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Mastering Social Media

Sarah McMaster, Mount Wachusett Community College, and Christopher Pierno, Catholic University of America weigh in on the newest developments in, and ways to use, social media.

Interview Transcript

Sarah McMaster: So, Chris, let's compare our notes. Which social media channels are you using at your institution, and how are you using the ones that you do choose to be on?

Christopher Pierno: At Catholic University, we're – as a whole, we're on Twitter and Facebook. And then, our individual departments and offices also sometimes will have their own Twitters and Facebook, which leads to some other issues in terms of messaging.

We have Twitter and Facebook for the senior campaign, senior gift campaign, and our student philanthropy group. They have their own social medial things. And the alumni office, they have Twitter, Facebook, a young alumni Twitter. They haven't really ventured into Pinterest or anything like that yet, though.

Sarah McMaster: There's a lot of pros and cons between having, offices and areas able to do their own thing in terms of social media because they have a greater sense of ownership. But then you lose a little bit of the control on the messaging and the branding. At Mount Wachusett Community College, we try to control the chaos a little bit and have a decentralized centralized. So what we do is either assist directly in marketing and communications, which is where I am in our institution; or, if we have, a cross-functional team that administers a page, one person either myself or somebody else in my marketing and communications division can not only quality control the branding and the messaging, but also collect any analytical data that we might need.

Similar to you guys, we're definitely using Facebook and Twitter. We also have a company page on LinkedIn and Google+. We are dabbling on – some of the newer ones, Tumblr, Pinterest and Pheed, with a P-H.

Christopher Pierno: When someone goes on to a search engine and they type in, "Catholic University" sometimes you don't even know which is the official account. there definitely needs to be some greater idea of what direction do we want to go in and what message do we want to send out there.

Sarah McMaster: That's a real challenge. One way we've tried to get at that is by drafting a social media guidelines document for all of our staff and faculty. But it still doesn't reach the students which, as you just said, Chris, are just as savvy, if not more savvy, and they are out there, you know, creating affinity groups

...all kinds of great stuff, and, that's really the challenge of the day– what is the right course of action, because we do want to, protect the brand, or at least be part of that dialogue, without, coming in and taking over what is a student-driven, social media.

Christopher Pierno: The other thing to think about, too, is sometimes the message can get diluted if these accounts are student-based. Here at Catholic, if there's an emergency alert, it's part of our emergency plan to send out information through our Facebook and our Twitter...the official Facebook and Twitters. But that doesn't account for all of the other Twitters and Facebook that the university offices and departments have. So that's something to, be aware of as well.

Sarah McMaster: That's definitely something that we struggle with as well.

And so one thing that we've done is have MWCC alerts, which is a separate Facebook page from our main Gardner campus page where a lot of the action in terms of Facebook happens. That's the most vibrant area. But we have a separate alerts page for, campus closing for weather and anything that would be at that alert level.

I spend a lot of time letting people know that we have a social media guideline documentation that they can refer to, And then you do have access to the logo and, the official visual branding that would make it easy for people to understand that it's an official venue versus if you'd like to do your own thing So even if it's just those visual cues, it's not something that can be really strictly enforced, but it's something that at least can give those visual cues and like you said, people are getting very savvy with – is this the official or do I need to maybe dig a little deeper?

Cynthia Woolbright: Right. What do you consider the primary purpose of social media in your environment.

Christopher Pierno: I think in terms of advancement or fundraising, it's just a whole 'nother way, a whole 'nother beast about how to engage students, alums, parents to give back to our institutions. I think one of the biggest eye opening things that happened this past year was Giving Tuesday, which was –the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. There was this national movement started up by a couple of institutions and grew into this force to make this day the day to give back to various causes—universities, non-profits, foundations—all with social media as its base – with Twitter as its base, you know, #Giving Tuesday. We took advantage of that movement.

Sarah McMaster: I think Chris really hit the nail right on the head there, that not only is social media, a relationship building tool—talking with people, learning about your different audiences—but it really can be, conversion – a top of the funnel for any kind of conversion, be it an online donation or, an online admissions application, depending on where you sit in your respective institution. But for me, I think it's both of those things. It's getting people to do targeted activities that we might want them to do, whether they are dollar driven or whether it's, retention for students.

