As a retired, unsuccessful stand-up comic, I know when a room has gone cold. And, based on my experience, the era of using social media and tech as a punchline during your institutional functions is over.
This is an unprecedented time of competition for most universities with regard to both admissions and alumni engagement. Talented high school students have many options for their undergraduate years and our alumni have an endless pool of nonprofits soliciting them for financial support. So what kind of message does it send when administrators or ambassadors inadvertently expose their own technological shortcomings by using Twitter as the basis for a joke that questions the legitimacy of the social web?
When I first joined the world of higher education a year and a half ago, it was clear such material would generate a contagious chuckle among audience members. Now, I notice the laughter isn’t quite as prevalent as it once was. Teenagers, who are most commonly associated with being early adopters of new technology, are not typically known for fiscal responsibility. However, even their limited financial knowledge tells them they are staring down a possible price tag of more than $150,000 for an undergraduate education. Are they going to invest that money in an institution that laughs at the technology that has enabled entrepreneurs not much older than themselves to become billionaires?
As the majority of the world velcros their hands to a smart phone, the notion that social media is solely a young person’s pastime is complete bunk. As I continue to learn more about Cornell's online alumni communities, I’m finding they are chock full of high-ranking professionals who could single-handedly write a check that would fund a scholarship for half a dozen under graduates. Nearly 70 percent of our newly identified major gift prospects have accounts on LinkedIn, and they are not there because they are looking for a job. Our alumni are intelligent, accomplished and savvy. They don’t create online profiles because they want to keep up with fads. They are online because they know it is vital to their future success.
“Social media power-user” should not be a prerequisite for individuals working in higher education. But as students and alumni continue to use social tools to enhance their educational and professional development, we have to be mindful that there is great danger in being perceived as archaic. Prospective students have too many choices, and alumni are constantly being approached by nimble nonprofits that not only embrace technology but are also redefining the ways in which it can be used for fundraising.
For years, I endured the EKG that is the comedy audience only to see it flat line on several occasions. The influencers in higher education need to make sure this doesn't happen to them. They need to keep an eye on the monitor because once you’re perceived as obsolete, resuscitation is difficult.
In many ways, graduations are the ultimate social event. Thousands of people gather on your campus simultaneously to celebrate the achievements of their friends and family members, happily producing and sharing photos, video and other content.
Here are some tried and tested techniques along with some new ideas for extending the reach of your graduation season in 2013.
Pick a hashtag early and thoroughly cross-promote
This is the most powerful decision you will make—the right hashtag will help collate tweets, images and video that you can use in the lead up and beyond. And with some luck, it may even become a trending topic. Keep it simple (and short)—#UWgrads, #HokieGrad and #VU2012 are good examples. Promote the hashtag well in advance on banners via your student portal, graduations website and ideally, your university homepage. Keep banner designs clear, consistent and uncluttered, allowing people to remember the hashtag more easily.
If you use SMS alerts, why not send a reminder to students on the day of their ceremony? Promote the hashtag shortly before the proceedings via projection screens and also in the printed program. Of course, you should also keep an eye on what students are tweeting and add popular hashtags as required. Creating hashtags at a school or date-specific level is probably not a great idea, however, as it splinters the conversation and may detract from your key messages (such hashtags can also be rather long!)
Leverage what you already have
Central, university-wide social media accounts generally have superior follower numbers whereas graduation-specific ones will tend to be activated for limited periods each year (a social media no-no). Work with your colleagues to schedule posts for the largest accounts used for distributing university news releases and other campus information.
Graduations are perfect social media fodder because of the stories that accompany them. Many institutions encourage their grads to bring signs and wear accessories that tell their individual graduation story. (In Australia, this includes special graduation accessories for indigenous students.)
Feature inspiring and humorous images in your posts and photo albums to generate maximum buzz. Have your photographers take names wherever possible (more tags = greater exposure), but if groups are too large, let your students know where to find the images afterwards and allow them to tag themselves.
If you’re not already using platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr and Tumblr, graduations can provide a great opportunity to start. Search for graduation-related images that people are posting on their personal accounts and share this content where appropriate.
