How does your college stack up against its peers on social media?

Many of the top universities seeing big numbers on three platforms are not hitting one that really matters with students.

Does your college or university rule TikTok? Is it a star on Instagram? Does it lead or follow on Facebook or Twitter?

The best of the best Division I schools, according to the 2022 Higher Education Social Media Engagement Report by Blair Feehan and the team at Rival IQ, are driving interest, comments, clicks and shares across multiple platforms. Some have more than 100,000 followers.

In Rival IQ’s top spot for the fourth consecutive year is the University of Iowa, which rates No. 1 on Facebook, No. 3 on Instagram and No. 8 on Twitter. It has been especially dominant across social in terms of engaging fans and alumni of the Hawkeyes athletic teams. One of its posts last fall—just a photo and caption of football fans at Kinnick Stadium celebrating a win that put them in the Big Ten championship—received more than 15,000 reactions.

“Three things contribute to our success,” said Michael Benning, director of digital marketing at Iowa. “Number one, the Hawkeye community has a tremendous amount of pride. Number two, our university has a lot of very talented people. Number three, we remain focused on our strategy of providing content that our audiences value while also strengthening the brand of the university.”

The one area, however, that Iowa hasn’t completely found its niche yet is TikTok, an explosive platform embraced by teens and young adults that was added to Rival IQ’s list this year. Iowa ranked 41st in the category. James Madison University, which rated No. 2 overall and No. 1 on Instagram, only placed 44th on TikTok. The rest of the top five—Utah State University, Georgia Tech and Ohio University—did better, all placing in the top 40. Feehan says the importance of developing a following cannot be understated.

“Half the schools in this study don’t have active (or in some cases, even registered) TikTok handles yet,” Feehan wrote. “Get on it, Higher Ed, if only to boot the crafty punks who are sitting on your handles hoping to trade access for a full-ride scholarship. We’d hate to see you struggle for a handle that matches your university’s brand by waiting too long.”

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Those who are getting it are Central Michigan University, the University of South Dakota, and Baylor University, which finished 1-2-3 on TikTok. Baylor was the only university to place in the top 10 overall and top 10 on TikTok, putting far less emphasis on Instagram (No. 63) and Facebook (No. 45) while remaining very active on Twitter (No. 16). It was one of several new institutions to crack Rival IQ’s 10 best. SEC powerhouses the University of Georgia, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina were the others, along with surprising Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas (a solid 13th on Facebook and 19th on Twitter in terms of engagement).

The robust RivalIQ study tracks “likes, comments, favorites, retweets, shares, and reactions” at colleges from June through the following May each year. For the three top channels—Instagram, Facebook and Twitter—Rival IQ weighs success based on engagement against the number of followers it has. The methodology for TikTok is slightly different, with engagement divided by views. Feehan says benchmarking is the key to success.

“It’s crucial to go beyond likes and favorites because audience size is hugely important: 100 likes is great engagement for a college or university with 1,000 followers but is a drop in the bucket to a school with 100,000 followers,” she says. “Engagement rate helps us take audience size into account to see who’s really reaching the highest percentage of their fans and followers with their social posts, which are the schools you need to beat.”

What are college social media teams doing to increase likes and spark reactions? The obvious one is athletics, where photographers and followers have leveraged the successes of sports teams with crowd shots, fan photos and players celebrating. Another are sublime campus shots that capture the true spirit and unique designs that make their colleges unique and memorable. Sometimes, they don’t even have to be. As Feehan points out, even a great sunset shot over a campus tower can be a talker. Lastly, successful colleges are meeting followers where they are, and Rival IQ says that is increasingly on TikTok.

For a look at the Top 10s, including those on individual platforms, readers can head to the RivalIQ lists here.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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