Let’s Get Digital

AACP Article

Engage prospective students with online strategies that speak to millennials and Gen Z.

By Athena Ponushis

Start small. Pick one platform or one tactic, dive into it, be consistent with it and grow from there.

Emily Burns

Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with gadgets, surfing a high-speed Web and clicking on constant stimuli. They crave bite-size content and creative storytelling told through evolving technology. They want to feel a connection—fast—and they want to connect with organizations they feel are making a difference in the world, because they too want to leave an imprint.

These digital natives want high-paying jobs and careers with clear paths to success. Instant gratification seekers, they want to know how to get to the promised land and what awaits them there. They want to be innovators and creators who can use their proficient technological skills.

Pharmacy can give them that life, but there are other career paths that will be vying for students’ attention. “Other industries are wooing prospective pharmacists away because they sound attractive and forward-thinking. Tech is a great example of that,” said Emily Burns, digital marketing director at Youth Marketing Connection. “The way to counter that threat is to make pharmacy more attractive. There are some really cool research elements related to pharmacy, there are technology elements related to pharmacy. Share those stories. Shine a light on the positive attributes. Yes, pharmacy school takes time, but at the end of the road there is promise and success, there is compensation and the fulfillment of helping your community.”

To tell that story and court prospective students, schools of pharmacy must meet them where they live: the digital world. By developing a social media strategy and an appealing digital presence, schools will attract students. As a school’s visibility grows, its reputation grows and enrollment increases.

“Digital is where everything’s happening for millennial and Gen Z audiences. It’s very important and it shouldn’t be overlooked. That said, it can be overwhelming,” Burns acknowledged. “Start small. Pick one platform or one tactic, dive into it, be consistent with it and grow from there. Don’t let the vast nature of the digital marketing world overwhelm you to the point where you’re not dipping your toe in the water, because it’s worth it.”

A Social Media Crash Course

About 10 years ago, DiVall noticed that her students were spending lots of time on Facebook, so as an experiment, she put some course content on Facebook as an optional resource. It resonated. She started a school Facebook page and did some studies revolving around education and social media. Years later, she and her colleagues were having a meeting with the central administrative group that was managing social media for Northeastern University, when they were asked to describe the pharmacy school’s social media strategy.

“What social media strategy?” DiVall recalled saying. “We’re not experts in this. We’re pharmacy faculty and administrators…we’re pretty strategic people but we never really thought about it from that perspective.” DiVall decided to do some research.

The literature showed that social media was advantageous and gave some Web resources for good practices but there really wasn’t a comprehensive guide. So after helping to establish a social media strategy with her school’s external affairs committee, DiVall co-wrote a paper with a student, "Social Media as an Engagement Tool for Schools and Colleges of Pharmacy," in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. It summarized in a consumable fashion how to use social media for various means, particularly the recruitment and engagement of students or alumni.

I do really believe, for prospective students, the more of the student life they see, the more excited they get about being there.

Dr. Margarita DiVall

In developing their strategy, DiVall and colleagues set goals and identified their target audiences—communicating with faculty and current students, engaging alumni and attracting prospective students. They developed a content strategy to determine what to post for what audience and how often to post it. They performed competitive and channel analysis. Burns sees this step as critical. “Look at schools that you are in competition with…seeing what stands out is a great way to figure out what’s unique about you,” Burns said. “Talk to students. Do some research. Talk to people who chose your pharmacy school and find out why they chose it. I think you will be surprised because you might see some commonalities, and that will help you figure out what draws people to your school.”

Northeastern’s School of Pharmacy hired a student to manage its social media. She has since graduated and left the school struggling to replace her, but while she was there, the school set up an email account where faculty and students would forward interesting information. She would pull from that account and post. She set up a calendar, got into a rhythm and was consistent.

DiVall does not think the role of social media manager must be a full-time position. Schools can assign the responsibility to a staff member, someone in marketing, communications or admissions, to devote three to four hours a week to social media. Schools short on content and resources could partner with reputable associations that have valuable information to share, like Pharmacy Is Right for Me. “Any content that we’re producing we encourage pharmacy schools to share on their platforms, too,” Burns said. “We interview a lot of pharmacists, we talk about their career paths and experiences…so if you’re a school that doesn’t have the manpower to spend a lot of time on this, a content partnership is a great way for you to reach audiences and gain credibility.”

Progress and Persuasion

Evaluating your social media activity will help you improve your tactics. When it comes to blogging, Burns suggests looking at page visits, unique visitors, source and medium. When it comes to social media, look at post likes, comments, shares, impressions and reach. With your website, look at visits, sessions, unique users, new users, source and medium, top pages.

DiVall admits it’s hard to break down engagement by groups, so you don’t know whether it was prospective students or alumni who liked or shared your post. “It’s difficult to assess whether or not social media influences prospective students. It’s an interesting question and it potentially can be answered by surveying students who are applying to pharmacy schools and asking them what influenced their decisions,” DiVall said. “I’m not sure that project has been conducted or if anyone is working on it, but that’s one thing I think could be helpful for us to answer and possibly use as another argument in trying to convince deans to put resources toward social media efforts by schools of pharmacy.”

To any digital advocates trying to appeal to deans who may not be enthusiastic about allocating resources to social media, DiVall offered a reminder about the persuasive power of rankings. “Deans always talk about rankings…and the way U.S. News & World Report ranks schools is based on somewhat subjective opinions of a program’s reputation,” DiVall said. “As more and more deans are on social media, the more likely they are to see what your school of pharmacy keeps putting out there, the great research you’re doing, the grants you’re receiving, and that is going to influence public opinion about your program among the deans who answer the U.S. News & World Report surveys, ultimately influencing your program’s ranking. I think that sometimes speaks to deans who question, ‘How important is social media, really?’”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.