Live stream it
In 2013, this should be a no brainer. Use a free service like Ustream or Livestream and work with your information technology and media teams to test and promote the feed in advance. Most live-streaming sites include their own comments window and you can also add plugins for Facebook and Twitter. Once the ceremonies are complete, create a new folder on your YouTube page, and promote the page widely. This is particularly important if you have celebrity speakers.
Not everyone can persuade Neil Gaiman or Barack Obama to do the honors, but the words of particularly prominent guests will resonate around the world. Try and be the first to get the full recording of big speeches online and then push it to your social networks so that followers can share with their contacts. Wherever possible, encourage interactions with your content—ask people what their favorite part of the guest address was or whether they know someone who walked across the stage.
While staff members from your alumni and advancement teams will be leading the way on graduation day, it’s also important to reach out to others. Many faculty members have powerful virtual networks that you should leverage. Does your university have a weekly, staff e-newsletter? Ensure faculty members know the official hashtag in advance and encourage them to get involved during the ceremonies. It’s also an opportunity to recruit your existing alumni as school ambassadors—let them know the schedule of ceremonies and guest speakers beforehand to encourage timely displays of school pride.
Devise a LinkedIn graduations campaign
This could be the most important call-to-action you make during graduations. LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network and a good way to stay in touch with those who won’t follow your other social media accounts or open their university emails following graduation. Remind graduates to create (or update) their LinkedIn profiles with their new qualifications and invite them to join your official LinkedIn groups. (If active groups exist at discipline level, provide a simple list so graduates can self-select which ones to join.)
Wrap it up
Work quickly to capture and curate content across platforms and then share it with your graduates in one convenient package.
Send an email to all recent grads within a week of their ceremony with links to photo albums, LinkedIn groups, and video content. Remind them of the benefits of staying in touch and joining alumni organizations and include links to your alumni magazine website and social media accounts. And for good measure, plug the official graduations hashtag one more time to see what extra activity you can generate.
You could also use Storify (as Harvard did for its 2012 graduations), but you'd need to promote this to your newest alumni if they're not following you already.
Some other ideas
Which social media strategies have worked for your graduations and which new ones would you like to try in the coming year?
Hannah Ellsworth is the assistant director for advancement communications at Bentley University.
Like most social media professionals, I spend part of my day sifting through news stories, blog posts, twitter chats, webinars and podcasts in a search of the missing ingredient in my social media strategy. It’s easy to find information on ways to better use Facebook analytics, ideas for creative content, and suggestions on how to increase the reach of my tweets, but I feel like Food Network's Guy Fieri as I struggle to find a little-known eatery that holds the key to LinkedIn’s secret sauce.
Excluding the chatter regarding LinkedIn’s recent redesign, I don’t think we talk about LinkedIn enough. In the more than two years that I have managed social media accounts for Bentley University’s alumni, I have found our LinkedIn group to easily be our most popular online community, our plat du jour. The group has become a resource for thousands of alumni. It acts as an alumni directory, a networking venue and is an asset for job-seekers and employers. Quite simply, it’s a great spot for our alumni and current students to connect. While I can attribute the group’s success to a few key factors—the most obvious is that Bentley is a business school—I was at a stand-still when it came to harnessing the power of this group. Sure, I source data for our alumni magazine and give leads, send updated contact information to the information services team and contribute to and monitor our discussion and job boards. But for quite a while, I was simply stumped when it came to taking the next step with this enthusiastic online community.
It took the quiet of the summer months to finally have that “a ha!” moment. When Bentley’s Career Services team was tasked with the challenge of rebuilding our mentor program, they turned to me, and more importantly, LinkedIn, for a seemingly simple solution. Thus began the “Mentor Marketplace,” a subgroup of the Bentley University Alumni group, created for the sole purpose of connecting alumni mentors with current students and fellow alumni looking for career advice. In the subgroup’s first two months, with little-to-no marketing efforts, it gained a following of almost 1,000 community members, far exceeding our expectations. The subgroup has empowered alumni to give back by developing meaningful relationships with students and their peers on a schedule that is convenient to a working professional’s busy life. Building the subgroup has been like finding that tiny café around the corner. It’s a hidden gem, with a loyal following, that serves the best lattes in town.
