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To Pin or Not To Pin: The Debate Over Pinterest Use in Higher Ed

To pin or not to pin, that is the question many colleges and universities are asking themselves about Pinterest today. This platform, designed to organize and share things across the web, has taken off thanks to topics driven by images, such as fashion trends, wedding tips and recipe ideas.  Pinterest has experienced success in the retail industry and among women, yet, it is one social media platform that is still up for debate among higher education institutions.

If you look closer, there is a case to be made for Pinterest in the higher education industry. Below, I’ll break down a few key points, including the visual content curation trend, the visual identity of colleges and universities, and how to put this all together for a school’s potential use of this “virtual pinboard”. Considering it is the third most popular network, according to Experian’s 2012 Digital Marketer report, I hope my thoughts encourage you to join the pinning debate, or re-evaluate your stance on the subject.

Visual Content Curation Trend

According to Pew’s Internet and American Life Project (a go-to source for U.S. social media usage), 56 percent of adult internet users create or curate photos or videos online.  In other words, a significant portion of the adult population, and a key demographic served by the higher education industry, are interacting through visual media.  They are adding photos and videos online, liking, sharing and identifying common areas of interests thanks to Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube and, now, Pinterest.

Images send a message instantly, and require less effort to comprehend that message, compared to text. The importance of pictures and videos to mass communication is not new, but the speed and manner in which they spread is, thanks to social media.  So, one point to consider in your potential use of Pinterest is, what message do you want to spread instantly? Furthermore, what visual medium can convey that message?

Visual Identity in Higher Education 

The visual identity of any college or university is crucial to their brand, and examples are rampant in higher education.  Go to any school’s website, you’ll find the school’s colors, their logo clearly displayed and pictures of students, faculty and more to showcase campus life.   The visual branding of an institution can be traced back through its history; such as Harvard’s College Arms, which were drawn up in 1836.

Harvard University’s homepage

Today, branding has grown in importance, especially as conveyed through photographs and videos.  The higher education landscape has become populated with more competitors, and there are even more avenues (here’s social media coming into the picture again) to illustrate why your institution’s brand is better than the next.  Therefore, the next piece when considering Pinterest is, what elements of your existing visual identity should be curated/aggregated online?

Pinterest & Curating Higher Education’s Image

If we put this all together, we have to think about 1) visual messages, 2) visual identity/brand and 3) online curation. When you identify the first two pieces, Pinterest is a convenient platform where one can aggregate them and create an interactive setting. For example, wouldn’t you want your brand ambassadors (think: current students and alumni) to literally illustrate  why your school is best and share that with prospective students and donors?

Admissions and development are just two of many departments that could leverage the platform, and even possibly measure conversions created by Pinterest, which has contributed to its success in the retail industry.   Retail has great examples of how to use virtual pinboards, but there are many examples in our own industry. As a career services professional, I’ve seen great uses of Pinterest, and been inspired, by NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development and Bucknell University Career Development Center.  Contests are a very popular practice on Pinterest; not only does it foster engagement, but it draws attention to your latest social media practice. Whole Foods had a very creative contest over the holidays with their cookie swap.  I hope you review these samples, but seek out others to see the innovative uses of the platform.

The key to Pinterest is to be creative and think with a visual-state of mind.  It is a virtual pinboard and content curator that higher education can utilize. It is designed to share interests and inspiration. We inspire thousands of minds every day on our campuses, and I hope this post inspired you to pin, rather than not pin.

If you’re a visual learner and would like to see another approach to this post, refer to my Prezi given at NACE’s Social Media Mashup in Philadelphia. Finally, if you have an example of a creative use of Pinterest in higher education, please let us know – sharing is at the heart of Social @ Edu!

by Shannon

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