By Jennifer Flood, JD, President and COO, Singularity Solutions Group
Most of us are keenly aware that marketing is important for business and we must engage in some form of marketing on a consistent basis. Less than most of us also understand and follow the rules for marketing products and services, which vary greatly across industries. Even fewer of us realize that the billboards, flyers, mailers, banner ads, PPC ads and landing pages are not the only advertising methods available. Social media is one of the major areas potential students reference before deciding on a school. The purpose of enacted marketing regulations in the school sector is to make sure students have access to all of the relevant information they need to make an informed decision. So, why are schools treating social media like it’s not marketing?
I looked high and low for research showing accurate statistics for schools to measure marketing methods, but came up short. There are endless studies published by marketing companies about marketing statistics and the results are widely different. This is not surprising in any way, but it is also the reason I will not be citing any statistics. I will simply state that social media presence is one of several deciding factors potential students use to decide which school to attend. We should not have to reference a study to see that just about everyone in America has a smartphone and one of the highest downloaded apps of all time is Facebook.
Disclosures, disclosures and more disclosures
The things done on social media when referencing specific programs MUST include disclosures, just like an ad.
Because really, posting on your social media pages IS MARKETING. There are times when posts on social media are not marketing. This could be information for an event, or just an entertaining post about the school or students. But any time someone from the school references a specific program in a social media update, a disclosure is required.
Advertising, including social media, is monitored by the Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, State Attorneys General where your school is operating, and last but not least, the accrediting body that oversees your school has specific rules regarding advertising. Most agree that the following is sufficient for advertising a specific program on social media:
“For more information about our graduation rates, the median debt of students who completed the program, and other important information, please visit our website at, www.xyzcollege.edu/ABCprogram/disclosure.”
The Department of Education has noted that character spaces are limited on some websites, and they have specifically noted that a shorter URL leading directly to the disclosures is sufficient.
Additionally, faculty using personal blogs or social media accounts must reference disclosures if they are promoting programs.
This is true whether or not the faculty member is acting in their capacity as an employee or not. On the contrary, alumni, current and former students are not required to post disclosures, unless of course they are acting under the “auspices of the institution.”
Some school groups have multiple social media pages. There could be several campuses, or specific programs have their own pages. Whatever the reason for having multiple social media pages, create a clear and strict social media policy. No matter who places an advertisement, or who posts to your social media accounts, the school is ultimately responsible for its reputation and advertising. Centralizing and standardizing the messaging coming from your school is crucial to social media success. The posting boundaries are clearly spelled out in policy, response times are consistent and messaging is concise and targeted.
In addition to traditional social media outlets, blogs are often a space for marketing departments or admissions teams to post content about programs or school offerings to potential students. If the blog mentions specific programs, all relevant disclosures will be required. The FTC states in further detail:
“…it’s up to you to make a reasonable effort to know what participants in your network are saying. That said, it’s unlikely that the activity of a rogue blogger would be the basis of a law enforcement action if your company has a reasonable training and monitoring program in place.” (The FTC Endorsement Guides)
On occasion, some schools choose to have third parties manage their social media accounts. It is certainly within the law to have another company update all of the school accounts. There is a regulation that speaks specifically to third parties and content. 34 CFR 668.412 (d)(1) states, “…institutions will be responsible for ensuring that all of their promotional materials, including those provided by a third party retained by the institution, contain the required disclosures or a direct link to the disclosure template…”
Outside of the required disclosures for programs and debt, the FTC requires additional disclosures if your bloggers are paid to make statements about your school or programs.
Payments might include prizes, discounts, or entry in a sweepstakes.
Some schools might be quick to think social media pages are not important from a regulatory perspective. We often see it as informal, casual conversation that is not monitored or reviewed by accreditors, regulators or (our personal favorites) plaintiff’s attorneys. That could not be further from the truth. Social media has been targeted in lawsuits in recent years. In a recent case against a large school group, the Court spoke specifically to the social media behavior and claims made on the pages including misleading job placement claims made on social media posts. In another case filed in 2016, the complaint cites social media was attributing to claims of deceptive advertising. While many of these cases settle, the complaints speak to the methods used to gain information against schools to support their claims that students may have been subjected to false advertising claims.
We now know that the majority of our students find information about our schools through mobile apps. The largest source of information and the most downloaded app of all time is the Google Chrome app. This tells us that students are seeing our online content that is posted for the specific purpose of informing potential students about programs near them that they might be interested in. The second most downloaded app of all time is Facebook. Social media presence is important to those deciding on which school to attend. These potential students are relying on information posted on social media pages. Disclosures and the expectation of accurate information are paramount on social media, just as they are on other traditional forms of media.
The Department of Education has also worked in concert with the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General to file lawsuits against schools regarding content marketing as it relates to deceptive advertising. The accrediting bodies can implement sanctions as well. Schools do have a significant amount of oversight, and as media channels expand, so will the regulations that oversee them.
“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but about the stories you tell.” – Seth Godin
Schools are not the only sector that suffers from large class action lawsuits, overbearing regulations and seemingly endless disclosures. You could be in the pharmaceutical or the mortgage industry, so it could get worse! But we all do have a real responsibility to lead our potential students in the right direction and arm them with all of the information they will need to make the best decision they can about their future. Marketers are doing their best to champion their clients, and this article is not a slam on agencies that do great work. Schools do, however, need to keep close watch on the manner of business they will employ. Setting a budget for a campaign is not effective nor legally responsible.
Marketers are always looking for the next best way for their clients, and this is a good thing, mostly. But as previously stated, without consistent monitoring of your school’s marketing, the school is put in harm’s way and the student is not properly informed. Don’t be confused by new terms used by your advertising agency either. “Marketing” has been replaced with “native content,” “content publishing,” “optimized content,” “organic content,” etc. These are all new ways to describe marketing efforts that are posted as blogs or in short write ups on your website or social media pages.
Social media can be a very powerful marketing tool and a personalized source of information for potential students if used correctly.
It can also be a compliance pitfall and a brand management nightmare. Understanding the rules and guidelines to proper social media activity can take your schools to a higher level.
So before you post to your school’s Facebook page, or tweet about your new program, ask yourself “Can I post this?” If you decide that you can post it, determine which, if any disclosures are needed so the audience can make an informed decision.
If you would like more information or material about social media in marketing or compliant marketing in education, please contact me at email@example.com.
Jennifer Flood is the President and COO of Singularity Solutions Group, a compliance technology company located in Kansas City. She is the national authority on regulatory compliance in higher education, providing compliance services and consulting for hundreds of schools across the United States. Jennifer sits on numerous state boards for governmental and regulatory affairs and has been recognized locally, regionally and nationally for her work in compliance. She is also the host of The Business of Compliance Podcast.
Jennifer is a fearless advocate for the career education sector and the role schools play in providing educational services for students from non-traditional backgrounds. In her spare time she serves as a volunteer with the Kansas Department of Corrections in a self-help group run by inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility.
If you have questions about compliance issues at your school, or need clarification on regulations from an operational perspective, contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Information: Jennifer Flood, JD // President and COO // Singularity Solutions Group // 620-504-2058 // email@example.com // Twitter: @jenniferflood79 and @singularity2016 // www.linkedin.com/in/jenniferfloodjd // www.facebook.com/singularitysolutionsgroup