Sarah McMaster: Or just that relationship building with any kind of audience, any kind of constituent.

Cynthia Woolbright: Have you experienced growth in your respective communities?

Sarah McMaster: Well I definitely have seen a lot of growth, and I would say that it is accelerating. I do, dip into the analytics on a weekly basis. And since I came into my role here at Mount Wachusett Community College, our Facebook audience has a little bit more than tripled, and that's just in about two years' time. But in addition to just Facebook, which is definitely our flagship social media venue, we've seen slow but very steady growth that is starting to pick up on some of those secondary channels that we're using as well. So on a weekly basis I see really steady growth in the Arlington Company page and the Google+ page, on our Pinterest boards, etcetera.

Christopher Pierno: The alumni association has a separate Facebook page from the university. The alumni association has about 5,000, and that grows probably a couple dozen every day. And what you're finding is not only is it a tool to engage alums and people who have a connection with your institution, but also another form of advertisement. For admissions, for all kinds of ways to get the name of the institution out there and not just engage the people that are already in their communities.

Sarah McMaster: The engagement is really important because as your audience engages with you and share your content out,

you're extending your reach as well to people that you may not have had the ability to reach before because they're not in your quote/unquote "network."

Sarah McMaster: People that are fans of your page are in some ways acting as brand ambassadors. So it's kind of a self-fulfilling positive loop. You know, the more the audience grows, the more you can have a chance for engagement; and then the more that you have engagement, the more that your audience can grow. Because people come into contact with what you're doing and may choose to like your page or subscribe to your feed, whatever it may be.

Christopher Pierno: One of the other things we're also seeing is every event that happens on campus whether it's a student event or an event put on by the university, you're starting to see a plan that pertains to the specific event, the specific program. We saw at graduation the #CUA, trended for a little while in the Washington, D.C. area, and that's something that now we as an institution want to achieve. This kind of viral virility on social media. And that's something that people are just starting to grasp.

And I think people are also thinking about, what am I going to do at this event that's going to play well on social media? There you're evolving your programs and your events to work well with social media instead of the other way around.

Sarah McMaster: And I think that comes down to people realizing the power of social media, what it can do for you.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, I've looked at both your Facebook pages and I am very interested to know how that content is managed is that something that one individual or multiple individuals contribute to on a daily basis?

Sarah McMaster: Well, at my institution, I'm the primary person. It's one of my primary responsibilities. And so I'm on our page every single day, and a lot of the content that you would see there is posted directly by me. However, we have about nine other administrators on that page, and we have other pages as well, again, with multiple administrators. And those other people are in different functional areas so that when a financial aid question comes in, a financial aid person has direct ability to go ahead and answer that question. And that way we can kind of fulfill our responsiveness guidelines we've set a 24-hour maximum response time; although, really, we try to get to it in minutes. And so by sharing the workload, so to speak, across these ten individuals who have had training and understand the commitment and the responsibilities, we're able to meet that expectation of responsiveness.

In terms of how we manage the content we do have a loose editorial calendar, so we know what we'd like to post and when we'd like to post it. But we do keep it very flexible because you never know what's going to happen in a day, world events or local events might, you know, change what you'd like to post on a particular day.

And then in terms of collecting content from across the college, we do have a formalized request form that people, when they are looking for any kind of marketing or communication services, they can check the box and make the request that they'd like to see it on social media as well. And so we have kind of loose protocols in terms of being able to adapt, and then we also have more formalized processes. And that helps us have really rich content because it's not just me churning out the same thing every day. It's a variety of different topics.

And then we can figure out by looking at the analytics, what are people interested in, and that helps us with our content strategy and our content management as well.

Christopher Pierno: I'm not directly connected like Sarah is to her main university page. That's all run through, our public affairs office, and they are the ones that control the content that goes up, what gets shared by the official pages.

