Your typical prospective student is inundated with promotional information from numerous higher ed institutions, with each school saying they can best meet the student’s educational needs and aspirations. How can he or she know which college or university really is the right one? Evan Grenier, Assistant Director of Admissions at Stonehill College in Easton, MA, recently championed one possible solution: student bloggers. Grenier told Higher Ed Live guest host Mallory Wood that a student blogger program can be  “an authentic, genuine way for prospective students to communicate with current students.” The human connections they make through a blog might be the key factor in a student’s choice to attend one school instead of another.

Grenier maintains that while the typical institution spends large amounts of money producing and sending out high-quality view books and other promotional materials, future students can obtain much of the same sort of information from these blogs, which are relatively easy to maintain—“and it’s not coming directly from marketing people,” he adds.

Current students can present their own campus in a more meaningful way than can a glossy brochure on a college fair table, Grenier believes. Students can feel nervous when talking to an admissions counselor, and so might hesitate to ask all their questions freely. The more informal tone of a blog, which allows current students to promote their school—and to express frankly even their desires to improve it—enables future students to make those more authentic connections with the school.

Grenier and Wood agree that to build a blogging program from scratch, it’s vitally important to start with the end goal in mind. At Stonehill, Grenier says, they want their student bloggers to produce timely, important content, and to back up that content with informative blog posts. Thus the college relies heavily on the school’s student ambassador program to provide well-informed students who are highly involved in campus activities to help maintain the student blogs.

When the program began, Stonehill started giving those students an incentive by giving them digital cameras to upload multimedia information to their blogs. Since many students now have these capabilities already, Grenier sees the need for providing another form of compensation. Since this requires dealing with a range of students’ expertise and experience, it’s important to have the buy-in of the school’s admissions and marketing teams for some quality assurance.

Wood’s school, St. Michael’s College in Burlington, VT, pays its student bloggers, because, as Woods asserts, “We actually ask a lot out of [them].” She explains that besides blogging, these students are tweeting and managing Facebook accounts and other group sites; some are uploading pictures to Flickr; some are creating videos for their blogs and for YouTube. Thus, serving as an “online ambassador” for the school has become one of the most time-consuming extracurricular activities on campus.

To track a school’s effectiveness at connecting with students through a blogger or ambassador program, Grenier suggests using Google Analytics to track such information as the number of unique viewers on the blog site and the average amount of time viewers stay on the page. Wood says another easy way to measure how many potential students are using the blog is simply to ask them, via a question added to their common application supplement form.

Ideal student bloggers have a passion for their school, a feel for the needs of its students, and a high level of involvement in student activities, Grenier believes. A variety of interests among bloggers is also important to maintain the authenticity of their collective voice. Absolutely necessary, though, is a high level of student motivation.

Blogs work best, Wood suggests, when admissions officers generate enough interest in blogging that they can handpick students who are already seen as active leaders among their peers. Through an application process at St. Michael’s College, potential bloggers must demonstrate their abilities and dedication by maintaining a Twitter account and their own blog for at least a month, updating them at least weekly.

Quality content in student blogs is extremely important. Wood suggests four key features that make for great blogs: they must be entertaining, relevant, interesting, and authentic. Grenier agrees that multimedia contributions engage viewers more effectively than text alone.

Stonehill uses the WordPress platform to embed their students’ blog posts into their main admissions webpage, and occasionally on the main www.stonehill.edu site. Wood says that Google’s free weblog publishing tool, Blogger, is well-suited for the job, too, and has the added feature of allowing students to customize the appearance of their own blogs. As Higher Ed Live previously reported, Wood found Formspring to be another very useful platform for allowing prospective students to engage with current students with questions about life on campus.

Higher-ups in admissions or marketing offices might balk at the prospect of how much management student blogs might require. Not to worry, Grenier says. By communicating to bloggers very clearly from the start of their training about their responsibilities to their audience, Grenier finds that he has to spend very little time monitoring bloggers’ posts. Even though he has the ability to edit the content, he has never felt the need to. Admissions officers meet with the bloggers three to four times each year to reinforce their initial training and to offer encouragement.

“I really think that it is a manageable process; it’s something [admissions offices] can get started on fairly easily; it’s something that’s fairly inexpensive … to do well,” Grenier summarizes. “It gets great content out there, and students will keep looking back for it.”

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