5 Ways that SUNY Oneonta Optimized its Social Media Strategy

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A few years ago, I realized that social had tremendous potential that was only increasing, not just as a transactional communication tool but as a space to have meaningful relationships with prospects, current students, their parents, alumni, community members, even the media. However, up to that time, my campus had focused more on improving old media than on investing in new. The danger of falling behind if we didn’t do something to jumpstart our efforts was real. We needed to cover a lot of ground, both technical and strategic, in a short time. That’s why I brought a team to Academic Impressions’ Social Media Strategy for Higher Education: Beyond the Basics conference (twice, in fact).

The breadth of material at the conference and how it was covered allowed my staff and me to plan our work, set goals, and identify the metrics to gauge our progress. We talked the whole way home about next steps and began implementing almost immediately after the conference. Among State University of New York’s 27 four-year campuses, SUNY Oneonta was ranked #1 in social media presence by students in 2015. Engagement with our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts continues to increase, and we’re shifting ad dollars away from traditional media to social with solid return. Last fall, our campus was the target of a threat posted on Yik Yak, and we handled the communications aspects of the event efficiency and effectively.

All of these are direct results of our engagement with AI. Before attending AI’s social media conference, we were social media users. Now I think we have a keen sense for the role of social in acting strategically, building relationships with constituencies, and crisis response. Just as important, we’re able to articulate to others the impact of our efforts across our social channels.

Here are the five key lessons we took away from the conference and changed or developed on our campus — five takeaways that could make a huge difference at other institutions, too. Here’s what we did:

1. We developed a messaging architecture and implemented a content strategy and calendar.

We developed a messaging architecture, and content strategy and calendar, all of which were new to the college. Because of the increasingly visual nature of electronic communication, we rooted our architecture in photography and then applied it to other types of content. Our goal was to do more than deliver information efficiently. We wanted our social to be evocative and to present an authentic sense of what SUNY Oneonta is all about.

When my office first became involved in social, the college’s primary channel was a Facebook page that several staff members from different departments managed, often with little coordination or discussion about what content resonated with target audiences. After Communications assumed responsibility for the page, we tried a bunch of new things—videos, memes, large photo albums, open-ended questions and contests—and analyzed reach and engagement for several semesters to understand which posts were the most successful and why.

As a result of this, we:

  • Stopped posting content promoting events on campus because these generated little engagement;
  • Began posting less frequently, focusing on quality rather than quantity;
  • Began posting more often in the evening (after 8 p.m.) and on weekends, when more of our users were online; and
  • Developed a Facebook advertising plan to get selected posts in front of strategically valuable audiences.

2. We created a sandbox to experiment.

We also allowed ourselves to have a sandbox where we experimented with various engagement tactics. For example, a Valentine’s Day promotion asked alumni couples who met at Oneonta to share their stories. Our #Fall4Oneonta photo contest presented great autumn pictures—all submitted by students— across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

  • On Twitter, we saw that we got the highest engagement rates when we interacted with prospective students, so we developed a work flow to regularly search and respond to their tweets, eventually partnering with the admissions office to share this responsibility.
  • On Instagram, we saw that memes, videos, and photos of people usually didn’t do as well as photos of campus scenes and buildings, weather-related themes, and nature. So we tried to do more of those.

3. We assigned social media responsibilities more broadly.

We created a social media team of six people with various skill sets—including photography, video production, copy writing and digital design—who could contribute and collaborate on content. The associate director of communications leads the team, which meets weekly to brainstorm content ideas and assign tasks. We divided work flow for Instagram among several team members. The responsibility for finding and posting photos rotates each week. This keeps the stream flowing and the content fresh. To get started, we simply used a shared Outlook calendar to schedule and assign tasks related to content for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We’ve since shifted to the workflow software 5pm to streamline project management overall and establish better integration between social tasks and everything else that we do. We’re careful to differentiate content tailored to particular channels and audiences, rather than automating posts across multiple channels.

4. We created a Social Media Users Group on campus to provide leadership and encourage best practices.

The Social Media Users Group (SMUG) is a forum to educate social media users about best practices and new trends. We do this informally with a show and tell or discussion at each monthly meeting, and several group members also have attended a higher education social media online conference with us for the past two years. The group has been successful in working together on several campaigns, including:

  • Mascot Madness—For the past three years, SUNY has held a competition to determine the best SUNY mascot. Voting is done online in several rounds, using a March Madness style bracket. We developed a communication plan rooted in social and asked SMUG to help us carry it out. Each year, we added new elements—including boosted Facebook posts and a You Tube video series about our mascot’s quest to win the contest—and last year, we were the runner-up. In the last round of voting, schools were given bonus “social” points when voters clicked a button to tweet about the contest. Although we lost to a campus with five times SUNY Oneonta’s enrollment, we finished with more social points!
  • Battle of the Red Dragons—This is an annual spirit/athletics event that had been seeing lackluster attendance. Last year, SMUG worked together to develop and implement a promotion plan that resulted in the biggest crowd in several years. We tracked lots of data (event attendance, live stream views, Facebook and Twitter engagement, Storify views, etc.). This will be our baseline for comparison with the promotion of this year’s Battle of the Red Dragons.

5. We fully integrated social into our overall publicity efforts.

Nearly every institutional event or messaging opportunity now has a social component. Content we develop for news releases, web features or internal email messages is almost always pushed out via one or more social channels as well.

Social often is the first and primary channel. For example, local reporters sometimes call us for details on a story we’ve featured on our Facebook page, rather than finding out about it via news release or media pitch. At our spring commencement, we advertise the college’s official commencement hashtag (#oneontagrad) on lawn signs and in the commencement program, and user-generated content is curated and posted in a Storify and shared on social media. Television outlets have run content from our social channels—especially crises communication—virtually verbatim.


Talk with Gwen Doyle, who designed and directed the conference Hal Legg and his colleagues attended. Gwen would love to hear more about what you and your colleagues hope to learn in order to further develop your institution’s social media strategy. She can connect you with best practices, online trainings, and with our next annual social media conference. Email Gwen at gwen@academicimpressions.com.