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Social Media Today and Tomorrow

Andrew A Gossen Senior Director for Social Media Strategy, Alumni Affairs, Cornell University

In collaboration with Slover Linett Strategies Inc. and mStoner, CASE engaged in the second annual research project on social media and reported the findings in CASE Currents, April 2011. Among areas of interest in conducting the research, respondents were asked about the ways in which they incorporate social media in their organizations, their goals and best practices. Moreover, the research attempted to learn about organizational interest in successful uses of social media, barriers to such success and what may be the near future for social media.

From the research, most respondents indicated that their primary use of social media is communications, alumni relations and development. Social media was aimed primarily at alumni (92%) and the most used method of social media is Facebook.

We asked Andrew Gossen, Senior Director for Social Media Strategy at Cornell University and a member of CASE’s Commission on Alumni Relations, to help us better understand the results of the research and most importantly, what does he see as the near future for social media in our advancement programs.

WG: How do you interpret the responses from the research? What three lessons did you learn from the results of the research?

First, higher ed has finally accepted that social media is not just a passing fad. With 96% of institutions reporting that they now are using at least one social media platform, we've moved beyond the "should we?" question to the question of "how?" That’s a major step forward. Second, lack of support from upper management doesn't seem to be the challenge that it used to be. Social media practitioners are no longer limited by skepticism about social media's value but by resources, mainly staff time and expertise. Third, there's a gap between recognizing that social media has value and supporting it accordingly. Despite awareness that their efforts are being impeded by staffing constraints and lack of relevant expertise, few responding institutions reported that they intend to hire additional staff or bring in consultants during the upcoming year. That's a shame, because social media is a perfect case study in getting out of something what you put into it.

WG: With alumni as the target market (92%), are there common strategies that you discern for our alumni population? In other words, are we targeting, in general, to generations of our alumni? To align affinity groups? To reach donors? What are we trying to accomplish when we say we want to "engage our alumni?"

My guess is that this is more a statement of intent and hope than fact. Most of us are still targeting the large audiences on top-level institutional pages and assuming that a large percentage of this number must be alumni. Sure, many of them are, but we need to remember that faculty, staff, students, prospective students, job seekers, and many other types of people may also be part of that audience. Not being able to break this audience down more precisely is not so much a reflection of lack of curiosity or initiative as the difficulty of extracting lists of fans from Facebook and the sheer amount of time it takes to look individuals up manually in the alumni database. The University of Michigan has almost 400,000 fans on its main Facebook page…how much student labor would it take to complete that project?

If the alumni audience is what you’re after, it makes sense to have channels that are specifically for alumni. The more you know who the audience is, the better you’ll be able to produce content that is meaningful to that audience. Within these communities, you start to be able to target particular segments of the audience, try to get different segments to engage with each other, and so on. Boston University, for instance, has done some nice work getting different generations of alumni to engage with each other and with students on the B.U. Alumni Association Facebook page.

What do we mean when we say we want to "engage our alumni"? It depends on the institution and where you sit within the institution. If you’re operating your social channels from a Public Affairs or a campaign perspective, you may be trying to get university messaging about campaign priorities in front of alumni. If you're doing it from an Annual Fund perspective, you could be taking baby steps towards actual solicitation via social channels, or you could be conveying stewardship messaging. If you’re doing it from an Alumni Affairs perspective, you might be trying to generate a critical mass of audience around a particular affinity or help promote an upcoming reunion. The point being, of course, that each of these units has goals that contribute toward broader institutional priorities. And unless you’re using the social platforms to advance these goals, you’re always going to have a hard time answering questions about ROI. It’s very easy to get distracted by new tools that are bright and shiny and treat them as ends in-and-of themselves, but as Andy Shaindlin has observed, your ultimate focus needs to be the behavior you want to cultivate, not the technology.

WG: In reviewing the responses, it appears that we are currently still trying to measure the effectiveness of social media. We’re grappling with what this means and how does this further our relationships with alumni; more over, how is it measured. Please share your thoughts on this area of measurement and outcomes?

