Social Media Business Use in UK Universities

This dissertation explores the overall theme of Social Media for business studying the use of social media in UK-based Higher education institutions (HEIs).

It is adapted for this blog from my work and the months-long studies I did for my final dissertation as part of my MSc program in 2014/2015.

Chapter 1. Introduction

1.1 Background

The rapid growth and ubiquity of social media have presented businesses with significant opportunities (and challenges), making the medium one of the most important tools for businesses (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). Reporting the presence of more than 70% of worldwide businesses on the social networks, a KPMG (2011) research dubbed social media to be the most viable and effective business tool. Social media has gradually changed the relationship between businesses and consumers (Solis, 2011; Heller Baird and Parasnis, 2011; Tuten and Solomon, 2014) and thus it has emerged to be an indispensable part of the modern business landscape.

Increasingly, social media has an immense influence on our society and the economy as a whole (Qualman, 2012). A latest Deloitte report (2015) claims that platforms like Facebook have helped to power a new Internet economy by reporting figures of $227 billion in economic impact and 4.5 million jobs worldwide created by the platform alone. Social media as a web 2.0 innovation and its influence in the business is an emerging topic discussed extensively by several authors (Qualman, 2012; Safko, 2010; Kerpen, 2011; Charlesworth, 2014; Holloman, 2014). As a medium that has enabled a two-way conversation with consumers (Constantinides and Fountain, 2008), social media is deemed extremely beneficial for businesses in building relationships. It has indeed helped businesses to reach out to consumers and understand them like never before (HBR, 2010).

Despite several opportunities, the rapid growth of social media has, however, lead to misconceptions and confusions in businesses developing several challenges that demand further research to understand the phenomenon (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). Besides, topics on social interactions and social media marketing were the main research priorities of Marketing Science Institute (2014) recently, which further implies the importance of studying such areas to develop a comprehensive understanding.

Moreover, social media has been increasingly adopted by the businesses in several industries. A recent MIT Sloan and Deloitte research report (2014) based on the findings from its third-year global survey claims the rise of companies across several industries that are creating value from social media. Education is one of those sectors that the report has identified to hugely benefit from the business value of social media. Other studies especially focused in the Higher Education (HE) sector of the United States (US) have also reported the growing value of the social media for the HE sector (QS, 2014; Silverman, 2012).

1.2 Social Media in Higher Education

This research focuses on the business use of social media in the HE sector of the United Kingdom (UK). As in every sector, social media use is rapidly growing in the UK’s HE sector (Parcell, 2014). Two significant aspects of the HE sector that make it interesting and relevant to study their social media use for this research are further discussed.

First, I argue that the HE sector is one of the prominent sectors that can hugely benefit from the use of social media. The significant audience of the social media is the millennial generation (currently in their mid-teens to mid-30s), who have grown up with the advent of this new medium and technology (Nielsen, 2014; (Bridgestock, 2013). Interestingly, the generation also happens to be the largest customer base (audience) of the HEIs (Tucker, 2014). Now, if students should be treated as customers is an emerging discussion (Parcell, 2014; McNeill, 2012). Especially within the UK HEIs, the marketisation and commercialisation of the HE sector indicate the growing commodification of academic education (Brown, 2011), which redefines the relationships between academics and students as service providers and customers (McNeill, 2012). While that might be more of an educational discussion, the focus on this research is on certain business aspects the implications the marketization has brought into the HEI’s branding and promotion, and thus the growing focus of HEIs on students’ experiences (Molesworth et al., 2011; Brown, 2011). In the context, Parcell (2014) argues effective social media engagement needs to be developed within wider quality and communications processes to address such concerns of students as customers or partners. Similarly, Shaw (2013) contends social media use of HE has come at right time for students who are progressively spending more money on their education. The medium is sought beneficial for students to make an informed decision by providing more targeted information in the form they want to consume and engage (Bridgestock, 2013). Students these days prefer tweeting and sending Facebook messages than using e-mail (Shih, 2011) and the excessive use of social media has changed the habits and the preference of students.

Secondly, rather contradictory aspect is, unlike other sectors, this sector is struggling to keep up with the pace of social media use (Silverman, 2012). Studying the phenomenon, Tattersall (2014) points out that UK universities have been slow in joining the social media platforms and are finally realising its importance. Socialbakers, a social monitoring firm, reported in 2012 that more than 30% of the UK Universities aren’t making good grades on social media by ignoring their Facebook fans. However, as social media is increasingly becoming an integral part of student’s lives, the HEIs are catching up the trend (Silverman, 2012).

Despite the slow adoption, there has been a drastic change in the HEIs’ perceptions of social media use. It wasn’t long time before that social media was seen as a distraction and blocked by the institutions (Parcell, 2014). The benefits of social media have been gradually realised by the institutions and now almost all of the HEIs based in the UK have some form of official presence on SNS (Russell, 2012). Nonetheless, the discussions on how to best integrate social media into the educational environments continue to evolve (Leech, 2014).

Having concluded the HE sector as interesting to study for social media, insights of the medium’s use in HEIs are further examined. HE sector has the potential of social media use in two major aspects – i) teaching and learning aspects and ii) business aspects. Several authors have studied the teaching and learning aspects of social media, ranging from its use in student’s engagement (Junco, 2014) to its use in the classroom, learning environments and overall educational purposes (White et al., 2011). I further argue that teaching and learning is one of the core services of HEIs as organisations. Also, students similar to business consumers need to be marketed, recruited, and provided with customer services in business regards.

Social media has an enormous impact on HEIs as business organisations. Indeed, the latest report on social media use in the US based HEIs (QS, 2014) has recognised the medium as game changing in several sectors including the marketing of HE (Tucker, 2014). Few surveys conducted within the UK HEIs also reveal the benefits of social media regarding digital communication and recruitment purposes (Shaw, 2014; Kuzma and Wright, 2013). The lack of studies in the UK context means that the HEIs making use of the medium depend on insights derived from the general business use. Parcell (2014), however, argues available insights on social media use and engagement that has been perceived from the global business may not transfer seamlessly to the case of the UK HEIs.

Additionally, a high percentage of UK students have been reportedly using social media (Shepherd, 2008; Ipsos MORI, 2007) and the lack of significant research to understand the phenomenon is rather surprising. The growing use of the medium in the UK institutions certainly has several opportunities (and challenges), but research is necessary to understand the phenomenon in details. Previous studies and surveys (Parr, 2014; Unipod, 2013; Socialbakers, 2012; Shaw, 2013) that mainly focus on the numbers of the social media communities to explore the involvement of the HEIs only tell part of the story. Arguably, the studies do not dig deep into gaining more insights of the phenomenon hence, informing the need for further research in the sector.

Finally having established the importance and need for research in the sector, the overall research process, aims and objectives, and the structure of the study are outlined below.

Research Process

Firstly, existing literature on the social media and general business use of social media has been explored to give context to the research. A qualitative study involving in-depth interviews with social media practitioners of HEIs and qualitative web analysis of their social media platforms posts has been further carried out to gain further insights into this complex phenomenon of social media. The trends in social media use and the challenges (and opportunities) this encapsulates for their institutions are further examined in the study.

1.3 Aims and Objectives

This study aims to examine the business use of social media in HEIs based in the UK, insights on how they use the medium, and what they gain out of their efforts. As with other business organisations, social media has been increasingly adopted by HEIs. Despite this growing adoption and use, relatively little is known about how HEIs are using this medium for business purposes. Thus, this research aims to fulfil the gap in the literature by studying social media use in HEIs based in the UK.

In a broader context, several studies and researchers have explored more on the usefulness of social media in academic use but less on how HEIs themselves can use the medium for their business purposes. A gap is evident with only a few studies on business aspects of social media, and this research additionally aims to contribute to the growing literature on the business use of social media. Studies of the business use of social media, to my knowledge, have not been done in the UK based HEIs. The research will not only boost the understanding of why HEIs use social media but also suggest how they can better implement the medium for their business purposes.

To achieve such aims, the study has identified the following research objectives,

Research Objectives

  • To critically review the literature on social media and the business use of social media in the HEIs.
  • To investigate how the institutions make use of social media for business purposes and their perception of the added value of social media.
  • To examine the opportunities and challenges that business use of social media encapsulates in the HEIs.
  • To formulate recommendations on social media optimisation for the HEIs.

1.4 Dissertation Structure

The dissertation is divided into five chapters. This first chapter presents the background of the study and the aims and objectives of this research. The second chapter introduces social media and critically reviews existing literature on the topic of social media in HEIs and their business use. In the third chapter, the methodology used for overall research of the study is presented. The fourth chapter reveals findings from the research and subsequently discusses those research findings in relation to the literature. The fifth chapter finally concludes with major findings, research limitations, and recommendations for the future research.

Chapter 2. Literature Review

2.1 Introduction

Social media as a rapidly moving phenomenon (Ellison and boyd, 2013) has recently garnered a huge interest in several sectors (Tuten and Solomon, 2014). More than a technology, the medium has originated as a new form of communication (Fuchs, 2011; Tuten and Solomon, 2014; Sankar and Bouchard, 2009) and has increasingly attracted several academics to investigate this new medium (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010).

The literature review starts with exploring emerging discussions on social media and critically evaluating the key studies and works to define social media. This is followed by evaluation of the main themes emerged from reviewing the existing literature. Finally, the review aims to classify the business use of social media and how it is used in the context of this research, especially within the HEIs.

2.2 Social Media Definition and Perspectives

Several initial studies on social media agree that the term originated after the rise of collaborative and participatory Internet called web 2.0 technologies (Charlesworth, 2014). Kaplan and Haenlein (2010), for instance, elaborate web 2.0 as new tools and techniques that make the World Wide Web possible in terms of its basic functionalities and operation. They thus define social media based on web 2.0 as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of web 2.0 and allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” Along the same lines, a simpler explanation combining the views of several authors comes from Solis (2011) who defines social media as any tool or service that uses the Internet to facilitate conversation. Thus, Hunsinger and Senft (2013) summarise the common understanding of social media as a medium related to networked communications systems, particularly on the Internet.

One of the significant difficulties academics face is the different terms social media has been referred to depict its development over time (Charlesworth, 2014). Common themes, however, found among many definitions and studies of social media are user generated content and web 2.0 technologies (Kaplan and Haenlein 2010; Boyd and Ellison 2007; Mangold and Faulds 2009). Other variations referring to social media apart from “web 2.0” include social networking sites (SNS) (Ellison and boyd, 2013), and social networking (Mustonen, 2009). As social media is largely a web-based activity (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010), its definition thus wouldn’t be complete without a detailed explanation of modern web 2.0. Additionally, as the terms, social media and web 2.0 are often used interchangeably (Constantinides and Fountain, 2008), a distinction between them is necessary to gain a clear perspective on social media.

2.2.1 Web 2.0 and Consumer Generated Content

Many studies on web 2.0 suggest the rise of technology platforms introducing new forms of participation and user generated content (Fuchs, 2011; Graham, 2005; Constantinides and Fountain, 2008; Ellison and boyd, 2013). The term originated in 2005 when O’Reilly (2005) defined web 2.0 differentiating from the existing web in terms of the new web’s focus on “the web as a platform” that has the power to harness collective intelligence. O’Reilly’s definition emphasises on collaborative and communicative (many-to-many instead of traditional one-to-many communication) the web that also forms the basis of overall social media (Tuten and Solomon, 2014). Comparing and contrasting the features of web 2.0 with previous web 1.0, Fuchs (2007) points out to several features of web 2.0 such as many-to-many communication, cooperation, open source, real participation, self-organized structures, and collective intelligence that are important for this social media study. Constantinides and Fountain (2008) points out the “knowledge and market power of the users as participants in business and social processes” in their definition of web 2.0 and further classify web 2.0 into five main categories. These include i) Blogs, ii) Social networks, iii) (Content) Communities, iv) Forums/bulletin boards, and v) Content aggregators. Comparing those web categories with the present social media landscape, introduced later in this chapter as classified by Solis (2014), most of them overlap and thus it’s not surprising to see the terms web 2.0 and social media to be used interchangeably. However, to distinguish between two, Constantinides and Fountain (2008) themselves observe that web 2.0 is mainly used to refer to the applications and that the social media is used to refer to the social aspects of those web 2.0 applications.

