Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report 2019

Competitive Analysis Social Media Best Practices Things we notice

School’s out for the summer, grades are in, and the 2019 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report is officially here.

For the fourth year running, we partnered with Up & Up, our favorite higher ed marketing agency, to dig into all the stats and trends colleges and universities need to succeed on social media.

It took some late-night pizza-and-study sessions, but this year’s report is bigger than ever. We of course have the top universities/colleges on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This year, we also included consistent performers and tons of examples, trends, and best practices you can use in your higher ed social media strategy in the 2019-2020 school year (and beyond).

We also have plenty of (free!) ways you can see how your college or university measures up to the top schools. Let’s hit the books and take a look at which colleges and universities are best in class.

See how you measure up to top colleges and universities.

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Overall Top 10 Universities on Social Media

Three cheers for University of Iowa, who clinched the #1 spot in this year’s higher ed social media rankings! As our leader for Facebook and stand-out performance on Twitter and Instagram, it’s no surprise that the Hawkeyes came out on top.

University Overall Rank Twitter Rank Facebook Rank Instagram Rank
University of Iowa 1 8 1 15
Virginia Tech 2 1 26 4
The Citadel 3 30 8 13
James Madison University 4 26 19 11
Iowa State University 5 10 26 27
Brigham Young University 6 2 14 70
University of South Carolina 7 25 58 8
University of North Carolina at Charlotte 8 63 6 32
Southern Utah University 9 13 72 18
West Virginia University 10 5 10 103

University of Iowa is a consistent top performer on social, coming in third last year in our 2018 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report. Alumni, students, and parents love this university’s heartfelt and funny posts about what’s going on around campus, and always reward nostalgia and sports wins with plenty of likes.

U of I dominates in total higher ed social media engagement across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

University of Iowa dominates in total engagement across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

All the colleges and universities in our Top 10 fought hard to rise to the top. Some, like James Madison University and the Citadel are consistent fan favorites year after year. Others like Virginia Tech deserve special commendation for jumping more than 50 spots ahead of where they were last year, proving that thoughtful strategy tweaks and paying attention to your competition can make a huge difference on social.

Top 10 Universities on Facebook

University of Iowa’s overall higher ed social media win was in huge part to its success on Facebook, where it outperformed all its fellow competitors to come out in the #1 spot of our Facebook Top 10.

University Rank Page Likes Posts Total Engagement
University of Iowa 1 172,390 448 965,393
Texas A&M University 2 629,484 387 1,377,667
Jackson State University 3 112,575 497 335,387
University of Virginia 4 187,342 734 554,606
Quinnipiac University 5 45,766 449 143,369
University of North Carolina at Charlotte 6 74,968 540 185,847
Marquette University 7 54,929 533 153,462
The Citadel 8 40,688 393 137,973
Georgia Institute of Technology 9 151,996 242 224,664
West Virginia University 10 282,164 407 466,109

University of Iowa’s high score comes from its consistently high engagement–with an average Facebook engagement rate per post of 1.28%, it blew the competition (which averaged just 0.31% engagement per Facebook post) out of the water.

Facebook standout: University of Iowa

The Hawkeyes’ wins overall and on Facebook clearly this tech-savvy university has cracked the higher ed social media code. Let’s explore a few of our favorite posts and strategies to help you emulate University of Iowa’s Facebook success.

These top-performing posts excited followers because they were all about the win. Alumni and students responded with epic engagement (more than 20%!) when Iowa City was named the best college town in America and University of Iowa was named the #2 best college for aspiring writers. Winning was a consistent theme for top performers this year, so don’t hesitate to brag on social if your college or university scores some accolades.

University of Iowa's top higher ed social media post this year featured its win in College Magazine

University of Iowa dominated on Facebook this year with this post on its ranking in College Magazine.

We used our boosted post detection to spot posts with a little extra $$ behind them and found that University of Iowa is making strategic use of the boost. Some of its top-performing Facebook posts this year were likely boosted, while many of its lower-performing posts likely weren’t. This post is a strong example of University of Iowa keeping an eye out for posts that are trending well organically that could really soar with an extra boost. This strategy is much more effective than boosting indiscriminately and hoping for success.

