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Building New Media Success On Tried and True Communications Fundamentals

This article was first published January 3, 2015.

Thoughts from Sarah McMaster, Director of Marketing & New Media and Brett Moulton, Web & New Media Specialist, Mount Wachusett Community College about incorporating successful social medial strategies into your communications toolbox.

Social media is no longer the buzz word du jour. It has successfully transitioned from the shiny new thing into a standard communications tool in the toolbox for institutions and organizations of all kinds. However, it remains a fast-paced communication medium that requires constant monitoring and knowledge of trends. Some of the trends right now, such as crowdfunding and viral challenges, can be extremely effective. Here are some key considerations if you are planning to add or expand social media efforts for development goals. Crowdfunding solutions should be carefully vetted out by a cross-functional team that includes leadership, those who will administer at the tactical level, your IT colleagues, the business office for payment management, and communications or marketing folks to help spread the message. In addition, legal and privacy concerns should be addressed.

  • Is your privacy policy up to date with crowdfunding concerns?
  • Has legal counsel weighed in?

These steps take time and strategic planning is necessary to ensure success, alignment with institutional goals, and college-wide buy-in.

Alumni engagement and micro-fundraising /small gifts remain a great match for utilizing social media as a promotional or communication tool and feed right into engagement and fundraising goals. To be most effective in advancing alumni relations and development programs, collaboration with marketing & communications units of your organization is key. Whether your unit has its own communications staff or you collaborate across divisions with a marketing team, utilizing their expertise and tactical implementation skills is critical.

Viral challenges such as the wildly successful Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS are another great idea that goes hand in hand with crowdfunding. The secret ingredients for effectiveness here are planning, creativity, and luck – a strange combination. Planning and creative execution of an idea are well in your hands, but luck does play a role. You can help mitigate this by working with IT to ensure no technological glitches from start to finish for every participant, as well as having a clear and comprehensive communication and promotion scheme in place with your marketing and PR colleagues and partners.

One of the reasons the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was so successful on Facebook is the way news feeds are populated. Unlike Twitter and Instagram, for example, which list posts based on timestamps, Facebook prioritizes posts with high activity (likes, comments, and shares). High quality content is more important on Facebook than other social networks. Twitter’s news feed moves swiftly, so it’s more important to tweet often while still providing relevant information. Instagram doesn’t move quite as fast, as users typically only post higher quality photos. The truth is that there is a fine line between keeping the attention of followers and annoying them with too many posts. Reserve your highest-quality content for Facebook and Instagram, but tweet often on Twitter. Additionally, the built-in social sharing of sites like Facebook allows participants and advocates to tag people who hadn't participated, broadening the social reach farther and making it that much more powerful.

In terms of what to post, specifically, it’s a good idea to have themes; both for days and for holiday seasons. Cover photos and profile pictures that are updated with the changing weather and holidays show character and diversity that people will then associate with your name. It also fits a social media environment to be more fun rather than being all business. When the days are themed, followers have something to look forward to every week. For example, “Motivational Monday” could be a day to post something that can brighten the start of the week for people.

To best engage your constituents in viral videos, crowdfunding initiatives, and the next hot trend online, you will need to first devote time and effort to building a sound foundation. All your online efforts should map back to an overall communications plan. Create audience segments based on demographics, interests, and other characteristics. These specific segments allow you to speak more directly to each group and address their interests in communications. Development communications aren't dissimilar in fundamental ways from marketing communications of any other types.

Two important guiding factors in crafting messages for your communications to these targeted segments are your brand (what you want to communicate at the gut level) and what your intended outcomes from those communications are. So, what’s your brand? When people think of your institution, what comes to mind? Is it research, civic engagement, specific programs, or athletics? Next, what’s your goal? Is it to kick off a fundraising campaign, expand the alumni base, or promote a specific event?

Once you have identified your brand and determined the overall goal(s), you can develop your communication plan by diving into the questions and topics presented here. These are the fundamentals. These are most likely exercises you have gone through before, but perhaps it’s time to revisit and re-assess. Talk to your institutional research analysts and marketing experts, talk to your outreach folks. Gather anecdotes. Identify all the channels available to you, even ones you don’t think you’ll need or use.

Communicating effectively for development purposes, across social media or any other medium, stems from having a sound understanding of your organization. What are the key attributes? What impact do you have on your community, region, or nationally? At the same time, understanding prospective stakeholders is also a priority. Is there a typical profile or demographic that can inform your communications. What affinities exist?

In crafting your development communications plan, utilize the conversion funnel concept. In other words, there is a defined path that your communications should lead constituents through to achieve your goals. If donations to your annual appeal are the goal, this might look something like this:

Imagine outreach as an outcome of research, the process of identifying who in your service area aligns with mission. Following this, imagine affinity as an outcome of outreach, the process of interesting potential stakeholders in your mission, services, and activities. Then, imagine your fundraising efforts as an outcome of affinity, the process of building relationship and involvement. Along this path, social media can play a role in each step. Use data to build your audience segments and understand their interests. Social media holds a wealth of information for this purpose. Build affinity by using social media to talk about those things that most interest your potential donors. Engage them in meaningful dialogue and make “an ask. “ Lastly, crowdfunding platforms and other social media venues like Facebook can then be leveraged in collecting donations as well as further spreading the word.

While new media tactics like viral videos are becoming mainstream, the underlying strategy remains the same. Strong communications across any channel need to be targeted, relevant, and cohesive. Calls to action need to be clear and messages need to reflect comprehensive understanding of your audience segments. The challenge in bringing this to bear in the social media world is the added need to have a flawless web experience through each step of the conversion funnel, from first touch on a social media platform all the way through to an online giving webpage or an event registration form. Leveraging a cross-functional team and building new media strategies to align with existing communications fundamentals will go a long way in achieving success with your new media development goals.


Sarah has over 7 years of experience with tactical and strategic use of marketing and communications that impact student inquiry, enrollment, engagement, and retention. Sarah manages the college’s brand identity, multi-channeled marketing campaigns, publications, digital media production, and oversees the college’s online community management. She negotiates and secures media buying, measures the effectiveness of the marketing strategies, and demonstrates the return on investment of all marketing efforts. Sarah holds degrees in anthropology, with a focus on consumer behavior, from the University of California at Davis and Brown University.

Brett Moulton is the Web & New Media Specialist at Mount Wachusett

Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts. He maintains the college’s website, acts as community manager for the college’s various social media networks, and assists with web-based projects for the college community. He creates and implements dynamic web content, and edits original photography and digital assets for print and online needs.

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