Thursday, April 17, 2014

Make Social Media Part of a Strategy, Not the Only Strategy: A Case Study

"Can you post this on social media?"

This is a question I get asked a lot (and sometimes it's more of a statement than a question). A lot of people ask me to do this because they are trying to accomplish something and have people take some kind of action like attend an an event or read an article. It's in these moments that I enjoy my job most because I now have the chance to educate someone else on how social media and content work (read: not alone) and how they can work for them.

Posting to social media isn't the answer to achieving goals; social content needs to work in tandem with every other piece of communication as part of an overall strategy.  That's why I was excited when our research office reached out and wanted to use social media to connect with the Class of 2008 to complete an outcomes survey.

We met and developed a three-week content calendar that included various components that weren't limited to social media including an email campaign and utilizing individual members of the class to further our reach. The results from spending just 25 minutes crafting a strategy surprised all of us.

What We Did
  • We sent 4-5 emails to the class over the course of the three-week period.
  • Twitter: We focused on Twitter because we have a younger audience there and we have interacted with several members of this class in this space. I posted the link on Twitter three times, on different days and at different times compared to our email campaign.
  • We established three waves of 'digital ambassadors.' We only had about 80 percent of the class' email addresses and needed to find a way to reach the other 20 percent. The first week, "we" (the university) did our social media push; the second week we enlisted the help of our Class of 2008 Committee, who volunteer to contact classmates about giving and volunteer opportunities, and finally we reached out to other class leaders not in the previous group to connect with their friends.
The Outcomes
  • A 50 percent overall response rate (252 responses). Average response rates for this type of survey in years' past has ranged between 15% and 32% of only valid email addresses. This year's equivalent of just valid email addresses alone would have been 68%.
  • Email campaign: In case you need an example that email isn't dead, we had a 40 percent response rate after the first week alone, which only included our emails and Twitter posts.
  • According to our analytics, the three Twitter posts garnered just over 80 click-throughs. That's not very high, but it was such a small portion of our audience so we felt that was appropriate.
  • Our ambassadors came through big for us, too. I saw a couple post the link on their Facebook pages and others said they personally emailed the link to their friends. 
What Else You Need to Know
  • The survey format changed this year from a much longer one that required an individual personalized password to a shorter version without the need for a password. I imagine this helped get many more completed.
  • Our director recalled an alumni survey from three years ago with a very different topic but that they had a 35% response rate - that was the highest she could recall for a survey before this one.
  • Of course, there was something enticing alumni to complete the survey - a $100 Amazon gift card. But to be fair, that was also an incentive last year.
It might be a very small success story, but a powerful one that I have already used a few times to illustrate to others the power social media can have when it isn't viewed as a silted communications method. 

How have you educated people about integrating social media into their plans in order to accomplish goals?

Monday, April 14, 2014

What I've Learned Thanks to Our Student-Run Instagram Account

As I was flipping through my calendar a couple of weeks ago and realizing that yes, it is actually April (where did this year go?!), I started thinking back to all of the projects my student social media team and I have taken on since last August. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: 28 students later, we’re more than six months in to @herewegosaints, our student-run Instagram account, arguably our biggest initiative that we took on this year.

I can still remember exactly how I felt as we geared up to launch this account and what itwas like those first few weeks. It was nerve-wracking and scary, but also exhilarating. We had a lot of questions: Would students love it? Would we get enough students interested? Would it be appealing to prospective students? Would it be different enough to warrant a separate account from the main university account? Six months later, the answer is the same to each of these questions: YES.

In the first month, we had more than 800 followers. Since, we’ve continued to grow our fan base and are closing in on 1,500 followers (it took our main account nearly 10 months to reach that number) and engagement per post remains steady. Interest hasn’t dropped off – in fact, I think it’s only increased over time. I still get emails every week from students who want to take it over and our students and followers are always looking forward to Mondays when we reveal who is running it next.

I could write a book about all we’ve learned and how it’s changed what we do and how we do it here at St. Lawrence, but in the interest of time – mine and yours! – I thought I’d share some of the biggest takeaways and lessons learned here from creating @herewegosaints.

