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Social networks transform daily campus life

The Class of 2015 will arrive on the campuses of Western New York's private colleges not only knowing their roommates' names, but with networks of new friends they've met through the college's private social network tailor-made for the incoming class.

They use their smart phones to read QR codes (quick response barcodes) that direct them to video campus tours, let them download important forms, or receive alerts about looming deadlines for financial aid applications.

They tweet questions about anything from dorm life to admissions at 2:30 a.m. and get their answer immediately.

They're also learning that there's more to social media than friending and unfriending -- that there are professional applications that employers expect them to be experts in.

Just as social media have revolutionized the way the world communicates, social networks of all sorts are transforming local colleges.

Perhaps the most dramatic change social media has brought to campuses has been in the way schools recruit students and market their schools.

While shiny brochures featuring handpicked fresh-faced young people are still mailed to prospective students, Western New York's colleges are increasingly turning to social media to entice high school students to give their schools a look.

Many colleges use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn to expose prospective students to their campuses. More and more recruiting content -- blogs and videos -- is produced by current students, to give prospects a more authentic taste of what it's like to go to that school.

"This is our target audience, and this is what they're doing, so we're doing our best to be on board," said Steven P. Smith, director of undergraduate admissions at D'Youville College in Buffalo.

"Students see through the robo-corporate speak," Smith said. "They don't want to be marketed to. They want to be part of something, and they want to find it organically."

Niagara University produced a reality-TV style commercial in which 30 high school students were brought to campus on a bus.

"When they're getting to the university, the campus is beautiful, and that's when they get the 'a-ha' moment. We wanted to capture that 'a-ha' moment," said Thomas J. Burns, Niagara University's associate vice president for public relations, communications and marketing.

The commercial aired on TV, but it also was posted on YouTube.

"Kids then tagged themselves and forwarded [the commercials] to their friends," Burns said.

At Daemen College in Amherst, prospective students and their parents are offered an array of social networking opportunities to streamline the application process. They're invited to tweet questions in the middle of campus tours and get answers back immediately. They also are finding ways to use QR codes that direct students to a video tour of the campus on YouTube or to a page on the school's website.

Medaille College in Buffalo, in the midst of revamping its online and social media presence, has found some success publicizing itself through a VW Beetle, named The Bug, which has a Facebook page with more than 370 followers. The Bug also tweets.

"The Bug is a voice of the college," said Paula Valente, vice president of college relations at Medaille. "It just creates some buzz."

Once students are accepted to colleges, almost all schools now direct them to closed pages on Facebook or their own private social networks where students can freely discuss whatever they want, even scholarship offers from competing schools.

"We don't go in and edit," said Donna Shaffner, dean of admissions at Canisius College. "We leave the conversations alone."

In the last couple of years, colleges that used social networks for incoming classes found that they had 5 percent to 10 percent more students that decided to enroll at their school, rather than at schools that did not offer the social networks, Shaffner said.

"They felt they had a better connection with everyone at the college because they were involved in social media," she said.

Canisius experimented with its own social network, dubbed the Griffin Experience, with the Class of 2014. The site was similar to Facebook, but with more of an emphasis on text than photos.

At first, the moderator, Kevin Heffernan, an admissions counselor, posted questions to get the conversation started.

Soon, the students began creating their own posts and threads. The site was especially popular among students from outside the Buffalo area who were eager to make connections and even find a roommate with similar tastes and habits.

"It was obviously aimed to be a retention tool on our end," Heffernan said. "But as far as the students' benefit, they were able to get comfortable before they arrived."

In delving into social media, colleges are discovering that, unlike relatively static websites, driving traffic to their pages and accounts and keeping people coming back takes constant attention. Some local schools have hired people to specifically focus on social media, such as Heffernan, who is one of several people assigned to social media at Canisius.

St. Bonaventure University hired one of its graduates, Mark J. Inman, two years ago to manage social media for the school's university relations department.

"He is the social media specialist," said Emily Sinsabaugh, vice president for university relations at the 2,000-student Franciscan school. "More and more, Mark is the first person I call You need somebody, all colleges need somebody, like him not only managing what you're using but always out there at every staff meeting" explaining the latest technologies and exploring their potential opportunities.

But, as Tim Lee discovered, the social networking isn't just about students making friends.

Lee, director of admissions for Hilbert College, set up a Hilbert Class of 2014 page on Facebook. Afterward, he noticed that after deadlines for important forms from everything from financial aid to registration were posted through Facebook, a higher percentage of students and parents were filing them on time and even early.

"It's instantaneous, as opposed to sending letters and leaving multiple messages," Lee said.

Even finding out whether a student has decided to enroll or not has become easier.

"They let us know so we're not stalking them for the next months," Lee said.

Many local schools are now offering classes that involve social media. The classes are required for all communications-related majors.

Professors are teaching basic skills from creating skills from using Twitter to digital audio and video editing.

The classes have been extremely popular with students.

"They've filled up quickly," said Shelley A. Jack, a visiting professor of integrated marketing communications at St. Bonaventure. In one undergraduate class, she taught students how to build a personal brand using social media.

"They have to have a Twitter account, develop a blog and have a LinkedIn profile," Jack said. "The idea is if you know how to apply these principles to you as a brand, you can help a corporation in applying those tools."

Chris Gallant, an assistant professor of digital media and communication at Hilbert College, said he not only teaches digital media but uses social networks -- mostly Facebook and his blog -- to communicate with his students.

"E-mail is a passe thing with the present generation. They use it but they're really reluctant to check on it."