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This post is written by Christopher Jones, Associate Director of Web Content and Strategy at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.

Communications and marketing teams, you have a problem. Prospective students don’t trust you online. Here’s how you can fix it.

According to a recent study from the Knight Foundation — the abundance of fake or deceptive content online has caused “almost half” of college student respondents to lack confidence in discerning real from fake news on social media. Remember, 50% of teens report being online constantly. This presents a unique challenge and opportunity for higher education — our main audience is judging us based on what they see online and yet, initially, might not trust us. But they should! You represent a legitimate institution with a fantastic story to tell your future graduates.

Here are seven tips on how to build online trust among prospective students.

1. Produce authentic content

Be as honest and authentic with your content as you can. You know it’s rarely okay to use a stock photo, but don’t use inauthentic or dated photos either (easier said than done given photography budgets). If you’re writing an article about an undergraduate engineering class, use a photo with engineering students. More specifically use undergraduate engineering students in that class! Again, photo budgets are never big enough to feed the online content beast, so if your office doesn’t have a community digital single-lens reflex camera (dSLR) and staff haven’t learned how to use it, prices couldn’t be lower these days for cameras and Lynda.com tutorials.

As an added bonus, real students featured in your social media photos will tag themselves and share, which will grow your reach, engagement and social trust.

2. Let your students post your social media content

This one sounds a little scary. We’re just going to give students our account credentials and hope for the best? Not exactly. That wouldn’t be fair to the student.

Maybe I’m biased but I’m continually impressed and amazed at how dynamic, creative and mature the students I work with are. They want to succeed just as much as you do but need a little support — particularly if they have little experience with communications or marketing strategy. With a little coaching and planning ahead of time, your students will thrive with this challenge. For example, if it’s a Snapchat “takeover,” talk through their content plans and make a posting schedule. Debrief when it’s done and then do it again.

3. Demonstrate who your target students are

Not every student is the right fit for every institution. This is okay. Communicate what makes your student body unique. Some students thrive at a huge school in the middle of a city. Some do better at liberal arts college tucked away in a small town off the beaten path. Some students were valedictorian and some were “B-average” students, active in extracurricular activities who work really hard. You know who your students are better than anyone. Be honest about the type of student who succeeds at your school and communicate why you are the right fit for them.

4. Show real alumni outcomes

Show actual alumni outcomes along with your internal outcome career data sets. Alumni love to talk about their careers and how your institution made it possible. Using their words is a terrific way to be authentic and build trust with future graduates.

5. Humanize your account

Be accessible and human in your online interactions. If you get tweeted at, tweet back! Respond to those Facebook messages and comments. Sign them with your name so your audiences know it’s a real person with accountability. Do you send mass emails? What happens when someone emails that address back? Is someone reading and responding to those?

6. Don’t overproduce video

I’ve worked for months on magnum opus video projects that sadly generated just as much (and sometimes less) engagement as walking down to the quad with a camera and a lapel mic and asking students about finals. When most video content on social is often instant and raw, an overproduced video may feel like a commercial interruption on a newsfeed. That being said, don’t abandon well-produced video entirely — it’s always useful to have that elevator-pitch sizzle reel for prospective students or a campaign statement video if you’re interacting with donors. Those videos should live someplace on the web and be easily accessible by admissions/development staff, rather than existing entirely on a social media channel, where it will become outdated not long after being posted.

7. Teach thought leaders (President, Deans, Chancellors, etc.) how to be successful on social

If thought leaders at your institution have a social media account, don’t use it just to share links to press releases. Don’t post content for them either (often easier said than done). Prospective students are going to expect there’s a real person behind that username, so train and guide your leaders to be successful on social media. Regularly feeding them content ideas help. “One-pager” references on how-to’s and best practices help too. Presidents love “one-pagers.”

Remember, you have an incredible story to tell and students, alumni, faculty, and staff who want to help you tell it with honesty. Use these resources to build real trust with prospective students in an online world where truth and integrity are increasingly rare.


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Higher Ed Live

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