Dr. Liz Gross 4 Comments

Higher Ed Marketing Memos by Dr. Liz Gross

Wait — Isn’t Social Media Free?

Some people assume that social media is free. That’s understandable, since Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are free for individuals to use. But when you’re using social media on behalf of your campus or department, does the assumption hold?

I took a very unscientific Twitter poll, and the results were unanimous.

All respondents indicated they needed a budget for social media. I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I asked them what they needed to fund with their budget. The results were right in line with what I would expect after managing multiple social media programs with varying levels of financial support.

Components of a Social Media Budget for Higher Ed Marketers & Communicators

Hopefully, it’s obvious that the person or people running your campus/department social media should be paid for their work (and they should also have funds available for professional development). However, successful social media programs have other line items in the budget as well. The most common components of a social media budget for higher ed marketing or communication are:

  • Advertising/Promotion
  • Student Staff
  • Social Media Software
  • Content Production

The amount of budget allocated to each area varies in accordance with audience size, institutional resources, and leadership buy-in. There’s no one-size-fits-all budget, but at the end of this post I provide a template for you. If you’re trying to construct a social media budget, here are some things you should consider.

Budgeting for Social Media Advertising & Promotion

The amount of content available on all social networks is increasing at an astounding rate. Because of this, social platforms are constantly tweaking the algorithms to determine what content is presented to users.
Think of it this way—if an individual has 500 Facebook friends that each post twice a day, and follows 100 business and organization pages that post once a day, there are over 1,000 potential pieces of content for their newsfeed—not including stories created when their friends interact with other people. There was a time when organizations believed each of their posts should reach everyone, but that time has long passed. Back in 2014, Facebook attacked this topic head-on in a blog post.

Organizations on social media can still make sure their content with strategic value cuts through the clutter on almost every network, by paying to promote posts — either to the organic audience or to a target audience. Paying for social media reach is becoming the norm in higher ed. Of the 1,100 respondents to the 2016 CASE Social Media in Advancement Survey , 59% said they paid to promote posts on Facebook, and 18% paid for Twitter promotion.

I don’t believe the 2016 survey asked about Instagram or Snapchat spending, but anecdotally, I see lots of schools paying for event geofilters so their community can brand their own content (e.g., at commencement).

What’s an appropriate budget for social media advertising?

That depends. Respondents to my Twitter poll stated that they’d like at least a few hundred dollars for each account on each network, annually. Snapchat geofilters in a small area seem to run between $50 and $150 for a day or two. My recommendation is to start with $1,000 per year for content promotion on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and build any Snapchat geofilter costs into specific even budgets.

Budgeting for Student Social Media Staff

Student staff are key to many social media programs — at some institutions, they are the program. For example, the social media at Ryerson University Student Life is “by students, for students” so hiring paid student help is a requirement. Respondents from large public, small private, and ivy league schools all indicated they had student help for their program.

Students can play two key roles on your social media staff: content producer or engagement assistant.
Content producers may write blog posts and status updates, take photos or video, record podcasts, or find third-party and user-generated content to share. Engagement assistants are given “the keys” to social media accounts to publish content and respond to inquiries. The downside of student staff is that they inherently have a high turnover rate (we want them to graduate, after all). The upside is they have an authentic point of view on campus life. Most higher ed pros would argue that the upside absolutely outweighs the downside.

What’s an appropriate budget for student staff?

That depends on the prevailing hourly rate on your campus. Depending on the number of accounts you’re managing, you may need anywhere from one to a dozen students on a part-time basis.

Budgeting for Social Media Software

Social media software is becoming more common in higher ed. It falls into a few different categories:

  • Management (publishing and engagement)
  • Analytics
  • Online monitoring

The software needs for your social media program are determined by the number of accounts you manage, the size of your audience, and your strategic goals.

Management Software

Although management can be done without software, whenever you have multiple people accessing one account it’s nice to have a central hub. I like Sprout Social for this purpose, and many higher ed pros like Hootsuite . There are dozens of software packages that perform this function. While you may find a free tool that suits your needs, you’ll likely spend anywhere from $15 – $75 per month for an entry-level management tool. Enterprise tools (with licenses for multiple users and all the bells and whistles) can run anywhere from $15,000 – $50,000 per year.


Like management software, there are dozens of options. Many higher ed shops make due with the free analytics tools offered by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You may want to spring for a paid solution if you need data that is not easily accessed in the free tools. This requires you to know what data you need, which can be a challenge for folks (That’s why I teach Social Media Measurement for Higher Ed ).

