Why Colleges Should Still Use Facebook Despite Declining Teen Usage

I’m going to come right out and say it: I don’t think the reported decline in Facebook use by teenagers is anything that marketers & communicators should be seriously concerned about. While we’ve been talking about this for months, this particular diatribe was sparked by a blog post included in the daily email of a national association for higher education professionals. Someone has to tell college administrators that they are not wasting their time on Facebook. Data from small sub-populations in London that leads a researcher to proclaim that Facebook is “dead and buried” or an anecdotal article penned for Mashable does not constitute a trend.

I prefer to get my data from studies that use national samples and trusted research methods, namely the PEW Research Center. Here’s what PEW reported in their latest report focused on teens and social networking co-authored with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society (May, 2013):

  • In 2011, 93% of teens (12-17) had a Facebook profile
  • In 2012, 94% of teens had a Facebook profile
  • 81% of respondents to the 2012 survey reported that they used their Facebook profile more than other social networks.

Global Web Index claims to measure trends in active (once per month) Facebook usage among teens (16-19), and they’ve recorded a drop from 79% in Q4 2012 to 63% in Q3 2013—but even they are quick to report that “Facebook is alive and kicking” among teenagers. Their methodology (available if you provide your email) appears sound, although their survey collection tool is primarily used on desktops and tablets, so teens that use their smartphone as a primary means to access the internet (and may be more frequent Facebook users) likely aren’t included.

Teens are still Facebook users, but they’re just not as enthusiastic. The Berkman researchers wrote “While Facebook is still deeply integrated in teens’ everyday lives, it is sometimes seen as a utility and an obligation rather than an exciting new platform that teens can claim as their own.” No, Facebook isn’t as cool as Snapchat or Instagram—but it’s entrenched in the lives of almost every teenager.

Just because it’s not trendy & cool doesn’t mean it’s not an effective communication channel (were postcards ever trendy & cool?). I’d argue—in another, longer blog post—that most colleges and universities will never be cool (and should let the kids have Snapchat to themselves)—but they have infinite potential to be useful.

Young Adult Usage Also Matters

But it’s not just teens that campuses should be concerned with. First of all, only 46% of 4-year degree recipients in 2012-2013 were 18-24 years old (source), so even admissions officers at many institutions should only be mildly concerned with the reported drop in teen usage because their prospective students may not fall into that category. But regardless of traditional or non-traditional student status, almost all college students are young adults when they get to campus.

The latest PEW data (hot off the presses—December 2013) report that 84% of online young adults (18-29) use Facebook. This represents a 2% decline from data collected approximately one year earlier. Campus communicators spend a lot of time and money trying to reach current students and alumni, and Facebook is still a viable tool for that.

Yes, You Need To Pay

Creating a page and trying to get likes is no longer an effective Facebook strategy if you’re trying to sell something or impact your enrollment yield. However, you can strategically target over half of your prospective or current student audience on a platform that they use every day. Do you consider that a dying platform? Are we suddenly against paying to distribute our messages? No one blinks an eye if you need to spend $75 to make color copies of posters to distribute around campus, so why not spend $75 on a small, targeted Facebook ad campaign instead?

The previously cited PEW/Berkman study found that teens were quick to post their information on the profile they use most often (which we know from their data is Facebook).

  • 92% post their real name
  • 84% post their interest
  • 82% post their birth date
  • 71% post their school name
  • 71% post the city or town where they live
  • 53% post their email address
  • 16% automatically share their location when they post

This makes teenagers easy to target with well-designed Facebook advertising. If they’re using Facebook, you will reach them with your paid messaging. And it may be cheaper than you think. As a side note, the Pew/Berkman study found that more than half of teens go online mostly with their smartphone—so make sure you’re running these ads on the mobile platform as well as the desktop newsfeed.

There Is No Universal Platform

We live in a fragmented media world. There are too many platforms and networks for any one of them to claim everyone’s attention. Your communication strategy should be diversified among platforms, most importantly a well-developed website. Facebook should be one of them.

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One Comment on “Why Colleges Should Still Use Facebook Despite Declining Teen Usage

  1. Pingback: Social Media Reports in Higher Ed | A Listly List

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