#EpicFail: A Tale of Snow and Social Media

Illustration by Jeff Stevens

Illustration by Jeff Stevens

Social media is a living, breathing organism. It grows. It evolves. It embeds itself deeper into our culture every day. And as society at large gets more familiar with and immersed into ways of connecting socially, we have to keep up.

When I attended the 2010 eduWeb conference, I was brand-new to the world of Higher Education Web (or as I now affectionately think of it, #heweb). At the University of Michigan-Flint, we had a “pretty active” Facebook page and had created a Twitter account, but hadn’t yet built a robust strategy for either. Social media wasn’t part of our communication plan. In fact, I had just been appointed the first-ever employee solely dedicated to social media at UM-Flint.

I learned at eduWeb that we were doing some things really well. I also learned that we were missing opportunities. Would you believe that before eduWeb, I had no idea how Twitter might be part of a social communication plan? To think, I walked into my first conference session to find a room full of people glued to Tweetdeck on laptops and immediately surmised that higher education web professionals were rude. Oh, how far I’ve come.

After the conference, I worked with my department to incorporate all of the valuable lessons I’d learned. We worked tirelessly to communicate, engage, connect, find a voice, and enforce brand, all while being strategic and purposeful. I am quite proud of the strides we’ve made and community we’ve built.

If there’s one danger in the realm of social media, though (if only there were just one!) it’s becoming comfortable and resting on laurels. That living, breathing social media beast needs constant attention, and so do its users.

At UM-Flint, we lived this reality recently when classes weren’t canceled after a winter storm. A student on Twitter called it an “#epicfail.” This may not seem noteworthy. Students often hope for a snow day and are disappointed when they don’t get one. However, student commentary, both on Twitter and Facebook, got our attention in University Relations.

#WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong?

On Sunday night, December 12, students began posting on the UM-Flint Facebook page, asking if classes would be cancelled the next day. Decisions about cancellation are rarely made on a night before. In an attempt to provide information in the meantime, this status update was posted on the page:

“University administrators are monitoring the ongoing winter storm this evening. A determination regarding any cancellations will not be made until tomorrow morning. At this time, the winter storm warning for Genesee County is set to expire at 11pm. Between the hours of 3:30am and 5am, university administrators will re-evaluate the weather conditions as well as road conditions and make a decision at that time…”

Communication via Twitter linked to this update, and I responded to questions through UM-Flint’s Twitter account late into the evening. That night, we gained 11 new followers.

#EpicFail

On Monday morning, students began checking the UM-Flint Facebook page for a cancellation notice. The university hadn’t closed. No note of this had been made on Facebook or Twitter. It’s not standard practice to announce openings, as it is the university’s regular status.

The activity on Facebook was remarkably high. Nearly 40 wall posts received a total of 195 comments and 151 “likes.” (As a point of perspective, a typical day will see between zero and 10 user comments.) Many of these users were students upset there had not been a closure, but a large number were surprised to find no announcement that the university was open.

We huddled. Did we somehow misstep with regard to our social communication? Had we led students to believe that we would give notification of our open/closed status in either case? Decisions about holding classes in cases of bad weather will never be uniformly well-received. It is our responsibility, however, to communicate these decisions in the best way possible. And as we learn more about the power of social media, isn’t incumbent upon us to use it in ways that our audiences will benefit from?

To that end, we made a decision. We blogged about what had happened and the events of the day. Then we shared the blog post on Facebook. From then on, notification of university status whether open or closed would be posted to our social networks and sent via campus email.

If the day had begun as an #epicfail, we felt nearer to a #win when the student who’d tweeted that morning, “Driving to #UMFLINT+ Icy Streets= #epicfail” later followed up with, “Just got finished reading the #umflint blog. That is the type of timely and effective response that we have grown accustomed to as students.”

#LessonLearned

We already knew establishing a social media presence implied two-way communication. Regardless of UM-Flint’s standard notification policy, students had been getting timely updates and responses about closing procedure on the night of December 12. The university’s Facebook status indicated that a decision would be made by 5a.m. that Monday, and it was likely expected that a similar level of communication would continue.

The “social” aspect of social media requires that there be a back-and-forth. We can’t simply provide users with information we want them to have. We have a responsibility to provide them with the information they want and need. This simple realization of something we thought we already knew was incredibly valuable. We are now committed to continuous communication — and to the constant evaluation of our communication plan.

#TeamOptimist

Ever the optimist, I was personally heartened to see so many of UM-Flint’s students looking for information on Facebook and Twitter the day of the winter storm, and communicating directly with the university through these channels. I truly believe that a year ago, we wouldn’t have seen so much activity. Unmet expectations imply that expectations exist.
We have vowed to do better. And we will. After all, social media is an ever-changing living thing. Without “#epicfails” like these, how can we hope to evolve along with it?

  • Nice story, Alaina! I’m really impressed that you guys blogged about the administration’s decision-making process like that.

    This winter *did* seem to be a tipping point with the expectations of notifications on snow days. We ended up sending an unprecedented “we are going to be open” email the night *before* a storm, which had the potential for #epicfail written all over it, and led to the creation of a “Bring Your Shovel to School Day” event on Facebook.

    • Lori, I just saw your comment! Sorry for my delay. I’m glad to hear that we’re not the only ones telling students when we’re open. It feels weird, doesn’t it?

      The blog, I thought, helped answer a lot of the questions that might be out there. My hope is that students and the campus community in general will see our social media outlets as something we all have a part in. I wanted everyone to know that we were listening and trying to be thoughtful.

    • PS. Thanks for helping me with my hashtag headers. :)

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