Overall, such studies define social media based on several types and features of the medium (Boyd and Ellison, 2008), which makes it necessary to explore more on the forms of social media in the next section.

2.2.2 Major Forms of Social Media

Boyd and Ellison (2008) track history of social network sites starting from the first of its kind platform called SixDegrees in 1997 to have ticked all the features of author’s social media definition discussed above. Further, they explain the global phenomenon and rise and fall of popular social network sites including Friendster, Orkut and Myspace among others. Sorting through that list and looking at the current popular platforms, social media forms that exist today include Facebook and Google Plus (SNS), WordPress, Tumblr and Blogger (blogging) Twitter and QQ (social networking, microblogging), YouTube and Vimeo (video sharing), and Wikipedia (wiki-based encyclopedia) among others (Fuchs, 2011).

Adding to the above-discussed classification of web 2.0 sites, Solis (2014) developed a visual map of the social media landscape illustrating the top social networks categorised by their use and nature (see Figure 2.0).

Conversation Prism Social Media

Figure 2.0 The Conversation Prism, (Solis, 2014)

What’s interesting about Solis’ prism is that the landscape has 26 social media categories with at least six popular platforms in each of them, portraying the complex nature of the current social media landscape (Wasserman, 2013).

2.3 Business Use of Social Media

Social media for businesses is still in its early stages, and although several authors discuss growing importance of this medium for businesses (Charlesworth, 2014; Tuten and Solomon, 2014), it has yet to gain comprehensive scholarly insights. The business use of social media can be linked starting with web 2.0 influences in business to forming brand communities (Constantinides and Fountain, 2008) to modern day social media marketing (Tuten and Solomon, 2014) activities using several SNS.

2.3.1 Web 2.0 Influences

Before social media, web 2.0 influenced the evolution process of using the Internet as the marketing environment (Sankar and Bouchard, 2009). Early studies of Muniz, Jr. and O’Guinn (2001) that introduced the brand community define it as a specialised community based on social relationships among the admirers of the brand. Web 2.0 enabled brands to consider relationships of online communities (Brogi et al., 2013) thus urging marketers to focus on aspects of connectivity and participation of social network members (Wu and Fang, 2010). Many studies on the business impacts of web 2.0 frequently refer to online brand communities (Constantinides and Fountain, 2008). Fournier and Lee (2009), for instance, argue that brand communities enabled by web 2.0 technologies are increasingly used by businesses to build a community around their brands to influence customer loyalty, marketing efficiency, and brand authenticity. The growth of web 2.0 influences in business (McAfee, 2006) was further examined critically by Bughin (2008) who wondered if Enterprise 2.0 (businesses that adopted web 2.0) was a relevant business trend and the research findings revealed the rapid global adoption pattern of web 2.0 by businesses to acquire new competitive advantage. Similarly, professional firms such as McKinsey and Company (2009) that have been reviewing the increasing adoption of web 2.0 technologies by businesses for several years reported that more than 69% of respondents (from 1,700 executives from different industries and functional divisions around the world) agreed to have achieved measurable business benefits in terms of innovation, marketing, lower costs, and higher revenues. Having explored the traditional use of social media (particularly web 2.0) in business, we can now move to a completely new era of businesses making extensive use of social media.

2.3.2 Social Businesses

Social media adoption by businesses and the entire phenomenon is of significant interest to many authors (Qualman, 2012; Safko, 2010; Kerpen, 2011; Charlesworth, 2014; Holloman, 2014). One of the most important views on social media use for business comes from Erik Qualman, the author of Socialnomics (Pérez-Latre et al., 2011). Qualman (2013) having studied social media use in businesses among 75 Fortune 1000 companies, 50 academic institutions, and over 100 small businesses and non–profits, enlightens how businesses are using social media to reach customers directly to increase their sales and by reducing their marketing costs. Further, Mangold and Faulds (2009) studying social media for businesses argue that the medium is a hybrid element of promotion mix as it facilitates the communication between customers and companies in both ways. Sterne (2010) adds that social media should be in fact taken as a significant part of a brand’s marketing mix. Gallaugher and Ransbotham (2014) thus summarise that the medium has a fundamental impact on the interaction between business and customers and it significantly intensifies the existing firm-to-customer relationships and vice-versa.

2.4 Major Social Media Platforms for Business

Referring to the web 2.0 classification from the above literature, two forms of web 2.0 i.e. blogs and SNS (especially, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) will be further explored in this study. The choice of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs is because they have captured most of the scholarly attention in comparison to other forms of social media (Tuten and Solomon, 2014; Tappin, 2014). Their business usage, however, has yet to gain significant attention from academics.

2.4.1 Facebook

Facebook is by far the largest social media platform available for businesses (Solis, 2011; Ballve, 2013). With 1.35 billion monthly active users worldwide (Facebook Newsroom, 2014; MediaBistro, 2014), Facebook provides a significantly large audience (compared to other traditional mediums) that businesses can use to their advantage (Zarrella and Zarrella, 2011). No wonder, why marketers consider Facebook as the most important social media platform in comparison to several other platforms (Stelzner, 2014). Addressing the commercial activities on Facebook as “F-commerce”, Solis (2011) explains that the network provides a platform for businesses to build their presence and introduces them to opportunities of building connections and relationships. One of the early platforms that recognised the value of social media for business, Facebook offered businesses the ability to create to their presence on social media (Shih, 2011; Carvill and Taylor, 2013) and other tools to connect with their customers and thus help grow their businesses (Facebook, 2015).

2.4.2 Twitter

The business page of Twitter describes itself as a platform used by businesses across the globe to generate awareness and connect with customers (Twitter, 2015). Studying the platform’s use in business, Bulearca and Bulearca (2010) contented its value for businesses particularly to listen and influence consumer’s opinion. Although different from the model of Facebook, Curran et al., (2011) argue the platform has tremendous potential for businesses that can engage with their customers to discuss important and relevant topics with them. Twitter’s importance for business doesn’t simply lie in presenting the brand on the platform (Carvill and Taylor, 2013). It is a serious tool to drive traffic to blogs and websites of businesses (Kingston, 2013), which then can be useful for lead generation and increasing sales (Comm and Comm, 2010). Connecting with mobile and local customers in real-time and providing them with instant updates is another are crucial benefits of the platform for businesses (Carvill and Taylor, 2013; Ryan et al., (2014). Twitter is thus useful in aspects of marketing (monitoring brand, promoting events, etc.), public relations (building relationships with bloggers, media persons), and customer services (responding to people’s concerns or queries about products and services) among other business propositions (Hubspot, 2014; Comm and Comm, 2010).

2.4.3 LinkedIn

One of the first social networks devoted to business, LinkedIn’s role in business, particularly for recruitment purposes (Tuten and Solomon, 2014; Shih, 2011; Holloman, 2014) and B2B lead generation (LinkedIn Corporation, 2014; Dhoul, 2014) has been studied before in details (Butow and Taylor, 2009). The social platform differs from Facebook not only being professional in nature (Holloman, 2014) but also because it specifically caters to a specific niche (Mattern et al., 2012). LinkedIn has made recruiting easier both for employers and would-be employees (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2012). Features such as targeted search capabilities and massive access to a network of connections on the platform have simplified the process (Shih, 2011). While businesses can target numerous connections using their existing employees’ network for jobs, employees themselves also can look for better jobs on the platform (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2012). Leveraging the connectivity tools of the platform, businesses can find prospective clients, boost sales and sales delivery, and streamline their sales pipeline among several benefits of the LinkedIn (Butow and Taylor, 2009).

2.4.4 Blogs

Blogs arguably are the initial forms of social media that still have a major impact, and they have been considered the most pertinent form used in the field of communication management (Kang, 2010; Holloman, 2014). Being around in the social media landscape for a long time, blogs have gained significant insights from numerous academic circles (Weber, 2007). Safko (2010) argues blogs are the easiest ways for two-way conversation among consumers and businesses, and being such effective medium of communication they help build trust among consumers. Blogs have been referred to as popular marketing tool (Holloman, 2014) that can be used by businesses for several strategic purposes including niche marketing, branding, improving online presence, and gathering marketing intelligence among others (Chua et al., 2009; Weber, 2007). In contrast, one of the researches carried out by Center for Marketing that studied social media use of Inc. 500 companies in the US for five consecutive years reported the decline of use in blogs for the first time since 2007 (Barnes and Lescault, 2012). The report summarised that emerging tools such as Facebook and Twitter are slowly taking over blogs as means of social media communication for the companies. Such decline in the usage of blogs doesn’t necessarily signify declining value of blogging tools (Gattiker, 2013) but strongly indicates the radical nature of social media tools and platforms. Such phenomenon of new emerging platforms is also validated by a comScore (2011) report that highlighted its finding of micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr as disruptive new forces among SNS. Similar is the case with other earlier forms of social media such as forums and wikis whose influence is diminishing with the emergence of SNS such as Facebook and Twitter.

2.4.5 Social Media Analytical Tools

To analyse how businesses make use of social media platforms, it’s necessary to study if they make use of any management and analytics tools. Depending on their social media goals, businesses are concerned with measuring their impact such as conversion rates, brand awareness, and customer satisfaction among others (Bradbury, 2013). The measurements of these goals require different analytical tools, which are progressively being used in several businesses (HBR, 2010).

Harrington and Lewis (2013) suggest a new set of emerging social media tools that can be useful to businesses to monitor their brand and conversations on multiple platforms. Further, Bradbury (2013) examines a variety of social media tools from Hootsuite (that helps manage multiple social media channels) to enterprise level tools such as Salesforce Buddy Media and Adobe Social (that are mostly concerned with analytics). Evans and Cothrel (2014) categorise such analytical tools (see Figure 2.2) with their focus on publishing, engagement, or support.

Social Media Management Tools

Table 2.0: Social Media Management Tools, adapted from Evans and Cothrel (2014)

However, an HBR report (2010) revealed that although crucial, several firms have yet to adopt social media analytic tools to monitor and analyse their performance on SNS.

2.5 Benefits and Added Value of Social Media

Social media is no longer a fad. As Shih (2011) argues, it has now moved from fad stage to the stage of “getting results”. Surveying over 2800 marketers, Social Media Examiner’s Social media marketing industry report of 2014 revealed that in an increasing trend, 97% of marketers are currently participating in social media and that 92% of marketers agreed that social media is important for their business, up from 86% in 2013 (Stelzner, 2014). Several such increasing key stats in relation to social media use by businesses justifies that social media isn’t just fad (Kusinitz, 2014).

Sterne (2010) argues, there are only three major goals businesses should be concerned with social media use i.e. i) increasing revenue, ii) Lowering costs, and iii) increasing customer satisfaction. Several studies on social media emphasise those three major goals in the business-to-business use of social media (Heller Baird and Parasnis, 2011). Many authors have discussed the cost reducing effects of social media use in business (Kirtiş and Karahan, 2011). As conversations on social media keep increasing, firms are attracted to promote products as lower cost and aim in increasing sales and satisfying customers (Feng and Papatla, 2012; Zailskaite-Jakste and Kuvykaite, 2012).

Unlike most of the early literature emphasising social media as an important tool of communication (Tuten and Solomon, 2014), social media recently has been accepted to be much more than the marketing vehicle (Holloman, 2014). A Mckinsey report based on social media usage of several German companies revealed that social media is important for the entire value chain of any company including product development, marketing and brand building, sales, service, external communications, human resources and internal applications (Mattern et al., 2012). Further, Kerpen (2011) contends that social media should be integrated into the entire customer experience by implementing into all customer-facing departments. With a combination of 12 in-depth interviews and survey of 2100 businesses, another report from HBR (2010) that analysed social media usage in several sectors found the medium mostly being used for promoting their brand, products, or services. Compared to other traditional media forms, social media excels in terms of extending reach to a global audience at a meager cost and being instantaneous and interactive (McKinsey and Company, 2012). On a broader level, social media has helped shape the buying behaviours and has amplified the effect of marketing and advertising for businesses (EY, 2014).

