Social media can be an effective way for schools to engage parents and the larger community when content is focused on storytelling and highlighting core values, experts say.
“Social media, the actual social side of it, is about connecting people,” said Stephen James, founder and CEO of Social Media For Schools and a former educator. “The school, online, is providing a rally point that crosses ethnicity, crosses religion, crosses politics … The school, online, rises above all the petty politics and the petty things that people know and see every day on social media.”
That ultimately benefits students, said James, also author of “Social Media for Schools: A practical guide to using social media to improve parental engagement.”
“Communication is so important in schools, and the better the communication between the parents and the school, generally, the better the outcomes for the students,” he said. “That’s the premise behind it.”
These five best practices can help schools make the most of social media.
Leverage your content
Blanka Kasalo, director of content strategy for Higher Education Marketing, said social media content should reflect schools’ core values and be aimed at specific goals. For example, if the core value is to create a better world, and the goal is to promote sustainability, social media content should reflect that, she said.
“You need to create content that is appealing, and that is genuine and unique and authentic to the brand,” Kasalo said. “You have to tell a story and incorporate those values in storytelling.”
Images of students and slices of school life most resonate on social media, along with student and parent testimonials that elicit trust, she said.
James pointed to social media posts about school trips, guest speakers and special activities, which appeal to parents who want to share in their children’s experiences.
The goal is to drive and leverage engagement on social media, said Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin.
“If we can leverage the great stories and make sure we force the engagement of the community, now we have a better chance for the story to be told,” he said.
One creative way to do that is to alert parents that their children’s photos will be posted on social media, so they are ready to click and share within their circles, said Sanfelippo, co-author of “The Power of Branding: Telling Your School’s Story.”
Choose your platform based on audience
Schools should decide which social media platforms they want to leverage based on their goals and target audiences, the experts said.
Facebook is best to reach parents, followed by Instagram, and Twitter is a distant third, said Sanfelippo, who has 68,600 followers on Twitter. Sanfelippo said he attributes his vast following mainly to tweeting “shoutouts” to Fall Creek and other school districts he’s gotten to know as part of his consulting work.
“You just highlight some of the good things they are doing — there is no science to it,” Sanfelippo said.
James said he believes Twitter is best used to discuss education and sharing ideas with professionals from all over the world.
Younger audiences are on TikTok, the experts agreed. In Fall Creek, the district plans to start becoming comfortable with TikTok and to be ready to use it when necessary, such as to reach future parents. “Knowing the platform will help you when you are almost forced to use it,” Sanfelippo said.
LinkedIn can be used to attract prospective staff and engage in discussions about education, Kasalo and James said. “It’s a more professional environment,” Kasalo said.
School districts should also consider creating content for YouTube, which is also widely used as a search engine, Kasalo said. YouTube videos can be shortened and reused on other platforms, particularly Instagram and TikTok, she said.
Schools shouldn’t, however, feel obligated to be on all social media — what matters is using it well, Kasalo said. “If [schools] have an account on every single platform and they are not able to populate it with good content, it’s useless,” she said, adding that happens most often with Twitter.
Schools can also invest in paid content — advertisements and boosted and sponsored content — to drive traffic to their websites and enhance the visibility of any newly created social media accounts, Kasalo said.
Be consistent and accurate
Consistency is the key to social media success, Sanfelippo said.
“Everybody wants the viral video — and if they don’t get the viral video right away, they think it’s not working,” he said. “We just tell people to stay consistent, and, over time, you will see progressive growth.”
And while viral videos do garner tons of followers, most of them are not invested and don’t engage subsequently, he added.
All social media posts should have a visual element — either a photo or a video — and include correct captions and hashtags, Kasalo said. Schools should also know how to properly use platforms: For example, Instagram captions do not support hyperlinks and URLs, and video should be shot horizontally or vertically based on the platform, she said.
Pay attention to analytics
Social media strategies must rely on analytics, Sanfelippo said.
That means being aware of when people are most likely to be online and which posts they most interact with, he said. In Fall Creek, the district worked with the consulting firm #SocialSchool4EDU to learn about analytics.
“There is definitely a science as to how we tell our story through our district’s [Facebook] page. We use it not just as a bulletin board, but as a way to interact back and forth,” Sanfelippo said.
Effective strategies are based on measuring success, such as whether posts reach and are shared by target demographics, James agreed.
The experts pointed to several simple and fun ways to prompt parents to engage on Facebook, from posting old photos of alumni and asking if anyone recognizes them to asking people about their favorite childhood book, or even asking them how they used to do math division in their school days.
“The comments explode, and the conversation carries and adds value to the community,” James said.
Use social media to highlight positives
Social media can especially help schools enhance their credibility by highlighting their special programs and academic successes, James said.
“They want to be seen as thought leaders. They want to demonstrate they are at the cutting edge of educational research and leadership,” he said. “They want to show parents why they are the better school, and they want to demonstrate to teachers who are looking for a job what sort of school they are. All those things come together [on social media] to give the bigger picture of the school.”
Social media is a great way to offer resources to parents, such as how to help kids with homework and effective techniques to read them bedtime stories, James said.
Parents who’ve had negative school experiences tend to pass that outlook on to their children, James said.
“Social media allows you to almost surreptitiously engage with those parents,” he said. “If you’re a school and you insert yourself into that person’s feed, and they see a post and see something useful, that has an effect [positively] on them.”
Social media also helps reach the larger community, because most residents don’t have children in school and might have skewed or outdated perceptions of their district, Sanfelippo said.
Sanfelippo said he doesn’t censor posts that are critical of the school district, but removes negative posts about staff or students. Critical comments should be addressed by acknowledging the poster’s feelings and asking them to contact school staff, he added.
Social media can also be used to highlight positives about the school during difficult times, James said.
For example, schools don’t have to post on Facebook about a school fight, but they can post about their behavior policy. Or if a school report card shows a downward trend, social media can spotlight initiatives designed to address that, he said.
“You can craft that message to show your school in the best light,” James said.