The University of Cambridge says it is reaching a more diverse range of students around the world thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

The university has increased its number of Facebook followers by 400 percent in just a few months by promoting unusual videos, stories and photos of its research, its head of digital communications Barney Brown told Techworld.

Cambridge University increased its number of Facebook followers by 400 percent in just a few months © iStock/frankix
Cambridge University increased its number of Facebook followers by 400 percent in just a few months © iStock/frankix

One of the main reasons for the surge in interest was a piece of academic research about the mental health benefits of hip hop lyrics published in October 2014, which went viral and was shared almost 4,000 times.

“It took us to a whole new section of people, and importantly lots of 18-21 year old males. 85 percent of our audience was outside the UK too. Another by-product was researchers from other universities got in touch,” he says.

“We try to confound expectations. It’s a great opportunity to reset expectations of the university, what it’s for and most importantly who it’s for”, Brown adds.

Cambridge has over 18,500 students and 9,000 staff, with a small communications team of less than 10 people responsible for overseeing 1,600 websites and 260 social media accounts that bear the university’s name.

Since launching in 2009, Cambridge’s Facebook page has received 1.2 million likes. Its Twitter account, also set up in 2009, has 191,000 followers, and on Instagram, which it started using last November, 12,000 people are now following the university.

The Instagram account was launched as a response to the team’s realisation of the popularity of photography online, according to Brown.

“The 400 percent increase in Facebook likes was primarily photography led. We’ve also got a Flickr channel to promote our photos,” he says.

Video content has also been “phenomenally successful” for the university, which now has a YouTube channel, Brown explains.

One of the most popular features on the channel is a short series of film called ‘Under the Microscope’ where academics discuss a scientific topic in just over 60 seconds.

Some of the university’s videos are now used by schools as learning materials as a result, he says.

The communications team’s role is primarily to give guidance, for example on which social media platform may best suit a particular project, but it also monitors activity online using Hootsuite and weeds out fake accounts.

Brown says the university has to close “tens” of fake accounts every year, something he takes the lead on, with help from the licensing department.

When the university launched its Instagram account in November 2014, the communications team had to get a fake version taken down first, he says.

“If someone out there decides, even for a fleeting moment, they want to study here and they can’t find us, they may well find a fake one. So we have to be aware of it,” Brown explains.

Brown says he wrestles with the question of whether social interest translates into student applications or other real-world outcomes.

“The bulk of people aren’t applying to the University of Cambridge because we have a good Facebook page,” he admits.

However he says stories on social media, like the hip hop research, might help young people from a wider pool of backgrounds feel Cambridge is “a bit more accessible than they did before”.