Just a few weeks ago, I met a young alumna at a Red Sox game. I started to tout my usual spiel, encouraging her to follow us on social media. At the mention of LinkedIn, she cut me off to tell me about her success with the Mentor Marketplace. Through the group, she had already met with another alumna, who is more established in her field, on three occasions. Over coffee, these alumni discussed industry insights, job prospects and career development.
Moral of the story: I may have been looking for a secret ingredient, but sometimes the most basic flavor can give a recipe the right kick. My search for innovation in LinkedIn group management continues, but for now, the creation of a simple subgroup has led me one step closer to perfecting my social media plat du jour.
Keith Hannon is the assistant director for social media at Cornell University.
During the past few months, several peers at other institutions have asked me for my job description. Typically, I just forward the job description my supervisor posted when he was hiring for my position, but lately I have been thinking about how hard it is to determine whether or not someone would make a good social media or community manager. There aren’t too many people out there with a bachelor’s in social media, so determining who is worthy of owning the keys to your institution's social media castle can be a challenge.
While living and working in Hollywood for seven years, I met many talented people whose jobs couldn't be further from their career aspirations. I'll shoot straight with you—I was one of those people. With a degree in video production and ambitions to write and perform comedy, I spent my days working as a production assistant for Nickelodeon. If you're not familiar with the entertainment industry, production assistant is short for "shut up, do what you're told, and feel lucky we're paying you." The skills I had developed in college grew dustier with each passing year. Just when I thought my life would be devoted to meeting the demands of 10-year-old divas, something interesting happened.
Facebook and Myspace were just beginning to fight it out for online social supremecy, Youtube was starting to heat up and most relevant to me, social gaming was creating online communities at an unprecedented rate. Anxious for a change of scenery, I decided to roll the dice on a new gig with an online game publisher looking for someone with sports journalism experience. I would be the new community manager of its sports-themed virtual world. In college, I was the voice of the Ithaca college football team for four years, a sports anchor for the school’s TV station and an intern at the "Best Damn Sports Show Period." I was excited to be back in a sports-centric industry. My only experience with virtual worlds was the five minutes I had spent in Second Life before a guy approached me and asked if I knew where he could get a gun. I was hoping this position would be a little more wholesome.
What I thought would be a sports writing job turned out to be much more. Learning the online community management business opened my mind to a whole new world of entertainment possibilities. All of a sudden, that dusty communications degree was alive and well as I began crafting content to engage more than 300K monthly uniques! Fast forward a couple of years and I'm staring down the barrel of parenthood. Instantly the City of Angels becomes undesirable. Luckily for me, Cornell's alumni affairs office was looking for a community manager and was willing to take a chance on a Hollywood drop-out.
Most community managers agree that each social network requires its own unique touch. Spreading one piece of content across all of your networks is a sure way to scare off your followers. While the content should be different, the goal is usually the same—to tell a compelling story. Whether recapping an event, highlighting an alumnus in the news, spreading a campus press release, gamifying a piece of nostalgia or producing a video, community managers are storytellers. The specific platform dictates HOW we tell the story and that's the real challenge.
Certainly enthusiasm and familiarity with the tech sector and with social media are important, but I'm of the opinion that it's crucial to find someone who can tell a story both in 140 characters and in a 1:40 video. In alumni affairs and development, we frequently talk about how we have to compete for donors with other nonprofits. In social media, we're not comepting directly for an alum's wallet, but we are competing for their attention—which is a much more daunting proposition. With an endless number of distractions on social media platforms, mobile devices and the web, it's imperative that we craft an engaging story to draw them in. To be successful, you need someone who knows how to not only communicate but also entertain.
