Having spent years honing strategies to interact with young people on Twitter and Facebook, many universities are finding that students are giving up on these once-essential social media platforms.
With their parents, relatives and even university lecturers moving on to Facebook, millennials are turning to edgier, mobile-friendly apps where they can share photos, videos and chat unwatched by families or teachers.
Snapchat, where images disappear seconds after they are viewed, has now become a major player on campus, while Yik Yak, WhatsApp and Instagram are also part of everyday life. Even newer apps – Kik, Peach, Periscope, Anchor and Yeti – are also gaining traction among students.
So how should universities approach the dizzying array of new apps used by students? Is it time to ditch Twitter and Facebook in favour of sites used by the so-called “Snapchat generation”?
“We are now using Snapchat for recruitment,” Emma Leech, director of marketing and advancement at Loughborough University, told the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit in Barcelona this month.
There was, however, some initial trepidation about using the platform, once known primarily as the “sexting app”, for official university business, she added.
“We would not have touched it with a bargepole a few years ago because it was mainly seen as the way teenagers sent dodgy pictures to each other,” said Ms Leech.
Other universities are also waking up to the possibilities of these apps.
The University of Southampton has opened a WhatsApp channel to give students news on jobs and events on campus.
Some lecturers are using Snapchat to elicit instant questions and feedback from students during lectures.
Both Snapchat and Yik Yak, which allows students to post comments and pictures anonymously, could be used positively by universities to engage with prospective or current students, believes Alistair Beech, senior digital communications officer at the University of Central Lancashire.
“Both channels can be essential for students adjusting to a new community and environment,” said Mr Beech, who explained how student support services were using Yik Yak to identify and help distressed undergraduates.
“Both networks are mobile, real-time and change according to location – providing great opportunities for universities to connect with prospective students and students wherever they are – campus or not,” said Mr Beech, whose talk on social media at the Case Europe Social Media and Community Conference in Brighton earlier this month has gone viral.
Although Yik Yak has been at the centre of several “cyberbullying” stories recently, its record on dealing with harassment actually “puts more established networks (especially Twitter) to shame”, he added.
“Yik Yak is ruled by its users through up and down voting, not a commercially focused algorithm – and is very hot on bullying and harassment, especially within university campuses,” Mr Beech said.
Rather than try to ban such a network, universities should seek to use student-generated content in intelligent ways that will benefit the institution, he said.
“It’s routine for many students to Snap or Yak when they wake and [they continue to do so] throughout their day – they create content 24-7,” he said, suggesting that institutions identify “key influencers” on campus who “live and breathe their institutions” and invite them to contribute to official channels.
“As universities battle for applicants, a steady stream of positive content and conversations can make the difference between a student applying or not,” he said.
Best for student affairs? Three apps
How useful are these social media apps for communicating with students?
Alistair Beech of the University of Central Lancashire assessed them for the 2016 Case Europe Social Media and Community Conference. The images are from his presentation.