I work with our students, and so we have a student Twitter and a Facebook page and I'm the one who manages that. But I think what Sarah hit on was really important, the spontaneous nature of social media. And it's great to have a plan, it's great to have a calendar about what you want to put up. But inevitably, you have to respond to things that are going on in the community, on campus, nationally. And I think that's really one of the key things that if social media is going to be successful at an institution, they have to be willing to be spontaneous and they have to be able to be willing to make mistakes, you know?

Sarah McMaster: That's a great point, Chris. You think you know what your audience is interested in. But until you really find out through, through trial and error, then you really get to say, "I know what my audience is interested in." I don't know about you, Chris, but I never have the feel that I've got it locked down.

Cynthia Woolbright: So how do you decide when you're going to jump on the next big bandwagon as in with Google+ or Pinterest or Instagram, and how do you continually manage – add and manage all of those new platforms?

Christopher Pierno: I think that the most important thing to do when thinking about trying to expand to a new platform is get it reserved for your name immediately. If there is something new that comes out and you don't necessarily want to use it right away, try and get catholicuniversity.pinterest or something, just so that when you're ready to use it, if it does become something big, you have that brand recognition.

Pinterest is a pretty good example because that's something that we don't have at Catholic yet. I don't know if we will, but it's definitely something that's growing in popularity and I'm sure it's on the radar of all of our communication staff. I think one of the other big factors, especially at an educational institution, is: are our students using it? Sarah mentioned Pheed. I don't know what that is yet, but if our students are going to start using that, then maybe that's something that we need to be involved in. if the community is using it, then that's something we need to do.

Sarah McMaster: I really couldn't have said it better myself, Chris. I think the two top points there were – we do the exact same thing, and when there's something new out there we make sure that we secure that branded account. That's number one.

And then the number two point that I want to echo is, you know, where's the audience? So, if your students aren't there yet, just get the branded URL that you want to have for the future. And it is a lot of research just to know what are the new channels out there that I need to have on my radar and then do additional research about how they work, because there's always something new and different about each channel that comes out.

So just because something's out there doesn't mean that you need to use it. And I think that if you spread yourself too thin, you're not serving your interests. It's better to, you know, get those branded accounts kind of under control, set them aside, and spend the limited time and energy that you do have on the ones where you're already seeing success and where your students – where your constituents already are.

Cynthia Woolbright: So how does mobile device adaptation factor in?

Sarah McMaster: Well, with most of the social media channels, if they're not already specifically geared towards a mobile device of some kind, like Instagram, it's not so much the social media platforms where you need to adapt and have a plan in terms of people accessing them from mobile, it's the transition that you're hoping will happen from your social channels, perhaps onto your website, onto your giving page, or onto your admissions page, of your own public-facing website. And at least for me that's where you need to say, "Okay, are we mobile-ready?" Because Facebook is also mobile-ready...

...Twitter's already mobile ready. But it's that transition. You don't want the user, for example a prospective student, come to your website and have a jarring transition from a mobile optimized social site...

So at Mount Wachusett Community College, we haven't launched yet, but we're in the middle of a responsive design project right now for, amongst others, for exactly that reason.

Christopher Pierno: I was trying to figure out if Sarah was going to say the two magic words, "responsive design."

I attended a conference in July and the number one buzz word was "responsive design," we have to make sure that whatever we're linking to will translate well onto a mobile device. Our websites have to be mobile-friendly. Everything that we put out has to be mobile-friendly down to the pictures that we tweet and emails that we send out. if we're sending out an email that has pictures and colors and texts, how is it going to translate to on someone's phone? And so that's – I think constantly of how we going to adapt because it's only going to get bigger. It's only going to get easier to access to the internet on the go and not have to sit at a desk and have a widescreen monitor.

Sarah McMaster: And to build on Chris's example of the email, to do that well requires a lot of time and a lot of resources and a lot of testing. the onus is on us as communications and advancement professionals to make that case to get those resources that will propel our institutions forward.

Cynthia Woolbright: So has your budget grown?

Sarah McMaster: Short answer, yes...because we have, done some smaller pilots to demonstrate the small win and say, "If you give us more, this is what we can do." So the short answer is yes, my budget for social media and for online like pay-per-click advertising, all that, anything in that genre has increased year by year.

