An analysis of UK universities on social media

theunipod Social Media Rankings 2013

By Pamela Head,

Social media is key to student recruitment in the digital age, and our new social media ranking reveals the winners and losers among UK universities. While Oxford University is outperforming the University of Cambridge for fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, other top UK universities face stiff competition from rivals often ranked lower in the academic league tables, as they seek to engage with the next generation of applicants.

Though the Oxford crew may have won this year's Boat Race by a narrow margin, when it comes to social media, the university is streets ahead of Cambridge, with over 1.1 million Facebook 'Likes' compared to Cambridge’s half a million. Oxford also has 23% more Twitter followers, and though Cambridge can claim more subscribers on YouTube, they will also be aware of Oxford University's success on iTunes with over 20 million downloads in the last four years.

Our ranking also illustrates the strong performance of universities that typically struggle in academic rankings for performance and reputation, when it comes to online outreach. The University of Salford and Oxford Brookes University rank fourth and fifth respectively, well ahead of the likes of Bath, Exeter and Bristol.

Salford has attracted over 100,000 Facebook ‘Likes’ and nearly 20,000 Twitter followers - an impressive global audience in stark contrast to the underwhelming performance of neighbouring University of Manchester, which ranks 117th in the 2013 results.

Edinburgh Napier University make the top 10 and Robert Gordon University the top 20, despite their relatively lower positions in this year’s Guardian and Complete University Guide Rankings. In contrast, top-tier universities such as Loughborough University, ranked 14th by the Guardian and the Complete University Guide, languish much further down the social media ranking in 78th, with just 12,192 Facebook Likes, 11,982 Twitter followers and 488 YouTube subscribers.

But in an age of international student recruitment, how important is social media for universities? Chris Larkin, University of Salford’s Director of Communications, said: “Engaging students across those platforms which today form an integral part of their daily lives is an essential part of any marketing, recruitment and brand strategy.  Ignore it at your peril.”

With over four billion videos viewed a day on YouTube and 60 hours of video uploaded every minute, it is surprising to see that seven UK universities don't have any social media links on their university homepage. Indeed two of them had no social media links on their website whatsoever, suggesting a critical lack of social media engagement.

The most surprising outcome, according to theunipod.com Founder David Nelkin, is the delay by some institutions to take full advantage of the outreach provided by these platforms: “Social media is an opportunity for universities to gain international outreach at low cost, and these platforms are where today’s youth spend much of their time

"It is important for universities to fully engage with students who may otherwise not follow up on their initial interest. And with the options available for precise demographic targeting, social media should be a key channel in any university’s marketing strategy.

The results of theunipod Social Media Ranking 2013 show the opportunity for any university to compete with the ‘superbrands’ in a social context. "To not have a YouTube channel or links from your website to your social media pages, is a lost opportunity," Nelkin says. "Not only are these platforms great as a marketing tool, they now form part of the student experience, which in turn adds to the brand experience. Fresher’s able to communicate with their peers before starting university and speak with current students, will have more engaging brand experience which will form part of the decision making process.”

As the applicants to places ratio at UK universities continues to widen, and most students are only able to attend one or two open days due to time constraints and distance, social media has taken on an even more important role in today’s world. It gives students the opportunity to explore their prospective university without any inconvenience.

Once a student ‘Likes’ a university, that institution is promoted to all their friends, increasing a university’s reach and brand awareness. The reach can snowball very quickly. Sharing content, commenting on posts and retweeting all extend that university’s reach, a crucial factor in an ever-increasing global market.

A recent Guardian article on the value of a university brand highlighted this point, identifying “the dramatic upsurge in the use of social media by university communication departments, from press release to tweet in five years, has left universities vulnerable to instant criticism when such promises are not met.”

In other words? Make the most of social media’s influence and reach in order to brand your university successfully and increase student satisfaction.

See the full social media rankings here.

Methodology

In collecting the data for the 2013 ranking, theunipod.com, an online guide for students to choose their university and course, used numbers of Facebook Likes, Twitter Followers and YouTube subscribers. Because many universities use different online strategies, with some using individual Twitter accounts aimed at different groups of students, theunipod recorded data for the groups linked from the university homepage. Where no such groups existed, the top search result from Twitter was taken instead. A weighting was also applied according to student populations, to take into account the fact that a larger student body should lead to higher engagement numbers. Student population numbers are from the HESA Students in Higher Education Institutions 2011/12 where available. The social media data was collected the week beginning 9th September 2013.