Duke Admissions is Tweeting, Blogging and Posting

Office embraces social media to connect with a new generation of applicants

With the help of duct tape, an iPhone records the 2016 class photo.  The broadcast drew an audience of more than 4,000 parents and others.
With the help of duct tape, an iPhone records the 2016 class photo. The broadcast drew an audience of more than 4,000 parents and others.

Christoph Guttentag has an interesting perspective on how life has changed for college admissions officers. "Hitting the road for admissions again. Year 30," he wrote recently. "Still recall Year 1--no cell phone, no GPS, but lots of maps & change for the pay phones!"

Even more interesting, perhaps, is where Duke's undergraduate admissions dean wrote those words: on Twitter. They were among several posts he made last week during a trip to Massachusetts. "Springfield last night & this a.m; Worcester later today. Flying BOS-RDU early tomorrow. No time for sightseeing, alas," he responded online to a tweeted question from a staff member. A few hours later he posted: "About to start Exploring College Options program at #MechanicsHall in Worcester, MA.  Spectacular facility!" 

Guttentag's Twitter posts (@DukeAdmissDean) are the latest example of Duke's admissions office embracing social media to engage with a generation of applicants who have grown up with smart phones and Facebook accounts.

A year ago, the office recruited its first student bloggers, hiring seven students with diverse academic interests and homes ranging from North Carolina to Thailand. One of them, Latrice Coleman, went on to post stories about accumulating Duke T-shirts, studying in Italy and attending a Duke-Carolina basketball game. Another, Monica Hogan, described being a "hopeless dance addict" who also studies biology. Thousands of applicants followed the bloggers. Those who were admitted got to meet them at the university's Blue Devil Days events in April.

Twitter featured prominently at those gatherings, with Guttentag inviting admitted students and their parents to submit questions and comments while touring the campus. "i loved duke when i got here, but now, i think i'm officially IN love with this school," tweeted one visitor, Mbenoye Diagne, who is now enrolled as a freshman. Victoria Chang wrote, "I have officially committed to Duke University! I couldn't be happier :) Class of 2016!!" Guttentag monitored Twitter throughout the weekends, pausing during his talks in Page Auditorium and other settings to address questions he'd seen online.

Also in April, the admissions office held eight "live video chats" in which Duke students discussed topics such as how they found research opportunities, studied abroad or pursued the arts.  They interacted with prospective students through Google+ Hangouts On Air, a Skype-like tool that enabled them to field questions from their dorm rooms or campus venues such as Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Duke Lemur Center. Duke on Demand, the university's video site, posted archives of the chats.

Most of the students who decided to attend Duke joined a Class of 2016 group on Facebook, where they began making friends months before they moved to campus. Meanwhile, the admissions office began interacting with a new batch of applicants through its public Facebook site. The office also has been using social media to connect with parents of prospective students, such as through a web chat where they asked questions of parents whose children already attend Duke.

The office's new approach can also be seen in its website, which it recently redesigned with colorful graphics and deeper pages to work well on iPads, smart phones and other mobile devices, as well as on desktop monitors. Inside Higher Ed profiled the site, calling it "mobile-ready and built upon quality storytelling."

Cara Rousseau, the university's social media manager, and her colleagues have also developed Duke sites for Pinterest and Foursquare, and are monitoring college-oriented sites such as StudentAdvisor, Unigo and Zinch. Rousseau splits her time between the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and the Office of News and Communications while also advising offices across the university. Her blog highlights social media innovations across Duke generally.

One recent post to the blog described how Duke used a live video feed to cover its newest students as they gathered on East Campus in late August for their official class photo. The article included a photo of an iPhone affixed with rubber bands and duct tape to a lift above the gathering. The phone sent video of the event via Skype to a production team below, which incorporated the images into a live video program on the Duke Ustream channel. More than 4,000 parents and others watched the event live, with 559 alumni and others "liking" it on Duke's main Facebook page.

Rubber bands  and duct tape exemplify Duke's spirit of innovation with new communications tools, according to Rousseau. "Social media is still very new, so we've been experimenting with different platforms and approaches to see which will be the most effective," she said.