What is Real Marketing in a Fake News World?

How Fake News affects students

On some level the stories about how students respond to fake news on the internet is totally discouraging: they totally believe it. On the other hand, the backlash against the discovery may significantly change up the landscape in education—and in marketing. From how you will teach your courses to how you find students to fill them, the winds are starting to shift.

Here’s what you need to know about this coming new world order:


Fake news has been around long before the dawn of the internet. Anyone scanning the headlines of alien abductions and movie star mayhem at the checkout stand has seen the sensational results of fake news in print. But back in the day, those fantastic falsehoods were easily discernible by the publications they appeared in. You simply would not give the same level of credence to a story in the National Enquirer as you would one appearing in The New York Times.

The problem with internet news is that the publishers and their intent are less easy to discern. Anyone can “report” on anything they’d like. There is no journalist code or team of editors. You are your own editor, curating the content that pops up in your news feeds or shows up in your inbox. You’re also your own fact-checker.

The no-surprise surprise:

The Stanford History Education Group recently completed a study that revealed what you already knew: most of your students aren’t so good at that fact-checking part of their research. Over an 18 month period, the researchers analyzed more than 7,800 responses from students in middle school through college.  The results were startling in their consistency. At every age level, from public to private institutions, students could not tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; between actual news and fake news.

[ctt template=”5″ link=”9x7ps” via=”no” ]At every age level, from public to private institutions, students could not tell the difference between between actual news and fake news[/ctt]

Your faculty has likely already seen evidence of students’ inability to separate fact from fiction. Whether they forget to check an author’s corporate ties in peer-reviewed research, or make a debate with evidence garnered from an internet gem, students aren’t doing well with fact-checking. In the age of instant news—real and fake—it’s up to you to teach your students to stop, take pause, and think before they click and share. It’s your responsibility to teach them to ask the right questions, think more critically, and become their own fact-checkers. It’s also what you’d want them to do even before they land on your campus, so they—and you—are sure they belong there.

Advantage marketing:

Of note in the Stanford study was the way students gave credibility to “news.” A story’s search rank results mattered more to the students than the sponsoring organization or the article’s author. According to the study’s authors, students were “blindly trusting the search engine to put the most reliable results first.”1

Is that good news for marketers?

In some ways, sure. If your programs and your institution rank higher in a Google search, prospective students may well consider your school more credible, and what you offer to be better courses or programs. Paid search and search engine optimization can ensure that your institution continually ranks high where lots of students can easily find you. But you already know that it’s not enough to attract lots of students; you need to attract the right students.

Pivot point:

Fake news came under considerable fire after the election. There were claims that stories such as the one appearing in a bogus publication called the Denver Guardian that claimed:  “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” tilted the election in Trump’s favor. The fake news story was shared on Facebook more than a half million times.

In the wake of the outcry, Mark Zuckerberg published a response stating that 99 percent of what people see on Facebook is authentic. Regardless of what Facebook’s CEO claimed, his staff had second thoughts. A group within the organization formed a task force to deal with fake news, but Google beat them to the punch. It announced earlier this month it would ban fake news sites from receiving ad revenue from its search pages. Facebook soon followed suit.

Impact on marketing: If the pendulum swings away from fake news, that’s actually great news for the good guys in marketing. At Effective Student Marketing, we’ve always believed that our role is to match future students to the schools they’re really meant to attend. We do that by creating great content that captures the identity of our partner schools and then promoting that content in places prospective students are most likely to hang out. Yes, we’ll help your school rank well when students search. But your future students only spend a small fraction of their time online in search mode. We find them the rest of the time, often long before they have even started to look for their future school. And we make a match that works, so the prospects we find are more likely to enroll, stay and succeed at your institution.

We’ve never been about fake news, fake results or black box practices that keep marketing methodologies and results a secret. If you’re ready to partner with a marketing firm that believes in the mission of your institution and wants to match the right students to the right programs, contact the HigherEd Geeks today. We’re real.

~Linda Emma

1 http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/02/why-students-cant-google-their-way-to.html