Looking at “Cube Light” is like watching fractured sunlight on the ocean’s horizon, but contained within the geometric perfection of metal lines and angles. This is part of the “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” exhibition on view through Feb. 24, 2013, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
When I describe what the best social media people do, my favorite term, hands down, is curating. Curating speaks not only to the importance of visual storytelling but also to the idea that communicators are responsible for creating meaningful experiences that inspire people to stop, look and interact with them.
The best art exhibitions do this too. Museum curators are successful when people respond intellectually and emotionally to the art, spend time with it and come back and see it again.
Those of us who handle social media at colleges, universities and schools seek to curate content that will convince people to invest in our institutions and form relationships with us in some way. Lately, I’ve been mulling over the dynamic between user-generated content (independently created content that we happen to discover, like students’ YouTube videos) and the content that colleges and universities create themselves, and the best ways to make that user-generated content an asset. I was considering this when I wandered into the Hirshhorn Museum recently and saw Ai Weiwei’s “Cube Light” (2008). Ai, who is from China, is not only is a contemporary art rock star but also someone who is highly fluent in social media. During his ascent as an idea leader in the art world, he has often turned to Twitter and blogs to express his opinions, which have both enthralled and enraged a country where the government carefully controls media and messaging.
Ai’s cube series is inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film October which features a shaking crystal chandelier that suggests a society undergoing major change. Higher education is without a doubt experiencing an earthquake of change, every day. We’re dealing with MOOCs, the need for academic programs that are more relevant to workforce needs and new developments at every angle.
Marketing and branding are also pretty tumultuous territory. Suddenly we have new social media platforms to consider colonizing, mobile apps to develop and people who are frustrated by the job market questioning the value of a college degree. And the carefully prepared, one-way messaging we’ve treasured for decades is no longer as effective. We’re realizing that our students, alumni, parents, donors and friends can be terrific storytellers who can help us get our message out.
So how we do harness the power of these storytellers while also ensuring our marketing and branding messages are still getting through to the masses? You can follow some basic steps to make this happen, including asking interesting questions on Twitter and retweeting people’s answers with commentary, and creating Spotify playlists of alumni’s favorite songs from their college days to promote homecoming.
Here are two examples from colleagues I know through the Mid-Atlantic Higher Ed Social Network.
At Frostburg State, we’ve organized YouTube contests to net cool videos. We also take screenshots of people’s tweets and pop them up on our Facebook Page and crowdsource Instagram imagery each week. We launched our Pinterest account with the goal of empowering our recent graduates to create their own stories, through resources like articles on job-hunting advice and volunteering.
None of this amounts to an exact science, and you’re not always going to get the best content. But those moments when you do get something amazing, and your constituents notice you shared their stories on social media and recognized them ... those moments build relationships. Like sunlight on broken water, these stories can never be perfectly controlled or directed, but they can inspire you with their brilliance, if you organize them in an interesting way and invite others to look.
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.
The Twitter and Facebook lineup on my campus includes statues and a rodent. This is why I love higher ed.
About a year ago, we were brainstorming about ways to expand the use of Twitter at William & Mary. We expected to land on a student Twitterforce that would be comparable to the legion of students who write for W&M Blogs. When we audience tested this idea, it was clear that Twitter use among students was, at the time, pretty low. And, the students in the focus groups seemed skeptical about Twitter as a way to tune into campus life. Frankly, these students talked a lot about Facebook and seemed confused about Twitter.
When we described a second idea, using personas to comment on the W&M experience, we knew we were onto something. The students in the focus group were enthusiastic about the idea of two personas commenting on the life and times of the William & Mary campus. Cue @lordbot and @wmsquirrel.
My creative team spent some time devising personalities and context for these two new personas and we established Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for both.
@wmsquirrel (Twitter | Facebook) is a campus resident, nut aficionado, territorialist, specie supremacist, quip enthusiast, and one helluva guy. He has the run of the campus and acts like he owns the place.
@lordbot (Twitter | Facebook) is a statuesque, 'greatly loved,' former Governor’s Palace resident, and occasionally annoyed by squirrels. His stationary life includes the oldest part of William & Mary's 318-year-old campus and a view out toward Colonial Williamsburg.
We launched @lordbot and @wmsquirrel using a grassroots approach. We didn't reveal that W&M Creative Services was behind them and, for a while, the other top-level William & Mary channels didn't follow the two personas. We had an enormous amount of fun watching the numbers inch up.
We waited six months to reveal that W&M Creative Services was behind the personas. I gave the scoop to a student reporter who came to talk to me about what our office does for a piece she was writing for The Flat Hat.
So, less than a year later, how's it going with these two? @wmsquirrel is popular, with nearly 500 Twitter followers and well over 1,000 Facebook likes. @lordbot has a dedicated, but much smaller following: nearly 250 on Twitter and about 335 on Facebook.
Much of what I know about social media was reinforced by the experience of developing and using these personas. Here's what I mean:
Embrace what's different about social media. Realize it's communication and that many of the same rules apply.
Susan Evans is the director of creative services for the senior strategic communication team at the College of William & Mary.
Content is king. And if you are just getting started with a social media channel, it can be daunting to figure out what to say. Even those of us who have been doing this for a while experience an occasional dry spell or suffer through good, old-fashioned writer’s block. Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned pro, coming up with good stuff to use on your institution’s social media channels is sometimes challenging. The point of this post is to present a few suggestions.
When all else fails, talk about the weather. Not kidding here, when we reference the weather in Williamsburg, responses are guaranteed.