Many of the institutions seeing the greatest success in leveraging social media communications to help boost strategic efforts in marketing and communications, student recruitment, and alumni engagement have actually invested relatively little budget and few staff to the effort. Instead, these institutions’ marketing and communications offices have focused on identifying and leveraging those social media communications that are already happening, at varied points throughout the academic community. Coordinating university communications across multiple social media and traditional platforms can appear daunting, but the effort becomes simpler once you embrace the decentralized nature of social media, and then move to provide the necessary central resources to integrate, aggregate, and make the best use of the content that your faculty, staff, and students are already creating on social platforms. Your central channels can then tap those sources of content when needed to aid you in meeting specific objectives.
To learn more, we reached out to social media veterans Alan Webber, industry analyst and managing partner for Altimeter Group; Tim Jones, interim executive creative director at North Carolina State University; and Patrick Powers, director of digital marketing and communications at Webster University.
Here is their advice on:
- Identifying those faculty, staff, and students who can serve as brand ambassadors on social media channels – those who are already disseminating high-potential content through social media
- Maintaining central channels that serve as selective aggregators of social media content, and leveraging these channels to support specific institutional objectives
Identify Your Content and Your Contributors
Much can be achieved even on low or no budget. North Carolina State University does not have any dedicated staff or budget devoted to social media communications, but has maintained an active and cohesive social media presence. “We recognized early,” Jones remarks, “that we had little to cover that wasn’t already covered by 97 user accounts. Rather than just retweet and repost content from all those accounts, we aggregated. We found that this gives a holistic view of NC State and how we are living our brand, a view that we couldn’t have provided with just one central feed.”
The first step in harnessing the capacity of these social media users is to conduct a thorough review or audit of social media content produced by members of your academic community. Alan Webber, industry analyst and managing partner for the Altimeter Group, offers this advice for arriving at a baseline analysis:
- Survey departments across your institution, asking what social media technologies faculty and staff are currently using in their personal and professional lives
- Identify faculty and staff blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and groups, etc. and look for channels that are generating high response (but measure this less by number of Likes or Followers than by the number and quality of comments or replies) -– in other words, who within your institution is already generating substantive conversations in the social environment?
Identify your top “hot spots,” Webber suggests. “Perhaps you expected social media use in your computer science department, but what you find is that some of the most interesting and most watched YouTube videos or Twitter feeds are maintained by your faculty in the philosophy department. Maybe your residence life staff have been posting stories about how individual students are transitioning into the community. Find those sources of excellent content that already exist.”
WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THE STAFF
NCSU looks not just for high-potential content but for high-potential producers. “Photographers, designers, video producers, and other visual thinkers often make great choices for social media volunteers,” Jones notes. “Train them to produce content and to manage and populate university channels. A little education goes a long way. Our photographers manage our institution’s Flickr gallery; our video producers manage the YouTube channel. Distribute the workload among these volunteers and provide central editorial oversight. Identify the right people, then trust these people.”
Making the Most Effective Use of Central Channels
Institutions that succeed in communicating their brand messages via social media have done so by using the institution’s centrally owned channels across various social media platforms as selective aggregators of the content is produced across many departments on campus. “I provide support for the creators of 150 Facebook pages,” Patrick Powers remarks, “but I only maintain one -– the main Webster University Facebook page.”
When selecting content or setting parameters for aggregation, Powers and Simon suggest:
- Invest time to test what types of content generate the greatest response from specific audiences on specific platforms, and monitor the analytics available from those sites
- Resist the tendency to blast identical, “lowest common denominator” content out to all of your channels (such as requiring all posts to be 140 characters so that the same content can be posted simultaneously to Twitter, Facebook, and other sites through a third-party platform such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck), but identify intelligent ways to integrate content across platforms (for example, Jason Simon suggests optimizing online video for search and embedding it in your Facebook page as a key source of Facebook content)
ON A BUDGET
Look for existing, open-source, free tools that allow you to aggregate content (such as NC State’s open-source Twitter aggregator, or identify low-maintenance solutions that require little ongoing maintenance after the initial setup (such as custom tabs in Facebook).
The Hub and Spoke Model
It’s especially critical not to overwhelm social media followers with content. Your central channels need to be both highly selective and targeted. Provide tweets, posts, and videos that invite specific interactions with your institution, in support of specific institutional objectives. For example, use these channels to drive visitors to your website to complete specific actions there (such as requesting more information or filling out an application). This is what Alan Webber with the Altimeter Group calls a “hub and spoke” model: the spokes are your Facebook page, your YouTube channel, your Twitter feed, and your other channels, while the hub is your institution’s website.
Then, measure the success of your efforts by tying specific measures to specific strategic goals; “if someone submits an application after arriving via a link on Facebook,” Powers suggests, “that is far more meaningful than knowing that a recent post got 50 Likes.”