Am I a tad biased? Probably, but I think you have to consider what we're after. We want Facebook posts that generate comments and likes. We want tweets that are catchy enough to be clicked on and retweeted. We want videos that strike a chord in the hearts of our constituencies and that have the potential to go viral. The frontier of alumni events is clearly livestream and that requires someone who is both video production-savvy and story-minded.
Social media is a serious business but there are skeptics out there who fail to understand how important these channels of communication are to institutions. If social media is going to be taken seriously in higher education, we need people who can produce compelling content on a regular basis.
If you're looking for a community manager, don't look for someone with a lot of social media experience, because you could be looking for a long time. Instead, look for someone who has the production training, creativity and personality that enables them to convey the story that is unique to your institution.
Joel Pattison is associate director for creative services at William & Mary.
Social media and mobile—both are popular topics for anyone involved in web communications. While it's easy to find opinions on both subjects, there seems to be less commentary about their intersection and overlap. Social media and mobile are closely related, but it takes guidance and planning to make them work together in harmony. How do you engage using social media on the mobile platform? I'll give you some insights from our efforts at William & Mary.
Some social media, like Foursquare, are inherently tied to mobile devices. William & Mary embraced Foursquare from an early date—the college opened an account in September 2010. To facilitate interaction with our Foursquare community, we created and consolidated check-ins for campus venues and added photographs to our most popular check-in spots. We worked with the campus bookstore, computer store and coffee shops to offer specials and discounts to anyone who checked in using Foursquare. And with the cooperation of undergraduate admission, we borrowed interesting facts from our campus tour for prospective students and placed tips in the relevant buildings. Foursquare is just one piece in the rapidly expanding geo-location space—Michael Stoner recently blogged about the use of SCNVGR for admission events.
But what about social media platforms that aren't directly tied to mobile devices? At William & Mary, we pursued several strategies for promoting social media interaction with mobile users. Our most successful method was promoting campus-wide events—and associated hash tags, photographs and Facebook commentary—through a button on our mobile website. During homecoming this year, we placed a special event button on our mobile site for the two weeks surrounding homecoming weekend. The button served as a mobile aggregator for tweets, pictures, Facebook posts, videos and blog entries related to homecoming. We also provided buttons on our mobile site for commencement and orientation. We know from observation and analytics that these social media event buttons are some of the most popular content on our mobile site, despite being available only for short periods of time.
Cross promotion between social media and mobile works both ways—social media channels can also be used to build momentum for mobile websites and mobile applications. In early 2011, William & Mary released a game that allowed students and alumni to dress up the school mascot in different outfits. Users could save their creations and post them to Facebook, thus generating social media buzz around the newly released app.
Social media and mobile devices should work hand-in-hand, but it doesn't always happen automatically. With a mix of careful planning and experimentation, you can leverage mobile devices to expand your social media footprint.
Ma'ayan Plaut is the social media coordinator at Oberlin College.
Within the past month, I have transitioned into my new position as social media coordinator. With a year's worth of hands-on social media experience under my belt, plus ever-important audience observation, I've been a part of several conversations in the past few weeks about best practices and using social media around campus. In some cases, I was a consultant and brainstormer, in others, a mediator for conversations. But overall, I was a happy sponge: absorbing as much information to learn what is working and what we can improve around campus.
As a campus, we have been subscribing to the megaphone theory of social media: We use most of our platforms as the soapbox we stand upon to broadcast our messages. The next step, for many of our offices and departments, is engagement toward online conversation.
Using what we have
Bonner Center for Service and Learning. An incredibly dedicated summer intern set the Bonner Center up with a dream combination of social media platforms, way ahead of the current social media curve. The accompanying guide to new media strategy did an excellent job in delivering a comprehensive crash course on the different platforms. Slowly but surely, the Bonner Center has been embracing social media. After several individual and team meetings, the center will be regularly updating its Tumblr with photographs, videos and profiles of different community service sites and its Facebook page with service opportunities in Oberlin and Lorain County.
