Insights for a Challenging Economy:
Volume 2 – Bulletin #7

Amid the Unrelenting Hoopla, Four Insights about Social Media

You have to work pretty hard these days not to find an article on social media in higher education trade publications.  The topic is everywhere, fueled by the dramatic growth in usage.  Facebook exceeded half-a-billion global users this summer, for example, who spend a staggering 700 billion minutes on the site per month. 

We notice that the subject of social media is evoking at least two contradictory impulses with college and university administrators.  On the one hand, there are those who feel inadequate and behind the times for failing to jump fully onto the social media bandwagon.  Yet there are others who are more comfortable with social media, but question the time spent on it and worry that the whole of its promise will never exceed the sum of its disparate parts. 

So, what’s an institution to do about social media in strategic terms?  Four insights come to mind:

  1. Beware the moth to flame.  Social media has been “hot” for a decade now, and it’s getting even hotter.  As with other major media and technological breakthroughs, it has moved briskly along the Diffusion of Innovation lifecycle from Innovators and Early Adopters into the mainstream of Early and Late Majorities.  Every step of the way, institutions have been presented with new questions about what to do with social media.  We see institutions struggling with this question, which may stem in part from their efforts to seize the social media initiative, or a piece of it, without a clear strategic rationale. 

    In today’s fast-moving, complex environment it is easy to lunge toward doing something, anything, about social media and yet risk getting burned in the process – perhaps singed by opportunity costs that displace other more worthy investments of time and money.  To derive more light than heat from social media, look no further than your institution’s strategic plan, enrollment management plan, and marketing plan.  Hopefully, you have three such integrated documents that can offer specific guidance in this and most other realms.  Using the strategic blueprint provided by these plans, ask yourself these questions:

    • What are we trying to achieve with social media in recruitment, enrollment, development, internal identity, or external image terms?  And why?
    • Are these desired outcomes consistent with the specific objectives and strategies thatwe have established for the institution?
    • Will our social media choices truly reflect how our audiences and influencers want to communicate with us and with one another?
    • How will we know if our social media program is working?  How measurable are the results and, how will those metrics be incorporated into future decision-making?
    • Which departments within the institution will take the lead on social media, why, and how will they work in a coordinated, collaborative manner with other units?
    • Is it enough for now simply to establish a managed presence on key social media sites and, well, just see what happens? 
    • Who will manage this daily presence to ensure a minimum of fresh, quality content and interactivity?
    Discussions about social media can be enormously productive if they are well structured and considered, with appropriate follow-up and accountability.  Talking about this subject on a leadership team, however, can sometimes be ephemeral and elusive.  Without asking tough questions about shared, realistic expectations for social media, leadership teams can find themselves flying all over the place and eventually getting burned.  Is it time for you to organize and structure these conversations at your institution?

  2. Understand the age difference.  As with other forms of marketing, media, and technological progress, there is an inverse age relationship between those who use social media personally and those who are responsible for its implementation and growth at colleges and universities.  We know this age gap is not absolute.  Indeed, there are many “young” people who opt out of social media and many “older” people who are deeply engaged in it.  Nonetheless, there is an undeniable and disturbing correlation here between non-usage and policy-making.

    We sometimes wince when a president or senior enrollment management or marketing executive proclaims to have no interest in or use for social media.  This self-erected wall between the institution and the most promising if not important marketing, media, and community-building phenomenon in recent history can have serious implications.

    Without a natural interest in social media on a leadership team, one may have to catalyze it elsewhere.  Perhaps a Chief Curiosity Officer of sorts resides on the Board of Trustees or among alumni.  Having said this, of course, one has to balance this catalytic energy, however sourced, with concerns about the time-wasting and even dangerous “moth-to-flame” phenomenon mentioned above.  Plus, most readers will readily understand the dangers of a board member or alumnus wanting to “do something” about social media.

    Whatever the institution ultimately decides to do (or not do) about social media, however, it will need to be strategic, thoughtful, and collaborative.  It can ill afford to look “tragically hip” in ways that sometimes occur when people in their 40s or 50s devise communications programs for people in their teens and 20s.

  3. Listen to your market.  We routinely ask clients whether and how they know what’s being said about their institutions in the social media sphere.  More often than not, they don’t.  To most college and university executives, social media represents a kind of sheer white noise with neither rhyme nor reason.  So here’s yet another place for that Chief Curiosity Officer. 

    We recommend that one person in your institution be tapped to spend an hour or two each week to “listen” to what’s being said in public spaces by current and prospective students, alumni, parents, and other key audiences and influencers.  It’s not only your right; it’s your responsibility.  Aggregators such as or will help you hear the voice of the customer knowing, of course, that some of this market intelligence will not be very useful or instructive.  Just as you monitor traditional print and broadcast media for coverage of your institution, so too you should be monitoring social media coverage.  Understand, though, that you will only be listening in publicly available spaces.  What goes on in private social media domains is, quite simply, none of the institution’s business.

  4. Decide whether and how to intervene.  The most difficult choices institutions will be confronting – and this policy-making frontier is undeniably just ahead of us – is what to do with the results of structured social media listening.  We believe there is great value in knowing what is being said about your college or university in social media.  It is yet another appropriate feedback mechanism in an overall Customer Relationship Management program.

    Yet imagine the ethical and common-sense issues that will arise when institutions decide to answer criticisms about themselves on somebody’s public Facebook page or engage in a Tweet-for-Tweet debate on an issue that involves them?  Even more difficult will be those circumstances when an enterprising admissions staff member at a school decides to join a conversation triggered by a young person asking what his or her friends think of that particular school?  Or, what if a student life official enters the fray when a current student proclaims, “I hate this place,” on Facebook?  Just think of the slippery slopes ahead!

    Our view is that, for large numbers of users, these “public” spaces are not really open to public comment by institutions, especially those involved in a particular post or Tweet.  Colleges and universities risk violating an implied social contract, which many users think precludes institutional intervention and over-commercialization attached to their entries. 

    Of course, we can imagine rare situations where what’s being said is just so malicious or seriously wrong that an intervention may be required.  If this is the case, however, do so very carefully.  Recognize that it may be best not to post a “clarifying” comment, even if you could do so, but rather to engage the individual in an offline conversation.  Another possible strategy is to correct the wrong or malicious information using some other communication channel.

    However, be prepared that whatever you do here may simply provide this person with fodder for another negative comment.  After the right internal conversation, the best choice might be to leave it alone and then address any legitimate problems identified by that individual on his or her post. 

This is all very tricky.  So, how are you convening intentional, intelligent conversations about social media at your institution, what have you decided to do, who’s coordinating it, why in strategic terms are you doing it, and how will it be measured?  The key is not to get burned by wasting time and money, creating unrealistic expectations, or intervening in inappropriate ways.

Also, how do you know what’s being said about your institution in social media spaces that are public and, most important, what’s your institution’s policy on intervening?  We’re still in the “Wild West” these days when it comes to social media, with all the opportunities and dangers that presents.

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