Student blogs that are sponsored by Admissions offices have quickly spread all over the country. If you haven't started a blog like this yet, you are probably looking at what other institutions are doing with great interest, envy, or fear-and definitely with some pressing questions.
Should you launch your own student blogs to support your recruiting efforts? How can you ensure these blogs about college life will end up generating more applications as well as bigger and better classes of freshmen? Beyond the media hype, can these interactive diaries translate to better yields?
Consider why they can help attract the best prospective students and persuade them to attend your school. Everything comes down to the Holy Grail of authenticity-or at least a perception of authenticity.
Whether you call them Millenials or NetGeners, today's prospective students just don't buy marketing messages delivered on glossy brochures. They've spent their teen years watching all sorts of reality TV shows and fallen in love with their "transparency." They rely on their peers' opinions and recommendations on music, movies, and education. And, according to the report "Teen Content Creators and Consumers" (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2005), 38 percent of all teens who are online say they read blogs.
Already fueled by the prosperous college guide market, this generation's yearning to find out the truth about college life has made student blogs sought-after commodities in the college selection process.
Some corporate players have noticed, taking advantage of this new trend.
There's TheU, for instance. Founded by Doug Imbruce, a recent graduate from Columbia, the company produces and sells DVDs created to reveal the "real" college experience at different institutions.
Recently, current students have had the opportunity to set up blogs and share the lows and highs of their college life. "Bloggers for TheU.com are incredibly aware of the many different shortcomings of their schools and help students enjoy a happier, less stressful college transition by preparing these kids for challenges, big and small," says Imbruce. "The bloggers are also on hand to document and illustrate the many different ways in which some schools cater to specific needs better than others."
With TheU's blogs getting several thousand visits per month, chances are a lot of information about your institution is already available on this website, which is promoted to high school counselors. On these blogs, visitors can find good feedback about college life as well as not-so-good takes-as in this post dated April 24, 2006, by Judy L. from MIT:
"It is lonely up here, and that is why so many of us drink or get depressed. Some, maybe even most, of the heavy drinkers at MIT never even touched a drink in high school-but they can pound a 30-rack [of beer] away in one night without even blinking here."
So, what's a school to do when this type of testimonial is available and promoted on the internet? Join the fray, add other viewpoints, and make them easily accessible to high school seniors and their parents (which MIT does, with its student blogs sponsored by the Admissions office).
"Interaction between these audiences is inevitable and already occurring elsewhere, so why not facilitate the conversations and take advantage of it on our own websites? Prospective students and their families are visiting RateMyProfessor.com, LiveJournal.com, or TheU.com to learn 'the truth' about our institutions," says Bob Robertson-Boyd, web manager at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Since its first student journal in February 2003, the institution has offered several blogs. Administrators there even pushed the envelope further last fall by featuring the latest posts right on the university's home page-without any preliminary sort of content editing.
While student blogs can help prospective students find balanced accounts of college life at a particular institution, they also complement or further the benefits of student-guided campus visits.
Any well-rounded campus tour led by an engaging and interesting freshman can work wonders on undecided admitted students. Similarly, good student blogs inform, engage, and give a glimpse of student life. At Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., 82 percent of the student body is from out of state, with 48 states and 42 countries represented. So campus visits aren't always possible and L&C student blogs have been an excellent substitute since 2003.
"Our student blogs provide insight into L&C and give the college an added dimension that can be difficult to convey over the internet," says Michael Sexton, dean of Admissions.
Blogs can also help admitted students zero in on their final choice school. "Prospective students, and certainly their parents, watch with a critical eye when we show them beautiful words and pictures depicting a perfect campus life. What these decision-makers need instead is a way to understand what life is like on a particular campus to help them decide if that is the right place for them," confirms Nancy Prater, web content coordinator at Ball State University (Ind.), where 12 students started to blog last fall.
Finally, good student blogs can help high school graduates with their last-minute questions or doubts at decision time or even earlier in the selection process-without disclosing their identity. That's exactly why Beloit College (Wis.) launched its blogging program last year. Since a third of its applications had been sent without any documented first contact, officials began offering another option to this type of prospective student.
"Blogs are a good way to invite the attention of students without asking them to make a commitment. Our marketing goal was to provide a way to observe Beloit in a comfortable, non-threatening way," explains Nancy Monnich Benedict, vice president for enrollment services.
All this does make sense. But, what kind of return on investment can be expected from these student blogs?
That's where things get tricky. Launching and maintaining student blogs doesn't require a huge investment. From staff time to a few thousands dollars covering bloggers' compensation and/or technical gear, the necessary budget remains low compared to other tactics. So most early adoptors didn't spend too much time setting up processes to measure their ROI.
While e-mails, application forms, or conversations with admission advisors have expressed positive feedback, measurement data generally isn't available yet, even in schools with three-year-old initiatives.
"As soon as the right tools are available, I fully intend to look at our blogs to track views, time spent on each post, comments posted, on-campus interviews with families, and effort to publish, to try to extrapolate some form of ROI," says Robertson-Boyd. "I want to be able to say that Capital's blogs were responsible for 12 undergraduate students and three newspaper articles in 2007. Assuming the best, of course."
Ball State invested more in its blogging program, essentially in the form of promotional postcards mailed to high school seniors. Just a few months after their September 2005 launch, their 12 student blogs resulted in lots of press clips and received more than 11,000 visits per day. "We have not tried to quantify our ROI but can say confidently that the value we have received has far outweighed our cost," says Prater.
To determine the impact of the blogs, staff have conducted intercept interviews of prospects and parents during campus tours last spring. They're also surveying incoming freshmen and their parents during summer orientation. (Hint for prospective blog program launchers: If you plan to start your own student blogs soon, don't forget to borrow these ideas.)
It would be a mistake to think student blogs will work all the time. The success of these programs depends on institutional culture, the talent of the bloggers, and the efficiency of promotional efforts.
At George Fox University (Ore.), MBA student blogs, tried for nine months and then discontinued, never developed a real audience. Graduate Admissions Director Brendon Connelly (who personally blogs with great success at SlackerManager .com) says, "We wanted the blogs to be so compelling that they would be a recruiting tool that we could highlight. Blogs can be and do all that, but, we now know, there's much more to a successful implementation than simply selecting smart and witty students with impressive titles to blog for your school or program."
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.