Allen Memorial Art Museum. A past intern at the museum set up a Tumblr blog and Facebook page two years ago and began populating with event updates, podcasts and collection features, making the museum one of the media-savviest places on campus at the time. The Allen has been undergoing renovations for the past year and a half, and its online presence has been an incredible asset while the museum was closed: video updates of the renovations, podcasts by docents and professors on pieces from the collection and photos from the increased outreach efforts were posted several times a month.
With only weeks before the museum reopens, there are sneak previews of the installations going up and of the new sustainable features in the renovated galleries. There will be a soft opening during orientation, and the grand opening the first day of classes. In gearing up for the big day, the museum is planning for a huge social media kickoff the week before everyone arrives back on campus.
Timing: How do we get things out there?
The Conservatory of Music. Conservatory communications, a subset of the office of communications in charge of the Conservatory of Music's internal and external communications, is new to the social media sphere with fledging Facebook and Twitter presences. Together, we created a schedule to keep the conservatory's online presence constantly updated with new and compelling media and worked on ways to make each entry engaging with more user contributions. Brainstorming with some student workers and the director and assistant director of communications led to strategizing special features for its Facebook page, including a weekend concert schedule and related polls, discussion questions and photo features.
Day of Service. An enormous service kickoff event for incoming first years, the Day of Service usually manages to enroll more than half of our incoming class in a day of civic engagement and community service in Oberlin and around Lorain County. After a few hiccups, the coordinator managed to effectively recruit students via our Oberlin 2015 Facebook group, and to date, we have enrolled more than 400 students to lend a hand at my favorite orientation activity. Additionally, this year's coordinator had set up a wiki to collect yearly contact information, service site progress and post-service reflection, to better explain the goals and products of service in the community from year to year.
Taking the next step
College Lanes. Our campus bowling alley, College Lanes, began leaping and bounding through the social media world midway through the summer. I responded to one of its tweets regarding its location on Foursquare, and promptly ended up setting up a meeting with the assistant manager. In addition to daily updates to its Twitter and Facebook accounts, College Lanes has added daily blogging to its regime, with topics ranging from visual content to updates as the bowling team goes to tournaments. It is planning on recruiting student lane attendants to post updates from behind the desk and on the lanes once the school year begins.
Summer has a good time for me to catch up with social media efforts and progress around campus at a time that people have to meet, talk, discuss and strategize for the upcoming academic year, and our returning students, faculty and staff will be pleasantly surprised.
Matthew Herek currently serves as the associate director of young alumni engagement in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.
Over the past year, I have sat in many meetings as my colleagues and I try to find the right places to be in social media. Then we spend time trying to figure out the right way to utilize virtual embassies on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Sometimes we end up right on the money, other times we miss the mark.
There is a certain amount of soothsaying that goes into a social media strategy. Predicting the behaviors and reactions of the alumni who interact with us in these forums is often based on a best guess rather than hard data (now that there is more surveying being done on social media behavior, we hope to become more fully grounded in fact rather than cheery optimism).
Rather than continue to peer into my crystal ball, I thought it might be interesting to ask for the perspective of two Northwestern alumni who work with social media daily.
Now, the thing you all hoped to learn about from this post….what do alumni want?
1. What are your expectations of us in social media? What sites should we be on? How should we be using them?
Rob: I think sharing information on the university and what alums are doing is key on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Google+ could be a viable option, too, depending on the brand roll-out (Q3 for brands). YouTube interviews could be cool content.
Noah: Safeguard the university's brand on all platforms. If a new network launches, I expect NU to survey it, see if people can use it to discuss Northwestern and make sure to stake a claim with an official Northwestern account. For example, Northwestern may not be active on Quora, but I would like NU to register and have an official account.
Stay in touch with distance. I want my school to keep me updated, but I do not expect to have a daily relationship with my school. I am probably in the minority on this, but I prefer to get two to three messages a week at most. I am more likely to take the time to read them and engage when there is less content. As a student, I would expect a daily engagement.
Be honest and personable. I want to feel like I am speaking with a person, not a PR feed for NU or a development associate. Hit me up for money, but do so in a way that is respectful of our overall relationship.
