How to COPE with Social Media

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UCAS’s recent ‘Social Media in HE’ conference gave some sound advice on how universities can reach out to students, raise their profile and enhance their reputation.

Each speaker had some great insights to share, but as some of their topics overlapped, I’ve grouped ideas together into these overall themes:

  • Make social media part of your content strategy
  • Understand, listen and respond to your audience
  • Let people create and curate, and machines aggregate and syndicate
  • Know what you want to achieve – and how to measure it
  • Take risks. And tweak what works to keep it fresh

It’s all content. And you need a strategy

A recent Guardian survey showed 97% of students use Facebook and 45% are on Twitter.

UCAS saw a 4000% growth in social media activity around A-level results since 2009, with an earlier start to the conversation. And a later finish. People were still asking questions until 2am on Twitter on the night before results day. Over 2000 Twitter questions were sent to UCAS on Clearing Day, with 65% of users surveyed saying that the UCAS Connect social media hub saved them a phone call.

As Sam Davies (@stdavies) from Zoober Training pointed out, "Social media is the vehicle not the destination." Traditional channels still have a role to play. Students want to be able to choose between print, online and social – depending on what suits their circumstances.

So there isn’t necessarily a trade-off between more social media and more traditional marketing and communications methods.

Don’t duplicate: COPE

With all the channels we need to be involved in, it would be easy to get caught up in a content treadmill. So it’s important to put the work in upfront to ensure messaging is consistent across all platforms.

By re-purposing video, print and audio for different channels we can:  Create Once, Publish Everywhere – allowing us to focus on increasing our reach through amplification.

We need to talk. But we also need to listen, understand and change.

Social media should be about conversations, but too many organizations only use it to broadcast.  This misses several tricks.

  1. To keep students – and other audiences – involved in our conversations we need to provide them with appropriate information and advice. And answer their questions.
  2. Try to deal with social media complaints publicly, as the issue may affect other students and you can show your responsiveness.
  3. As social media is content driven, listen while conversations take place to gauge reactions to messages and find out what works.

Social media can play a big part in bringing traffic to your website. Tracy Playle (picklejar) from Picklejar Communications suggested some key aspects universities should focus on when delivering content:

  • Mobile – around 80% of students access the internet on smartphones.
  • Personalized – i.e. using the Facebook API to personalize pages
  • Local & focused – Nottingham University make good use of lists in foursquare
  • Visual – video and images get shared and retweeted much more. Journalists like stories with video (and audio) as advertisers will pay more to appear on these pages.
  • Gamification – people like to play games and get rewards. So gamification could be a useful tool to meet your organizational goals.

But before we look at emerging trends, we need to break down barriers:

  • For our users – by organizing our websites around them, instead of our internal structures
  • Between ourselves – by collaborating together;  academics with marketeers

Own your content, but share it widely

Perry Hewitt (@perryhewitt), Harvard’s Chief Digital Officer, explained how they make great use of aggregation and syndication of their content to amplify the many voices that make up the Harvard community.

  • Web – their homepage is made up almost exclusively of rss feeds from their many schools and faculties.
  • Facebook – corporate page pulls in posts from their several other accounts.
  • Twitter – accounts for each business area; aggregated to a central account.

They expose measurement analytics as content:

  • chartbeat data to display what’s trending
  • google analytics to show what’s popular
  • YouTube ‘likes’ and playlists as video feeds
  • top linked-to research articles (after all, links are citations).

But the tools won’t build it for you.

Creativity and collaboration are the growth areas in HE. Using tools for aggregation and syndication frees producers up to create rich multimedia content, and editors to curate it – the creative elements that only humans can do.

Even with a community of 30,000 students and 12,000 staff, Harvard only need one full-time team member to create all their videos.

Know what you want to achieve – and how to measure it

Outbound marketing (brochures, prospectuses, direct marketing) is struggling. As consumers become more powerful, many organizations are switching from an intrusive sales cycle to a more passive buying cycle.

This is where social media and inbound marketing come in.

With an average lead generation cost of a third of traditional outbound marketing, social and inbound should be a no-brainer for investment. But unclear objectives, and too many metrics, make measurement of its effect difficult to quantify – and return of investment difficult to prove.

The result: social media is deployed as a tactical –  rather than a strategic – tool by universities.

Social media’s marketing power can be measured

You just need to follow these five steps:

Reach How big is your audience? Include personal accounts. Awareness Socialize
Community Map your community’s current students, alumni, staff, parents, prospective students. Build this community.

Prospective students want to hear from current students like them. Social logins reduce barriers.

Traffic Around 73% of prospective students research before deciding which universities to apply to. Creating interesting, funny, engaging and useful content can help sway them your way. Consideration Romance
Contacts Conversion paths, landing pages, calls to action – asking users to give up their anonymity for the above content. Nurture your leads!
Sales Whether it’s new students, commercial partnerships or research funding – this is the end goal of your social media investment. Decision Reward

ROI = admissions – social media investment / social media investment

Take risks. And tweak what works to keep it fresh

Benchmarking against competitors is all well and good, but there’s a real danger of sounding the same as everyone else. It’s much better to go out on a limb and develop a distinctive voice. As Perry Hewitt said, “If you’re not taking risks, you’re doing it wrong.”

We don’t always know how others will use social media, but it’s better to keep it open. If people want to be negative they’ll do it anyway, so you may as well give yourself a chance to respond. Often, the way we deal with problems says more about an organization than the problem itself.

All HE institutions have a content goldmine – whether it’s a list of firsts, or a great academic blog – we can uncover them by using appropriate metadata to bring them to the fore. Audio could be your underappreciated killer app. Harvard are big producers of audio, with curated iTunes U and SoundCloud accounts.

Tweak your messaging – switch off campaigns that don’t work. Revive others that do. Don’t throw away content that doesn’t work. Tweet it. But don’t repeat it.

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