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Letting Go

For marketers hoping to promote their schools via social media, the first lesson involves taking their hands off the controls.

These days, branding is everything. Marketers go all out to position their product, control its image, and spin the message. For marketers at the nation's colleges and universities, the stakes are especially high. After all, they are entrusted with the image of institutions that have, in some cases, spent centuries building up their brand equity--images that ultimately affect everything from alumni donations to the quality and quantity of applying students. It's enough to make any marketer uptight.

It's not surprising, then, that social media have thrown many college marketers for a complete loop. As many experienced professionals are discovering, the usual strategies simply don't work.

Traditionally, marketing has been a one-way conversation: Marketers carefully package the image of their institutions for consumption by students, parents, alumni, and others. With social media, however, this unidirectional flow of information is almost unnatural. On sites such as WordPress, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, users expect to give as well as receive. They're looking for a conversation, not a lecture.

This is probably truer for higher education than it is for corporations. In most people's eyes, colleges and universities are not businesses, but communities. Not surprisingly, their members--and those thinking of becoming members--want to take part.

Unfortunately, too many schools still approach social media with a traditional marketing mindset, trying to push information at users while rigidly controlling every facet of the brand message. It's not working.

In fact, using old-school marketing strategies in social media may do more damage to a school's brand than good. Christopher Rice, associate director for teaching and technology in the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at the University of Kentucky, contends that too many schools are treating social media like broadcast media, transforming them into glorified RSS feeds and marring them with scheduled tweets.

"Public relations departments have sucked the life out of social media," he laments, adding that such an approach is likely to backfire. Recent statistics may bear him out. A 2011 study performed by Applum, developer of EdgeRank Checker (a tool that tracks a Facebook page's performance), found that auto-posting to Facebook decreased "likes" and comments by an average of 70 percent.

Not only do traditional marketing strategies under perform in social media, but they also overlook what makes social media such a powerful tool in the first place. Never before, for example, has it been easier to find out what customers want or think. "Social media can serve many purposes, but the primary one is to listen and learn about audiences," explains Kevin Tynan, executive director for marketing and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Listening is the basis of effective marketing. Social media are a gift that can help educational institutions remain relevant. Our job is to use them wisely."

Used correctly, social media can also become a perpetual marketing machine. Even after the PR department has quit for the day, a school's fans will keep up the work. "People advocate for their schools on their personal networks at all hours, every day," notes Kam Stocks, senior new media specialist for web communications at the University of Oklahoma, which has racked up 235,000 Facebook fans.

And when you consider that the average Facebook user has 130 friends who might also be exposed to a school's message, typical print metrics like pass-on readership look rather anemic in comparison. "Facebook has over 800 million active users; Twitter has 100 million," says Stocks. "The potential to reach people quickly and easily is there."

Roadmap for Success
But allowing a school's supporters to promote an institution 24/7 requires some compromise: The marketing department no longer has complete control over the message--a reality that some members of the old guard may find hard to accept. "This new culture doesn't jibe with the existing culture," explains Rice, who believes that change needs to come from the top. "If you have an executive team that gets it, they are okay with losing control."

But enlightened leadership is by no means a given. "Most administrators are of a different generation from students," notes UIC's Tynan. "For them, social media is like marketing in a foreign language. But they need to get comfortable not being able to control the message."

Social Media Dos

  1. Generate interactive content.
  2. Listen to and learn about your audience.
  3. Keep it casual.
  4. Have a plan.
  5. Measure success.
  6. Be agile--try new things, adapt to change.
  7. Address serious problems; let the small stuff go.
  8. Own your mistakes.
  9. Educate those around you, and then trust them.

Social Media Don'ts

  1. Broadcast obvious ads.
  2. Ignore your audience.
  3. Assume colleagues know how to use social media.
  4. Omit vital campus communicators from key decisions.
  5. Try to control the message.
  6. Take on an overly professional persona.
  7. Focus solely on numbers and rankings.
  8. Think you know what's coming next.

Although marketers definitely relinquish some control when they embrace social media, in no way are they abandoning their institution's brand identity. As part of an overall marketing strategy, brand identity is as important as ever. Within the social media world, however, the rigidity of the message needs to be somewhat relaxed. "The approach needs to be balanced," explains Rice.

To achieve that balance, web communications teams at many schools, including OU and Louisiana State University, are joining forces with their PR and marketing departments to bring a consistent brand message to a diverse audience--without the formality often associated with a traditional marketing campaign.

"We have quite of bit of freedom to explore--to try new things," says Stocks of OU's web communications team. "It's a unique situation, for sure."

At OU's Norman campus, for example, when Public Affairs wants to push information to users on social media sites, web communications handles it for them as the top priority. For everything else involving social media, though, Public Affairs trust Stocks and his team to manage OU's brand identity themselves. This approach gives Stocks the freedom to bridge the gap that he sees between broader university messaging and the needs of specific departments.

By catering to the needs of individual departments, Stocks and his team are showing that it's possible to partly decentralize control of the messaging without eroding a brand's power.

This idea of decentralization lies at the heart of LSU's social media approach, too, with people and budgets divvied up among individual departments.

"There's more manpower in the smaller, specific colleges and programs to put out their own news," explains Trace Purvis, LSU's new media coordinator. He acknowledges that this approach does lead to mistakes, but accepts that learning is just part of the process. "Time and knowledge help us all make better communications decisions," he says.           

To ensure that LSU's departments stay on message, as well as to share what they have learned, a group of 200 campus communicators--including staff from PR, ITS, technology infrastructure, and administration--meet each month to talk about new initiatives and techniques.

Harvard University (MA) also follows a quasi-decentralized approach, says Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer of Public Affairs & Communications and Alumni Affairs & Development. The 375-year-old university has established a coordinated network of departments that have leeway to tailor their own news. To assist them and keep them on message, Public Affairs makes the university's priorities known and publishes best practices for various social media tools. The system is working well. To date, Harvard ranks at the top of the Facebook rankings for higher ed, according to Klout, a site that measures the influence wielded by organizations on social networks.

Engaging the Audience
The best organizational structure in the world is useless, however, if your message falls flat. Simply put, don't try to squeeze your polished marketing campaign through the pipes of social media. It will get stuck. "It's all about that personal connection," Purvis believes. "A lot of folks are such heavy Facebook users that they forget they're conversing with a university. It's as if we're their friend. You leverage that: You respond in kind, forming messages in an informal, conversational way. People are much more comfortable with that."

Lending credence to Purvis' theory is an initiative underway at Calvin College (MI) that draws on students to act as goodwill ambassadors for the school on social networks. It's an approach that made a big impression on Val Vantland, a senior at Grand Rapids Christian High (MI) who is considering the local school. Current students reached out to her via e-mail and invited her to join their Facebook page, which she did. 

"From a marketing strategy standpoint, it works," Vantland says. "It welcomes you into the school even though you haven't made a decision yet. I can ask questions about anything. It makes me feel as if I'm getting to know them."

UIC boasts no fewer than six student bloggers working on its behalf. "Social media strategies should embrace student voices and use their authenticity as a springboard for communicating the brand," explains Tynan.

Damage Control
Make no mistake, there are risks involved with loosening the reins of communications. Even within the relaxed world of social media, sometimes a follower will go too far or violate school policies. While an offensive post can be harmful, how an institution reacts is often what will be remembered long after the initial infraction is forgotten. "Usually, doing nothing is the best course of action because you don't want to lend weight to negative or unwanted attention," Stocks offers. "But that's always a tough decision to make."

All agree that "troll"--or inflammatory--behavior has to be monitored closely and taken care of quickly. Purvis tackles offenses like these directly in the threads where they occur, asking the posters involved to stop. He links to the posting policy and requests that they follow it or risk losing comment privileges, sometimes permanently.

Monitoring conversations online can be a daunting and time-consuming process. Since colleges and universities are communities, however, other users will often come to the rescue, notifying administrators of problem posts. "It's because our followers feel that connection that they jump in and help," notes Purvis. Such is often the case during football season, which generates lots of banter--and lots of work.

Troll behavior aside, schools should be very careful before they try to police the online conversation. "Censorship is the easiest way to kill a community," says Stocks. "People may have positive or negative feelings toward your school at any given time. Their inclinations lead to interactions. These interactions, positive and negative, are invaluable because they ultimately help improve your brand and the marketing strategy behind it."

As an example, Stocks recalls when OU launched a student portal that received jeers, not cheers, for its usability. When newspaper articles, public forums, and other marketing efforts failed to address student concerns, students created their own Facebook page to let off steam. Thanks to Facebook, the two sides eventually sat down to work things out, earning the project credibility and providing a level of transparency that no other conventional method could duplicate.

Forgive and Forget
While it's not easy to catch every inappropriate post, it's important to realize that it's not necessarily the school that ends up with egg on its face. "It's so hard for schools to monitor the postings, especially really big schools," says Allison Grosky, a senior at Highland Park High School in Illinois, who thinks her generation understands the impact that ill-conceived posts can have on their academic and professional futures. So, when a prospective student posts inappropriate pictures or swears, it's a red flag about the person. "My judgment doesn't go to the school, but I do wonder if I'm going to be attending school with that person."

What students, prospective or otherwise, do want is their school's attention. Jenn Herman, an OU student, believes that when people vent, they have certain expectations: They expect to be able to say what they want to say, they expect the school to care, and they expect to receive a quick response. It's when they don't that things go awry.

Take, as an example, the experience of Penn State (PA) during the February 2011 "Snowpocalypse." The decision not to call off classes drew angry posts on the university's Facebook page and spurred new student pages that ignited more than 2,000 backers.

In the view of many students, though, these kinds of online firestorms are just another day at the office. "I understood that people needed to vent," says Joe Jacobs, then a student at the school. "That's what Facebook is for." He headed off to class without thinking about the online melee again.

And therein lies an important lesson for university administrators who are still coming to grips with social media. While some gaffes will open the floodgates to a torrent of criticism, followers are--for the most part--willing to forgive and forget.

Leaders of campus social media, however, should not be so quick to move on. Paying attention to students is extremely important. "Students define the brand," asserts Tynan. "We can respond to misperceptions, promote strengths that are overlooked, or correct misstatements, but ultimately a university's brand is in the mind of the audience."

What's Not to "Like"?
Gauging success in social media is not always easy. Sites like Klout can help measure an institution's level of influence, but administrators should be wary of putting too much emphasis on how many followers their school has.

For starters, not all followers are created equal, notes Trace Purvis, new media coordinator at Louisiana State University, which has 100,000 online fans. "If no one's communicating with you, then what's the point?" he asks. In other words, one engaged follower is worth a truckload of users who simply clicked the "like" button once.

It's a viewpoint shared by Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer of Public Affairs & Communications at Harvard University (MA). "Social media is fundamentally about people and not just a numbers game," she explains. "We think a lot about reach and engagement. Are you posting content that resonates? Are you answering the urgent questions?"

Still, as any administrator who's looked at his school's rankings in US News & World Report will tell you, numbers do have value in their own right, even if that value is misplaced. Quite simply, students and alumni like to brag about their school, whether the subject is football, Nobel prizes, or social media. "When a school's great in every other area, you expect them to rank among the top for social media, too," notes Sean Taylor, a proud alumnus of the University of Michigan.

Building a proud following comes with its own benefits, Purvis admits. Whether someone jumps on board as an alumnus or a football fan, exposing him to university content is always a good thing. And the more vocal the better.

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