Continuing Ed turns to Facebook

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The question is familiar to many an event organizer or program coordinator: how do you keep Brown students informed? For University offices, the answers are also familiar – table slipping, posters, mailbox flyers and Morning Mail. But for one office, add to that list: Facebook.

The Office of Continuing Education has used the Facebook paid advertising feature to inform students about Summer Study Abroad programs and resident advisor hiring for Summer at Brown, a summer study program for high school students.

Facebook first introduced its targeted advertising initiative in November 2007. The ads appear on the right-hand side of the screen when users view profiles. They can include an image and allow for a maximum of 135 characters.

Jacqueline Newcomb, assistant director of continuing education, said she first ran a Facebook ad last February to invite Brown undergraduates to apply for an RA position for Summer at Brown. The text-only ad ran for a week.

Newcomb, who is listed as a member of “Brown staff” on Facebook, said she decided to use the site to advertise at the suggestion of a graduate assistant. Judging the ad a success, Newcomb said when she interviewed students for the RA position last year, many mentioned hearing about the job application through Facebook. She said she plans to run a similar ad again this year.

Geoffrey Chisholm, director of marketing for the office of continuing education, also began running Facebook ads for Summer Study Abroad programs after personal experience with the site. Since last November, he said he has run seven ads for the program, “with nearly a million total impressions,” or the number of times the ad has been viewed. He is also experimenting with running ads for the office’s pre-college programs.

Newcomb and Chisholm said that advertising through Facebook is very cost-effective, especially because their offices are more concerned with the number of impressions that an ad gets than with its number of clicks, which are more expensive, they said.

Chisholm said he sees the ads as “a paperless flyer, not an ad” since they are meant for “creating awareness and reminding about (program application) deadlines” instead of selling a product on the spot. But unlike a flyer, Facebook is a reliable presence, he said, adding that the site allows him to continue promoting deadlines during the holidays – a time when many students make decisions about vacation plans.

Facebook advertising is also effective because “it is highly targeted, so our ads can be relevant and contextual,” Chisholm said. According to Facebook, advertisements can have specific “demographic and psychographic filters” for its 150 million active members, including those for location, education, sex, age, relationship status and relationship interests. Another filter option for advertisers can be “keywords,” which are part of the information listed in a user’s profile, such as favorite music or movies. Chisholm and Newcomb said they both targeted their ads at Brown undergraduates. Chisholm has also run his ads for college students at peer institutions.

It is difficult to estimate how many students have noticed the ads. Sasha David ’10, said she saw the Summer Study Abroad ad, and clicked on it for more information, though she is still unsure about her summer plans. She has also seen several local Facebook ads for jobs in Providence, as well as advertisements to sell college class notes. On the usefulness of Facebook ads, David said, “a lot of times we try to block them out, but people do read them,” noting the success of the Obama campaign’s Facebook ads.

Katharine Mead ’12 said that usually “we’re trained to ignore ads online because they don’t apply to us, but Facebook seems to have identified that and made them apply (to) us.”

But Jake Maxon ’12, said he didn’t find advertising on Facebook to be effective. “I don’t know anyone who looks at the ads. I know I haven’t,” he said.

Despite the positive initial response to their Facebook ads, Chisholm and Newcomb said they will continue using traditional methods of campus advertising such as tableslipping and mailbox stuffing, along with Facebook.

As for the future of targeted ads, Chisholm said he has noticed an increasing number of commercial ads on Facebook.

He said, “Will those ads become less effective over time when there’s more noise?”