3 Ways Colleges Use Snapchat (Yes, Snapchat)


This snap, part of a Snapchat Story, advertises Festifall, a campus event at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

To catch a fish, head to the water. That simple idea motivated the University of Houston to adopt Snapchat, a smartphone application popular with teenagers, as a method of communication with prospective and current students. When it signed up for an account in January, the university was one of only a few experimenting with the social-media platform. Now more colleges are diving in, hoping to hook students’ attention.

“We like to bring our message to our audience instead of making them dig for it,” says Jessica Brand, the university’s social-media manager.

Snapchat allows users to send their friends photographs or short videos that disappear after one to 10 seconds. A newer feature allows the creation of a Snapchat Story, a series of images and videos that lasts for 24 hours.

Introduced in 2011, Snapchat quickly became popular with teens and young adults. College social-media managers took note earlier this year when a survey by a marketing company found that 77 percent of college-student respondents used Snapchat at least once a day.

Because content sent through the application is ephemeral, Snapchat initially had a reputation for facilitating unseemly communication. But the social-media managers reported no problems so far with risqué messages.

“The skepticism associated with it was, ‘Oh, you’re just going to get nude pictures,’” says Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “But it’s evolved beyond that. We have not gotten any inappropriate content” from students using the service, she says. “It speaks to the way in which they love to interact with our university.”

So far, universities have used Snapchat to reach three main groups:

Current Students

On any given day, the University of Houston’s account may offer a Snapchat Story about preparations for a football game, an image advertising a study-abroad fair, or clues to a scavenger hunt.

“On Valentine’s Day, we created five different handmade valentines and hid them around campus and sent out snaps about where they’re located,” Ms. Brand explains.

The intimacy the application affords seems to appeal to students, who reply to university snaps with snaps of their own. Ms. Brand says she often receives photos from students wearing red on Fridays, a campus tradition. Tony Dobies, a senior writer at West Virginia University and manager of its Snapchat account, says Snapchat elicits more engagement than do Twitter and Instagram. He sometimes replies directly to snaps he receives from individuals.

“I will respond back to that specific person, to create that specific conversation,” he says. “I think that’s important when you have a university of 30,000, to find ways to create that personal connection.”

Snapchat also proves useful for communicating more-serious information.

“We also use it as a way to get some deadlines out there,” Mr. Dobies says. “If students need to pay in early August, it was an easy thing to post that out there. It’s obviously a more-serious take. But people see it. I think it’s sometimes a surprise, but that’s OK with me.”

Ms. Brand agrees. “We had two ice days in the spring semester, and on those occasions we did send out a snap saying that campus is closed,” she says.

Prospective Students

It’s difficult to discern the demographics of the users who follow a university’s account. Usernames don’t necessarily reflect real names, gender, or geography. But colleges hope to reach prospective students using the platform, and social-media managers believe high schoolers are paying attention.

“The first day, we had a couple of high-school kids who said, ‘We really want to go here’ in a snap,” Mr. Dobies recalls. “That’s eventually who I want this to go to.”

Ms. Sunstrum reports having a good cross section of followers.

“We have a heavy amount of students, some prospective students,” she says.

Prospective Student-Athletes

After a great game, high-school athletes may want to check their Snapchat accounts for photos and videos from college recruiters. New NCAA Division I recruiting rules, adopted in January, allow coaches to send snaps to prospective players or their parents or guardians.

“That’s the best way we’ve got to relate to our prospective recruits,” says Hernando Planells, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for women’s basketball at Duke University. “Because there’s so many different avenues to communicate with them, you’re just hoping the one you’re using connects with them.”

While emails and phone calls are perceived as professional, formal methods of correspondence, Mr. Planells says, snaps allow players and coaches to quickly convey their personalities.

“People will do funny faces,” he says. “It’s building relationships. You get a chance to know coaches sooner, and get a feel for if they would help you improve as a student, as a player, and as a person over all.”

Not all prospective student-athletes feel comfortable exchanging snaps with coaches, he says, but so far it’s been well received.

“You have to be able to read who the person is,” he explains. “We usually start with emails, phone calls. Once you get that rapport, and if they have interest … we can move in that direction.”

The rule change applies to all Division I sports except football, cross country, track and field, and swimming and diving. Previously, Snapchat and text messaging were not permitted during the recruiting process (except in basketball and men’s ice hockey) until after a student signed a national letter of intent or a college’s written letter of admission or financial-aid offer.

According to Meghan Durham, the NCAA’s assistant director of public and media relations, the changes were made based on membership feedback and were intended to encompass all electronic communication similar to text messaging.

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