Just a few short years ago, Brad J. Ward was finishing up his BA at the University of Illinois-Springfield and working in Residential Life. He was playing around with the web, and as an internal communications tool, started a website that featured photos, videos, events, and ongoings of the dorm wing he supervised. When admissions marketing saw it, they tested it as a tool to give prospective students an authentic lens into campus life. Prospects ate it up, and Ward landed himself a job in admissions marketing at UIS.
After a time running web communications at Butler University (Ind.), his visibility increased in higher ed. Through his usage of social media and conference presentations, Ward started experiencing demand to help others with their projects. He soon realized he would need to go into consulting full time. He is now the “chief explosion officer” at BlueFuego, a company that helps higher education institutions utilize social media and adapt to the medium of the social web to meet their goals. "The game is quickly changing, with the shift in how students communicate leading this shift. With shrinking budgets on the horizon, schools need to integrate cost-effective web tools into traditional methods to be successful and stay relevant," he says.
The demand for services such as Ward's are growing, as more and more institutions are facing up to the facts.
Engaging in social media is now a business imperative for universities. Even the skeptics are being converted because these outlets are responsible for a huge portion of the content and the traffic of the internet. According to Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research, three in four adults now use social tools on the internet to communicate. Younger audiences are simply living a good portion of their lives online. Katie Lynk Wartman, co-author of Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture (Routledge, 2008), explains "students now live their lives in hybrid environments." Most of that time is on the social web and in social media, particularly in the giant Facebook. When describing student usage patterns, Wartman points out "Facebook is their directory. It's the first place they go to find social information. You can think of a student union and how it acts as the hub of student activity and connection. Well, there's a new student union, and it's online."
This dramatic growth is due in part to the dramatic improvements in the "stickiness" of websites and the experiences they provide for their users. Companies have finally learned what social psychologists probably could have told them all along: that people are primarily interested in themselves and their personal relationships, and beyond that they're largely interested in other people-especially the audience they'd like to think of as their peers. Now that designers and engineers have understood this, they've unleashed a force. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, recently articulated a mutated version of Moore's Law—the amount of information shared on the internet roughly doubles every six months. Facebook's mission, as a part of this movement, is nothing less than to "make the world more open and connected."
"Just five years old, Facebook is barely out of its infancy, but the rapidity of its growth and evolution is staggering," notes Dan Forbush, executive director of communications at Skidmore College (N.Y.).
There are a bewildering number of social web products out there. Using the notion that the winner changes too fast to pick a tool and start is bunk. While some think Facebook will keep the gold standard brand of social web products, the reality is there will be many more but they will all follow the same principles. So, learning how to use one effectively can only better position you for the next. Rachel Reuben, director of web communication and strategic projects at SUNY New Paltz, recommends, "Just focus on a couple of tools. Focus on where your audience is. For us, that's Facebook."
Ward's favorite tool is Twitter, and that's common among professionals who continually share ideas. Twitter is quickly becoming the world's 24/7 mindshare, and Ward has over 2000 followers. Its growth rate has even shocked Facebook into trying to stamp it out through their redesign pushed in early March 2009. "I know a lot of higher level administrators that are on Twitter. I see them learning a lot from everyone else on there," says Ward. Reuben confirmed the increasing importance of Twitter amongst her peers within and across institutions. "Now that I'm hooked into the right community, it's so beneficial. You can ask for help, ideas, information, and it's instant," she says.
Something that's difficult for non-users to understand is that social media is not a fad or a trend, but a medium. Social media just overtook e-mail in the total amount of time spent online. "We're in the middle of a really large shift in the way people communicate," says Ward. "It's so much easier to keep up with so many people. You can really have a higher number of meaningful relationships with these tools." At this point, abstaining from social media channels is like saying "we don't do print," or "the phone is a fad."
In the past two years, institutions have started trying to participate formally, and there's been a rapid shift from unaware or disinterested to those sharply interested in these mediums. Andrew Kaufteil, director of annual giving at UC Berkeley School of Law, says, "Most progressive shops are thinking about these tools.... There's no way you can ignore it. At Berkeley, we're even having training on it. I think you pretty much have to be thinking about these things."
The universally acknowledged benefit of institutional participation is the reduced barrier to distributing information. "We want to be going where our constituents are already going. We're bringing information to them in a place that's relevant to them and that they're checking daily," says Kaufteil.
Ward confirms, "All of these tools and websites give universities the opportunity to connect to students on a deeper level. Someone might use Twitter, most use Facebook, and you can connect with them on their turf, where they are online."
Many universities talk about strategy, which is natural for professionals. The content of the communication does require thought, but participating does not require a strategy. However, being able to understand how to formulate a strategy requires participation. It's just necessary. Discovering social media for university marketing is akin to finding out there is a county fair that every prospective and enrolled student, every alumni is hanging out all day every day for the foreseeable future. The amazing part is that so many institutions think the correct response is to hang around and talk about strategy, not to go down there immediately to get a feel for the venue and start to set up. There's no time for over analysis paralysis. The prom is going on right now, where's your party dress?
There is a different attitude on these mediums, though, and participating requires a different mindset. "Universities don't own the conversation anymore," says Ward, "You need to be very transparent and authentic, because the goal is creating connections with people. You have to enter it knowing that you're not in charge anymore. If you're trying to push your message they can just ignore you or even kick you out."
That doesn't follow that you are not welcome; experts are quick to point out. As Wartman advises, "If it's not coercive, there are lots of opportunities to promote campus life, even to prospective students [and alumni]. As an administrator we're in a unique position. It puts us next to their culture but...we need to respect that we're still outsiders."
Some higher ed administrators, generally a cautious type, are paranoid about the risks, but these risks are overblown by myths. One myth is that this sort of uncontrolled environment is going to see a lot of inappropriate comments and behavior. This hasn't seemed to be the case. SUNY New Paltz has had a Facebook page since Facebook pushed Pages as a feature, and they've only ever had one incident that was remarkable only in the non-eventful nature of it. Someone had left a comment claiming a lack of responsiveness at the admissions office, and here the admissions team had the ability to be responsive and understanding. Amazingly, other prospective students joined in to defend the admissions team, and soon the criticism was lost in a wall of authentic praise. "It almost seemed like we set it up, but we didn't. It all just happened," Reuben details.
"The most important thing you need to do first is listen and see what conversations are going on online," says Ward, in describing how institutions should get started.
I recently undertook the task of coming up with the simplest possible strategy. Here it is: 1) Find Conversations, 2) Host Conversations, and 3) Participate.
Of course, for most that wasn't really a manual they could sink their teeth into, so after having a lot of conversations I came up with a more robust set of five guiding principles:
1) Think relevant and dynamic. Come up with a few major segments of your audience, and make a few streams of content production that speak to that segment. Keep it going always.
2) Think chunky and sticky. Today's internet users are being bombarded; you have to catch their eye with images and video. At any point if you expose them to more information than they are asking for, you lose them.
3) Think real-time dialog. You should know when people are posting and asking questions, and you should respond in a relevant time period, which is as soon as possible.
4) Think showcase. Remember, people are primarily interested in themselves and their immediate social group, so you can capture your audience a person at a time by featuring them. Have them guest blog, post their pictures, have them tell their stories. They'll pay attention and share it with their friends.
5) Think call-to-action and conversion. Always be pushing them down the funnel. Social media participation is just another conversion point in a blended marketing environment. If you don't ask them to take the next step or view more information, they definitely won't.
In my opinion, probably the best example of thoughtful use of social media is the McCombs Top Major video competition. Rounding up employers as sponsors of a contest for each major to generate their own promotional video, each clip is produced, directed, and acted entirely by students. According to McCombs, "High school and college students are eight times more likely to watch peer-generated than corporate content on sites such as YouTube."
Elota Patton, professor of business communication and the energy behind the project, says, "As someone who teaches around this subject, I was well aware of how important social media is to young people, and I spent time thinking about how to capitalize on it." Brandon Kaupert, a junior BBA and special assistant to the project, followed that "students are a lot more receptive to generated content when it's from their peers. Your peers are a trusted source of information for big decisions like where to go to college. If it's genuine students marketing their programs in their own creative way, that's good marketing."
The strength of Next Top Major is not just that it's an intelligent way to generate relevant content on a shoestring budget, but that throughout the entire project they seem to understand that web users flock to familiarity. Part of being sticky is being familiar, proximal, and relevant. The project hit them all. Next Top Major is a spin off of "America's Next Top Model." My favorite video, the one produced for Accounting, was directed as a playful spin of a trailer for the popular movie 21. The music and direction in nearly all the videos are deep references to youth culture, and something only sharp college students or Tina Fey could dream up. Huong Le, a writer and co-director for the Accounting video, exclaims, "If people are familiar with what they see, they are more likely to keep it in mind moving forward." Kaupert expounds, "It's easier for someone to relate to something if it is already something they already know. If it's just an out there original idea, it might be great but people might not relate."
Alright, so set up your Facebook Page, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, and then success, right?
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that social media can have considerable impact on important things like yield, retention, and giving. Elota Patton, the founder of Next Top Major, was inspired by the fact that a daughter of a friend chose to go to the University of Missouri largely because of a student made video on YouTube she found compelling. Rachel Reuben, at SUNY New Paltz, says a friend that heads up recruitment can trace a matriculating international student worth around 40K a year from a reply on Twitter. Stories like this are abound, but there's very little hard data at this point.
The fact that success in these mediums is largely undefined isn't stopping the tidal wave. Most acknowledge that, contrary to the hype, it's an incremental game. People like to tell stories of suddenly getting fifty thousand fans, or pushing a video that gets thousands of hits. Those are exceptions, and even when those numbers are impressive there's a sense of uncertainty about how to translate it into impressive progress towards strategic objectives. In reality, it's a slow process that takes a while to mature, and each engaged constituent is won one by one; in many cases, one in-person conversation at a time.
At UC Berkeley School of Law, it does not follow that these mediums should be dismissed as soft. "I think that Web 2.0 is still developing. It's going to be very hard to translate results directly, but I think we're already seeing high correlations in Web 2.0 engagement, participation and results. In our e-newsletter, the most clicked link is the link to Facebook, which indicates to me moving towards engagement through social media is what our constituents are interested in," says Kaufteil. Forbush indicated focusing on results can be blinding, the focus should be on the fact that they way people get information has completely changed. "We can think of it as a totally new kind of news organization that turns all of us simultaneously into readers and reporters, creating vast quantities of instantaneous ultra-local content. Our students, prospective students, and alumni are there in large numbers, and we have to be there, too."
The biggest mistake that administrators make, according to Ward, is "not seeing the hidden costs up front." The tools themselves may be free. But if suddenly printing a newspaper were free, it would not mean that there are no costs to running a newspaper. The operation is not free, and people are finding this out. "To do it well requires time. People get excited about the idea of free and don't plan for taking the time to keep it going, monitor and respond," says Ward. Rueben, at SUNY New Paltz, has a team of six devoted to keeping content current and responding to posts. "It's not a traditional work day medium (M-F/9-5). If you're going to invest in social media, part of the investment must include an ‘after hours’ commitment."
So, the good news is that a communications breakthrough has arrived and is making the distribution of information more efficient and relevant. The bad news is that it takes work just like everything else. "It hasn’t really offset any of our other costs," explains Reuben. "It’s just another spoke in our marketing wheel, just another of the many things we’re doing." And this, coupled with the growing number of tools and the newness of the medium, means Ward's prospects for BlueFuego are looking pretty good. Pretty good indeed.
Michael Staton is CEO of Inigral.