Key themes emerged from examining the benefits of social media use in business include the impact on branding, sales, and customer service among others (Shih, 2011). DeMers (2014) claims increased brand recognition as one of the most important benefits of social media use. Recognising the impact Solis (2011), however, warns of brand identity crisis if the socialised media presences are untethered from the central strategy of a business. Businesses have realised that social media can make or break brands (Evans and Cothrel, 2014). Neilsen’s (2012) report on social media observes how social media has become the preferred way to contact businesses in comparison to traditional mediums such as the telephone. Increasingly social media has become the first, and instant channel customers use to talk about their problems (Charlesworth, 2014). Brynley-Jones (2013) further argues businesses can benefit by supporting their customers effectively with a consistent customer service experience on the social media of their choice. Every customer interaction on social media channels provides an opportunity to enrich relationships with the customer (Cisnero, 2014), thus building richer customer experiences (DeMers, 2014).

Moreover, businesses are increasingly concerned about the value they gain from social media (Holloman, 2014) and thus developing social solutions that can be measured has been a growing priority (Solis, 2011; Sterne, 2010). The measurement of social media and its economic gain, most commonly referred to social media ROI, has been a controversial issue for years (Fisher, 2009). Assessing social media ROI has been equally important for marketers to prove social media is worth doing in terms of time and investment (Kelly, 2013; Holloman, 2014). Besides, some social media network sites such as Facebook and Twitter have built-in ROI features, and they make it seemingly easy to answer the ROI of social media efforts (Holloman, 2014). Use of external analytical tools also helps to measure key metrics facilitating businesses with ROI aspects (Bradbury, 2013).

2.6 Challenges of Social Media Use in Business

Although many authors agree with social media being a great tool for communication and other purposes as mentioned above, few also question the risks (Kim, 2012) and discuss the challenges (Charlesworth, 2014) of this new medium. While social media can generate several opportunities for businesses, it can also present risks such as reputational risks (EY, 2014), which then can affect other important business aspects such as customer loyalty and revenue.

Similarly, businesses face challenges with regards to managing this new medium (Armano, 2009). For instance, social media marketing may have adverse effects if strategies of handling negative comments on these channels are not in place already (Tsimonis and Dimitriadis, 2014). Arguably, companies should be able to handle such negative comments and turn them into business opportunities (Dekay, 2012). Also, concerns of ethical challenges in social media have been raised (Lipschultz, 2014) with increasing use of social media for business. IBE (2011) in such context argues the business use of social media has blurred the boundaries between personal and work lives. This has thus raised serious ethical challenges as employees use social media both on behalf of their companies and personal purposes (IBE, 2011). The easy access of employees to create social media profiles exposes the business to reputation risks if social media policy and practices are not communicated properly (EY, 2014). Moreover, the ongoing discussion on whether professionals should participate as themselves or as branded representatives of their business (Solis, 2011) will need to be defined by appropriate social media strategy for a business.

Other challenges that businesses face with social media are outlined below:

  • Content production remains one of the challenging aspects to fulfil the goals of social media marketing (Lieb, 2012), particularly for firms that lack resources dedicated entirely to the process (Pittard, 2014).
  • Privacy of users on social network sites has been a bigger issue of discussion with the growing popularity of SNS (Boyd and Ellison, 2007).
  • Lack of proven business case or value proposition in business is one of the common barriers as faced by many businesses adopting social media (MIT and Deloitte, 2014).
  • Funding available for social media activities is another challenge for business. Even in large businesses, a report shows only 20% of them have dedicated funding for social media activities with the marketing department controlling the budget in more than 50% of the businesses (HBR, 2010).
  • Few other challenges include integration of the medium with other business functions, and measuring the influence and impact (ROI) of social media (Armano, 2009).

Having discussed the business use of social media, the importance of specific popular social media platforms, and the opportunities and challenges social media encapsulates for general businesses, I will now discuss extent literature on the business use of social media in the HE sector (particularly in the UK based HEIs).

2.7 Social Media Use in HEIs and the UK

Social media use in the HEIs has been discussed from two perspectives –

  • i) the business use of social media and
  • ii) the use of social media in teaching and learning.

As discussed in the previous chapter, I argue that even though social media has been used for teaching and learning, it is particularly helping the core business of HEIs.

Only a few studies of social media have been conducted among the HEIs based in the UK. An independent reviewer, Unipod (2013) attempted to rank UK universities based on their social media key figures including Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube channel subscribers (OxfordBrookes, 2013). Although the study argued that the UK universities use social media as part of their recruitment, marketing, branding and other business strategies, it isn’t evident from the results and the data doesn’t reveal much apart from the rankings. Similarly, another study from Socialbakers (2012) attempted in ranking the UK universities on social media based on factors such as engagement rate and other key metrics such as the total number of fans and questions response time.

Concluding that 30% of the UK universities ignore their Facebook fans, the study suggested social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as essential communication tools for HEIs (Socialbakers, 2012). Further, the study argued social media being more than a trend and in fact an essential tool for building relevance and validation for current and future students. The dynamic nature of social media (Boyd and Ellison, 2007) however means that what may be up-to-date and relevant today could completely disappear tomorrow (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). The audience key metrics of social media (such as likes on Facebook, followers on Twitter, subscribers on YouTube) for the UK universities change over time, and thus one can easily question the validity of such research and ranking based on only rapidly changing metrics.

Over last few years, several UK universities have built a significant presence with almost all of them present in some form of social media platform by now (Russell, 2012; Parcell, 2014). Studying the phenomenon, Tattersall (2014) points out that UK universities have been slow in joining the platforms and are finally realising its importance. Such realisation among universities is partly because of the significant presence of their students on those platforms. It’s not surprising that a very high percentage of UK students reportedly use social media on a regular basis. An Ipsos Mori (2007) study, also reported by the Guardian, found that almost 95% undergraduates in the UK use the social media platforms regularly (Shepherd, 2008). The rapidly growing community around social media platforms of universities clearly indeed presents new challenges and opportunities for those institutions, which need further research into the phenomenon.

2.8 Business Use of Social Media in HEIs

Although slow, social media use is progressively growing among the HEIs based in the UK (Parcell, 2014; Russell, 2012). Under its key findings, a research carried out amongst universities in the UK by Jadu (2010) reported that developing the business case for the usage of social media is one of the top challenges. The report further predicted that developing the business case of social media usage would remain number one challenge for HEIs over the years (Jadu, 2010). The research clearly indicates the gap for studying what challenges HEIs currently face in using social media for business purposes. Is proving business case of social media still a challenge in the HEIs? Also, research is required to understand how HEIs are using the platforms and what they are gaining out of their efforts and investment on social media.

2.8.1 Social Media Platforms

Regarding the landscape of social media in the HEIs, a study from JISC considers a similar landscape as of Solis (2014), defined earlier in the social media section (Parcell, 2014). Incorporating results from survey findings of Russell (2012), the study proposes a landscape categorising social media tools into four main categories that help HEIs in publishing, sharing, discussing, and networking. Like other businesses, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs are popular among the usage of HEIs (Russell, 2012). Besides, Jadu (2010) findings revealed blogging and online forums as most used social media tools for internal solutions, but as suggested by general usage of social media literature, this has rather declined over years as the external social networking tools are becoming more dominant (Parcell, 2014). Few years have passed since the studies, and an up-to-date research is again necessary to understand which platforms are accessible and work best within universities.

It can be argued that popular platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn are highly optimised for the use of students. With its origin at the Harvard University, Facebook started as a niche community initially targeting the college community (Boyd and Ellison, 2007) and the rapid adoption by students made the platform a huge success (Comm and Comm, 2010; Shih, 2011). So what other businesses other than the educational institutions itself could make the best use of this platform? Similarly, with LinkedIn, the platform has its reputation of being a professional social media network (LinkedIn Corporation, 2014) and students are always looking for meaningful connections on the platform. Celebrating its 15 million members milestone in the UK, LinkedIn officially revealed that the fastest growing demographic on the platform were students as their numbers increased by more than double in the past year (Eckstein, 2014). The platform also launched university pages to help students explore universities, join the conversation, and build a professional network (Allen, 2013). Universities themselves, on the other hand, can adopt those pages and make use of the students and alumni community around their pages for several purposes. The previous study in the UK found it to be one of the less used platforms among the UK HEIs (Russell, 2012) but has such recent benefits of the platform increased its usage in HEIs? A current and timely study is again required to comprehend if universities are actually benefitting from the growing network of students on the platform.

2.8.2 Opportunities of Social Media in HEIs

The most obvious opportunity social media provides to HEIs is the ability to attract prospective students, serve current students and remain connected with the valuable alumni (Kowalik, 2011). The latest report studying global student trends by QS (2014) that surveyed more than 2,200 prospective students worldwide found that Social media is widely used in prospective students’ research. Such trend can certainly be useful for HEIs to looking to recruit prospective students. Similarly, a Socialbakers (2012) study contends the use of social media platforms such as Facebook can help universities attract more students and reduce their acquisition costs. Another Hootsuite research examining social media use of the leading US universities reveals how universities have used the medium as part of their strategy to recruit and engage with potential students (Foulger, 2014). Social media can indeed be a useful tool to enhance digital communication for recruitment and other purposes (Shaw, 2014; Kuzma and Wright, 2013).

Social media is increasingly becoming a powerful communication tool for overall businesses (Holmes, 2012) and HEIs (Zailskaite-Jakste and Kuvykaite, 2012). Although mainly focused on exploring the literature on the use of new technologies in teaching and learning at UK’s business schools, Thomas and Thomas (2012) reported the growing trend of social media use as an essential communication tool. Their main argument is that while websites have been used as a dominant tool for reaching potential and current students, the growing use of new social media tools can prove valuable for media relations and internal communication within HEIs. Additionally, being informed from the general literature that social media helps in branding; it’s necessary to see how this new medium has influenced brands of the UK universities. Branding of the UK universities has actually been studied even before the ubiquity of social media (Chapleo, 2005). Along same lines, reporting the findings of how UK HE uses the web, Bains (2009) suggests university websites make an increasingly significant contribution to promoting ‘brand’. In addition to the web, social media channels undoubtedly help the UK universities in branding purposes (Thomas and Thomas, 2012). The key points from the recent roundtable discussion of the Guardian on the branding of universities also noted that social media influence and reach should be considered seriously for successful branding purposes (Neumark, 2012).

Customer engagement is one of the most important benefits of social media use (Solis, 2011) and this aspect has lately been part of important discussions in HEIs (Parcell, 2014). Conducting an online survey with first-year undergraduate students at UK universities, Madge et al., (2009) explored how social media influences social integration of students in their university lives. Although their paper was mostly concerned about the relationship aspects among students, the research pointed out to a higher level of social media use and engagement before enrolling into the institution. Such trends can be beneficial for HEIs looking to attract and recruit potential students (Shaw, 2014).

Besides communication and engagement tool, universities increasingly see marketing on social media as one of the significant benefits of the medium (Kuzma and Wright, 2013). In comparison to print advertising and other traditional marketing methods, social media can be a cost-effective method for HEIs with limited budgets, but again research is necessary to understand how social media has changed the traditional practices. A recent Sixth Sense survey that polled 69 UK universities marketing team reported that 98% of them consider social media marketing more important than five years ago (Shaw, 2014). The report considering the specific promotion of open days in universities found that universities are getting more creative in advertisement and promotions using social media platforms such as Facebook (96%), Twitter (88%) and YouTube (77%). Similar to opportunities for other business, social media as a business tool provides several other opportunities for universities with regards to customer service, marketing, advertising (Shih, 2011), branding, etc. among others. All such opportunities are however realised from general studies of HEIs, but are they perceived in the same way by the UK institutions?

2.8.3 Challenges of Social Media in HEIs

Top three challenges of social media usage as found by Jadu (2010) study among UK universities includes developing the business case, overcoming cultural issues, and compatibility issues with the current software. Other challenges included resource and budgetary constraints and the ability to meet the growing user demand. Another recent study among US-based institutions found similar social media challenges such as the inability to measure its effectiveness (echoing difficulties developing business case) and lack of integration with learning management system (echoing compatibility issue) among others (Tinti-Kane, 2013).