We have to demonstrate that there was a return on that investment because it's not only the money, but the time and the staff investment as well. So we do have some key metrics that we report back on what I report back on in terms of ROI is student enrollments, online application conversions, things of that nature. But there's also key metrics for us in terms of our content strategy, so that we can spend the money very wisely and leverage "free" --here with some air quotes--social media that we don't have to pay for in terms of dollars, but that we do pay for in terms of staff and time. So we look at social media applause and amplification rates from social to the web conversions, and then we can track that traffic all the way through and then we can make a really strong case for having that larger budget the next year.

Christopher Pierno: I wish I could say with an emphatic yes, but it's certainly not going down. I think that it depends on the institution. I think we're getting there. I think that schools like us are getting there. I don't think you're going to see us turn away from it. Our budgets will only increase in terms of staff and resources for social media.

Cynthia Woolbright: And ROI?

Christopher Pierno: You're absolutely right, we need to show that we can use these tools for me it would be to fundraise. And what we have seen is more people going online. More gifts are coming in online. More people are going to our website. Everything that we sent out in the mail, everything that we send out in an email links you back to the web. If it comes out in the mail, maybe there's a QR code on there or some kind of easy short URL to send them back to our website to make a gift. And so at least on the advancement end, I think the ROI is how much money are we bringing in online

Sarah McMaster: And that's the beautiful thing about online in general and social media is that it is much more trackable. You can connect the dots much more easily than you can with that direct mail piece.

Christopher Pierno: All of these analytics is very important to showing people that we need more staff, we need more resources.

Cynthia Woolbright: So all of this has created an opportunity for an incredible amount of collectible information. How do you keep up with that and how does it influence your planning?

Sarah McMaster: Well, we don't collect any kind of personal information through social media. We do have campaign landing pages where people request an information packet or something like that. But we're not collecting any kind of personally identifiable information from our social media audiences at this time

But what we do look at is usage behavior. this particular piece of content in comparison to this other piece of content got more attraction, got more likes, was shared to a greater extent. So we're going to focus our time and energy on more content like that. And so we do collect a good amount of data, absolutely, but none of it is at that personal level.

Christopher Pierno: We're definitely in the business of collecting as much personal information as possible because we want to get people to register online for our alumni community. We have a third party vendor that deals with our website management for advancement and gifts and alumni community, and they're integrating with LinkedIn. When we do implement that, we will be able to pull alumni employment information, whatever they make public, whatever they put up there in terms of where they're working, where they have worked, where else they went to school, whatever the constituent chooses to make public. LinkedIn is definitely where we want to get information about where people are in their careers right now.

Cynthia Woolbright: What are the tools that you're using to collect information, store information?

Christopher Pierno: I use something called HootSuite, and that enables me to track all the different accounts that I have access to, as well as track searches. So anything that has a hashtag CUA in it because that's our universal, Catholic University tag. It enables me to see students, see what departments on campus are saying and what they are tweeting. And that's just very rudimentary. There's lots of resources out there that enable you to monitor everything at one time—Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest.

Sarah McMaster: I use HootSuite as well. In the past I've used TweetDeck and Crowdbooster and some others, but HootSuite by far is the one that I've gotten the best experience with. I have it set up so that I look at all of the activity happening on the different accounts, but also for specific keywords, specific searches. And I also use it not only to kind of keep track of what's happening in my little ecosystem, but also in terms of what's going on outside of our ecosystem. I also have a tab set up to keep track of community colleges in general, higher education in general. And then I also use Google Alerts, which helps not only with, our public relations folks and making sure we're closing that loop, but also with social media, when you're popping up in different blogs and things like that.

Christopher Pierno: I use Google Alerts as well...

For anything that pops up with Catholic University, Catholic University of America, it sends me a digest every morning of here's where you are. And you get to see...

.how you're playing out there on the web. It's fascinating.

Cynthia Woolbright: So obviously this is huge. Have both your schools embraced this in terms of seeing social media as career opportunities for students and also in terms of creating a knowledge base among employees, staff?