Social Media Measurement for Higher Ed Online Course

This might be an item you can check off your list for free, or you might spend anywhere from $500 – $15,000 per year on it. My advice: don’t start by contacting vendors. First, know what data you need. Then, find a tool (paid or free) that provides you with that data.

Online Monitoring

This is the least-common use case for social media in higher ed right now, although it appears to be catching on. If your social media program is focused on brand reputation or pro-active engagement/customer service, it should be on your list. The management tools listed previously usually have some basic social media monitoring built in (i.e., Twitter), but if you want to go beyond that you’ll need to put up some more cash. I’ve written a separate post on how to choose social media monitoring software , You could spend anywhere from $15,000 – $50,000+ per year on this—it usually makes the most sense for a centralized campus communications department, or perhaps the alumni office of a large school.

What’s an appropriate budget for social media software?

This is highly dependent on the size and purpose of your program. It could be anywhere from $500 – $100,000 per year.

Budgeting for Social Media Content Production

Social media is increasingly visual, even on networks like Twitter that were traditionally text-based. To keep up, you’ll likely need a hardware, software, and talent.


A good camera is a necessity (a newer smartphone might do) to capture Insta-worthy campus scenes, or snap a few seconds of the basketball game. A tripod might kick things up a notch, or maybe you’ll invest in a fancy lens for the office iPhone. If you want your camera to stay right in the action, a GoPro may be in order. An external microphone will get your sound just right. I’ve even started to hear about campuses investing in drones to get interesting aerial shots. You may even have a few non-technical items here—Texas State University has a large portable sign that promotes its social handle (sometimes with squirrels).


Whether it’s an app on a smartphone, a free image editor like Canva , or professional quality video editing software, you’ll likely need a small software suite to create photos, gifs, and videos.


Hardware and software are useless if you don’t have some brain power behind them. This may be your professional staff, some talented multimedia or graphic design students, or an outside agency.

What’s an appropriate budget for social media content?

If you’re doing your work in-house, you can likely get buy with an initial investment of a couple thousand dollars, with slightly lower software subscription and equipment upgrade costs in subsequent years. If you’re outsourcing your visual content, you’re likely looking at tens of thousands of dollars.

Sample Social Media Budget

So, what exactly should your budget look like? Assuming you’re managing 3-5 accounts at the college or campus level with 25,000-100,000 followers, here’s a template you could work from.

This is an all-in budget (excluding professional staff salary and professional development) of about $10,000.
As your social media program becomes more sophisticated, these should increase.

  • Promotion/Advertising: $1,000
  • Snapchat geofilters for key events: $500
  • Student staff: $3,500 (roughly two 10-15/wk positions)
  • Software: $1,000-$5,000
  • Content production: $2,000

I’m certain some of you are reading this and saying “$10,000? I’ll never get $10,000!” That might be true at your institution, but it’s likely because the people who control the purse strings have not been educated about the value of your social media program. If you know your program’s objectives, and can measure how it achieves them (and the university’s goals), you’re much more likely to get buy-in. During my short Twitter poll one evening, I received the following response from Dr. John Austin, Executive Director of Student Affairs at Ryerson University.

So readers, what do you think? Do you think you have an appropriate budget for your higher ed social media program to be successful? Are there other items you budget for that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

Meet the Author: Dr. Liz Gross

Dr. Liz Gross is a graduate of the Higher Ed Experts Web Analytics certificate program. Higher Ed Experts is a professional online school for digital professionals working in universities and colleges.

When you take a professional certificate course with us, you get a chance to upgrade your skills by working on your projects, interacting with classmates just like you and getting detailed personalized feedback from your instructor.

Dr. Liz Gross is now the director of Campus Sonar, a social media listening consultancy.

Liz received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education from Cardinal Stritch University. Her dissertation research examined the relationship between communication methods and the frequency and content of college student interactions with faculty.

She also taught for 2 years and half Higher Ed Expert’s 4-week online course on Social Media Measurement for Higher Education.

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4 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    I would spend almost all the money on FB. And instead of boosting posts, create content for specific people. We create content for alumni and prospective students. We generate clicks to registering/giving or touring/applying. Post on Facebook that aren’t those are the organic ones that are considered “nudges” i.e., bonus content that gets in front of people.

    Once you see success in this area (i.e., apps and gifts) the powers that be will give you all the money you want on FB. My budget is hard to spend on FB.

    Good luck.

    • Dr. Liz Gross says:

      I also direct a lot of my advertising $$ to Facebook (which also allows us to access Instagram). As platforms and their advertising/boosting options change, it might be good to give them a try on a pilot basis to see if you get similar, better, or worse results.

  2. Dee says:

    Good post! Lots of good info here.