Universities will need to have proper strategies in place to make the most out of the growing communities on their social media (Parcell, 2014). A Guardian report examining social media in the UK universities revealed that more than 60% of the surveyed universities were looking to increase investment in social media (Shaw, 2013). While the increasing investment in social media indicates the seriousness of HEIs in the UK in adopting social media, the report further questioned unmet expectations of students from university channels who do not find useful information catered to them (Shaw, 2013). Such observations clearly demand more research into what students expect from social media and how universities can meet the challenge of producing relevant content to increase engagement with their social media efforts and investment.

Concerns about privacy and identity are also among one of the top barriers of using social media in educational settings (Tinti-Kane, 2013; Boyd and Ellison, 2007; Shih, 2011). One of the early studies that analysed 4,000 student profiles of a US-based university on Facebook highlighted several potential privacy threats for the students based on information provided by them (Gross et al., 2005). Other challenges include the credibility of social media sharing and academic communication (Moran et al. 2011). Several other authors agree that the credibility of social media remains as one of the key factors that influence engagement mainly in educational settings (Kang 2010; Edwards et al. 2013).

2.8.4 Social Media for Learning and Research in HEIs

Social media facilitating learning and research of institutions is also helping with their core business. HEIs providing online education in the UK is an increasing trend (Universities UK, 2012) and while this might support the use of social media and technology for learning purposes (Pelet, 2013), it can also be argued that the institutions are making use of such tools to expand their reach and overall business. Social media is indeed a global phenomenon and its impact in academic sector has been seen in several US-based studies (Moran et al., 2011; Hunsinger and Senft, 2013; Johnson et al., 2014) that mainly suggest the growing trend of social media use in higher education. Additionally, research is also at the core part of university’s business, and social media in several ways facilitate the process for academics. Few academics have actually focused on studying the use of social media for carrying out research purpose itself (Poore, 2014; Poynter, 2010), which shows the importance of social media in the academic learning process. Alampi (2012) argues that social media cannot be just limited to marketing of the academic work and that it is useful in every step of the research process, from updates in the industry to receiving feedback to the promotion of the final work.

However, the focus of this research is on the business opportunities that social media can create by serving purposes such as learning and research. In addition to the advancing the learning process, social media is making the institutions efficient in delivering the courses, maintaining communication and engagement and thus helping to create a sustainable business.

2.9 Conclusion

The literature review thus critically examined some of the emerging social media discussions from different academics. The study of relevant literature revealed the importance of social media in business context. The business use of social media, however, has yet to get significant traction from the academics and this was reflected in the literature, which was mainly drawn from consultancy firm reports, online reports and practical trade publications.

Additionally, existing studies showed that business use of social media is gradually increasing in the UK’s HE sector. The lack of adequate studies in such context, however, indicated a gap in the study and raised questions that need further studies to understand the whole phenomenon.

The next stage of this research will outline the process and describe the methodology of this overall study that will seek answers to fulfil the gap in existing studies.

Chapter 3. Methodology

3.1 Introduction

The previous chapter explored the literature based on the business use of social media in general and progressively focused on the HEI’s business use of social media.

The purpose of this chapter is to outline the process and describe the methodology used to achieve the aims and objectives of this research. Starting with key methodological decisions and the research design, the overall framework for the research process has been explained.

3.2 Qualitative Research Design

Research design serves as a framework for the collection, measurement, and the analysis of data (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013) and is a plan for the entire research project (Myers, 2013). Qualitative exploratory research was considered for this study of the business use of social media within HEIs based in the UK. The framework of this research was developed considering the marketing research design (with an integration of social media) of Malhotra (2012), research process onion model of Saunders et al. (2012), and elements of research design of Sekaran and Bougie (2013). Each layer or elements for the framework and the approach adopted by this research is outlined in the table.

Research Design Layers Social Media for Business

Table 3.0 Research Design Layers

3.2.1 Philosophical perspective

By addressing the epistemological aspect, the philosophical perspective and approach of this research have been enlightened. The research aims to develop new knowledge by answering how social media is being used for business purposes in HEIs of the UK. Epistemology, a philosophical theory of knowledge (Saunders et al., 2012), is indeed about what is accepted as valid knowledge (Collis and Hussey, 2009) and how knowledge is created and disseminated in a specific subject area (Horn, 2012). In contrast to purely conceptual study, empirical investigation based on qualitative study seeks to contribute to the body of knowledge (Myers, 2013). Based on the qualitative research design, I have embraced interpretive philosophies for this research, as it is closely associated with qualitative research methods (Saunders et al., 2012). The philosophy although not popular as positivist, has recently gained grounds (Myers, 2013) in the areas of business and management research. Unlike positivist tradition, an interpretive tradition helps to analyse the complex world and gain rich insights, which is more suitable for conducting research among humans in their roles as social actors (Saunders et al., 2012). It also minimises the relationship distance between researcher and what is being researched (Collis and Hussey, 2009). This further helps the researcher’s beliefs to determine what should count as facts in contrast to a positivist assumption in which research facts constrain researcher’s beliefs (Smith, 1983, pp. 10-11). Additionally, it can be argued that business situations are complex and unique (Myers, 2013), and generalisations like in positivism cannot sufficiently understand the complexity (Saunders et al., 2012) thus making interpretivist suitable for this business and marketing research. Interpretive research, however, ignores scientific procedures of verification and thus its results cannot be generalizable to the population (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013).

3.2.2 Research Approach

Depending on the extent to which knowledge of the research topic has progressed, the nature of the study can be exploratory, descriptive, or causal (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013; Malhotra, 2012). As business issues of social media in HEIs has hardly been studied before, it can be argued that exploratory study is best suited for this research. Exploratory studies are useful for gaining insights about the topic of interests and have an advantage being flexible and adaptable to change (Malhotra, 2012), in comparison to other research approaches (Saunders et al., 2012). However, as an exploratory study like this one is conducted on a small and non-representative sample, the findings are considered tentative (Malhotra, 2012). Further, this research followed an inductive approach and was guided by ‘bottom-up’ reasoning i.e. the data was collected first and then the theory was developed as a result of its analysis (Saunders et al., 2012; Horn, 2010). The inductive approach ensures flexibility in contrast to deductive approach, which is rather rigid with the process (Saunders et al., 2012). Additionally, the inductive approach for this qualitative study was suitable, as the focus of the research has narrowed down from general business use of social media to business use of social media specifically in the HEIs. Regarding research strategy, Sekaran and Bougie, (2013) lists case studies, grounded theory, action research, and mixed methods as some of the research strategies used in the business research. Mixed methods approaches have been adopted for this research. Often associated with mixed methods, triangulation or method triangulation, to be more specific, was used to collect data using multiple methods (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013). The decision to adopt mixed methods, however, wasn’t a straightforward decision. Initially, I had considered multiple case studies as a strategy for this research, but a holistic approach and perspective required to carry on a case study research (Yin, 2014; Myers, 2013) was not possible considering the time constraints.

3.2.3 Time Horizon

A cross-sectional approach was taken for time horizon aspect keeping an eye to the time limitations for this research (Saunders et al., 2012). The data for the study was collected from August 2014 to January 2015 making it as a one-shot study. The cross-sectional approach has benefit over longitudinal studies, the latter taking more time, effort and costs to study (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013). However, if I had more time for the research, I would prefer longitudinal studies, which could provide richer insights throughout different periods of time (Malhotra, 2012).

3.3 Data Collection Methods

Based on the interpretive philosophy of this research as discussed above, there was clear need for in-depth qualitative methods for the study. Further being an exploratory study, this research depends on qualitative approaches (Malhotra, 2012; Saunders et al., 2012).

Two methods, semi-structured interviews and qualitative web content analysis were used for data collection of this research. Both of them are further examined below.

3.3.1 Semi-structured in-depth interviews

Horn (2010) argues interviews, as a method can be very effective to explore meanings, perception, and understandings in qualitative research. Discussing types of interviews, Esterberg (2002) classes three different types of individual interviews i.e. i) Structured Interview, ii) Semi-structured interview, and iii) unstructured interview. Summarising the advantages and disadvantages of those three types of interviews Myers (2010) concludes semi-structured interviews as the ones that sit in between two extremes taking the best of both approaches and minimising the extreme risks. The decision to adapt semi-structured interviews (also referred to as in-depth interviews) is because of its relative benefits in this exploratory study to help understand and explore the complexity of the topic (Saunders et al., 2012) related to the objectives of this research. Also, using semi-structured interviews, I benefitted from having a structure to start the conversation but without a strict adherence that allowed new lines to emerge during the conversation (Myers, 2010). I was also able to clarify topics clearly to interviewees and as they were not confined to the questions, they responded in ways that felt sensible to them, thus adding important insights to the conversation (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2014). Semi-structured interviews, however, do not allow consistency over data collected from the process (Myers, 2010) and this became one of the limitations of using such type of interview. In addition, as Velde et al., (2004) argues the answers can notably vary depending on how interviewees formulate them and thus it can become difficult to process, analyse, and generalise the results of the interview.

Pilot Test

A pilot test was undertaken with a social media professional with an immense interest in social media use of HEIs, who also had worked as a social media manager in past for two UK-based universities. The test study helped in reflecting the entire process and implementing the feedback to improve the research process. Additionally, the pilot study helped in testing the interview questions and the effectiveness of recorder among others.

Interview Process

Participants, those who agreed to be part of this study, were further contacted for their availability of face-to-face interview (see Appendix for the list of the participants). Arranging a time and schedule for the interview, most of the interviews were conducted in their respective university premises. The interviews were one-on-one, mostly probing in nature to gain a clear understanding of the complex technicalities behind the social media use. All Interviews were recorded, with the consent of the interviewee, by use of a high-quality recording app on an iPhone. The recordings were then extracted and saved on a computer for transcription purposes. At least one interview from each institution was fully transcribed. In the case of multiple interviews from the same institution, the interviews were listened few times to ensure the secondary interview confirms the details in the primary interview, and notes were made of the new details. See (Appendix I) for the questions used for the interviews.

3.3.2 Qualitative Web Content Analysis

The ongoing data analysis in this research process that began after conducting few interviews informed the need for subsequent data collection. In most of the interviews, social media managers interviewed for this research were trying to explain some questions through the use of data and recent reports, urging the further need of their social media channels analysis (web content analysis). Content analysis is one method that can be used to evaluate the contents of all forms of recorded communication (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013). The content analysis of media has been studied before and creatively used for qualitative analysis, often in combination with other research strategies (Riffe et al., 2013). Ackland (2013) concludes that the focus of qualitative content analysis is on latent content although it involves processes similar to quantitative content analysis such as frequency count of words/phrases in text bodies and application of coding schemes. Bryman and Bell (2011) suggest that content analysis method can, in fact, serve as a complimentary method to support and validate other primary research methods. Although social media has increasingly become a source of data collection for market researchers, Branthwaite and Patterson (2011) argue that monitoring social media posts is poor substitute instead of in-depth qualitative research. This research, however, applied social media monitoring in addition to the in-depth qualitative interviews methods, which helped to better understand and validate the data, thus supporting the primary method.

In terms of application, official social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) of all seven universities were visited on a browser and the entire posts for the month of December 2014 were made visible by scrolling on the timeline. Texts of both Facebook posts and tweets were then copied manually and recorded using an excel sheet to form two separate documents of all the content. As it was possible to collect all the Facebook posts and tweets (of the universities studied in this research) between 1st December till 31st December, sampling was avoided for this data collection (Ackland, 2013). Additionally, a premium plan of Socialbakers was used to export the analytics reports of all the official university Facebook pages with several key metrics such as engagement rate, the number of posts etc. included in the reports (see Appendix II – IX). The choice of using Socialbakers is because the platform has the largest social-media data pool of any social analytics company (Forbes, 2015). The reports were beneficial to study “how” universities use social media and acted as reality checks to what was found from the claims in the interviews.

