to the data we have access to in order to help gauge our progress and drive our strategy. Here are some examples of what our data tells us:

Carlow’s highest “Like” posts

  • Using the word ‘Friday’ is almost always Carlow’s number one popular post. We even used it in a Monday post, – “It’s not Friday, but it’s a beautiful day on campus.” This post had the highest “Like” rate for a Monday. Students just love Fridays.
  • Congratulating students on awards and giving ‘shout outs’ are also highly liked posts. Friends always show support by publicly liking another friend’s accomplishments.
  • Using testimonial or quotes from other students and alums targeted to program and demographics.
  • Sharing photos from events targeted to program and demographics.
  • Posting Trivia Tuesday is our popular way to ask questions and get interaction. Most of the participants are alumni.
  • Using Facebook ads, we almost always get a large jump in participation.

What usually fails on Carlow’s Facebook

  • Asking general questions almost always fails. An example: “What’s everyone doing this weekend?” Or, “Where is your favorite place to study on campus?” However, adding the word ‘Trivia’ seems to help.
  • Everyone loves a free t-shirt, right? In the Carlow community, we can’t give them away. We’ve tried photo contests at different times of the year, and we are lucky to get one photo. We’ve tried “refer a friend” programs with not one referral. We’ve found that the better the swag, the better the participation. We have increased our budget for higher quality giveaways, such as sweatshirts, portfolios, mugs, scarves, blankets, umbrellas and flip flops.
  • “’Like’ if you like…” doesn’t always work. We try not to abuse this trend. If we do it often (once a week), it is not successful. However, if we toss it in once a month, it does extremely well.


In closing, we’ve learned that what really matters is that you never stop listening to your audience. We didn’t read about that in a blog post and give it lip service; we actively implement listening strategies and then utilize the data we gather as a result to help drive the rest of our communication and engagement strategy. And listening, combined with knowing your target audience, tailoring your communications to those different audience segments, then paying close attention to your analytics and the data that’s available to you through a wide variety of tools is how you can evaluate the effectiveness of your social media communications efforts.

At Carlow, our goal is to build a thriving community that can be an integral part of our overall communications efforts. We want our social media initiatives to be valuable for prospective students, current students, alumni, staff, faculty and the entire Carlow community. And one final point—we understand that change is a given. We collectively realized that the social media space is a new and evolving dynamic. As such, we are constantly refining and tailoring our social media initiatives, and letting the needs of our community lead the way.

Jenny MacBethJenny MacBeth is a professional with more than two decades in advertising, marketing, communications, and program management with specialties in social media and online marketing. As a communications project manager at Carlow University, she manages all integrated communications planning for the enrollment offices. You can find Jenny on Twitter @JennyMacBeth, connect with her on LinkedIn and check out what Jenny and her team at Carlow are doing on Facebook at



  • Fantastic information, Jenny.  Thanks so much for sharing.  I really liked your insight that even the word “Friday” (whether it is really Friday or not) get the most Likes.  It made me smile because I hear about “Friday” all the time in person, so why not take it to social media as a way to engage people online?  This is one of those “low hanging fruit” things – it’s right there to pick it, so go ahead and do it!  I appreciate the reminder of that.  Will try be testing that out myself.  

    I recently started a blog dedicated to exploring social media in higher education with a colleague, and we’re working on curating content from people all over the university in different divisions & functions.  If it’s of interest to you, I hope you’ll check it out and find it useful.

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