Harvard University’s official Facebook page currently boasts over 2,437,000 ‘Likes.’ Lest that sound like just another big number, consider that the university has only 22,800 students. Still, of course, Harvard is a widely recognized name.4 Social Media Marketing Lessons from the top colleges

But so are Reebok, Miller Lite and The Avett Brothers (all of whom are quite popular with college-aged Americans and trail Harvard in Facebook followers).

Not surprisingly, Harvard sits atop a list of the ‘Top 100 Social Media Colleges,’ compiled and maintained by StudentAdvisor.com. After all, Facebook got its start there. They’re joined at the top by other schools like Columbia and Stanford, the University of Kentucky, Louisiana State, and John Hopkins University.

When you consider that most students applying for college today have grown up with a smartphone in their hands, at least throughout their high school years, it makes sense why colleges would be putting such an emphasis upon online social networks. The most recent stats show that two-thirds of prospective students check out their potential schools on their YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook channels during their decision-making process.

But if you’re not a college, and you’re not planning on going back to school, what does that mean for you? As colleges step to the forefront of the social media marketing movement, there are more than a few lessons any blogger, marketer, or small business can draw from their example:

Lesson #1. Share Your Good News in Real Time

Do you love Oprah? If so, and you’re a prospective student choosing between Harvard and Yale, you might be swayed ever-so-slightly by the glowing portrait Harvard’s Facebook page recently posted of the role model and public figure, announcing that she would be the principal speaker of this year’s commencement. That came a few days after Harvard posted the image of a soaring Christina Gao (currently a freshman) who is among the world’s most celebrated up-and-coming ice skaters.

4 Social Media Marketing Lessons

But it’s not all celebrity touting (which Harvard, understandably, can do plenty of). On the same day as the Gao post, they plugged a link to a story about the discovery of a super-massive black hole, complete with a compelling deep space image. The message: Come to Harvard, where science is both fun and cutting edge.

The Take Home:

Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back and share news that highlights the best aspects of you and your company.

Lesson #2. Build Followers Through Variety

If Yale’s Facebook page included nothing but basic news about the college, events and the admissions process, its posts wouldn’t regularly be garnering hundreds of individual ‘Likes.’ Instead, an average week of posts might include a story about saving white rhinos in southern Africa, sunrise pictures of a group of undergrads doing yoga atop a college building, and a link to an online chat about ‘The Secrets of Your Dog’s Mind.’

4 Social Media Marketing Lessons

Each of the posts underscores the school’s emphasis on diversity, fostering students with well-rounded lives, and intelligent discourse.

The Take Home:

What did you learn and enjoy today? Talk about it on Twitter through your company account, even if it doesn’t directly apply to what you do on a daily basis. Ensure that your blog posting, Pinterest tags and Facebook updates underscore your own well-rounded nature and how that reflects on your business.

Lesson #3. Keep Your Clients and Readers In the Conversation

Tags within Twitter and Facebook can be a powerful force, since they’ll alert the person about your post. It’s important to use these carefully — the last thing you want to do is earn an ‘Unfollow’ or get de-Friended for spamming someone — but when your tags bring people to relevant information or you saying something nice about them, it’ll typically reap rewards.

This can work well for students going through the application process. Rather than simply sending in a static, paper application, their ongoing activities worth mentioning can be called to the attention of admissions staff through social media. Similarly, after sending acceptance letters, a college may continue to court prospective students through social media tags and posts while the recruits make their decision about where to attend.

Perhaps the single-most influential factor (but still difficult to measure) may be the responsiveness of a school’s social media curators. When a student makes a comment or asks a question and gets a quick response in social media, they’re likely to judge that school as accessible (just as your business should be!)

The Take Home:

If you’re courting a potential customer or simply experiencing a gap between projects with a client, keep them in the loop by engaging them on your social sites.

Lesson #4. Don’t Rely on the ‘Tried and True’

If you’re 25 or older and worked hard in high school, you likely remember the barrage of pamphlets, magazines and course descriptions that began arriving around your sophomore year from colleges around the country.

Today’s students, however, view much of that paper outreach like junk mail. After all, print marketing materials allow a school to portray themselves however they choose, while active social media outlets, with frequent comments and student involvement, can provide a far more realistic picture of what a school is actually like. As the advertising world changes, so do college admissions.

The Take Home:

In a business (and college) world that’s fueled by Tweets, comments and user reviews, marketing can no longer shine-up an inadequate product and sell it to the masses.

Fortunately, if you’re doing good work, the secret to success is to follow the example of the leading social media savvy universities to get the word out and build a following.