Case Study: The University of Michigan

Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

When it comes to social media, the world of higher education is a bit of a mess. Most arrived late to the game – some have yet to show up – and many have yet to figure out how to use social channels in an effective manner. Understandably, administrators are cautious about the way they present themselves on these new forms of media, especially with the amount of confusion and branding misfires social media has brought about. That said, it’s difficult to think of a brand more suited to social media than a college; its largest audience is students, social media’s heaviest users, and there’s a veritable wealth of content to be shared, from events to classes to pretty pictures of campus. It also makes a lot of sense for attracting prospective students and keeping alumni and parents in the loop on what’s going on around campus.

In myriad ways, a university’s social media page is the face it presents to the world. And yet instead of conveying the kind of frenetic energy found on campuses across the country, we find the opposite.  Erratic posting patterns, long intervals and colourless content indicate an industry in disarray. The above is not true for all colleges of course, there are several that are consistently doing good work. One such institute is the University of Michigan, which might just be the best college on social media.

I know nothing about Michigan, I’ve never been there and probably never will be. But I know a lot about the U of M. I know about the Wolverines and the Big House (#GoBlue). I know about the different areas of campus like Pierpont and events like TEDxUofM. I even know everything about its elaborate bus system.

I know these things because of the great work of UM Social. UM Social handles all the official social channels of the university. It is its own office, composed of two full-time employees, Director Nikki Sunstrom and Manager Yasin Id-Deen. There are also five student interns, each with specific roles: Analytics, Graphic Design, Strategic Development, and two general purpose interns. As far as I can tell, the students carry out most of the work under the supervision of the Director and the Manager. They have their own modern, clean office space where students can get creative by writing on its tables. They also have an active blog that they update every month with new stats — they’re surprisingly transparent about their numbers online (albeit those numbers are phenomenal, so there’s not much that they’d want to hide).

  • Facebook fans: 711k
  • Instagram: 76.3k
  • Twitter: 134k
  • Snapchat: 7.4k
  • Pinterest: 19k
  • #GoBlue tag: 767k

These numbers are really impressive within the education sphere, and their month-to-month growth even more so – in the month of May they picked up over 2,000 Instagram followers. That said, there are a number of things in their favour, namely, a giant audience. Their enrollment is over 40,000, they have the prestige of being the number one public university in the country, a renowned sports program, and a lot of fans within Michigan as its premier public college. Regardless, their numbers are very strong.

Their engagement rate is impressive too when compared to other universities, with Instagram clocking in at 3.39%. There is strong co-ordination between all channels conveying a single, unique voice. They also are quite diligent in cross-posting between platforms; after big events they’ll take their Snapchat story and post it on YouTube to reach a larger audience, for example.

UM Social is on the ball when it comes to new platforms too. They are quick to experiment with new channels like Meerkat and Periscope, but not before establishing a clear use policy first. When abuse on YikYak became a topic of concern for the college, they decided to be proactive and introduce a voluntary pledge advocating positivity that students could take if they so wished. In addition to this, new channels are usually dissected and explained on the UM Social blog not long after their release. Platform content has a strong emphasis on creativity; on Snapchat students leverage all the creative tools it has to offer, Instagram is filled with pretty pictures of campus largely crowdsourced from UM students, and Facebook implements graphic design in a very successful manner.

Graphic design is UM Social’s key to setting their brand apart from other colleges online. Their intern doesn’t mess around, and his work conveys a distinct, fresh and exciting image of the university (distinct, fresh and exciting are three words that one does not normally associate with #HESM). It works particularly well on Facebook; it alleviates the dullness of link posts, and makes photographs much more arresting. It makes everything more interesting and bridges the gap between targeting younger audiences without losing the engagement of the older crowd to confusion.

This accompanied a link to an article about a new UM dental practicecountry are doing anything like this.

But perhaps the most important weapon in UM’s arsenal is a freelancing video group that they contract periodically called Filmic Productions. These guys do incredible projects focussing on all aspects of college life. They’re also entirely student-run. Their best video is called “The Letter M” which is nothing short of genius. It’s an amazing piece of story-telling; touching, poignant, perfectly executed and distinctly creative. They routinely take mundane things and turn them into very funny, intelligent stories. Nothing truer could be said of the “Michigan Transportation Musical” which takes the UM’s bus system and turns it into a ten minute musical featuring three full songs. It’s kind of amazing, and I dare someone to watch it and not smile. The video is shown at every freshman orientation session.

It’s not your average orientation video, but then again, this isn’t your average social media team. UM Social successfully leverages both new and established social channels through advanced strategy and structured teams. They’re not afraid of leading trends and they employ creativity to populate its channels and drive engagement.


