How Social Media is Changing College Recruiting
Editor's note: This post first appeared in 2014. It has been updated.
Each November, many of the top high-school basketball prospects across the country sit in front of a nationally televised audience, to announce where they plan to play college ball. A couple months later, their 17 and 18-year old counterparts on the football team do the same, while thousands of coaches, alum, and boosters look on in anticipation that their favorite recruits will don a hat bearing their school’s logo.
There is no question that college recruiting has become a big business. A business in which hundreds of thousands (and potentially millions) of dollars are spent annually to attract the highest-rated recruits to universities nationwide. Internal teams have been assembled with coaches, recruiting specialists, and data analysts to gain insight into the factors that attract recruits to the colleges and programs that they ultimately choose. Whether these prospects are attracted to the academic reputation of the school or the playing and training facilities, college athletic departments are constantly looking for competitive advantages that will propel their programs into national prominence.
98% of US universities have Facebook pages, while 84% are active on Twitter. And with 72% of incoming high school seniors reporting that they researched their prospective colleges on a social media site, athletic departments are quickly realizing the impact that social can have in the recruiting process.
Social media has forever transformed how recruiting works. For years, the recruiting process started with the high school coach. With the proliferation of social media, the recruiting process starts much earlier, and much quicker. For coaches, it's yet another channel for contacting, recruiting, and gathering information about players. For student athletes, social can be a means of getting recruited, by elevating their social profile through interactions with local fans, students, coaches, and other recruits, in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.
If done in the right way, social media can help provide those 1-to-1 connections between coaches, staff, and prospects that will let them know just how much the school values their recruits. But if handled incorrectly, the universities can face serious penalties and sanctions from the NCAA, even if the communication comes from someone outside the university athletic department (i.e. a booster or alum).
So then the question becomes: how can university athletic departments recognize the benefits of social media?
Benefits to University Athletic Departments
Social media provides incredible reach and opportunity to coaches and athletic departments and their recruiting efforts. However, many programs are not making effective use of the networks and technology tools that can help them create new levels of engagement, while providing insights into recruits and the recruiting activities of other schools.
Here are a few ways that athletic departments can immediately begin realizing the benefits of social:
Social media can provide access that just can’t be captured through the university web site, e-mails, brochures, and even on-campus visits, by providing recruits with a view of the school and team culture and personality. Even before the recruit steps foot on campus, the right content strategy will have exposed them to information on campus life, athletic facilities, the teams, and current athletes.
With the competition for top recruits becoming stiffer, creating and fostering relationships with athletes early is vital, as evidenced by dozens of stories about middle schoolers providing oral commitments to universities. Through social, coaches simply connect with a recruit on Facebook or Twitter, and can start engaging in conversation without ever leaving the film room. And once the connection to the recruit is made, the recruiting process can essentially turn into an around-the-clock task for coaches.
Whether top recruits realize it or not, the idea of being a regular teenager on social disappears the second their ranking is listed on Rivals, ESPN or any other recruiting service. Once a school lists their interest in a recruit, that student will inevitably see a huge spike in fans and followers, in addition to a completely new, and potentially shocking, form of scrutiny. Coaches and recruiting specialists now have the ability to monitor EVERY SINGLE WORD that the recruit shares on social, to not only find a competitive advantage for the recruiting process, but even as part of the vetting process.
Just as any other brand must have a deep understanding of their target audience, athletic departments have to tailor their recruitment strategies to the kinds of students they want to attract. They need to adapt their efforts to meet the needs of the recruit.
Is the recruit interested in checking out the town? Are they most interested in state-of-the-art athletic and training facilities? Maybe what they really are interested in is going to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting when on their campus visit. By doing a deep-dive into the recruit’s social conversations, athletic departments will have better insight into what the recruit is looking for in a program.
It’s no secret that many employers are now utilizing social to screen candidates before providing a job offer. Some schools have employed this same tactic as a sort of extra level of interviewing. Social provides another glimpse into the recruit’s character that can either help or hurt a prospect’s chances of attending their dream school.
In fact, numerous D-1 coaches have gone on the record saying that their recruitment programs take into account how a prospect conducts themselves on social, and have even passed on prospects with questionable content.
Dropped another prospect this AM due to his social media presence...Actually glad I got to see the 'real' person before we offered him.
— Herb Hand (@CoachHand) July 30, 2014
Social media has turned into the digital diary of Gen Y, and unfortunately, some student athletes forget just how public a forum it is. Every post is instantly public record, and since student athletes are easily the most visible representatives of their respective universities, it becomes that much more important for coaches and athletic departments to carefully vet recruits (and monitor the social interactions of their current student athletes.)
Three easy recruit SM rules: Don't instagram yourself getting high, don't talk about gang affiliations, & no derogatory terms for women.
— SB Nation Recruiting (@SBNRecruiting) July 30, 2014
Social intelligence tools, like Intelligence, provide brands with the ability to filter through piles of social data to inform their social marketing strategy. For university athletic departments, they can provide a window into the conversations and interactions of top recruits, providing insights that will help shape the individual recruitment strategy, or help vet future student athletes that may pose challenges for the university.
For university athletic departments, it’s usually no secret as to which competing schools are actively pursuing the same top prospects. However, the recruiting strategies and tactics that they are employing may be harder to identify.
With the right social listening and analytics tools, coaches and athletic departments now have the ability to easily identify social conversations around top prospects to see how competing schools are interacting with the prospects and how the fans and followers of those schools are engaging with the prospects.
The current NCAA regulations around social media usage are much less restrictive than traditional recruiting guidelines. But with social beginning to assume a much larger role in the recruiting process, the restrictions and regulations could tighten…and soon.
What many universities and programs do not realize is that the regulations go beyond how coaches and programs are utilizing social to interact with recruits. Any individual acting on behalf of the school, whether they are a booster or have some other affiliation, face the same regulations. And it is the university’s responsibility to monitor contact between boosters and prospective student athletes, which has led some schools to hire full-time staffers to monitor the social media accounts of prospects for any suspicious interactions. For University compliance departments, this can be extremely time-consuming.
Adding additional complexity, some universities whose social recruiting practices have come under question, may be required by the NCAA to provide a full audit trail of all interactions. For programs that are publishing content and interacting with recruits natively through the social networks, pulling a log of all interactions can be a challenge. Having a social relationship platform like Spredfast in place, can allow universities to quickly export all social interactions for compliance and audit purposes.
Recruiting through Social: A Fad?
I don’t think so. With Gen Y spending more and more time on social networks, it only makes sense that universities should communicate with those prospects where they are most likely to engage, and where they are most comfortable. Social is now such a huge and integral part of our culture. It's the way most people communicate.
For coaches and athletic departments, its now about finding the right, individualized strategies for targeting top recruits, and uncovering the technology tools that will help provide them with a leg up over the competition.