For marketing and communications specialists focused on recruiting students to colleges and universities, social media has always been a conundrum. The meteoric rise in its use over the last decade has created an increasingly complex climate. According to the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science, and Technology, 12% of 18-29 year olds used social media networks in 2005, compared to 90% in 2015. That’s a sea change.

By now, institutions are beyond the initial shock of figuring out how to work with social media, but the exploding landscape of social networking opportunities complicates their approach. In 2011, Practical Ecommerce listed 74 major social media platforms. The list’s 2015 update includes 91 platforms. Certainly, some of these are more appropriate for higher education recruiting than others. Still, institutions must strike the difficult balance between being in tried-and-true places and finding new social media opportunities.

Fundamentally, institutions know that they must have a social media presence, but they can’t be in all places at all times. That kind of blanket presence is both untenable and inadvisable. Most higher education marketing and communications offices are not sufficiently staffed or do not have the necessary expertise to manage such a broad social media portfolio. More importantly, you should not spread your efforts too thin, given the increasing demand for sharp, targeted messaging. The ultimate goal of recruiting communications is to present specific messages to the right students in the right places. How can you use social media to do so most effectively?

Understand market reach to maximize resources

In Eduventures’ 2015 Survey of Admitted Students, 57% of respondents reported using social media expressly for the college search. Among these students, 54% said social media positively influenced their enrollment choices. Students most frequently use Facebook (50%), Instagram (32%), Twitter (31%), YouTube (28%), and Google+ (21%). Beyond these broad usage statistics, we wanted to better understand how much of their target markets institutions can reach through their social media portfolios.

Undergraduate Market Segments

Through Facebook alone, you can reach 50% of students who use social media in the college search. Although it may seem counterintuitive, you should add Google+ next, because many students who use Google+ don’t use Facebook at all. In essence, Google+ will enable you to maximize your market reach by tapping a different set of students. As tempting as it may be to pursue Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube after Facebook, the prospective undergraduates who use Twitter and YouTube are largely the same students who use Facebook. Meanwhile, Google+ would enable you to expand your reach and use resources most efficiently.

If you’re active on the big five social media platforms (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram), you’ve pretty much tapped out the market of prospective undergraduates who use social media in the college search. Any other social media platforms will have diminishing returns on your resource investment. If social media marketing budgets are tight, stick to the big five.

Different platform, differentiated message

The data above begs the question, “Who uses Google+ and not Facebook?” When we segment responses on social media platform use by race/ethnicity, we see that underrepresented minorities are much more likely than Caucasian and Asian students to use Google+ in the college search. This presents an opportunity for differentiated messaging to important target markets.

Ethnic Market Segments With Social Media

In resource-limited environments, there’s a temptation to repurpose content and messaging across social media platforms. Tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck certainly help you organize your social media efforts, but they can encourage you to redistribute content rather than target specific audiences. While this is a good practice in moderation, balance redistributed content with strategically differentiated messages.

Explore where exploration is meaningful

In recent years, the pace of growth in social media usage has slowed. Facebook and Twitter have become the “establishment” among platforms, and there’s always a new one on the horizon. While your institution should primarily focus on platforms with proven market reach, we suggest setting aside some time and money to explore where exploration is merited.

For example, international social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo or Taringa!, could help you reach markets in China or Latin America. Alternatively, creative programs might develop visually sophisticated campaigns that are better suited to Vine or Instagram than to Facebook. However you explore, do it because you have a real reason to, not because you feel you have to.

Coherent strategy with coherent messaging

Beyond this example, we encourage you to examine social media use and messaging for other prospective student audiences, including adult learners, graduate students, international students, online students, or any combination thereof.

Most of all, we urge you to focus your institution’s efforts on the social media platforms that will be most impactful. Your goal should be to tell a coherent, compelling story through social media as part of a broader marketing and communications plan.