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Business Schools Turn To Social Media As Applicants Go Viral

Increased competition means business schools are pumping funds into their online presence, as MBAs say they prefer to connect in the virtual world.

Business education is an increasingly competitive market, and the world's leading business schools are turning to social media websites to give themselves an edge as they fight to secure applicants.

These schools are also using social networking platforms to bring a wider audience to their faculty research and to drive traffic to their websites.

A growing number of business school aspirants also see social media as increasingly important in their MBA applications, new data show.

A survey of 1,000 MBA applicants by QS, the business school research company, found that 40% of respondents see social media as either essential or very important, increasing to as much as 50% in Africa and Asia.

Nearly 30% of applicants also said they used LinkedIn to research business schools, and a further 20% of candidates worldwide said they used social media to compare business schools.

Schools are teaching their MBA students the value of social media in marketing and research – but they see such tools as essential to market themselves, too.

Applicants are no longer willing to connect with schools in the offline world – only 15% of candidates surveyed worldwide did so, preferring to establish contact through emails and social networks.

Increased competition means schools are pumping funds into their online presence. The Indian School of Business, the country’s highest-ranking MBA provider, has increased spending on social and digital media from 10% of the school’s total media budget three years ago to about 50% today.

“Our ultimate goal for the future is that social media serves as a method of converting this interest into admitted candidates,” said Aoife Crean, marketing manager of ESADE Business School’s full-time MBA. ESADE admits about 160 MBA candidates, charging around €60,000 in fees.

Elizabeth Gabster took to the internet when she started applying to business schools. The former management consultant at QED Group, a firm that works with government agencies, wanted to move into the technology, media or telecoms space through an MBA program.

“The best sources of information are not MBA rankings,” said Elizabeth. Instead, alumni, students and recruitment officers proved powerful in providing their personal perspectives. “And a helpful glimpse into the school’s alumni network.”

Elizabeth has just begun her MBA at INSEAD in France, after months of research. “There’s a wealth of information online and supportive forums of fellow applicants to help sift through these tasks, during these very stressful months,” she added.

Older candidates – who populate MBA classes as opposed to the younger students on master’s programs – like to use LinkedIn, and are less likely to use Twitter of Facebook.

HEC Montreal, the Canadian business school, uses LinkedIn to screen prospective candidates. “We link our Salesforce CRM to LinkedIn to better qualify our candidates – particularly for the MBA and MSc programs – and get information sometimes not available on resumes,” said Michel Lemay, director of program promotion.

HEC Montreal admits around 40 students to its one-year MBA, which costs about $27,000 for international students but is only half that price for Canadian residents.

“In our target markets, we try to identify which social media channels are most popular amongst our prospective students and be present on them,” added Michel.

But 35% of applicants globally use Facebook to research programs, with 10% using Twitter, according to QS data. Dr Betsy Page Sigman, professor at US-based McDonough School of Business, said that Twitter is good for staying in touch with current students.

“Business schools need to be concerned about how they are perceived by their students,” she added.

Others are using more daring forms of social media, while there has been an increase in schools making candidates perform video interviews as part of the application process.

US-based Rutgers Business School, for example, uses YouTube and Youku – China’s largest video site – to showcase its MBA. “The goal was to reach the families of prospective students,” said Daniel Stoll, director of communications.

The value for MBA applicants in using social media is to connect with current students and alumni – something which is encouraged by admissions departments.

“Social media platforms generate a large amount of interaction between prospective and current students, which ultimately is what people looking to pursue an MBA... Are looking for; to discover first-hand what their experience would be like,” said Aoife.

Sheldon Dookeran, assistant director of Rotman School of Managements full-time MBA, said that applicants should engage with the community as early as possible. He added: “The more interactions the admissions team has, the better we’ll know them, and we will have a better idea as to whether they will fit in.”

But it is not just students that business schools are targeting in their marketing efforts. They want to show their expertise in different business sectors. Many of them commission expensive pieces of research that professors carry out.

Tony Sheehan, director of learning services at Ashridge Business School, said that it is a “constant challenge” to coordinate different promotions through multiple channels to reach different audiences.

“There are a combination of factors to consider – quality research, day-to-day news, business insight and faculty tweets – that all give us something to say,” he said.

Social media provides more uses for prospective MBAs, however. More than 10% of applicants globally use social networks to find information about funding – something that has become more of a problem in light of the financial crisis, admissions directors say.

Yet 43% of respondents said that it was an issue to find information about scholarships, according to QS, with that figure rising to about 50% in the US and Canada.

The proliferation of the internet has forced many schools to adapt but many are still failing to attract students through online channels.

A survey of business schools’ websites by Lightspan Digital, a digital marketing company, found that MBA programs are doing a “subpar job” at marketing communication.

The biggest criticism was levied at the display of employment data – only 4% of the top-100 ranked schools globally show information about employment on their homepages, according to Lightspan, while only 36% of schools had a link to scholarship and financial information.

There may be a growing marketing scramble among schools to lure the best students, but Aoife believes online networks should not be used merely as “sales tools”.

“People want to interact, to know they are being heard and to discover new things,” she added. “Varying the kinds of material you publish online is the key to maintaining your followers’ interests.”

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