I think NU should experiment with all social media sites so they can see how students/alums use them. Should Willie the Wildcat have a Tumblr? Give it a shot during football season. Should Northwestern be active on Instagram and share pictures of the campus during the school year? Try it out. I am a fan of letting your alumni market determine where you should invest resources. There is an expectation to be active on FB/Twitter, so you should meet those. But I think the real success will come in targeted experiments and campaigns.
2. What’s something Northwestern has done in social that really appealed to you?
Rob: I really like something as simple as seeing re-tweets from Northwestern on what alums or the university are doing in my news feed (keep up the good work!). It definitely makes me feel closer to what I experienced and what is going on at Northwestern.
Noah: I really like the NU daily news (via paper.li) with featured alums as the source for news. That is a great way to use a service that I usually find annoying. It actually turned me onto the NU Alums twitter account.
3. What kind of behaviors in social media do you see as turn offs? What makes you want to unfollow, hide and unfriend us?
Rob: I think trying to inject too much personality is a turn-off. I think alums all have positive connotations with the school and social media communications need not be overtly positive or edgy.
Noah: Too much content. Be respectful of my time. Not listening. Ignoring questions from alums. Common sense stuff really.
4. Name a way that you have used social media in the "real world" that could be applied to a university successfully?
Rob: Hashtag chats with alumni for specific disciplines at set times (tap key social media users to participate), Twitter lists of alumni users in specific cities for networking (potentially host on web, too), conduct a small figure social media donation push and allow for donations to be shared via social media, triggering a small incremental match (i.e.percent of donation or small set dollar figure), alum of the week with possibly a short profile on Facebook or just a username on Twitter.
Speaking with alumni like Rob and Noah has been incredibly helpful to me. First, it’s always a good thing when alumni share their expertise with you. Second, I’m finding more and more alumni are working in roles that are social media specific. As many development operations move slowly but surely towards establishing their own staff persons in social media, the knowledge alumni share can help bridge the knowledge gap between the university conference room and main street.
Matthew Herek currently serves as the assistant director of young alumni in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.
“Join LinkedIn,” is a phrase that many alumni relations professionals have used in the past several years when asked for job hunting advice from constituents. At Northwestern, constantly imploring people to do so seems to have worked. As of today, there are over 20,000 alumni in the “official” Northwestern group. That’s not a bad number when you consider we work from an alumni base of roughly 200,000 people.
And yet, what purpose does the group serve? Is it a place to advertise yourself? The “19th hole” to discuss the events of the day? A marketing tool for events (career and otherwise) around the country? It certainly could be any of these things, but one area where we have found success is using the LinkedIn group as a junction of knowledge bases for mutual enrichment between students and alumni.
For the past three years, the Northwestern Alumni Association has partnered with instructors teaching an experiential and interdisciplinary course called NUvention. The students in the class are exposed to the entire product and business development life cycle in the course of a 12 week class. Towards the end of the class, the students take their products to alumni for refinement of their business models.
This spring, the class has been taught by Todd Warren, a Northwestern Trustee and former Microsoft vice president, and Professor Mike Marasco. The focus this quarter was on web apps. Students from five different schools on campus, representing engineering, journalism, liberal arts, communications and business, have formed eight different teams.
The abbreviated timeframe of the class would make taking these product ideas out to alumni impractical. Instead, as the owner of the LinkedIn group, the Northwestern Alumni Association has created a specific subgroup for the NuVention class. We then invited all of our LinkedIn members and Facebook fans to join us in the subgroup. Approximately 500 alumni joined the group beyond the 500 who had participated in the past.
The discussions between the students and the alumni have been interesting and helpful. It is proving to be a great way for alumni in business to give back to the school by interacting with students. Promotion of this group has caused alumni to move from lurking to engaging with community members. At the same time, the students find out exactly what refinements their products would need before they could consider taking them to market. (In some cases these groups will take their ideas and look for angel investors or venture funding.)
LinkedIn groups can be utilized to a higher level than what most schools are currently doing. Consider taking a step back and using this prime real estate as a spot for engaging students and alumni in unique ways. Is your institution doing anything interesting with LinkedIn?