I’ve been writing a book chapter for a forthcoming book we are producing at the foundation centre. The chapter will focus on our facebook page as a case study for trying to create an informal online community for our students, and in particular our prospective, current and past students. Sarah Learmonth, who has been working as our social media assistant (and who worked with me on my Pinterest project) helped with the data analysis and write up.
The book should be out later in the year, but I thought I’d share some of the findings as I think they might be of interest to anybody else who is using facebook in this way.
Figure 1 below shows the cumulative total likes which the page has recorded to date. As you can see there was quite a rapid start. The page was initially promoted in an email to all students and staff, and since then has been promoted through a link in the web page (our most common referrer) as well as being found through Google (our second most common referrer). Obviously given the social nature of Facebook it would be expected that this would be a source of new ‘likes’ as photos have been uploaded and tagged or as items have appeared in the news feeds of non-fans. There has since been a steady growth of new likes, with a 40.9% increase in the last 12 months. We’re actually at 700 likes now.
Having outlined some general information about the level of use the next question is who is using the site (figure 2). One consistent feature from the outset of the Facebook page has been a majority (55%) of female users, this has been fairly consistent over the lifetime of the page, the figure was 61% in 2012 and 58% in 2013. The number of male users has gradually increased, resulting in a more even distribution of users. An analysis of the student database suggests that 53% of students since 1997 have been female but if we take the last 4 years only 42% have been female, so that female participation with the Facebook page is much more than would be expected given the known properties of the current and past student cohorts.
The age demographic is also more evenly spread that you might expect for a student group, but this would reflect not only the more diverse student body at the foundation centre, but also the inclusion of alumni from previous cohorts.
In order to explore how categories of students, whether potential, past of current students, were interacting with the page, data was extracted from a 12 month period and examined further. This sample ranged from 25 September 2013 to 25 September 2014, to incorporate both the academic year and activity over vacations. Interactions were considered to be messages received to the inbox, likes on any content including photos, comments and shares. This excluded multi exchanges of dialogue after an initial message was received therefore the interaction with counted as 1, regardless of further messages received from the same individual in response to staff.
Interactions were required to be extracted manually. Facebook does provide the option to download data such as key page metrics however this information is only accessible for the last 180 days rendering it unsuitable for any longer term analysis. Each individual interaction was identified; this was achieved by using the timeline feature to locate all content that had been posted by either the page directly or by fans. The type of interaction was not recorded, instead the name of the fan was noted within a Microsoft excel file. This did result in the name of some fans being recorded more than once, or several times depending on how often they interacted with the page. This could potentially result in some categories being skewed due to fans that are exceptionally active on a Facebook page however this did appear to be the case when reviewing the results.
Once this information was collated, the names were then cross-referenced across the internal student database in order to identify current and past students, and what year they joined the Foundation Centre. Remaining fans were assumed to be prospective, once staff members and other pages were identified. Although, it is recognised that some interactions may have come from family members of fans (for example, a family member may ‘like’ a photograph of a fan from a Foundation Centre event) therefore the volume of prospective students is likely to be oversubscribed. Once all the fans were assigned a category, it was felt an extra category would be beneficial to data analysis as this allowed for a detailed understanding of who is interacting with the page therefore an additional category was created of ‘2014 – pre-arrival’. All prospective students were cross-referenced against an internal student database to confirm whether they had accepted a placement at the Foundation Centre and due to enrol in October 2014.
A significant number of those interacting with the page were current students. These are students who entered the Foundation Centre in 2013. An explanation of this could be related to promotion of the Facebook page to student when they arrive, and before. Additionally, the Foundation Centre staff have utilised social media by combining induction events with the Facebook page. For example, it was encouraged that students uploaded photographs of Durham to enter into a competition to win university merchandise. Other events during the academic year were photographed, and uploaded onto the page with students being encouraged to share and tag their classmates.
23 students were identified as pre-arrival for 2014 entry. This is likely to increase when the academic year begins, for the reasons described above. The reasons for a pre-arrival student interacting with the page include ascertaining further information such as transport, living arrangements or financial enquires. When exploring the level of interactions from the alumni category, there is a noticeable increase from 2011, with 49 student interactions recorded and 39 students from the 2012 cohort. It is important to note that the page was set up in October 2010 therefore it is encouraging that alumni students prior to this date have not only joined the page but have also interacted with the page regularly.
When analysing the overall breakdown of interactions by all categories over a 12 month period, alumni and prospective students engaged with the page more than current students. Whilst current students did interact with the page significantly as identified in figure 3, this was still less than all alumni (2006 – 2012) and prospective students (excluding the 2014 pre-arrival category). This could suggest that the initial aim to set up a Facebook page to create an online community has been achieved due to the similar level of interactions from each category.
This case study has been able to provide a snapshot of the way that prospective, current and alumni students connect with the page for a one year programme over a four year period.
It is clear that Facebook is a useful medium for many students, and for our centre to promote itself, although it is important to remember those who are not on Facebook, and not rely exclusively on this, or any other social media, to interact with these groups. An increasing number of users have rejected or are rejecting the space and other social spaces exist where students create their own communities (Rainie, Smith, & Duggan, 2013). In the foundation centre context one such space has been created by our students on the website The Student Room . Similarly access to Facebook is restricted in some countries, which is especially important for a centre which is attempting to recruit international students from places like China and Vietnam.Facebook is a low cost and attractive platform for interacting with students, but it should not be relied on as the only platform for any community building strategy.