IN THE MARCH 2007 ISSUE OF University Business, some observations about social networking websites were noted. Members of sites such as Facebook and MySpace are wary of the encroachment of business into their online spaces. Not being able to control content and invitation- only membership realities create challenges for institutions in using these online tools. Here are some guidelines for delving into the world of social networking:
Dick Damrow, a colleague at Stamats, mentions the 70:20:10 resource allocation rule: 70 percent of marketing dollars should go to the programs and media that you know work; another 20 percent should go to new ideas to be tested; and the final 10 percent should be allocated to new emerging media. This formula makes sense. In no instance would I underfund what works to substantially invest in what may not. Bob Robertson-Boyd, web content coordinator at Capital University (Ohio), predicts that at least some "10 percent" strategies will be in the 70 percent area in future years.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the invitation only barrier to social networking is to develop your own social network for prospective students, current students, parents, and even alumni. As the owner of the network, you are the one doing the inviting.
At this point your motivation for social networking has changed from marketing (generating exposure) to community building. Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says it's important to think about the reason for using a social network. Is it to market the institution? Is it to maintain contact with students, or alumni? Is it for use in classes, student organizations, residence halls, etc.? Finally, are you prepared to handle various issues concerning content?
Jones squarely hits the one big caution: You can't over-police your own network. If you do, students and others won't come or won't stay. And here's the rub: You may find yourself hosting a site upon which you are occasionally bashed. This takes a high degree of institutional self-confidence.
The "we will build it" option seems to be the course taken by most institutions. Steven Infanti, director of communications and marketing at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (Pa.), is an advocate of colleges creating their own sites. HU's single sign-on web portal, Jenzabar Internet Campus Solution (JICS), was implemented this fall. Infanti says the "portal better allows new students to situate themselves as part of the HU community." Admitted students can access a portal just for them, and those who then choose HU get access to an enrolled students portal.
Besides institutional information, notes Infanti, the portals offer community checklists for important dates and future plans, chat tools, and other ways to meet people. The portals take the best of social networking and limit it to the HU community. "We want students to connect with each other, our professors, and our administrators. This is the medium to do so. In the future, we will look at giving parents of admitted students their own portal," he says.
Anne Conaway Peters, director of marketing at Saint Michael's College (Vt.), has a similar take. For many years, a message board on Saint Michael's website has contained specific boards for prospective students, accepted students, and parents. This year, administrators went a step further, implementing a social networking site for accepted students. "We're really viewing this as a yield activity-a chance for accepted students to bond with one another in their own social network," she explains. "Knowing the power of friendships and the strong desire to fit in on the part of our traditional 17- to 18-year-old audience, we're hoping the social bonds they form online will encourage students to choose Saint Michael's." The site is called "KnightSpace," incorporating the college's mascot.
"We thought long and hard about the risk factors before going into this," Conaway Peters adds. "I'm bracing myself for the first time someone posts an inappropriate comment or photo. So far that hasn't happened. Mostly the students have glowed about Saint Michael's. A few have offered critiques as well, and that's OK. In order for KnightSpace to feel authentic, I want to tamper with the content as little as possible so the students really feel that it's 'theirs.' "
Tom Perry, director of college relations at Marietta College (Ohio), says social networking is clearly a component of its marketing strategy. Marietta's leaders understand new media is evolving every day and it's important not to lag behind, he says. Potential students expect a social network. In reaching this group, you can't rely solely upon the conventional methods of communication. Students expect more.
"This is the second academic year that we have used a social networking site to help connect admitted students to the college," Perry says. It helps students get to know one another long before they arrive for orientation. Approximately 40 percent of admitted students for fall 2006 used the network until they matriculated in August.
Like many of his peers at other institutions, Perry has little hard data, beyond usage, that proves the site has helped create the desired community. But he says he's "encouraged by the activity of the students on the site. The ones who use it update or check on their site pretty regularly."
If the social networking concept includes an emphasis on community building, then the array of tools available to colleges and universities increases dramatically. Robertson- Boyd at Capital notes that its blogs with moderated comments encourage two way communication. Recent exchanges between readers and bloggers have included a request for information about cheerleading at Capital and sharing experiences in rural Ohio while on mission trips. Alumni are engaging with current students through an online directory as well.
In addition, Capital's Alumni Office has established a Facebook group for recent graduates and an invite-only, moderated group on Flickr, Robertson-Boyd says. And for the Student Affairs office, Facebook has provided a mix of formal and informal student communication.
Dennis Craig, vice president of admissions/ associate provost of enrollment at Purchase College, State University of New York, shares that a team of about 30 student Admissions Ambassadors chat online with prospects, especially those they met during a campus tour or admissions event. Looking ahead, Craig says he is interested in exploring how the college might take greater advantage of social networking. "We want to have a solid strategy and plan in place before we take the next step."
It's very difficult to gauge the effectiveness of social networks beyond running simple traffic reports. Conaway Peters of Saint Michael's says, "We just implemented KnightSpace in December, and the only students using it so far are those who were accepted under our Early Action I deadline. They received their acceptance letters, and KnightSpace invitations, just before the holidays. The site took off immediately." About 100 students are registered (out of 600 or so invited), and on active conversation threads they have uploaded photos and identified others in the space with similar interests. "Of course, most students already have many 'friends,'" she adds.
Robertson-Boyd from Capital notes that the only data they have is the post interview comments received from families regarding their blogs and the number of alumni who have registered on their alumni site. "We've received more than 1,400 updated e-mail addresses via the alumni site," he reports.
One useful, albeit slightly controversial, strategy that doesn't require using your own social network as a community builder is to peruse existing social networks to check the pulse of what students and others are saying about your institution. This ground-level view can be extremely useful. For example, a bunch of students consistently panning your advising program or the food in your dining hall might be an indicator that these services warrant a look.
One caution: In almost all cases it would be counterproductive to respond directly to a student about something posted on the site. Your job is to observe and collect, not to react. (The one exception is if you believe that the student is in danger.)
There are a number of sleuthing options and tools, including:
- Subscribing to RSS feeds
- Subscribing to e-mail alerts
- Tracking message boards and forums
- Tracking message groups
- Tracking competitor web pages
- Using trend analysis tools
Social networks are an excellent example of buzz marketing. But what happens when the overall experience delivered by the institution to the student, parent, or donor is not buzzworthy? In other words, what would happen if an exciting new media were used to attract students to a very ordinary experience? There would be a painful disconnect and likely a loss of credibility.
Imagine instead that the campus invested in communicating-through a variety of channels-and delivering a truly extraordinarily experience. The positive word-of mouth, the buzz, would likely spread rapidly through old channels and new.
While there's little to be gained in developing an institutional presence on MySpace or Facebook right now, there is merit in creating your own social network as a community builder. And it's imperative to apportion marketing dollars on a continuum that emphasizes tried and true channels and invests, at a reasonable level, in those channels that are new. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, commit your institution to delivering a truly buzzworthy experience.
Robert Sevier, a senior VP at Stamats Communications, is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from www.strategypublishing.com.