  1. Great post! Its amazing to see how much effort U of Mich has put into their social media. Like you said many schools have not even stepped foot into the social media world in fear of portraying the wrong image. If they have their posts are dying and spread out. Its crazy how much you can learn about a school you’ve never been to by simply looking through their array of social medias. I really liked how you gave example about what you know about the school without ever visiting there. I thought this was a well thought out post with a lot of supporting detailing within it.

  2. Thanks Liam for sharing about the great job that Michigan has done with social media. You touch on a great point that colleges are perfect places for social media to thrive. Michigan’s social media seems to capture the culture of the school as well as the pride people have for it. By putting most of the decisions in the hands of students and allowing them to express their creativity and offer their perspective, Michigan is able to offer a more authentic picture of the university. Their large and engaged group of followers on social media is amazing. As “The Letter M” shows, it helps that they are already a well recognized brand. As for the future of social media, they seem to be ahead of the curve, with the use of Periscope and Meerkat. They also have began using virtual reality with their sports teams. The football team uses it to show recruits and fans what it is like to play at Michigan, from the perspective of players. Some other schools and NFL teams are also using VR to simulating game situations. This was featured in a Sports Illustrated in August:

  3. Love this post! I had no idea how great higher educations social media could be. I think we have all seen colleges stumble through the various social media platforms over the past few year, but it seems like the University of Michigan has figured it out. Even here at BC I think we have seen our social media presence make major strides towards becoming more appealing and relevant to past, present, and future students. As a school considered to be the “most instagram-able college” I think we do a great job on Instagram by crowdsourcing beautiful pictures of scenery and events on campus. Also our videos have become ever more popular over the past two years by dancing to a feel good pop song or by showing stunning footage of our campus during the different seasons. However in comparison to Michigan, we clearly still have room for improvement. It seems as though all institutions of higher education could take a few notes from UM.

  4. Really well written post! I do believe that colleges need to begin to turn their attention to utilizing social media to expand their brands. Incoming college students are almost all on social media in one form or another, and universities should capitalize on that opportunity. It has to be more than just a few people using Twitter every once in a while. Universities need to have full time employees (or student interns) to be consistently interacting with students via social media. I feel like incoming freshmen are going to be more attracted to schools that have an active social media presence. Social media is the best way for colleges to get their information out there fast and keep it up to date.

  5. Interesting to see how UM has really put significant resources into its social media presence. It sounds like they have a very coherent, defined strategy for how social media will not only serve UM as a marketing tool, but add significant value to the campus experience of current students, faculty, and staff. Contrast that with one of my alma maters, UMass-Amherst, which truly moves at the speed of government. I’m not sure UMass has any social media strategy beyond simply trying to use it (poorly) to attract new students to apply to the school.

    One thing I’m wondering is how UM leverages the unique features of different SM channels. Does it use Pinterest differently than it uses Facebook?

  6. I really enjoyed this post and think that it touches on a few really important topics. I, in accordance with many commenting above, really had no idea that colleges needed to have a strong social presence. I’m not sure why, but I assumed that a school, like Michigan, has such a massive fan base and is so well known that social media would be secondary. Clearly, it is so much more than that! I think going forward it would be interesting to compare the social media strategies of a big school like Michigan and maybe those of a midsize school like Boston College and possibly a small school like Williams College. I would assume they all use media in extremely different ways, but would be important for all three!

  7. runningconvo · ·

    Great post Liam. I’m lucky enough to marry into a UofM legacy family. Their social media posts frequently are shares from the various UofM channels you’ve discussed. And I agree with you that the school is great at its social media management. I really like how you highlighted the continuity with messaging and while still being able to deliver different elements to different audiences. You’re spot on that colleges and universities can be true lessons for companies with a broad range of users as current students, parents, prospecrives, and alumni all represent a very different level of engagement with the brand. Also to Michigan’s credit, I applaud its full usage of the opportunity to use the social media office as a really learning tool for students.

  8. Nice post. Incidentally, I was in the Big House for the 100th playing of Michigan – Ohio State (ranked 7 and 6 respective at the time…Michigan won a nailbiter, quite fun). Anyway, nice post. Personally, I always think BC has done a pretty good job with social through the years, but I guess you know that.

  9. Awesome post! Love how they’re harnessing graphic design with a clean infographic look. Not that UM personally made the video, but I remember when I’m Shmacked made a Michigan video, I was really tempted to apply. It’s amazing how social media can actually influence applications

  10. Fantastic post. Great analysis on how U of M is strategizing. The video was extremely clever and relatable. I wholeheartedly agree with @angelajin54 in regards to the point about graphic design. Having a unified voice and cross pollination of posts helps to build cohesion and sense of brand. I second @geraldckane on the fact that BC has done a pretty good job.

  11. Great level of detail. Very cohesive attention to different SM concerns within the scope of a case study.

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