These days, only the most timid of TOSMESTs (Traditional Old-School Marketing Executive Suit Types)* would object to an institution of higher education’s presence on what we might think of as the “Big 3” of social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
But it’s possible that there are smaller and less well-known sites — social networks targeted to certain niches of the population — that might also serve your institution’s goals. Based on my institution’s experience with one such site, Goodreads, here are several questions you should ask yourself before pursuing a presence on a niche network.
Does it help you meet strategic goals?
This question is, of course, the key question for any communications project. At the University of Chicago Law School, one of our key goals is to raise the public profile of our faculty members. While they are well-known within the legal academic community, most of our professors are not focused on promoting themselves to outside audiences. We see Goodreads — which bills itself as as a social network for people who love to read — as the perfect spot to promote our faculty’s more accessible works (their books, as opposed to law review articles) to the general public.
We also see Goodreads as a place where we can work towards the ever-present goal of keeping our alumni engaged with the intellectual community of the Law School long after they’ve left campus (and, not incidentally, more likely to give back to the School). So far, we’ve integrated Goodreads into our annual tradition of providing our alumni with faculty book recommendations and held a discussion group centered around a faculty member’s newly-released book. In the future, we hope to use Goodreads to coordinate both virtual and in-person alumni book clubs. All of these activities, we believe, will help us meet the goals mentioned above.
Does it align with your brand?
The nature of the niche network means that not every site will be appropriate for every school. At Chicago, long known as one of the Great Books schools, our brand focuses on our love of ideas — their creation, their debate, and their application to real-world problems. Our students generally wear their nerdery with pride, and a social network focused on books is really right in Chicago’s wheelhouse. This might not be the case for your school; if your school is focused on music, it may be that MySpace (which, hard as it is to believe, has now become a niche site) would be a better fit. Perhaps your brand places a good deal of importance on a particular religious affiliation, in which case, there may be a niche site devoted to that denomination. Or if your school identifies closely with the city where it’s located, there might be opportunities to participate in networks aimed specifically at local residents.
Can it be adapted to an institutional presence?
The importance of this question can not be understated. A niche network that meets strategic goals and aligns perfectly with your brand might prove useless to you if you have no way of creating an institutional presence. Goodreads does not have any provisions for non-personal entitities like schools to create profiles, but we were able to adapt the standard user profile to our needs (here’s a blog post about how we did this).
Be sure to read site’s Terms of Service carefully to ensure that you understand any rules relating to personal vs. commercial uses of the site (think Facebook’s personal profiles vs. fan pages or public profiles) and that you will not violate them. You don’t want to find yourself in a worst-case scenario in which, after hours of setting up your presence on the site and cultivating relationships with users, the site discovers you’re in violation of its TOS and shuts down your account.
Do you have the time and resources to maintain your presence?
Chances are, your social media staff is already stretched pretty thin, and the last thing you want is for your mainstream social media presence to suffer from neglect due to the attention you’re lavishing on your niche network. For our Goodreads presence, the vast majority of our time investment consisted of setting up our presence — editing our faculty’s author profiles, adding their books to our shelves, etc. — but most of that was done by a work-study student over the summer. While special events like author discussions require more attention, day-to-day maintenance is virtually nil, and nearly all content that we post to the site (blog posts, videos, etc.) is repurposed from elsewhere in our web presence. As a result, we aren’t overburdened by maintaining another social media presence.
How will you measure success?
We all know that the success of our social media efforts can not be measured simply by the number of friends or followers your school has. Before launching your new presence, gain an understanding of what sort of interactions a site will allow you to have with other users, and figure out which ones will be indicators of success for you. For example, we were very happy to see a good number of actual conversations, many among people who were not already “friends” of the Law School, happening around an author Q&A with one of our faculty members. To us, that indicated success in bringing that faculty member’s work to the attention of the general public.
By definition, niche sites will not be nearly as populated as mainstream social networks, so no matter which metrics you adopt, be prepared for slow growth. Remember the exponential growth you saw in your number of Facebook fans after you launched your page?
That won’t happen with a niche site. And that is OK.
So that’s a quick checklist of things to consider before tackling a niche social network. Do you have success (or horror) stories from this frontier? Let’s hear ’em in the comments.
*Hat-tip to Jeff Stevens and Seth Odell for the coinage.