Rolling for Initiative is a weekly column by Scott Thorne, PhD, owner of Castle Perilous Games & Books in Carbondale, Illinois and instructor in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University.  This week, Thorne shares survey results on college students’ social media use.

With all of the avenues available, college students are hard to reach, but do have a high percentage of discretionary income.  I've surveyed students in my classes for the past 20 years, and the number of them that read newspapers, even the college paper, has declined to near zero.  Few students read magazines, watch TV (either broadcast or cable), or listen to radio.  Most of their entertainment exposure and consumption comes through either streaming services or social media.  Since streaming services, for the most part, only promote their own offerings, that leaves promotion though social media as the best way to communicate information about your offerings to them (aside from relying on word-of-mouth and hand-selling).

Every semester for the past three years, in my Principles of Marketing class, I've surveyed hundreds of Southeast Missouri State students regarding their social media use.  If you want to reach a college student, social media platforms are the best platforms to use.  Unfortunately, unless you make your messages compelling, they are likely going to swipe right or ignore them.  After all, just because you put the message out does not mean anyone will read it.  Here is the methodology used.

First the class serves as a focus group to identify which are the top five social media platforms to look at.  I survey them and identify the social media platforms they use the most, but not ranking them at this stage. Consistently, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have made the top five, while platforms such as Pinterest, YouTube, and TikTok have occupied the remaining spot.  The students then split up into teams and are assigned to survey at least 100 other SEMO (Southeast Missouri State University) students.

Generally, they reach out to students through communication methods such as GroupMe, Facebook groups, and email. In order to minimize the chance of the same student responding multiple times, respondents are asked which college they come from and if they had been contact multiple times regarding the survey.  The number of students contacted multiply times comes in at less than 1%, so the total number of responses clocks in at over 1,000 each semester or over 6,000 over the past three years.  The past two semesters, the social media platforms included in the survey were Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

So, here are the top five, in order, along with some comments as to why:

  1. Snapchat:  Used to keep in contact with one another.  For a lot of students has replaced texting. Very easy to ignore advertisements, though.
  2. Instagram:  Students indicated they liked and interacted more with pictures and text. Much more so than text only.
  3. TikTok:  Not even on the radar two years ago.  Now a very popular way to spend time.  Has replaced YouTube for a lot of students.
  4. Facebook:  Viewed as used by parents and grandparents.  Students don't use it as much for themselves, and a number only keep accounts active because their parents and grandparents do.
  5. Twitter:  Not visual.  Lots of text and can be hard to follow.  Viewed as primarily used for news.  Easy to lose the context of messages.

Snapchat and Instagram have consistently held the number one and two positions for the past three years.  With the advent of TikTok, Facebook has dropped from its #3 ranking in the past to #4, while Twitter consistently ranks at #5. Discord was also referenced, but not enough to reach the Top 5.  LinkedIn is also used, but primarily for job searches.  So, if you are trying to reach college students, Snapchat or Instagram are probably your best bets.

If you have comments or questions, email and I will endeavor to answer them.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of