Despite the current court battle that’s trying to quantify the value of a follower on Twitter, I don’t think we're ever going to get anywhere trying to persuade people that there's an innate value to a "like" on a fan page or a follower on Pinterest. If we’re being strategic, we need to ask the follow-up question of "Great. So how does that follower help you advance your unit's goals?" From my team’s vantage point in Alumni Affairs and Development, we've concluded that we need to focus on using our suite of tools to enhance the footprint and amplify the impact of things that our organization is already doing well. For instance, we’ve spent lots of time and energy over the past year figuring out how to livestream live events to our Facebook audience. These are events that are already aligned with strategic priorities – if they weren't, they wouldn't be happening to start with. With just a modest, incremental investment of effort, we can take that event and make it available to an audience that is much broader than the live audience. The content that is already important enough to warrant an event is now accessible in real time around the globe.

Being able to report that we increased the size of the audience for an event by 175% and had viewers in 24 different countries lines up with existing metrics and goals in a way that saying that we increased our number of followers on Twitter by 8% simply does not. Sure, the two are related – the larger the audience on the social channels, the larger the audience for livestreams in that space – but one deals with priorities around which there is already consensus and one does not.

WG: How then does this relate to one’s overall communication strategy with/for alumni and donors?

The key is to think about when social media adds value and when it does not. In the livestreaming situation referred to above, it clearly does. At the opposite end of the spectrum, imagine a Planned Giving event where none of the attendees use Twitter. Would it be worth publicizing a hashtag for the event? No, it would not.

It’s also important to be attuned to the unique characteristics of social media. In general, it's a medium that rewards informality over formality and timeliness over production quality. But different platforms also work in different ways, and different audiences on the same platform may respond differently to content. Take the time to learn what works best for your audiences on each of the platforms your using. You’re never going to unlock the potential of these communities without taking this step.

WG: What do you envision as the next steps in social media for our institutions in the near term?

We need to move beyond euphoria over having taken the social media plunge and take a hard look at how our efforts are helping us accomplish our goals. We also need to understand better the level of investment necessary to achieve our aspirations. I know that people are having fun trying to be first out of the gate on new platforms, and there is something to be said for establishing a basic presence for the sake of protecting the brand, but there is a real danger of spreading your efforts so thinly that you don't have much impact anywhere. Unless you see a real strategic opportunity in something new like Pinterest, it may make more sense to get better at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn before pouring precious time and energy into something speculative. Don’t focus on being first; focus on being good.


WG: Finally, what are the three most important lessons you've learned in your experience with social media? What do you recommend to our colleagues as they approach this major phenomenon?

Higher ed has struggled with social media because it works directly against many of our most deeply ingrained instincts. To be able to engage with the opportunity presented by the emergence of social technologies, you need to learn (and believe!) three key lessons:

  • It's not about you; it's about the users. Don’t worry about control of the conversation; you don't have it, you can't have it, and you don’t really want it. Work towards giving your audience a return on the attention they invest in your institution, and they'll stick around and repay the time you're investing in the community. Get too wrapped up in your priorities and they'll slowly fade away.
  • Social media is a disruptive technology. If you, or other people at your institution, are feeling uncomfortable as your efforts take root and mature, that's a sign that you’re doing something right. (On the flip side of the coin, if everybody is comfortable, you’re either working at a truly progressive institution or not pushing the envelope enough!) Once you recognize that a certain amount of uncertainty and tension is a natural part of deeper engagement with these tools, it can help you take these feelings less personally and engage with the opportunities and challenges more openly.
  • The only thing you can be certain about in social media is that the platforms will evolve. Never get too wedded to a particular aspect of a platform you're using because inevitably, it is going to change. Change is the status quo on the social web.

And a bonus fourth lesson: have fun with these tools. Higher ed is really, really good at making the case that we provide a unique working and learning environment for students and faculty who are changing the world. It is completely appropriate that we highlight this, since this is the main reason we exist. However, it's not the only reason that people pursue higher education. Social media is extremely effective at capturing some of the more informal, social, and playful aspects of the experience. These aspects figure heavily in prospective students’ decisions to pursue study at particular institutions, or in alumni nostalgia for their college days. Don't limit your scope for imaginative use of social media by telling yourself that you have to be serious all of the time.

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