3.3.3 Validity and Reliability

Valid research arguably is about making appropriate choices in terms of research strategy and data collection (Biggam, 2015). Using semi-structured in-depth interviews in this study ensured achieving a high level of validity because of its flexibility to clarify questions and probe meanings (Saunders et al., 2012). Pilot tests carried out for the interview further helped in confirming the reliability of the process. Additionally, using multiple data sources helped in strengthening the reliability of the research (Biggam, 2015; Quinton and Smallbone, 2006). With regard to interviews, the purpose of multiple interviews from the same institution, in few cases helped mostly with the validity of the data collected. In multiple interviews, the same themes were repeated and thus it was useful to get the overall picture of how social media is perceived at an institution. Also, sending information to the participant before interview meant that interviewees were prepared with additional data, which ultimately helped in validity and reliability (Saunders et al., 2012). The research strategy, however, questions the issue of validity, as the results cannot be generalised. Moreover, the use of interviews for primary data collection in itself is open to bias and inaccuracy thus questioning the reliability (Biggam, 2015). Nonetheless, above discussed measures tried minimising the bias and inaccuracies.

3.4 Sampling Design

A non-probability purposeful (or judgmental) sampling was used for the process. Using my judgment, I contacted specific universities that had a good social media presence that might help me answer my research questions based on the objectives of this study. The use of purposeful sampling, however, implies that the sample cannot be generalised to the entire population (Saunders et al., 2012; Sekaran and Bougie, 2013).


As I am based in London, I considered studying HEIs (mainly universities) based in London and Oxford for the research. Considering those universities that were really active on social media (based on key metrics and my judgment), social media managers for the universities were searched using Google and social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter. Those that didn’t have social media managers (as the case with many universities), I contacted their marketing and communications department seeking the participation in this study.

A total of twelve participants from eight different universities involved in social media activities agreed to participate in the research. The list of universities and the number of participants from each university are listed in Table 3.1.

Sample List and Participants Table for Social Media for Business Research

Table 3.1 Sample List and Participants

The sample consists of different types of universities in the UK including those chartered in the 19th century (e.g. University College London) to “New Universities” or post-1992 universities (e.g. Oxford Brookes University). Further, the participants represented a wide range of roles within the university including marketing, communications and web development in addition to the social media management roles. Such varied range of universities and participants has provided rich and comprehensive insights on the issue.

3.5 Data Analysis

Many authors recommend the use of computer programs to simplify the process of conducting analysis from a large volume of qualitative data (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2014; Malhotra, 2012). Nvivo, a popular and frequently used software program for qualitative data analysis (Horn, 2010) was used to import and code the transcribed interviews. With several codes, themes were identified thus helping to analyse and interpret the data.

3.5.1 Thematic Content Analysis

The data analysis for this study involved the process of analysing the interview transcripts to identify the themes within the data. Starting with the preparation of analysis, open coding was done on the transcribed texts (Myers, 2013; Kvale and Brinkmann, 2014). The transcribed interview document was imported into Nvivo for coding or categorization process of the interview statements (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2014). The interview text was then coded with emerging themes and the process was repeated for all the interview transcripts. New themes emerged along the process and constant comparison was done between the themes of different interviews to finally build major themes from several sub-themes. Transcripts were thoroughly analysed to ensure that the analysis process was systematic and rigorous. Finally, along with constant comparison, links between the themes were identified and analysed to interpret meaning from the findings. The thematic content analysis process was again repeated for additional data collected through qualitative web content analysis. This process established the existence and frequency of themes (Sekaran and Bougie, 2013) in the text data of Facebook posts and tweets.

3.6 Ethical considerations

The research should “do no harm” was the main aim (Horn, 2010) concerning ethical standards of this study. Involvement of human participants in the qualitative study meant that ethical issues should be of priority in the research (Saunders et al., 2012). The research adhered to key ethical issues including informed consent for interviews and direct exchanges with research participants. Participant’s right to clear understanding of the research was fulfilled by sending them information on the research in advance. Besides, participants were assured of the data confidentiality and anonymity of any sensitive issues mentioned in the process.

Additionally, for the qualitative web content analysis used in this research, ethical issues were seen in terms of online research. Studying the domain of ethics in e-research and web 2.0 context, Wiles (2013) argues the primary ethical issue arising from the recent methods involving web 2.0 that collects data from social networking sites relate to the issues of privacy and consent. Further, Snee (2008) concludes that although particular web 2.0 ethics isn’t necessary for studies collecting data from social network sites platforms, special considerations need to be taken to address ethical of changing notions around privacy.

Thus, one of the key ethical issues to be concerned with web 2.0 and social media is whether the online data is public or private (Saunders et al., 2012). The posts and tweets used in this research were publicly published by the university’s official social media channels and are available to everyone, even for people who are not members of those platforms. In most of the cases, the tweets and Facebook posts are also integrated on their official university websites, making them accessible to everyone. Informed consent sought from the university’s social media managers to study those posts further helped to maintain high ethical standards.

3.7 Conclusion

In summary, a framework for the research design was developed, and the methodology for the research was examined and justified in this chapter.

All the approaches and details of the study for carrying out this research have been clearly explained under different sub-topics. Further, the limitations of the methodology and the ethical issues involved in this research have been examined.

Chapter 4. Findings and Discussion

4.1 Introduction

This chapter reveals the findings of this study and helps to answer the questions that form the objectives of this study. The findings have been mainly derived from twelve in-depth semi-structured interviews with participants from eight different UK based institutions.

The themes were recognised and categorised from the analysis of qualitative in-depth interviews (see Appendix II – IX for transcripts) conducted to examine the social media use in HEIs. The additional data from qualitative web content analysis further helped in confirming the main themes arisen from thematic content analysis of transcribed interview texts. A constant comparison between the connecting themes was done to interpret the findings.

Additionally, the findings from the study have been presented and subsequently discussed in this chapter. The discussion is informed from matching the findings to what has been established in the literature and adding my own views to draw conclusions.

4.2 Social Media Strategy

The first objective of this research is to investigate how universities make use of social media and the value they gain out of their social media efforts. To meet this objective and answer the question of “how”, it’s necessary to gain holistic insights into the social media strategy of the HEIs. Social media strategy for a specific institution in this study means types of SNS they use, platforms that they emphasise, and the insights from those that are involved in managing social channels among other aspects. Thus, the analysis of social media strategy in the institutions identified four sub-themes that are presented in Figure 4.0 in a thematic map.

Thematic map of sub-themes related to Social Media Strategy

Figure 4.0 Thematic map of sub-themes related to Social Media Strategy

4.2.1 Social Media Perspectives

All interviewees were asked what social media meant to them and interestingly this revealed unique perceptions and understandings of the medium in different institutions. Overall, the meaning of social media is mostly influenced by where the medium sits within their organisation, which mainly includes departments such as media and communication, marketing, and digital communications. Depending on the departments represented by the individuals, social media primarily means a channel of communication, a marketing platform, or an online branding tool. While most of them related its significance to multiple aspects, some thoughts with significant preference include,

“The main meaning of social media for us is that it acts as a communication channel for the current students. Primarily, it’s a way for our students to talk to us and for us to talk to our students.”(Brunel)

“For many universities, social media is a recruitment tool, which it is here as well but it sits within communication and we take it a bit differently from marketing and recruitment.”(Goldsmiths)

“It’s a way of our stakeholders engaging with the kind of stories and content we produce in a much more interactive way.”(QMUL)

Social media thus means different to different universities. Oxford1 assumes “because the platform is so new,” not all can see the benefits in the same way the practitioner does. Others doubt on how the medium is being perceived by the senior management. One thing, however, everyone agrees is of the variety of purposes social media can serve. The literature on social media perspectives recognises the broad themes of the medium used for a variety of functions (see Charlesworth, 2014; Fuchs, 2011) and thus this finding aligns with literary perspectives.

Within this broader theme of the social media strategy, several sub-themes related to the use of specific platforms emerged which are discussed in details below.

4.2.2 Popular Social Media Platforms

To investigate the use of social media, it is necessary to know which platforms are currently popular among the HEIs. Further, the wide range of social networks available (Solis, 2014) means that it is also important to know which platforms are mainly emphasised by the institutions. Not surprisingly, Facebook and Twitter followed by LinkedIn among others emerged to be the top social media platforms used in HEIs. Most of them expressed their preference of Facebook and Twitter among other platforms. Further, Goldsmiths’ view, for example, “it’s mainly Facebook and Twitter that we emphasise” was representative of all participants in terms of platforms emphasised by the institutions.

In line with the interviewees, analysis of their institutions’ analytics reports (See Appendix II – IX) revealed that most of the institutions had a strong presence on Facebook. Figure 4.1 shows the Facebook audience of the institutions ranging from thirty thousand fans of the Kingston University to more than hundred thousand fans of the University of Oxford as of December 2014.

Facebook Fans of UK Universities as of December 2014

Figure 4.1 Facebook Fans of UK Universities as of December 2014, Data Source: Socialbakers

These findings agree with the previous studies of the social media use in the UK universities (Parcell, 2013; Jadu, 2010) that recognised Facebook and Twitter to be the most used platforms. Previous studies however also recognised MySpace and YouTube as other top platforms (Jadu, 2010). Among them, MySpace wasn’t mentioned at all by any of the participants as the platform has lost its traction and faded away (Shih, 2011; Solis, 2009) but many universities still use YouTube extensively for sharing professional videos.

This study thus identifies Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as the trending platforms within HEIs. Other sub-themes from the findings for those trending platforms are individually explored below.

4.2.3 Facebook

Most interviewees discussed Facebook as the main platform that they used in their institutions. Moreover, some institutions had their entire social media strategy focused around Facebook. Goldsmiths, for example, explained,

“Facebook is where I spend most of my time, making sure it’s used really well than other channel, tweets are only tweets.”(Goldsmiths)

Such view explains the relative advantage of Facebook in comparison to another most used platform Twitter within institutions. Besides, almost all of the interviewees agreed Facebook was the main platform that represented a significant part of their social media audience. Content analysis of the institutions’ major metrics (likes for Facebook) as shown in Figure 4.1 also supplements the interviewees’ opinions that they have their significant user base mostly on Facebook. Besides, Figure 4.2 shows their share of interactions based on their activity on Facebook, which proves their high activity on the platform for most of the institutions.

UK Universities Facebook pages Share - Social Media for Business

Figure 4.2 Share of Interactions of the Institutions’ Facebook pages, Data Source: Socialbakers

The main reasons to use such platforms included sharing news, announcements and discussions on their issues related to the institution, which resembles the business use of Facebook as suggested by Shih (2011). Facebook’s use in institutions, however, isn’t only limited to marketing and communications (Zarrella and Zarrella, 2011). It is the only platform that was identified by most of the participants for its use in teaching and learning, which aligns with finding in the literature (Parcell, 2014).

Two important factors as discussed by the interviewees in this study that make it relevant to the institutions include “reach” and “engagement” which supports what was discussed in the literature (Shih, 2011). Facebook is undoubtedly the leading social network in terms of its active users, engagement and worldwide reach (Solis, 2011; Ballve, 2013). Its significant use in overall businesses (Zarrella and Zarrella, 2011) and in HEIs (Socialbakers, 2012) has been comprehensively recognised in previous studies (Shih, 2011). Thus all such findings i.e. Facebook being the most emphasised platform and the reasons behind it are in line to the literature that has discussed the importance of this platform in business (Shih, 2011).

4.2.4 Twitter

Interviewees revealed several ways Twitter is used in institutions including publishing content and real-time updates, monitoring opinions, communicating with peers, and finding new connections among other uses. Similar to Facebook, some interviewees revealed the growing value of Twitter for advertising purposes, but none of them talked about Twitter solely on its own for their strategy. Nonetheless, participants stated the excessive use of the platform mentioning single or multiple channels representing their institutions. Brookes1, for example, mentioned,

“From the various departments and areas of expertise we have over (…) 400 twitter feeds and many others.”(Brookes1)

Use of such multiple channels on Twitter indicates the versatile use of the platform in HEIs. Such extensive usage of Twitter is in line with previous studies of the platform among UK institutions (Parr, 2014). Content analysis of the institutions’ tweets (see Appendix XI) shows that the participating institutions have produced 509 tweets in total for the month of December 2014. Although active in terms of producing content, they are not receiving many interactions in comparison to Facebook. Additionally, most of them are rather producing more content on Facebook than Twitter. Moreover, very few direct mentions from most of the institutions confirm that they aren’t engaging much in the platform (Comm and Comm, 2010).

