Wood Street Journal

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Is Higher Ed Treating Social Media Like a Middle School Dance?

Do you remember going to school dances when you were in the eighth grade? How uncertain and weird and full of longing everything seemed?

Maria Ogneva, Head of Community at Yammer, and someone all the boys probably wanted to take to school dances, once described social media as…

“The largest cocktail party in the world, a room filled with people driven by one desire to communicate, share, digest and relate, while carrying on many independent conversations.”

Right now, higher education’s relationship with social media is more middle school dance than glamorous cocktail party. We’re awkwardly shuffling our feet on the dance floor, hoping the cool kids will notice us, occasionally trying too hard. But we’re getting there.

In the spirit of dorky eighth graders everywhere who grew up to become savvy higher ed communicators, here are some ideas to consider as we try to get the social media party going on the higher ed front.

1 – Forget about numbers and concentrate on making memories.

It’s easy to become obsessed with how many people “Like” your university’s Facebook Page or follow your Twitter account. Numbers make us feel like we’re in control, especially when our supervisors ask for evidence of why social media should be part of an integrated marketing plan.

But without interesting conversations, entertainment, ideas and feedback, numbers are basically a bunch of people silently standing around, waiting for you to make your move. Like wallflowers at an eighth grade dance who eventually leave, or worse yet, wish they had never come.

Don’t get hung up on numbers; instead, try to keep things interesting and memorable with great content, so everyone has a good time they want to talk about later with their friends.

2 – Don’t go overboard investing too much in something fleeting.

Like adolescence, social media changes in a heartbeat, shifting from one thing to the next, and you’ve got to move swiftly and skillfully to truly take advantage of it. One minute, hormones are raging for one social media site or feature, then it’s another.

Many a higher ed marketer has suffered heartbreak from planning an overly complicated social media communications campaign that was so-so in execution and response, or built around a great concept that became irrelevant because of the social media site suddenly changing its features.

Some of the coolest social media marketing ideas I’ve seen are simple, timely and common-sense awesome, like letting your alumni show their school spirit by giving them cool cover photos to use on their Facebook Timelines, or inviting your students to hashtag the campus on Twitter.

These ideas are easy to execute, don’t break the bank and last just long enough for people to jump on board and use them before the Next Big Thing happens, and everyone falls in love with something else.

3 – Don’t censor … redirect the conversation.

Remember the overly anxious teachers who patrolled the middle school dance floor, sometimes yanking someone off to the side for misbehaving? Don’t be that teacher on your university’s social media site.

If you have someone who is doing something stupid or saying negative, critical or untrue things about your institution online, the best thing you can do is redirect the conversation, not censor it. Sometimes that means acknowledging a mistake and providing helpful resources and assistance, if the problem is clearly the university’s responsibility.

Sometimes that means ignoring someone who is misinformed and on a mission to attack your institution in a strange, ego-driven way. Sometimes that means sharing your Facebook Page’s policy for content and reminding people what’s okay and what’s not.

Ideally, it means having one of your constituents — a student, a parent, a loyal alum — chime in on your behalf and share their experiences. As Maria says, it’s a conversation.

4 – In the end, integrated marketing is what counts.

I think most higher ed communicators can agree that social media opens the door to amazing creativity and is here to stay. But its shiny new toy status has faded, and it needs room and resources to grow up and be taken seriously.

It can’t be treated like a surefire gimmick or something your intern does. It should be part of a bigger picture, where its messaging and content resonate and are reiterated by a university’s print, advertising and website efforts.

Put your Facebook Page username in your email signature and in your press release “boiler plate.” Get your media relations person to start using Twitter, where some of the most successful story pitches are happening for higher education.

Share a URL to a well-written feature story from your alumni magazine on your Facebook Page, preferably through a bitly link you can measure. Think about all your outlets–print, digital, in-person pitch sessions with reporters and regents–and use them to your advantage.

How else can Higher Ed effectively use social media? Share your thoughts in the comment area below.