University of Iowa's higher ed social media post about being named the #1 college town in the nation.

University of Iowa had another stand-out post about being named the #1 college town in America.

Other notable Facebook strategies

Even if your college isn’t winning awards, there are still plenty of higher ed engagement strategies your university can use to grab the attention of your Facebook fans.

Glamour shots: Beautiful, well-composed shots of campus capitalize on alumni pride and nostalgia, like in this top-performing post from the Citadel.

The Citadel posted about the view from its quad.

The Citadel’s post about the view from its quad led to strong Facebook engagement.

Bands and music: This post from Jackson State University had a whopping 330% engagement rate and 139,000 shares and deserves some serious fanfare. We saw consistent excitement from fans and followers when colleges and universities posted about jazz bands, marching bands, dancers, and more, so don’t hesitate to include performances on social if you can.

Facebook post rom Jackson State University featuring their Sonic Boom marching band.

With a 330% engagement rate and 139,000 shares, this post from Jackson State University definitely went viral.

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Top 10 Universities on Instagram

Congratulations to Binghamton University (located in New York) for achieving top marks on the world’s most engaging social platform, Instagram! Because of Instagram’s younger demographic, this channel is a big one for colleges and universities working to engage current and potential students, not to mention recent alumni.

University Instagram Rank Followers Posts Total Engagement
Binghamton University 1 29,101 354 631,835
University of Virginia 2 85,662 296 1,364,709
University of Richmond 3 16,183 370 392,079
Virginia Tech 4 74,565 245 1,014,624
University of Vermont 5 33,478 284 581,004
Holy Cross 6 14,061 296 321,359
Northern Arizona University 7 42,880 351 868,529
University of South Carolina 8 81,714 50 342,528
University of Central Florida 9 35,482 195 378,004
The George Washington University 10 36,286 112 296,507

We thought it was interesting to note that just two of our overall Top 10 winners (Virginia Tech and University of South Carolina) scored in the Top 10 on our Instagram list. The rest of the list was dominated by colleges and universities who are crushing it on Instagram but lagging behind on other channels. It’s a good reminder that what works on one channel doesn’t necessarily work on another and that finding where your audience hangs out and focusing your efforts there can lead to strong engagement where it really matters.

Instagram standout: College of the Holy Cross

This Massachusetts college scored high on Instagram and ran towards the middle of the pack on Facebook and Twitter. As we noted in our 2019 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report, higher ed social media averages a 3.96% average engagement rate per post on Instagram, so it’s no surprise that Holy Cross led the pack with its whopping 6.88% engagement rate per post.

This stunning campus glamour shot taken by a recent graduate engaged the heck out of Holy Cross’ followers on Instagram with a chart-topping 22.2% engagement rate. We found that more than a quarter of all higher ed Instagram posts featured user-generated content (UGC), so it’s no surprise that this post soared 🌈.

Holy Cross' Instagram post featuring its beautiful campus and a rainbow dominates higher ed social media.

Rainbows and UGC won the day for Holy Cross in this Instagram post.

Holy Cross followers also loved this post that connected long-standing rivalries with beloved campus figureheads, to the tune of a 17.5% engagement rate.

Holy Cross' higher ed social media post features a license plate that reads "BEAT BC"

Holy Cross used its longstanding rivalry with Boston College to score serious engagement with this fun post.

Other notable Instagram strategies

It’s no secret that higher ed’s average Instagram engagement rate of 3.96% dominates other channels. Facebook and Twitter just can’t compete at 0.12% and 0.079% engagement rate respectively for higher ed. Here are a few other ideas for helping your college or university get a bite of that 🍎.

Higher Ed Industry: bar graph, average post per day and engagement rate, all channels.

Posts per day and engagement rate across all channels, Higher Ed

 

Contests and giveaways: These types of posts consistently perform well on Instagram, and prove that followers are willing to like, share, and tag for the chance at free stuff. This giveaway from University of Vermont had the added benefit of generating lots of UGC to pull from, which is likely worth way more than the case of sparkling water they were giving away.

