Six Questions with Ma’ayan Plaut

Ma’ayan Plaut

Ma’ayan Plaut is the social media coordinator for Oberlin College and a co-founder of Why the Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin, a cheeky website launched in October 2011 that invites Oberlin students and alumni to submit the reasons they think the college is great. The often irreverent site is just one example of the ways Plaut has worked to engage the campus community – and prospective students – in a more authentic way.

Now that whythefuckshouldichooseoberlin.com has been around for a while, what trends in traffic, submissions and shares have you seen for the site?

I love analytics and tracking the response to a site from its genesis is something you rarely get to watch firsthand. Since our release in late October 2011, we’ve had almost 40,000 unique visitors (and nearly 18,000 returning visitors) generating over 1.5 million pageviews. The average visitor clicks through 26 reasons upon arriving and spends around five minutes viewing our site — and since there isn’t much there beyond reasons to choose Oberlin, a submission form, and a “why we made this site” subpage, that’s five full minutes of viewers interacting with Oberlin.

The popularity of the site has definitely tapered off in the past month, but we’re still averaging a few dozen visitors every day and two out of three of them are new visitors. It’s nice to know that people are still finding us, but that there’s also a loyal fanbase of folks who visit the site regularly for whatever reason. When people revisit and leave notes on social sites such as Facebook and Tumblr, the sentiment tends to be “I’m missing Oberlin right now, so this site is filling in the gap.” or “Boy, I am so glad I chose this school because these reasons are ringing true for me today.” I find myself on the site at least once a week just to bask in some Oberlin love or to add something that just happened to me that reinforces why I chose this place.

How has your administration reacted to the site? Have there been any consequences — positive or negative — to the site?

Amusingly enough, the main consequences that we’ve experienced is that people are way more likely to curse at us. Every time I’m in a serious discussion about projects — social media or otherwise — that are happening around Oberlin, someone will jokingly toss in, “Well, Ma’ayan and Harris could just make us a f*cking site to tell everyone why we should _____.” This ends up being even more hilarious to us because we didn’t make this site for any reason other than the fact that we’re just two kids who are crazy head-over-heels in love with our alma mater.

We have received emails from prospective students who were amazed that such a site existed and decided to write to us because they didn’t think they should talk about their appreciation for the site in their “Why Oberlin” essay. That said, I did receive an email from one of Oberlin’s admissions counselors saying that one of the essays in their stack of daily reading was devoted entirely to our website, which made Harris and myself cheer a lot. We still getting notes and emails and have face-to-face interactions with people connected in some way to Oberlin telling us that they are so pleased a site like this exists — and that they’re tickled pink that we managed to bring everyone together over something so simple and great.

What lesson do you think higher education should take from the success of whythefuckshouldichooseoberlin.com?

I would say that there are three lessons:

  • Lesson 1: Know your audience and how they communicate. Sometimes you have to speak their language.
  • Lesson 2: Grassroots can be good, and fighting it will only make it stronger.
  • Lesson 3: While you can create a tone for your marketing, authenticity is not something you can manufacture, and sometimes you have to let your guard down to get exactly that.

You wrote a blog post a few months ago about the “Squirrel Brigade” that you started at Oberlin. On April Fools’ Day last year, a significant number of schools (mine included) integrated squirrels into their sites for the day. What do you think the deal is with squirrels and higher ed?

Though I actually have no idea why higher ed loves squirrels so much, I’m willing to hypothesize that much how squirrels can be responsible for the growth of new trees, higher educational institutions can help plant and nurture ideas in their new students’ minds that will help them grow into wise old trees in the future. Also, these lil’ guys are everywhere on college campuses.

My particular interest in squirrels is a bit more roundabout. The first college campus I spent time on was Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., Their campus also had memorable squirrels. Much like Oberlin, they had white squirrels running around the hill. When I got to Oberlin, I didn’t think too much of the white squirrels, but everyone else thought they were spectacular and unique.

As I mentioned in the blog post linked to above, when it comes to white squirrels and Oberlin, I think it’s the fact that while there may be squirrels elsewhere, our white squirrels give you a double take and make you consider all these things that are somewhat indescribable about Oberlin — plus they’re energetic, cute and hungry. I guess they accurately reflect college students’ behavior.

There’s a store in town that capitalized on our campus’ little obsession with squirrels, and I obtained an albino squirrel plushie who has turned into our social media squirrel. His name is Albus and he travels around campus with me (and you can follow his blog or his Facebook page for his recent adventures). Since introducing Albus to the Oberlin community, I’ve found that everyone wants to respond to this huggable little toy in person and online. I’m tapping into the little kid still residing in many of us, the one that knows that hugging something fluffy and trading smiles with someone can turn a day around. I’d call that a win-win.

What do you think the future is for social media in higher ed? Do you think some channels are going to fade away as others pop up or do you see a future with scores of social media channels being maintained by universities? How’s this field going to mature?

I sincerely hope that the future won’t be tied to particular channels. I think we’re still in an unsure footing with social media, in that we feel that to be successful as an institution, we must lay claim in every place because that’s what is expected of us. I don’t think that’s the best way to tackle social media. There is so much out there, so much that colleges and universities haven’t even tried to figure out their role in yet and still new things will continue to pop up and old platforms will be constantly updated. At some point, the number of channels will completely over-saturate our time, energy, and audiences and then what are we going to do?

I think that we are going to manage better when we take a step back from platforms and look at why we’re using social media in the first place. I see my position at Oberlin as a way for me to tell Oberlin’s stories in a different form than traditional broadcast media. I do a fair amount of content creation but, on the whole, my position involves rethinking what we at Oberlin and beyond are sharing to best fit our audiences on whatever platform they choose to connect with us.

My hope is that we begin to embrace channels for what they do best for a particular audience. We should focus less on covering our bases and more on delivering the best possible content on the most ideal platform.

You are stranded on a desert island and your smartphone only has access to one social media channel. Which one would you want and why?

I would probably end up choosing Tumblr. Tumblr would let me share and find a variety of multimedia about desert islands and help me find other people who are interested in or are also stuck on desert islands. I could also maintain several blogs — one dedicated to the things I made while bored on a desert island, one full of rambling thoughts and inner monologues that would hopefully materialize in an escape plan, and one called “Why the f*ck am I on a desert island?” Hopefully by the time the last one hits the big time, someone will rescue me.