As far as social media is concerned, 2008 might as well have been five decades ago, not five years ago. Facebook had 100 million users — today, it boasts more than 10 times as many. Twitter logged 100 million tweets per quarter. (Currently, it sees 400 million per day.) MySpace had not yet died and been resurrected by Justin Timberlake. Instagram didn’t exist, and Vine was only for Tarzan.
It was in this context that Rachel Reuben — then director of web communication and strategic projects at SUNY New Paltz, now associate vice president of marketing communications at Ithaca College — completed an independent research project as part of her MBA coursework looking at the use of social media in higher education for marketing and communication.
“Social media is redefining how we relate to each other as humans and how we as humans relate to the organizations that serve us,” Reuben wrote by way of introduction. “It is about dialog – two way discussions bringing people together to discover and share information.”
While Reuben’s summation of the role of social media holds true, the context in which we pursue it has changed. Back then, Reuben says now, “we had to convince colleagues there was value in social media and that we needed to have a presence.” Back in 2007-2008, a UMass Dartmouth study on the adoption of social media by colleges and universities found that 61 percent of institutions used some form of social media
A 2010-2011 version of the same survey found that, now, 100 percent of institutions are using social media — it is officially ubiquitous. But the challenge today, says Reuben, is “just grappling with which platforms should they spend time on and provide value.”
So, how are we providing value? We’re all using social media, but to what end? And what challenges still lay ahead?
Shiny vs. Strategic
When Reuben delivered the keynote address at HighEdWeb Rochester in 2011, she spoke of a plague afflicting higher ed: “Ooh, Shiny” Syndrome, the pursuit of shiny objects over strategic solutions.
The antidote is a mantra popularized by many in our community, perhaps most vociferously Tim Nekritz of SUNY Oswego: goals before tools. With regard to social media, these two perspectives often butt heads.
“‘Ooh, Shiny’ Syndrome is awesome for getting us excited about exploring, not so great when it comes spending time and money on things we don’t need,” says Ma’ayan Plaut, social media coordinator at Oberlin College. Pinterest in itself may not be a bad thing, but a Pinterest page launched solely because the college next door has one is problematic.
With that in mind, most social media managers in higher ed favor an approach aligning social efforts with top-level goals.
“I think integration of social into your institution’s bigger goals is still the most elusive and rewarding [approach],” says John Lucas, director of news, media relations and new media at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He cites University of Florida’s #UF17 campaign and Oberlin College’s G+ hangouts with new students as successful examples of “finding a way to energize something familiar and make it shine anew.” He says UW-Madison tries to do this with the annual Share the Wonderful fundraising campaign.
“I think if your university has a strategic plan, your social media should creatively reflect that,” says Becca Ramspott, public information specialist at Frostburg State University. Case in point: Frostburg State’s Pinterest page has a board called “School Me,” featuring tips on studying and time management. This relates directly to an institutional priority on showcasing the school’s academic strength. Pinterest: redeemed.
Busting the Social Silo
But how can our social channels serve strategic purposes if they don’t have a seat at the planning table? At some institutions, social media is perceived as an upstart, managed distinct from integrated communications efforts.
“There was a time that entire campaigns could start and finish without anyone considering how social media might enhance them or play a role,” says Alaina Wiens, social media specialist at the University of Michigan-Flint. “The more I work with web and learn about content strategy, the more I think that we are limiting ourselves by separating social media from other work. Isn’t it all one conversation?”
Ramspott believes that one of the obstacles to integrating social media more deeply into our communications efforts — particularly crisis communications, enrollment strategies, and reputation management — could be fear of the new.
“With all the changes higher ed is experiencing, a lot of people are stubbornly territorial about what they’ve always done, and stressed out by all the changes happening,” she says. “We’ve got to get past that.”
For Lucas, effective integration of social media starts with empowering and educating campus communicators.
“I’ve worked really hard to make social a part of everything we do, thinking of new ways to ‘socialize’ tired coverage,” he says. “I love the community of social managers we’ve developed here and am encouraging them to do the same. There’s lots of room to do better, and you have to encourage and train this up and down.”
Ashley Hennigan, assistant director of social media strategy for the Cornell University Alumni Association, agrees that social media should be incorporated into overall communications workflow. But she also sees value in how social media has come of age in a silo.
“Social media and other innovative projects can provide incredible learning opportunities when they are placed outside of the typical institutional structure,” she says. “It’s here where we’ve learned to have a more ‘human voice,’ take risks, and learn from our smaller scale successes and failures.”
Social Media: Role or Responsibility?