University of Vermont's giveaway post featuring a rolling Vermont landscape scored high engagement.

University of Vermont’s giveaway post featuring a rolling Vermont landscape scored high engagement.

Sports wins: As we saw in Holy Cross’ winning post about beating Boston College above, Instagram fans get serious with their likes when their universities are out on the field and court. University of Virginia fans loved cheering for their basketball team after they made the Final Four for just the third time in 45 years.

University of Virginia's post about March Madness performed really well for higher ed social media.

University of Virginia won big on the court and on Instagram during this year’s March Madness.

Check out the 2019 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report for even more benchmarks.

View the report now

Top 10 Universities on Twitter

Virginia Tech topped our Twitter charts this year, and the university’s strong showing on Facebook and Instagram too put it in our overall #2 spot.

University Twitter Rank Followers Tweets Engagement Total
Virginia Tech 1 69,734 777 157,013
Brigham Young University 2 63,877 551 117,437
Oregon State University 3 73,857 318 83,350
The University of Tennessee Knoxville 4 122,825 676 212,723
West Virginia University 5 179,335 838 360,853
U.S. Naval Academy 6 65,624 57 51,787
North Carolina A&T State University 7 50,241 655 97,963
University of Iowa 8 110,610 1,510 364,245
University of Louisville 9 27,673 803 69,238
Iowa State University 10 37,572 130 24,781

Virginia Tech clinched our Twitter title not with a few breakout tweets, but instead with consistently high engagement on tweets ranging from March Madness to campus birthdays to goofy GIFs. With more than 2x the average engagement rate per tweet, they had their finger on the pulse of what their followers wanted and have our Twitter trophy to show for it.

Twitter standout: University of Louisville

From famous musicians to famous campus presidents, University of Louisville really rose to the top (well, top 10) of our Twitter rankings this year. As you can see above, this university struggled on Facebook and Instagram this year while dominating Twitter. Did the U of L Cardinals just have a natural affinity for bird-themed social networks like Twitter, or is there another explanation for their Twitter success?

Digging in, we can see that several of University of Louisville’s top tweets resonated with fans thanks to Taylor Swift’s on-campus concert, like this tweet that had a 9.48% engagement rate–more than 120x the industry average on Twitter!

University of Louisville's Twitter post about Taylor Swift scored a 9.48% engagement rate.

University of Louisville saw standout performance on Twitter when posting about Taylor Swift’s concert on their campus.

It turns out that University of Louisville’s tweets about Taylor Swift performed much better (6.30% average engagement rate per tweet) than their Facebook (0.37% average engagement rate per post) and Instagram (4.64%) posts with similar content. They also didn’t post nearly as often on Facebook and Instagram about T.Swift as they did on Twitter.

Not every school can count on a concert from a major pop star to boost their Twitter scores year to year, but any university can make the most of once-in-a-lifetime visits like this by spreading the announcement love across their big channels.

Like many of our top colleges and universities, University of Louisville really shined on Twitter when talking about campus events like commencement, convocation, and reunions. This commencement tweet in particular scored high thanks to the inclusion of beloved university president Neeli Benapudi.

University of Louisville's president Neeli Benapudi behind a podium.

University of Louisville’s Twitter followers loved tweets featuring their president Neeli Benapudi.

Other notable Twitter strategies

There’s plenty of success to be found on Twitter outside of a Taylor Swift concert. Here are a few of the standout Twitter trends we saw this year.

Get personal: Tweets like this major clapback from Iowa State University brought the 🔥, and followers loved the 🥶 to the tune of 8.23% engagement on the tweet. A weather-themed tweet like this might not resonate nearly as well with, say, UCLA followers who never have to think about wind chill interfering with their campus commute. Don’t be afraid to zero in on topics that your followers really care about, even if that theme doesn’t fit into the traditional “best practice” mold when you Google “higher ed social media.”

Iowa State's higher ed social media Twitter response to one of their followers about the weather.

Iowa State wasn’t afraid of some ice-cold shade this year (all in good fun, of course).