Sarah McMaster: So that's actually something that I spend a lot of time on. Last fiscal year I did almost 40 hours of training just for our internal folks, mostly staff, and also with our faculty about a whole host of topics from web best practices to, specific social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to sessions about privacy implications. And then I also do open office hours one afternoon every week where anybody can come in with any kind of question So we spend a lot of time and energy making sure that people have access to training here so that we can all do what we need to do and do it well.

And then on the student side, we're just starting to break into that. We have some non-credit offerings. We have a lot of faculty that work that in to their courses that aren't about social media. And then we also have online courses. So it's interwoven, but we still have some potential there for some opportunity to advance.

Christopher Pierno: We have student workers in the office who deal with social media and deal with updating Facebook and Twitter. And other departments on campus have also done that as well. When I was a student here, the career services office reached out to students as a volunteer position to get experience to update their Facebook and Twitter. I think that was something very smart

In terms of training, in terms of guidelines. Sarah mentioned that, she had created guidelines for departments and employees. I think that's something that we're moving towards because of this massive swath of departments and employees and students out there with varying degrees of how to use these things. We just need to educate staff and departments on campus about how to use this properly, how to be spontaneous, how to be active, how to be personal, comfortable, and current with social media.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, finally, what intrigues you, either personally or professionally about what social media is capable of ?

Sarah McMaster: Well, right now I'm really loving Vine, which is a very short format video app that bolts onto Twitter so you can push really easy to make short video clips to Twitter and then Vine itself also hosts them. And it's just really fun, really easy. And I'm seeing some really creative use of it, both in higher education and also just in general. So that's really fun and something that I'm kind of intrigued with right now.

And just video in general, I spent a little bit of time watching the different Harvard residential building videos that the students that live in the buildings were making to promote the incoming students. And they were so creative and really fun to watch and spurred my imagination for “how can we get that same outcome?"

Christopher Pierno: The biggest thing that has intrigued me about this whole thing is seeing where it began, where it was very text-based. Twitter and Facebook. And then we moved into pictures with Flickr and now Instagram, and now you're seeing us move into this video...

Cynthia Woolbright: Uh-huh [affirmative].

Christopher Pierno: ...and even more so live streaming—Google Hangouts, Ustream—all of this encompasses the idea that we want to be a hundred percent connected at all times. We're a Catholic institution, we're live streaming masses, lectures, events, classes, just for the sake of everybody here, in the community, and outside the community as well. It just really floors me how it continues to expand.

Sarah McMaster: That's a good point, Chris, about like the progression and that – what you hit on there with the real time interaction, you know, like with the podcasting and the live streaming and things like that. I think you know that something's really gone mainstream when you see it, you know, like for example with the real time, with the Super Bowl ads this year were – there was like a real time aspect to it where people would be voting.

Christopher Pierno: Yeah.

Sarah McMaster: You know, that's a great example of how far it's come. And I think you really touched on that with that.

Christopher Pierno: And you're seeing university administrators or university presidents, they'll get on Twitter and answer questions.

Sarah McMaster: Yeah.

Christopher Pierno: You don't have a choice."


Sarah McMaster

Sarah McMaster, Director of New Media for Mount Wachusett Community College, has over 7 years of hands-on experience with tactical and strategic use of social media for student engagement, community relations, and inbound marketing purposes.  She is currently project manager for the college’s public-facing website, oversees college-wide digital asset management, and leads the social media administrators team.Sarah is Google Analytics Certified and a thought leader in new media for her institution, guiding social media policy, use within best practices, and data-driven decision-making for the Marketing and Communications Division.

Christopher Pierno

Chris Pierno is the Assistant Director of Annual Giving at The Catholic University of America. His portfolio includes young alums and current students. Chris is the manager of the school’s senior class gift campaign called the: “Senior Appreciation Program.” Additionally he manages the updating and streamlining of the university’s Institutional Advancement website along with drafting and sending all online solicitation emails. Working with other staff members, he assists in the creation and sending of direct mail pieces as well.


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