It’s common to hear phrases like “think strategically,” “strategic communications,” or “marketing strategy.” Yet, for all of our education and focus on using strategy to deliver key initiatives, one thing is often overlooked: delivery of that information. This seems to be especially the case with social media and how many organizations approach it. In my experience, this problem is accentuated in the world of higher education.
In colleges and universities, there is often a disconnect on how to deliver critical education. Public Affairs, communications, and marketing departments have their priority messages, announcements, and news to deliver but it’s often in a way that isn’t conducive to the medium. After researching the social and digital communications efforts of nearly 300 institutions, I’ve found that most treat social media like any other channel: something to deliver information to the masses in a one-to-many fashion. However, this isn’t exclusive to the world of education: I’ve found it to be the case with corporations, non-profit organizations, artists, and small businesses as well.
Sure, some might use hashtags, design snazzy infographics, or create certain campaigns, but there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive message or sense of purpose. Often, there is a disconnect between the messages on social media, the news pages of the organizations, and their stated value/mission statement. This disconnect is even more apparent when communication channels are used incorrectly. Furthermore, most of the organizations spend a disproportionate about of time focusing on themselves rather than their followers – and that ultimately destroys the effectiveness of the message.
For example, the Northwest was experiencing some serious winter weather last month. Like many schools in the area, Portland Community College uses an emergency newswire system called FlashAlert. Users set their message and it instantly is delivered via email, text, and social media (many members of the media also follow these to further share the alert). For example, this was a post automatically created from the system:
As you can see, only 49 people actually saw this post – in a time where students, staff, and members of the media were actively looking for updates and information. In other words, despite having a captive audience and extremely timely/important information, engagement levels were dismal. All messages that were created like this through the week had similar performance.
When I noticed the issue, I decided to add some internet/geek humor to the situation in hopes of driving engagement levels up. It was also a way to engage with students in a fun way. This was one of my first posts that I made for the college in regards to hazardous weather (with a nod to Star Wars):
Within 30 minutes, over 200 people shared the post (including members of the media, other colleges, and the Portland mayor). By the end of the day, nearly 500 people had shared it. The simple post above garnered over 662 times the number of views than the serious official announcement, without any paid promotion to boost it. In fact, the post was viewed by over five times the number of people who actually follow the college account.
Throughout that weekend, I continued to make 80’s and geek culture references, which boosted the college Klout score by over 20 points, grew social media followers by 150%, and had students bragging about how cool their college was. As comments rolled in, I personally responded to each one (almost 3,000 interactions in those 72 hours).
In contrast, other colleges were in the area were under a barrage of negative comments for their lack of attentiveness, delayed responses, and ineffective message sharing. Those colleges only posted messages during business hours, didn’t respond to individual concerns, and kept citing policy – something very few people care about during a major weather crisis.
This week, I shared some other lighthearted posts for our followers. These were two of them:
Again, these are pretty simple posts that received exceptional levels of engagement (likes, RT’s, shares, comments, etc.). And while they are not promoting any specific aspects of the organization, do not link to an external page, and do not have a specific call to action, these are a part of the strategic communications process.
- focus on the context of the channels in which they are shared
- focuses on the audience and their interests – which encourages interaction
- substantially increase the views of all other posts on the page
- increase the visibility of the college, reinforcing the idea that the organization is there for students
- allow genuine, authentic interactions with followers
Additionally, as students leave comments, I interact with them in a way that fosters interaction or reinforces other important services from the organization. For example, in the first post, students began asking questions about library hours, tutoring services, etc. and I was able to share some incredible new services offered by the library. If I only created a post about those new services, it wouldn’t be seen by nearly as many students, even those who had an inherent interest in the topic.
The second post has a deliberate Hunger Games post. The comment was obviously by someone familiar with the film/books, so I responded to their joke with a specific reference to the story (“This is mahogany!” is a popular internet meme on its own). The thread continues with followers tagging each other, questions being asked, etc. In each instance, I personally respond to every message in less than two hours.
These posts reflect a deep knowledge and understanding of the target audience. Imagine if I only posted what most other higher education institutions would share – content would read like “Finals week is March 15-20, good luck,” “Be sure to check the schedule for finals [link here],” or “What are you doing for Spring Break?” While they might elicit some likes or comments, there certainly wouldn’t be a fervor to share or tag others.
So, when creating a strategic communications plan for social media, more thought has to be put in place than key messages, goals, or ideas. Consideration has to go beyond which channels are to be selected. It all has to come back to who the audience is, what excites/humors/inspires them, and an over-arching strategy of how individual messages can support broader goals, interaction, and visibility of the entire organization.