Twitter is undoubtedly one of the rapidly growing platforms (Curran et al., 2011) for businesses (Comm and Comm, 2010) but the findings indicate it might take a while for the HEIs to take a grip on this platform. Twitter requires an “engaged” audience to make most out of it (Carvill and Taylor, 2013) and the only way to have such audience is by participating in conversations directly with them (Comm and Comm, 2010; Charlesworth, 2014). As with any social media platform, it requires communication both ways. If Twitter is taken similar to a traditional one-way channel of information (which is the case for most of the HEIs currently), it will be hard for institutions to make most out of it.

4.2.5 LinkedIn

Most of the interviewees stated LinkedIn as one of the top social media platforms in their institutions, but when further probed about its use, only one institution was explicit about its business use. Others either stated the minimum use of it or completely skipped citing it as platform managed by their alumni department. Stating LinkedIn’s role plainly, QMUL said, “we do not do a great deal on LinkedIn, our alumni part runs that” and Goldsmiths tried to show minimum influence by reporting, “the platform is shared with our alumni team.” In contrast, Oxford1 discussed in details how they used the platform not just to connect and engage but also for their expensive advertising purposes.

The institutions that are part of this study had a huge number of followers and connections on the LinkedIn, which is represented in Figure 4.3.

Number of LinkedIn connections of the universities as of December 2014

Figure 4.3 Number of LinkedIn connections of the universities as of December 2014 (From content analysis)

Despite being discussed in the literature as one of the lesser-used platforms in a 2013 JISC study (Parcell, 2013), the current numbers definitely portray LinkedIn to be one of the most popular platforms. This study, however, couldn’t reveal inner insights on the use of this platform from most of the institutions as their alumni departments mostly managed it. The literature also discussed LinkedIn’s specific advantage for business schools (Dhoul, 2014) and the findings of this research that included one business school explicitly referring to the potential gains of LinkedIn doesn’t come with a surprise. LinkedIn has been referred to the top social media tool for recruiting students and staff (Shih, 2011), generating leads and building connections (LinkedIn Corporation, 2014) and according to Oxford1, for their business school, this means recruiting students on to their expensive courses and facilitating connections amongst them.

Some findings such as the platform’s changing role in HEIs with its recent introduction of specific university pages, however, may be relatively new and interesting with this research. Traditionally, because of the professional nature of this platform (Holloman, 2014; LinkedIn Corporation, 2014; Mattern et al., 2012), mostly alumni networks were concerned about it and the universities had their presence on the platform as company pages (Shih, 2011). LinkedIn’s recent introduction of university page and the automatic addition of all members connected to specific university network in that page (Allen, 2013) provides a massive targeted audience that can present broad opportunities to the universities. The new university pages make it seem easy for the HEIs to use it for business purposes considering their extensive reach. According to interviewees, although beneficial, this has initially created confusion on how this platform should be used in the institutions. With recent university pages, added on top of existing group pages and company pages, it has rather confused HEIs themselves on what should they be focusing on. Nonetheless, LinkedIn recent changes benefit all institutions and this indicates that the platform’s popularity and use in business in HEIs will significantly increase in the future.

4.2.5 Blogs

It is difficult to figure out where blogs, as social media are going on within the institutions. Four of the interviewees, in particular, Oxford1, Brookes1, QMUL, and UCL mentioned that their institutions had some sort of blogging involved in their social media strategy. While Oxford1 stated that they were taking it seriously and had been trying to use it for a year, Brookes1 mentioned that they were just getting started with it formally. Besides, UCL1 added, “only staff and department blogs were in use” and the strategy was not focused on getting the students involved. Other universities didn’t have anything significantly related to blogs, apart from their views similar to that of Goldsmiths,

“We allow our students blog about the university and their life at university, but they have to do it independently with the use of external tools such as Blogger or WordPress.”(Goldsmiths)

The findings also uncover that blogs work as complementary to other social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those that use blogs, see SNS as rather helping to grow the reach and promotion of their blog posts. UCL, for example, that uses blogs to make its museum’s archives digitally available argued, “social networking sites, in fact, grow the outreach of our blogs”. This supports the literature of blogs being rather supportive of other SNS. Blogs arguably were the first social media platforms adopted by HEIs starting with web 2.0 CMS (Tattersall, 2014) but the findings reveal they are largely limited to department and staff blogs. This might however not be true representation of all HEIs considering the sample of only a few universities. HEIs nonetheless are concerned about blogs and aim to make it a significant part of their social media strategy. Further, Looking onto the broader spectrum of declining use of blogs in businesses (Barnes and Lescault, 2012) however may not fit for the case of universities. Being academic institutions, the focus will always remain on creating valuable content, and blogs are crucial social media platform for creating meaningful (Holloman, 2014) and scholarly content (Parcell, 2013).

4.2.7 Emerging Social Media Platforms

Among several other social media platforms used by HEIs, many interviewees mentioned Instagram as one of the emerging platforms among their audiences. Kingston1 stated,

“Instagram seems to be leading the race; everyone seems to be about images, these days.”

QMUL, Imperial, and Goldsmiths also supported the rising case of Instagram’s use. Apart from Instagram, other platforms that were mentioned in interviews included Google+, Vine, Flickr, and Snapchat. This raises the question of which platforms should HEIs really adopt and emphasise?

The noteworthy argument behind the use of only specific platforms came from Brunel who mentioned the reason behind the use of only top platforms was that they “do not want to spread so thinly on all the networks”. In contrast, Brookes1 argues that their ethos is “not to dictate a preference over platforms” on their communities. The decision to adopt several platforms or being focused on few platforms thus should be based on individual strategies. Use of Weibo (Chinese micro-blogging website), for instance, by QMUL to engage their international audiences shows that the HEIs should be looking for platforms that are popular among their audiences and be able to use that to their advantage.

The purpose of mentioning the emerging platforms here (that are rather anomalies of my findings) is to address the rapidly changing landscape of social media (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010) that sees specific vendors and technologies come and go (Shih, 2011). It also justifies the query raised in the literature that up-to-date studies are always essential to see which platforms are trending at any time. Emerging platforms certainly show the way social media is going forward (MediaBistro, 2014) but the question is not only about being on the platform. The platform hardly has any value if it fails to address the business prospects of the HEIs.

4.3 Business use of Social Media

Another important aspect of the second objective was to investigate what business purposes social media serves for HEIs and the perceptions of added value social media brings to the HEIs.
The majority of the interviewees related several aspects of marketing and communication as business purposes of social media. One interviewee, with a broader view, finely summarised how social media is used in their institution,

“Social media has been utilised (…) for; customer services and enquiries, marketing, internal communications, international recruitment, event engagement via internal live twitter walls, crisis management, surveys, user testing, customer feedback on new products and also current student engagement around competitions, giveaways and general user affinity and engagement.”(Brookes1)

Along the same lines, UCL discussed that social media helps them with four specific aspects, which includes i) raising the profile, ii) students experience, iii) optimising marketing, and iv) operation efficiencies.

Few themes that were repeated in the discussion of the business use of social media in most of the interviews are summarised as sub-themes in the thematic map (Figure 4.4) and discussed in details below.

Thematic Map of sub-themes related to Business use of Social Media - Social Media for Business

Figure 4.4 Thematic Map of sub-themes related to Business use of Social Media

These findings highlight the growing importance of social media in different aspects of business, and are aligned with literature that discusses the importance of social media for the entire value chain of the organisations (Mattern et al., 2012).

4.3.1 Social Media Marketing

Most of the interviewees could easily relate to the changing marketing practices with the growing use of social media. They firmly believed in how social media has changed the traditional marketing practices at their institutions. In context, Brunel expressed the primary objective of using social media is for marketing purposes. UCL, for instance, expressed social media is helping them to “optimise their marketing”.

Some aspects revealed from participants that have affected marketing included social word-of-mouth, real-time engagement opportunities, and access to information among others, which supports the broad topic of social media marketing as discussed by Tuten and Solomon (2014). The findings also conclude that social media is a crucial part of everyone’s overall marketing strategy supporting the views of Sterne (2010) and others that have comprehensively discussed the importance of social media marketing in the literature (Tuten and Solomon, 2014; Kuzma and Wright, 2013). Also, the findings align with the evidence from the previous study in the HEIs of the UK (Shaw, 2014) that increasingly consider the importance of social media marketing. It also supports another study of overall businesses (Stelzner, 2014), which reported the significance of the medium as considered by more than 92% of the marketers.

4.3.2 Social Media Advertising

Interviewees who had used social media advertising for their institutions perceived it as a powerful advertising medium. Features such as “global reach”, “specific targeting” of social media advertising were expressed in support of the medium’s use for advertising purposes. The main backing of using advertisements is to grow reach and boost engagement, among other purposes.

An interesting finding was the range of budgets allocated for advertising and spending on social media advertising in the institutions. It was revealed while one institution spent six figures sum per year only on social media advertising, others spent nothing at all. Having a specific budget for social media advertising is where most institutions struggled with, many relying on the main budget of their main departments.

However, not all of them are using the medium for advertising purposes. Brookes1, for instance, expressed,

“We have, as yet not found a need to do so, as the key is planning and often social media advertising is quite short term in the solution it offers.”(Brookes1)

The general notion yet is that social media advertising is something most of the institutions will be considering in the future. Brunel’s additional viewpoint clarified,

“We want to do some of it but then we do not want to go that road of making it a purely paid solution. We wouldn’t really want to be in that situation, where we have to pay money to talk to our own students who have chosen to follow us already.”(Brunel)

Such view supports many interviewee’s rationales of not willing to advertise on the platforms but at the same time, many of them are aware of the changing algorithms of trending platforms such as Facebook, which will compel them to use advertising to reach their audience in future (Charlesworth, 2014).

4.3.3 Social Media ROI

Using social media for business purposes means that it involves some kind of reporting to gauge the effectiveness and relay the progress. To understand the ROI of social media, I started exploring the views on what institutions wanted to achieve from social media and what they measured for its effectiveness.

Most interviewees had some clarity on what they wanted to achieve from social media but only a few of them knew what they should be measuring specifically. Some interviewees such as Oxford1 and Kingston2 were able to directly relate to social media ROI in form of tangible results by showing figures of how many students applied for their courses costing X amount coming from advertisements on social media. While others related ROI in other mixed forms that they were measuring such as the responses from social media, traffic on their websites, or simply the likes, followers and other key metrics of social media. Imperial, for example, related it to growth of traffic to their website,

“The campaign saw an increase of visitors to the website especially during the period directly after fresher’s week.”(Imperial)

ROI in institutions thus depended on what they were trying to measure with the use of social media, which represents the view of those that have discussed social media ROI extensively (Blanchard, 2011; Holloman, 2014). Also, literature discussed the importance of assessing social media ROI (Kelly, 2013) and along same lines, it was crucial for HEIs to measure ROI to prove its business case (which is later identified as one of the challenges of social media).

4.3.4 Social Media Management Tools

All of the universities use one or more social media management tools to help simplify the process. HootSuite was specifically mentioned to be the most used social media management tool among the institutions. Others included a variety of tools including free ones such as Tweetdeck to paid platforms such as Sproutsocial and Falconsocial. Google analytics that has been extensively used by institutions to mainly measure the analytics of websites and its recently integrated social media features (Holloman, 2014) were reportedly used by all of the institutions.

Another important finding was that although most of the institutions didn’t have a social media management tool in place already, they were looking to adopt one sooner. Their understanding was that such tools might help to solve some of the complex problems they are facing in terms of managing multiple channels. Additionally, most of the interviewees showed interest in measuring the student’s journey through social media, and thus certain CRM software that integrated with social media is what they expected to implement in near future.

This data supports the growing need for businesses to use analytical tools (Holloman, 2014; HBR, 2010) and use of a variety of management tools in businesses as identified in the literature (Kelly, 2013). Apart from the in-house management tools to simplify the process, it’s disclosed that some universities made use of external social media agencies for tougher tasks like social media advertising. This, however, is in combination with the other traditional marketing campaigns such as print and other online advertising. To enlighten the issue, Brunel explained,

“A lot of social media advertising that we do is done through agencies. We work with specific digital agencies, we recruit them for a fixed term and we will pay them a package to deliver a campaign, which will include social as well.”

Use of external agencies is not uncommon for businesses (Foulger, 2014) but building in-house capabilities especially for large organisations such as universities will be useful in the longer term.

4.4 Opportunities of Social Media use in HEIs

Four different sub-themes were identified in relation to social media opportunities in institutions. Figure 4.5 shows the thematic map of those sub-themes.

Thematic Map of sub-themes related to social media opportunities

Figure 4.5 Thematic Map of sub-themes related to social media opportunities

4.4.1 Brand Awareness and Reputation of HEIs

Brand awareness is one of the major opportunities of social media that was discussed by all of the interviewees. UCL and Oxford1 were mainly concerned about their growing brand recognition with social media. The main thing, Oxford1 contented to expect from its wider audience on social media is “brand awareness”. Also, UCL citing brand building as one of the biggest objectives explained,

“It has to do with raising the profile of the institution, UCL is a big brand but it’s not known internationally as it should be known, I suppose, and that’s one thing we are looking to improve with social media use.”

Additionally, reputational aspects are the primary focus behind using social media argued Brookes1, Imperial and Goldsmiths. While Imperial and Goldsmiths claimed it to be related to “PR and online reputational aspects”, Brookes1 further explained,

“Our brand is central to our identity, and social allows us to convey our identity in a subtle and engaging way. When choosing content, we always aim to ensure that the content reflects at least one of our 4 guiding principles – connectedness, generosity of spirit, confidence and enterprising creativity. This ensures that users come to understand, often subconsciously, what our brand stands for and who we are.” (Brookes1)

The findings relate to the literary discussion of the influence of web 2.0 and social media in the branding of HEIs (Neumark, 2012) and overall businesses (Solis, 2011). Although most of the interviewees discussed the reputational aspect themselves, the detailed focus on this aspect might be influenced by one of the interview questions that explicitly asked about the impact of social media on branding purposes.

4.4.2 Communications and Engagement tool

One of the most obvious opportunities, interviewees revealed different ways the institutions are using social media as a communication and engagement tool. Brookes1 asserts social media to be “fundamental part of the overall communications mix” and UCL reflects both institution and that their major audience students benefit from social media being a communication channel.

Similarly, Brunel terming social media as entirely communication channel stated they use social media as “a tool to communicate with their students and receive their instant views, comments, and feedbacks”. Discussing its importance, Goldsmiths, however, warns of the changes in the communication space,

“I think it has also changed the way we talk to people and our brand, so you just can’t hide on social media, you can’t just have like PR sort of jargon, you need to have an honest voice as well (…) it has changed lot in the communication space.”

True to their words, content analysis of tweets of Goldsmiths, Kingston, and Brunel, (Figure 4.6) portrays that they are using Twitter to engage and communicate both ways with their audience.

University Tweets participating directly to communicate and engage (From Content Analysis)

Figure 4.6 University Tweets participating directly to interact and engage (From Content Analysis)

UCL, Brunel, and Goldsmiths discussing opportunities mainly in terms of communication, however, can be related to the finding that the medium sits within communication department in their respective institutions. That certainly justifies the higher degree of influence in those institutions but again in overall, communications and engagement is one of the most crucial advantages of social media (Zailskaite-Jakste and Kuvykaite, 2012).

4.4.3 Student’s Recruitment

Almost all the participants believed that social media is helping in recruitment purposes. Four interviewees in particular mentioned recruitment as one of the key objectives of social media use. Under specific business purposes, Brookes1 mentioned social media as key to the “recruitment activities”. Similarly, Kingston1 stated,
“Our income is based on a number of students and so social media is all about getting students into the university.”(Kingston1)

Irrespective of what platform HEIs use, most of their objectives include getting students on their courses, which agrees with the recent studies of social media being used for recruitment purposes (Shaw, 2014). Although most of them emphasised on student’s recruitment, some also pointed out to attract the best staff and faculty members for the University. Goldsmiths citing recruitment as one of the major purposes served by social media mentioned that they have focused on student recruitment with separate channels entirely dedicated for the purpose. QMUL further asserted that social media has helped in “boosting recruitment” and that the university has hired student interns to be part of managing social media under their undergraduate recruitment team.

Although the interviewees quickly related student’s recruitment as one of the primary benefits of social media, they were not able to provide in-depth details citing the fact that their admissions department handles it. Their views and understanding, however, implies that social media helps to reach more prospective students. This finding is in line with the previous studies of social media use in admissions departments by the HE sector (Socialbakers, 2012). The recruitment opportunity can also be related to the customer acquisition benefits of social media discussed for general businesses in the literature (DeMers, 2014; EY, 2014). Further, the literature has also discussed that social media is widely used to target prospective students (QS, 2014; Shepherd, 2008) and thus it’s not surprising for HEIs to realise recruitment as one of the top opportunities. Although social media helps in reaching prospective students and this can certainly increase the conversion rates (Shaw, 2013), how much influence does this have on their decision making to choose a particular institution?

It can be thus argued that HEIs should understand the limits of social media for recruiting purposes (Shaw, 2013). Even though active involvement and direct engagement might be noticed and appreciated by prospective students, it doesn’t help them make their decisions based on few tweets. They might still want to visit the university and talk to an academic to make final decisions.

4.4.4 Social Customer Service

Although all interviewees agree that social media can be useful as a customer service tool for their institutions, they had different views on how customer services are handled on the medium currently. Some interviewees such as Brunel and Brookes3 contended that social media is already used “as a customer service platform” in their institutions while others such as Kingston and Goldsmiths perceive it as something they might see more of in the future. Besides, differentiating between the platforms, Brookes1 added,
“Facebook is used for more qualitative engagement and Twitter for more customer service enquiries.”(Brookes1)

Resources allocated for this medium seem to affect customer service prospects. Although an opportunity, citing the resource problems, QMUL explains that universities haven’t been able to fully grasp benefits of social customer service.

In contrast, Oxford1 claimed that social media doesn’t mean a customer service tool for their institution, and further added,

“Surprisingly, we do not get a lot of complaints and queries on our pages. Most of our students know where to go for their problems. They know that our social media channels are not the best places to go and complain about the program.”(Oxford1)

Although the literature extensively indicates the growing use of social media for customer services in businesses (Charlesworth, 2014; Brynley-Jones 2013), the above view represents the distinctive use of social media in universities. Perhaps, the public nature of social media makes students uncomfortable complaining of their own issues of institutions as their personal reputation is also largely associated with them.

The findings support the notion that lines between marketing and customer service have been blurred (Evans and Cothrel, 2014). Students turn immediately to social channels in cases of problems and expect instant replies. In such context, the interviewees revealed the importance of being ready to react and answer those queries. Many interviewees, however, see the growing use of social media as customer service tool in HEIs and reflect its importance for future purposes.

4.4.5 Social Media for Learning and Research

As the participants involved in the research were mostly related to marketing and communications, this aspect was rather discussed from their personal perspective and not as what institution as overall sees. Most of them agreed that social media could be really beneficial with the teaching and learning aspect of social media. Oxford1 discussed that their institution was trying to integrate social media into teaching and learning,

“We are considering platforms that might better serve for our students to come into a closed group network where they could build connections and share their academic and professional activities.”(Oxford1)

Similarly, Brunel mentioned that although they were not doing anything with regard to teaching and learning, they have noticed students benefitting from the groups’ features on platforms such as Facebook where they can discuss everything from essay deadlines to lecture timings.

The importance of social media in teaching and learning aspects has been widely recognised in the literature (Moran et al. 2011; Hunsinger and Senft, 2013). Extreme use of social media in students makes it easy for universities to get across to them. Some institutions such as Imperial actually see it as a benefit that the audience is already there, and that they do not need to be orientated with a new system, new website and new processes. They believe “students are already trained to use the platforms and if it can serve educational purposes it would be really great”.

Additionally, although the majority of the interviewees agree that social media could help in dissemination of the research, most of them are not using it for such purposes. QMUL discussed,

“Universities are indeed research bodies and the research issues matters to us significantly, but as we are good at getting national and international press media coverage for our research, we hardly use social media for such purposes.”(QMUL)

In contrast to QMUL, few participants including UCL and Oxford1, however, discussed how social media is already helping them to effectively disseminate their research works, reach a wider audience to talk about their works, and engage their stakeholders with their findings and its relevance. Such findings are consistent with the literature of social media benefits in facilitating research aspects in HEIs (Poore, 2014; Poynter, 2010).

4.5 Challenges of Social Media use in HEIs

Despite the several opportunities discussed above, institutions faced unique challenges in utilising this medium. Figure 4.7 highlights the sub-themes associated with social media challenges in a thematic map.

Thematic Map of sub-themes related to social media challenges

Figure 4.7 Thematic Map of sub-themes related to social media challenges

4.5.1 Resources

When asked about challenges of this new medium in their institutions, almost all of the interviewees said “time” and “money”, which relates to the fundamental issue of resources allocated for this medium. Kingston1 asserting funding as one of the biggest issues revealed,

“We are under-resourced, everyone is looking to expand, but the problem is people at the top not really understanding how important it is to the organisation.”(Kingston1)

Such view perhaps emphasises the need for the culture change with regard to senior management understanding, which could benefit and attract more funding over time.

Although all participating universities had people involved in social media activities, a very few of them had people dedicated to it. In most cases, social media was only a small part of the marketing and communication people’s role. Content analysis of posts on Facebook also revealed that only a small number of posts were created on the platform. Figure 4.8 shows the number of posts all the institutions created for the month of December 2014.

Number of wall posts on Facebook of the universitiesFrom content analysis

Figure 4.8 Number of admin wall posts on Facebook of the universities (From content analysis)

Although the figure 4.8 might not represent total social media activity of institutions, it’s sufficient to imply that most institutions are struggling to post even a post a day on average on a platform they consider to be their top used platform. When probed to clarify during the interviews, most of them explicitly mentioned the lack of time and people to produce enough content, which supports challenges as discussed in the literature (Lieb, 2012; Lieb, 2012).

QMUL stated that to solve this problem they have adopted a strategy of recruiting students as interns for social media. It not only solves the resource problem but also brings a different perspective on their channels. Similar is the case with Kingston2, who has been recruiting students as social media ambassadors and asking them to engage with prospective students by answering their queries and helping them to make decisions about course and school.

Other recurring themes across the interviews included multiple challenges such as “changing nature of social media” and “managing multiple channels” but a close look at these brings to the fundamental issue of resources. Rapidly changing nature of social media (Ellison and boyd, 2013) is rather taken as a challenge by most of the institutions. As Imperial mentioned,
“One of the challenges is the speed at which things progress, including changes to platforms, the availability of different and new platforms, and the way perhaps one platform appeals to a certain audience demographic over another, therefore having a presence on many platforms can be time-consuming and means resource having to be spread out across the team.”(Imperial)

With limited human resources, HEIs find it really difficult to build presence on new and emerging platforms. UCL in the context further added,

“My job is fairly busy and it’s difficult to keep track with the ever-changing nature of these platforms and upcoming platforms”.

In addition, Institutions also face the challenge of combining their multi-department issues through a single channel or even a single account on the social media channel. This is again a matter of having sufficient resources to have to support multiple channels and platforms. Further, the challenges of resource and budgetary constraints resemble the challenges presented in previous studies (Jadu, 2010) and survey (Shaw, 2013) in the UK based HEIs. To realise the opportunities of social media, it will be essential for the institutions to have adequate resources dedicated to the medium (Charlesworth, 2014). Views of Imperial and UCL earlier implies that the real-time feature of social media that was discussed as an opportunity (Charlesworth, 2014) for social customer service above, will rather be a disaster if not ineffective for those institutions that are under-resourced.

4.5.2 Engaging Content

Content production is already a challenge citing to the above-discussed issue of under-resourced institutions and yet on top of that producing engaging content on social media is a bigger challenge for most of the institutions (Lieb, 2012). Brunel argues producing relevant engaging content is “a huge challenge” and while advertising might help to promote the post temporarily, there’s absolutely need of high-quality content to attract the audience. Similarly, Goldsmiths contends that,

“Although it’s possible to know things like videos work best on the platform (…), it requires skilled staff and funds to make high-quality videos.”

Further, content analysis of one of the top pages (OxfordSBS with an audience of more than hundred thousand, see Figure 4.9) as managed by Oxford1 shows that the most popular post in December 2014 had only 213 interactions.

Said Business School most engaging social media business post

Figure 4.9 Top engaged post of OxfordSBS in December 2014, Source: Socialbakers Analytics

Such poor engagement shows the need for institutions to invest their resources in producing more engaging content. Having said that, it’s equally necessary to note different social media metrics matter to each institution (Holloman, 2014). Oxford1 in such context mentions that they mostly measure traffic to their websites from social media and the overall metrics such as likes, comments, and shares aren’t of much importance. The findings align with the literature discussions of engaging content being one of the challenges for businesses using social media (Lieb, 2012; Pittard, 2014). Moreover, this also relates to the survey findings of HEIs that stated challenges of producing relevant content catered to the students (Shaw, 2013). Institutions should indeed have a good content strategy to produce relevant and engaging content (Lieb, 2012).

4.5.3 Privacy Issues

One of the recurring themes in the interviews, identity and privacy issues are seen as major challenges of social media (Shih, 2011). Some interviewees, however, stressed that students themselves are becoming concerned about privacy. For example, Goldsmiths expressed that the students were increasingly becoming more aware of privacy issues on social media mentioning the increase on private messages instead of public wall posts but then debated that despite such issues, some are still willing to complain publicly. Along similar lines, Brunel added that they had to remove posts asking students not to share their information publicly.

Privacy might be seen as a bigger problem in aspects of teaching and learning in the institutions. Oxford1 citing the privacy problems in learning environment stated,

“Privacy is one of the significant problems, even though you can have closed a group, that doesn’t stop people from copying the content, taking out of the network and making it public (…) because the platform cannot be monitored for such issues, privacy is indeed a problem.”(Oxford1)

In contrast, for general learning uses Kingston2 argued,

“Privacy might not be a problem really because you can create closed groups and you can maintain that privacy and security.”

The findings, especially concerning the views of Oxford1, support discussions of literature that safeguarding intellectual property and confidentiality are bigger risk areas (Shih, 2011). Privacy issues are indeed one of the biggest challenges of social media (Tinti-Kane, 2013; Boyd and Ellison, 2007) but increasingly there are ways to deal with such issues (Shih, 2011). Growing awareness from both sides, users and providers, perhaps will minimise the impact of privacy in the future. This study, however, doesn’t reveal much apart from the identification of this challenge. As this issue mostly affects students, research from student’s perspective would have been crucial to gain further insights into how it’s affecting them and what makes them exposed to such issues.

4.5.3 Business Case of Social Media

Another commonly mentioned challenge is proving the business case of using social media. Most views of the interviewees on such matter related to two issues, i) reporting the social media progress and ii) the views of senior management. While measuring the impact and being able to report the conversion in terms of ROI should have been an opportunity (Holloman, 2014), it is, in fact, a challenge for most of the HEIs. Although few of them are aware of how it could be done and waiting for best tools, most of them see it as a challenge of the medium. Citing the ROI problem that makes it difficult to measure and report, QMUL sums up,

“It’s the question of you are reaching a volume of people but are they are the right people, and it’s often very difficult to tell if they are right people (…) [the metrics] won’t give you that story and journey of someone interacting with the institution.”(QMUL)

Goldsmiths adds that proving business case especially to the management has been a challenge for businesses in general but argues, “it isn’t different from other traditional marketing challenges”.

As this medium is relatively new, its difficult for the management to understand and thus difficult for the social media managers to justify its business case. As discussed in the literature, proving the business case is one of the common barriers as faced by many businesses adopting social media (MIT and Deloitte, 2014) and thus such finding isn’t surprising. As predicted by Jadu (2010) study, developing a business case for the usage of social media is still one of the challenges in the HEIs. Nonetheless, the situation is getting better with more people getting involved in it and producing quality results to impress views of their management

4.6 Conclusion

The findings thus reveal unique perspectives and approaches to social media use within UK’s HEIs. Looking at the opportunities and challenges in the HEIs, it can be concluded that these opportunities and challenges are mostly similar to the case of general businesses.

Summary of key findings and recommendations on how social media can be optimised for HEIs will be outlined in the next chapter.

Chapter 5. Conclusion

5.1 Introduction

This study explored the business use of social media in the UK based HEIs. Literature based on social media usage of general businesses was primarily analysed to form a theoretical framework. The study then investigated how social media is used within the UK based institutions and what business value they gain out of their social media efforts. Further, the opportunities and challenges of this new medium were studied in details. Finally, recommendations based on the best practices of social media were considered to provide social media optimisation suggestions to the HEIs.

This chapter summarises the research findings, provides social media optimisation suggestions to HEIs and discusses how it adds to the existing knowledge of social media use in the UK universities.

5.2 Summary of Findings

The summary of findings is presented in relation to the objectives directing the overall research.
The first objective guiding this research explored the critical review of the literature on social media and the business use of social media in HEIs. Although a fairly new topic that emerged in last decade, social media is an expansive field and the medium has accounted for varied perspectives from different authors. The review concludes that although the rapid growth and ubiquity of social media has attracted several researchers to study this phenomenon, there are only a few studies on the business aspects of this medium. In addition, studies of specific social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, that are at the core of this social medium and extensively used for businesses, have yet to generate significant studies from academics. Thus, a gap was evident with the lack of sufficient studies in such context, which informed of key questions to be answered by this study. Moreover, insights such as growing use of social media in HEIs and overview of social media use in overall businesses formed a theoretical framework, which helped in meeting my first objective thus forming a basis for my empirical work to explore answers to other research questions.
Thematic analysis conducted on data collected from semi-structured interviews and web content analysis informed a number of themes that were categorised and further analysed to answer the research objectives. Figure 5.0 displays all such major themes that were discussed in this study.

Social Media for Business in HEIs all Themes

Figure 5.0 Themes from Empirical Research Data

The second objective of this research was to investigate how the institutions make use of social media for business purposes and the added value it brings to them. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are the top social media platforms in use within the institutions. Apart from the top platforms, emerging platforms such as Instagram and Google Plus are sought to be growing faster among the HEIs’ social media communities. Among the major findings related to business use, the main areas benefitting HEIs from social media includes marketing and communications among others. Importantly, most of the institutions are concerned about the ROI of the social media and were using some kind of management and analytics tool to report the progress. Further, the third objective directing this research investigated the opportunities and challenges that business use of social media encapsulates in HEIs. Findings reveal the present-day major opportunity for the HEIs is to increase their brand awareness and reputation through social media. Other opportunities such as communication and engagement and recruitment of students are also seen as the current benefits of the medium. Moreover, most of the HEIs see the major opportunities of the medium for social customer services in the future. In contrast, the top challenges of social media in business include time and money, which implies most of the institutions, faced the challenges of meeting the required resources for the medium. A few other challenges include proving the business case, producing engaging content and the privacy issues of social media. Such latest insights on the popularity of platforms, business use of social media, and its opportunities and challenges in HEIs thus helped in meeting the second and third objectives of this research. Some research limitations such as word-count however constrained in focusing only on the major aspects, affecting comprehensive insights of the findings.

The final objective guiding this research was to provide recommendations about how social media can be optimised for HEIs. Apart from a few suggestions on addressing the challenges as discussed in the previous chapter, the views of interviewees didn’t reveal much as most of them found it difficult to generalise and suggest what could work best for everyone. Considering some of their views, challenges, and data from content analysis, some suggestions on social media optimisation for the HEIs are formulated below.

5.3 Social Media Optimisation Suggestions for HEIs

The evidence from this study reveals that HEIs are taking social media seriously and experimenting with different ways to make the best use of it. As most of the HEIs are now using social media platforms extensively, the question no longer is about if they should be doing this or not. Perhaps, the important question is how they can do it and do it great.

Considering the present challenges, it is recommended that HEIs should adopt an institution-wide approach to social media. The primary recommendations are having a dedicated social media strategy, producing engaging content, making effective use of advertising, and continuously learning and applying new knowledge. Here are a few more suggestions for HEIs in addition to the framework for the best practices discussed in the previous chapter,

The immediate need for HEIs is to build dedicated resources for this medium. This study clearly shows that lack of sufficient resources is where most HEIs have built on further limitations for their social media usage. Institutions should have at least a few skilled people entirely dedicated to social media.

Another suggestion for HEIs is to engage with their audiences more. From the content analysis, for example on Twitter, it clearly shows that some institutions haven’t even made a single direct reply to their audiences. Keeping the targeted audience engaged is what brings the most value out of social media.

Content should be the focus of any social media campaign of the HEIs. The right content strategy helps in building a long-term relationship with the audience and encourages brand reinforcement. Institutions should always try and measure what resonates or what doesn’t with their audience.

HEIs should listen to what students are saying about them on the platforms. Also, consider how students can be made part of the process. Hiring student interns to be part of the activities, for instance, can facilitate the resources required for the medium.

Resources are always going to be a challenge and social media practitioners should find creative ways around it; for example, hiring student interns for their team to address human resources, and being rather creative in increasing the organic engagement to address financial resources.

However, there isn’t any set of practices that institutions should follow. Rather than having specific guidelines of what works and what doesn’t, HEIs should try and see it for themselves.

5.4 Contribution to Knowledge

This research fulfils the gap of literature in the business use of social media within UK-based HEIs. It is also an important contribution to the growing literature on overall business usage of social media.

For the HE sector, this study provides important insights into the growing use of social media. Although the findings may not be generalised, it is worth it for the HEIs to consider these findings in practical terms and see what works best for them. The recommendations can act as a base and inform the process of creating a dedicated social media strategy for the HEIs.

5.5 Research Limitations

The biggest limitation has developed from the relatively small sample size of this study. The findings are based on the sample of the universities based in London and Oxford, and although a diverse sample, it isn’t representative of all types of HEIs based in the UK. It thus becomes a limitation of this very exploratory research that the findings cannot be generalised to the entire HEIs based in the UK. Additionally, as the research was carried out in a limited time of a few months – only a month-long data were monitored and analysed for the qualitative web analysis. A longitudinal study along with qualitative data analysis monitored over three months would have provided richer insights.

Further, with respect to the word-count limitations of this report, only the major findings could be reported and analysed in detail.

5.6 Future Research

This study informs the need for further research on students’ part to see how they are using social media and interacting with the social media channels of the HEIs. Students’ motives for using social media and the value they are gaining from social media need to be studied to form a holistic opinion on the medium’s use in the HEIs. With business use, this can be trying to explore how students as customers perceive the messages they see on social media channels and if it influences their decision making such as choosing universities, enrolling into programs or other general sentiments.

Additionally, one of the limitations related to the small sample size of this research means that future studies can study the phenomenon in a larger sample using other research strategies such as multiple case studies of the HEIs. That would then provide rich and comprehensive insights into the use of social media.

5.7 Final Conclusions

The study examined how social media is used in UK-based HEIs and the opportunities and challenges this encapsulates. As the first qualitative study focused on the business use of social media within the HEIs of the UK, it contributes to fulfilling the literature gap on the topic.

Social media and its ubiquity have indeed impacted the business world and our society as a whole, and this has urged researchers to study this medium and gain a comprehensive understanding of its benefits and challenges. HEIs (as business organisations) could hugely benefit from this medium, be that by strengthening their brand and reputation or by redefining their relationships with their students and other stakeholders. Not many years ago, universities perceived social media in a different way and, many of them had restricted its access. This perception has now progressively changed with the evolving nature of social media. The benefits of the medium have become so compelling that they have not only embraced this medium but also are finding ways to meet several challenges. The impact and potential of this medium for the HEIs make it relevant to study this topic, and hence, the significance of this research.

The appendix, interview transcripts, and social media reports used for the research are available on request for fair usage. Please get in touch if you need them for your project.

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