The Overlooked Retention Strategy

The Overlooked Retention Strategy

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

As a former admissions professional, turned retention specialist, I spend a lot of time contemplating the reasons students decide to stay at or leave an institution. The research makes compelling arguments for a host of complex issues as it relates to student persistence – academic preparedness, campus climate, commitment to educational goals, social and academic integration, and financial resources. But it is the more recent research pointing to the important role overall satisfaction plays in a student’s decision to persist that has me most intrigued.

When I think about my own level of satisfaction with my choices and what makes me waiver on those decisions or solidifies my commitment to them – it often comes from outside messages that either remind me I made a good choice, seek to tell me I made a bad choice, or tell me there are better choices out there that I never considered and/or brushed aside all too quickly. So, where do I get a majority of these messages?

They come from social media.

I wish I could tell you the messages I receive are from reputable sources such as Consumer Reports or The Wall Street Journal. And I may look there first to narrow down my choices, but the reality is that I, like many others, trust my “friends” on my social networks more.

I am a faithful Facebook and Instagram user, which is not too surprising, according to the demographic information on them – let’s just say, I fit the profile. However, I have several friends who prefer Snapchat, Twitter, or a host of other platforms out there. The point is, I’m not alone in how I send and receive messages, as many of us are heavily influenced by social media. And, these messages – whether consciously or unconsciously – influence not only the choices I make, but also my satisfaction level of those choices.

So, you may be wondering, what is your point, and how exactly does this relate to student retention? The point is this:

Institutions are missing a huge opportunity in their retention strategies by not focusing enough on social media.

Sure, different offices or departments at an institution may have a social media platform they engage current students on, and likely, they have even more than one. And perhaps, these offices even have an intentional social media strategy. But is this strategy, part of an institution-wide strategy? If not, it’s missing the mark.

It’s very common for an institution to invest in a social media strategy for its outside constituents – prospective students, alumni, and donors, but too often there is not a strategic focus on current students as the perception is they’re already “sold” on the institution.

However, ask any retention specialist in the country if they believe this to be true, and you will likely hear the resounding sentiment, “This is not the case at all!”

At one point or another, current students made a decision to attend the institution. But what is your institution doing to remind them daily that they made a good decision to attend in the first place?

More than likely, at some point in the first year of attending an institution, a student is likely to encounter institutional bureaucracy or a frustrating process or requirement along the way. While an institution may perceive these processes to be necessary, these small inconveniences to the student can add up and serve as negative messages regarding the decision to attend your institution. And, in a world where consumers have increasing choices and are used to switching between cell carriers, cable providers, or favorite grocery stores for better service and convenience, colleges are not immune.

So, how can these negative messages be counter-balanced? Obviously, delivering excellent customer service in all student facing offices is the most ideal, but even then, there are some students likely to have a bad experience, or at least perceive themselves to have had a bad experience. One of the easiest, and most cost-effective ways to counter-balance these inevitable negative messages, is to create targeted, positive ones utilizing social media. And new research is slowly starting to support this hypothesis, too.

Using social media, you can send positive messages intended to influence attitude and satisfaction, particularly as it relates to a student’s decision to attend your institution. The opportunities for edifying a student’s choice to attend your institution are nearly limitless on social media. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve put together a short list of ideas to get you started.

  • Show-off Your Campus. Nearly every campus has an iconic building, beautiful green space, or impressive architecture. Remind students they attend a unique and special place with new and interesting pictures of campus in every season. Want to drive engagement on the post? Use the pictures to create an in-person or virtual scavenger hunt competition.

  • Showcase Your Alumni. Reminding students that alumni from your institution go on to pursue a variety of interesting and creative endeavors can go a long way in keeping students persisting in their current programs. Even better, highlight alumni who decided on a major later in their college career to remind those undeclared or pre-major students that persisting may be a better decision than taking a break in order to better discern a direction.

  • What’s Happening Around Town? While on-campus opportunities are a great reason to attend an institution, the surrounding community often plays a large role in the experience too. What is there to do around your campus? Museums…parks…local festivals…favorite restaurants…visiting artists, etc. Put together a Pinterest board and highlight all of the fun location and attractions students can explore just beyond your campus walls.

  • Spotlight Faculty. Faculty members are often publishing new and innovative research, receiving awards, or serving as leaders in the local community, giving colleges a variety of content to remind their students they have access to some of the best and the brightest in the field at their institution. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box either. College professors are some of the most interesting people who often have a wide array of interests outside of their known discipline. Consider sharing a glimpse into the “day-in-the life” of a faculty member to show a more personal side.

  • Spread the News. Is your institution being recognized locally, nationally, or even internationally? Share your successes with your current students. While each student may not be interested in every story, just seeing their school in the news (for something positive) sends a message of belonging to something that the outside world also recognizes as special.

And last, but certainly not least…

  • Highlight Current Students. Usually the most exciting things happening on campus are happening because of students themselves. Did one of your student organizations just win a competition? Or maybe a service organization just raised the largest donation ever for a local charity? Or perhaps students have rallied together to help a current student or faculty member in need? Students want to know they are in classes with “movers and shakers,” so whatever your students are doing, be sure to share it!

As a bonus, not only will highlighting these areas pay dividends as part of a comprehensive and holistic retention strategic plan, but it will greatly enhance many of the overall strategic goals of the institution which include external relations with prospective students and their families, as well as alumni and potential donors. All of these constituents want to be part of something special too, and these posts will go a long way in reminding them their decision to be a part of your institution was the right one (either as a future student, current student, alumnus, community partner, or donor), and they will continue to make it.

Every campus has a unique and special story. But unfortunately, not every campus is sharing it. Don’t be one of them. Rally the troops on campus and start the conversation by asking, “How are we going to daily remind students they made a great decision to attend our institution?”

And, if after that conversation, you too are convinced social media could play a large role in your institution’s retention strategy, check out Learn Forward’s eBook: Creating a Social Media Presence, where we walk you through five steps to help you put together an individualized, creative, and strategic social media plan that can be implemented campus-wide to support your campus’s retention goals.

Emily Siegel

Associate Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX