It happened in November. At Stamats, we received our first RFP to help a college develop a webpage for Facebook. It was a harbinger of things to come. Now, every time I turn around, it seems like people are talking about social networking and its possible use as a higher education marketing tool.
But should colleges and universities make a foray into social networking?
Before we go any further, let's define social networking. The term was first coined in 1954 by sociologists to describe the process of how individuals connect and interact. The advent of the web (a term that literally implies "network") has dramatically changed how we create, use, and fuel social networks. In most cases, the terms "network" and "social media" can be used interchangeably.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), which produces reports that explore the impact of the internet, a social networking site is an online place where a user can create a profile and build a personal network that connects him or her to other users. Members use these media to share opinions, insights, experiences, photos and video, and perspectives with each other. It's important to remember that this sharing is often unedited, instantaneous, and worldwide. In many cases, it is also unintended.
The purpose of these sites, simply, is to build community. They are, quite literally, a place for members to hang, to get to know, and to be known.
In the past five years, such sites have rocketed from a niche activity into a phenomenon that engages tens of millions of internet users. According to Pew, more than half (some 55 percent) of American youth ages 12 to 17 use online social networking sites.
There are literally thousands of social networks around the planet. Cyworld in South Korea claims 15 million members. Classmates.com claims 40 million. Reunion.com has 25 million members. Friendster has another 29 million.
For colleges and universities interested in social networking, the big two are Facebook and MySpace. Facebook claims 12 million members and MySpace claims 130 million.
Amanda Watlington, an online social media guru, says that what is truly astonishing is the creative effort plowed into blogs, podcasts, and vlogs (video blogs) by members. Every 24 hours, she says, visitors to the popular video search engine YouTube upload more than 65,000 new videos, and users view 100 million video clips per day.
Before we look at the marketing implications of social networking, I want to offer a handful of observations gleaned from my research and interviews with both college marketers and students.
Big numbers attract attention, but the reality is this: As a college or university, you are interested in only a very, very small percentage of that big number. The challenge, of course, is sifting out the small percentage of students and others that are interested in your message in a way that is effective and efficient. So far, no college has cracked the code.
There seems to be an "unwritten rule" of social networks: As soon as they become formal, predictable or rule-bound, the membership tends to melt. Edgy is king...and queen.
In 2005, Rupert Murdock purchased MySpace for $580 million. And in October 2006 Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion. These are serious investments by companies that are aggressively looking for ways to reap the benefits of that investment.
In most cases this means more advertising, typically banner or contextual ads. There have also been a few instances where social networking sites have sold the personal data of members. For the new owners, e-community seems to be synonymous with e-commerce. The news release announcing the YouTube purchase contained an important line: "Following the acquisition, YouTube will operate independently to preserve its successful brand and passionate community." Said one student, "Yeah, right."
Colleges love to control the content of their messages. However, on social networking sites they cannot. In fact, many social networks are fueled by member-created content in which members opine, respond, and react to the world around them.
Historically, social networks were created for individuals by other individuals with similar interests and motivations. Like minded people were invited to join. Marketers, long interested in the numbers of people on these networks, have begun to insinuate themselves into these sites. It's kind of like when you invite people over to dinner and someone starts selling Amway in the middle of dessert. Members, especially students, are deeply resistant to and distrustful of this intrusion. From their perspective, these sites are hallowed ground.
In December 2006, Wired magazine ran an article, "Murder on MySpace." TV's Dateline has an ongoing series, "Why Parents Mind MySpace." A 14-year-old Austin, Texas, girl and her mother filed a $30 million lawsuit against MySpace.com, where the teenager claims she met a sexual predator. Four families in New York are suing MySpace, charging recklessness, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.
Of course, the instances in which members are hurt or even killed are very small when juxtaposed against the larger number of members. However, the danger is still there.
Increasingly, colleges and universities are taking steps to help protect their students from the dangers of social networks. In March 2006 the University of California, Berkeley, hosted a conference for 150 student advisors and counselors from the school and other Northern California colleges and universities.
A number of schools, including Western Kentucky University, Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.), Smith College (Mass.), Susquehanna University (Pa.), and Washington University in St. Louis, offer workshops during orientation on how students can help protect themselves while on social networks.
There is another danger that's much more widespread. Many teens and young adults don't seem to fathom that the information and photos they place on these networks become, literally, public domain.
There have been instances where site members have been denied entrance into a specific college or not hired for a desired job because of their postings. There have been incidents of students being arrested for illegal behavior-often alcohol related-after evidence of their behavior was posted on their sites. In fact, an administrator at one Ohio community college mentioned that a member of her office staff routinely looks at Facebook pages for evidence of students' illegal use of alcohol. Michael Hiestand, a reporter for USA Today, once remarked that the internet can turn pretty mundane stuff into the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Of course, many members keep the shades pulled on their sites and invite only a select few into their lives. But most memberes are much more welcoming. When I enrolled in MySpace, I discovered that literally thousands of people wanted me to visit their pages. The invitation wasn't personal, but global.
Most marketers are early adopters. They love the next new thing. One president called it "marketing by gimmick."
This sometimes knee-jerk desire to latch onto everything new new reminds me, at times, of the football team that is unduly attracted to trick plays. In most cases the team will be dismantled by competitors that work hard at the fundamentals. Granted, some new things are useful, but too many are merely distracting. This is especially true when there is no overarching strategy that will help you decide what is appropriate, and when.
These observations (you might read them as concerns) are counterbalanced, of course, by the numbers. The sheer velocity of social networking has captured our attention. Surely, these marketers think, there must be a way.
Robert Sevier, a senior VP at Stamats Communications, is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from www.strategypublishing.com.