High-profile figures: As we saw in the University of Louisville tweet that featured their president, colleges and universities are seeing a lot of success when they raise up beloved campus figures and celebrities on Twitter. Loyola University Chicago followers couldn’t get enough of men’s basketball chaplain Sister Jean this year, with tweets featuring her birthday, selfies, and more.

Loyola University's Sister Jean blowing out birthday candles.

Loyola University’s fans loved following Sister Jean’s adventures this year.

Higher Ed Social Media’s Honorable Mentions

After four years of looking at these stats, we can say with confidence that there’s always some jostling and movement in our top 10. It’s always interesting to see who slides around by a few spots, like University of Iowa going from bronze to gold this year, or James Madison University slipping down to the #4 spot from #1 last year.

We also love celebrating schools like Virginia Tech who jumped a whopping 65 spots this year to make it into our top 10.

James Madison University, Brigham Young University, Xavier University, Northern Arizona University and the U.S. Military Academy have landed in our top 20 all four years. We applaud your steady excellence!

How can you keep up with these consistent performers? We took a look back through their social performance over the last few years and came up with some top tips:

Where Does Your University Rank?

It’s never been easier to see how your college or university stacks up. You can download the full 2019 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report to relive all your social media glory (or brag to your rivals).

Let your friends see how you ranked with a !

Don’t forget, you can run a free social media Head-to-Head against your biggest competition using our free social media analytics tools.

Methodology

We analyzed data from 338 Division 1 university-level account posts from June 2018 to May 2019 across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

We define engagement as measurable interaction on social media posts, including likes, comments, favorites, retweets, shares, and reactions. Engagement rate is defined as the total engagement divided by audience size. For our study, we compute the average engagement rate on a per post basis for each university on a channel-by-channel basis. Rankings were then computed using a weighted score of audience, activity, and engagement (with a strong bias toward engagement).

Using this data and weighted formula, we generated an overall engagement ranking for each university. The top-ranked universities have high engagement rates with average or better audience size and posting volumes.

Why Benchmarking Matters in Higher Ed

Savvy marketers know that higher ed social media success is about so much more than likes and retweets: it’s more about consistent engagement over time to help you beat out the competition (and the algorithms) so your posts are at the top of your followers’ feeds every time they log in.

Why can’t you gauge success on likes alone? Because audience size is hugely important: 1,000 likes makes a huge difference to a school with 2,000 followers, but is a drop in the bucket to a school with 100,000 followers. By focusing on engagement rate instead of engagement totals, we can take audience size into account to see who’s really reaching the highest percentage of their fans and followers with their social posts.

More engagement on your post means Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter think your post is important, and therefore they serve it to more of your followers, which earns you more reach.

Calculate your own engagement rate using our free tools or grab it directly from Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to compare yourself against the top schools in our study no matter their follower counts. How do you stack up?

Live Higher Ed Social Media Benchmarks

If you can’t get enough higher ed social media benchmarks (and we know you can’t), we have live benchmarks you can compare your performance to all school year long.

Higher ed social media live benchmarks

Live social media benchmarks from all the top-performing colleges and universities.

See which universities are leading the pack on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Our live benchmarks feature key engagement stats, top-performing posts, hashtags you should be using, and tons more.

Commencement: Wrapping It Up

Our team of Cardinals, Vikings, Missionaries, Panthers, and Horned Frogs (yes, really) had a blast reliving our college days in this report to see which schools performed best on social media. (And to think–social media didn’t exist when some of us were in college! 👵🏻)

With such young audiences, colleges and universities are often on the cutting edge of trends. That youthful vibe (and constantly rotating student body) mean that what works for a school one year might not work the next. It’s fun to watch these trends change over time with our pals at Up & Up, and we already can’t wait to see what will trend next year for colleges and universities!

Download the Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report now

Download the full report

Blair Feehan

Blair is a content marketer based in Seattle who relishes helping companies large and small do one thing: tell their stories. She specializes in content creation, messaging, branding, and community engagement to get the word out. When she’s not writing, she can be found running a small arts and community nonprofit based in the Central District.

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