Social Studies

Clemson students help the admissions office use social media to engage incoming freshmen.
Social Studies
Organizations that are still struggling to develop effective social media strategies might want to pay attention to an undergraduate research project at Clemson University’s College of Business & Behavioral Science in South Carolina. Three years ago, a group of students launched a project as part of the university’s Creative Inquiry course, a cross-disciplinary independent study program in which the class chooses research topics to explore. Because these students were especially interested in the impact of social media, they decided to develop a social media strategy to help Clemson’s admissions office reach out to incoming freshmen.

With the support of the school’s Social Analytics Institute (SAI), Clemson students now have tracked more than 30,000 social media posts that have been shared on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks by newly accepted students. Clemson has created a full-time team to post official responses to individuals whenever appropriate. The team uses SalesForce’s Radian6 platform to analyze social media feeds to ensure they don’t miss relevant posts, create clouds of the most popular search terms on each feed, and learn what hashtags people are using most.

By monitoring Twitter, for example, the research team can find tweets from high school seniors who post pictures of themselves with their Clemson acceptance letters. The team forwards those tweets to Clemson’s admissions staff, who tweet back messages of congratulations and welcome.

The goal of this project was to generate excitement around the fact that these students were now official “Tigers,” the school’s mascot, and a part of the school’s family, says Gaines Warner. Warner was a communications major who participated in the student-led study; he has since graduated, and now serves as a project coordinator for SAI. “We started this project because we knew that high school seniors who receive acceptance letters have a lot of questions,” he explains. He points to a rumor among incoming freshmen that the dorms wouldn’t have enough room for all of them. “We thought the best way to address that problem was to use social media aggregations to collect data from Facebook, Twitter, and any platform where these rumors were circulating. That way, we could reach out to students and say, ‘Here’s the best dorm for you, and here’s how you can find a roommate.’”

When icy weather once slowed down mail delivery, the team discovered that applicants were upset that they hadn’t received their decision letters, when some of their friends had. The school tweeted each person who posted on the topic, explaining the delay and assuring them that the letters were on their way.

The team also could pinpoint patterns in students’ social media behavior. For instance, after noticing two spikes in social media activity in mid-February, team members were able to correlate the first to the day students received acceptance letters; the second, to the day others received rejections. This analysis also revealed that a number of students had started using the hashtag #TigertownBound. “It was created by a student,” says Warner. “We thought, ‘Wow, that’s better than anything we could have come up with!’”

The work of the Creative Inquiry class has been so successful, students and faculty have presented the results at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Polytechnic University-Hong Kong, as well as at industry conferences such as Dell World. Starting this spring, SAI began working with John Tripp, an assistant professor of information systems at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, to use social media monitoring to determine whether schools receive a higher volume of applications after their sports teams make the championships.

Kristy Ward, a junior marketing major and SAI intern, was an incoming freshman when the research project got started. She remembers being able to find answers to her questions on the Clemson Facebook and Twitter accounts. Today, she’s excited about the project and how it reflects student behaviors and preferences.

“When I was a junior in high school, everyone was using Twitter, but now students are more into Instagram. The findings continually change as students drift to different media platforms. This has been a great opportunity for me to get my hands on real data and work with real organizations,” says Ward. “So many companies fail to connect with customers because they fail with their social media plans. That’s why we have to be involved in social media.”