Plaut calls the lack of integration “a constant struggle for someone who does this full time.” She is one of many hired as a dedicated resource to run channels and manage a growing community. But does this approach to staffing only reinforce the segregation of social from broader communications efforts?
If only because of the rapid pace of innovation within the social sphere, says Plaut, a dedicated position is warranted. “There is a definite need for an overall managerial kind of person to keep track of everything that’s going on, but social should be a part of everyone’s thinking.”
Meg Bernier, assistant director of editorial services and social media at St. Lawrence University, echoes this, noting that stories come from all corners of the institution.
“We all hear about stories and events through the work we do and we’re not always sharing those with the right people,” she says. “I think having a central person handling social media at a school my size makes sense with the understanding that the content ideas/responsibilities need to be shared.”
To Lucas’ point about education, Ramspott says that the resources available at Frostburg State — including a campus-wide social media group, online guides, and workshops — empower anyone in a communications role to use and understand social media. In her central role, Ramspott can funnel their content through the more robust top-level channels.
That said, while educating campus communicators can reap reward, it also requires time and patience, which are sometimes in short supply.
“I think some of the roadblocks I face are lack of education and in some instances, lack of the willingness to learn,” says Bernier. “At a small school where one person is handling social media themselves (and most likely other duties as well), it’s tough to educate and execute at the same time.”
Closing the Knowledge Gap
Sometimes, the ones who need to be educated are the ones calling the shots. The knowledge gap between practitioner and decision-maker may be caused in part by a generational gap with regard to how we consume and disseminate information, posits Lucas.
“I’ve seen people literally gasp as they watch me interact with Tweetdeck on my large external monitor in my office,” he says. “It’s on us to keep plugging in to what’s important to the institution and proving how we can make a difference — and then, to measure it. I think this will ease over time as we have a chance to lead as well, and demonstrate more examples of how we made that difference.”
“There needs to be a willingness on the part of senior administrators to listen and learn from someone at my level, which doesn’t always happen,” says Bernier. “You need your superior at the table pushing for you and your case and you also need that person to keep you in touch with the university’s needs.”
Perhaps the answer is to lower the barrier between the two groups. Plaut cites an instance when some of her student bloggers got to attend a special meeting with the Board of Trustees. They addressed concerns about what they write and how they handle comments. She calls it “the most eye-opening conversation I witnessed since beginning this job.”
The Tension Between Control and Humanity
The nervousness exhibited by those trustees reflects an ongoing tension with the need to control the message. The very nature of social media calls for open discourse. But many administrators are gun-shy about letting go, for fear of backlash.
However, amazing things can happen when we empower our community to tell their part of our story. Just look at the day-in-the-life-of projects undertaken by University of Michigan-Flint and UW-Madison. User-generated content has a unique and compelling power.
“While beautifully lit photos and polished videos are still valuable to many select communications, we need to be comfortable with letting our constituents be our storytellers,” says Ramspott. “When we let our constituents add their voices to how we tell our story, they feel personally and emotionally invested in what’s going on at the institution.”
That idea of emotional investment gets at another challenge that higher ed social media managers grapple with: how to act like a human.
“Two or three years ago, it was really novel to be the university that acted human and engaged regularly with its audiences,” says Lucas. “If that’s not the norm today, it should be the norm, and I think it’s really what students expect from us in this day and age.”
It takes effort to know how to execute that. “I routinely ask my student social media team: If our school’s account was a person, what are the characteristics you’d need that person to have? What characteristics would you want them to have?” says Bernier. “I keep that list on a bulletin board near my desk and I look at it when debating how to respond to fans and followers.”
But Wiens says that while institutions are coming around to the need to be present and responsive via social media, she’s not sure that is resulting in real conversations.
“That whole ‘human’ thing requires honesty, taking risks, and trusting the people who are managing social channels. Not all institutions are comfortable with that.”
And when we have these conversations, what’s next? Lucas wonders if we are we missing out on opportunities to internally track and share information about our community. It could be seen as creepy, but it could also be seen as effective lifecycle management.
“All of these touches along a person’s continuum with the institution add up to something meaningful,” Lucas explains. “We won’t ever know how meaningful if we don’t do a better job tracking it.”
The great thing about higher ed is that it is fueled by an infinitely renewable resource: people. We will never lack for stories to tell. By that same token, however, we will never lack for problems to solve. Social media continues to serve as an excellent means to accomplish both.
There’s a lot of work left to do and much left to learn. But in the end, of course, we’re all in this together.
“We’ll innovate kicking and screaming,” says Plaut, “because all of us are going to have to keep up with the pack.”