The Need for Content Strategy
At first when I met with students interested in running the account, it was about filling weeks. Then as we got deeper into the fall semester and had more than enough interest, I was able to shift the tone of those initial meetings from “Thanks for being interested – we’ve signed you up!” to getting them to think strategically.

Here are some of the questions I ask when students inquire about running the account:
  • What are you involved with on campus? 
  • What week(s) are you busiest? How would you show off your busy week on Instagram? 
  • How will your week be different than other weeks? 
  • What is your St. Lawrence story and how will you plan on sharing that on Instagram?
  • What do you love about Instagram? 
  • Tell me about a recent post you saw that you liked and tell me why you liked it; then tell me about a recent post you didn’t like and why.
"A lot of my friends from home say that we are abnormally committed to St. Lawrence. I don't understand what they're talking about..." One of our most popular posts by senior John Balderston. John developed a comprehensive content calendar for his week (his own idea!) and the time he spent putting it together paid off - it was by far one of our most popular weeks.
I spend a lot of time on St. Lawrence’s social content strategy and I know from experience that planning posts and content out serves us extremely well. In asking these questions, I got students to think ahead. Treating them like the content strategists they were going to be for the week was critical and has helped tremendously in constantly providing our followers with engaging content and our students with an amazing experience.  In these conversations with students, they seem to really enjoy the fact that we're trying to make sure they're being thoughtful and be purposeful with what they are doing. 

Creating a Second Account

Only a small group of students knew that Matt Burr, a St. Lawrence graduate & drummer for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, was visiting campus to give our student-run music venue a custom drum kit. Amy Yao, the student running @herewegosaints that week, happened to be one of them (an absolute coincidence - I had no idea!). She was able to capture an amazing moment because she had the keys to this account.
When we launched @herewegosaints, I talked with several people who wondered why we created a separate account. Internally, we had briefly discussed the pros and cons to this and decided a separate account could be something we share with prospective students and say it’s completely student-owned. Looking back, I don’t think this would have been nearly as successful had we done it through the main university account. Here’s why:
  • It wonderfully complements the main university account. One thing that was missing from our Instagram content overall was content from inside the St. Lawrence experience - the day-to-day action on campus. This is difficult for me to capture because I'm not living it. @herewegosaints  is able to do that for us. The account focuses much more on taking people behind the scenes of life at St. Lawrence, whereas our main account focuses on highlights and showing off our campus.  We know we have a good amount of overlap in terms of followers between the two accounts (but we've found prospective students oftentimes engage with @herewegosaints first), so when a student is showing the @herewegosaints fans an event they are actively taking part in, we can be showing another so we don’t miss anything – for a one-person show like myself, this has actually helped me a lot. 
  • Students trust the account. Now that we’re into our 28th week, students who have run the account have told their friends about their experience. The word is out: it’s unfiltered, students have direct access and it’s a lot of fun. Because of this, students share the account with friends at other schools or high school students. It's real. It's theirs. They like that.
  • Students understand – and love - the responsibility. At first, one of our concerns was giving students the password, but this is what has led to such buy-in from them. Every student I talk with about their week appreciates that we trust them with the account and that we’re letting them tell their own story in their own way.
What We Didn’t See Coming  
  • Students are learning about opportunities they have at St. Lawrence through this account. I’m not sure why, but I never considered this account to be a resource. But in my many meetings with students, they’ve told me that they’ve learned about this class, or that research fellowship, or this club or that favorite meal through following this account. Students enjoy the different perspectives because they are learning something new about St. Lawrence, along with the rest of us. 
  • Running the account is real-world experience. We have a lot of students interested in PR/communications/marketing and for them, running the account is something they can talk about in an interview. I've had students mention this to me and it reinforces why it's so critical to make sure I help them think strategically about what they are doing.
  • It has shifted how our students think about their own content. This blew me away a little: I met with a student earlier this winter about running the account. After talking through the logistics, she casually said, “You know, every time I post to my personal account now I ask myself, ‘Would I post this if I were running @herewegosaints? Or how would I change this post if I were running @herewegosaints?’” She’s not the only one who has mentioned this either – I’ve spoken to four or five students who have echoed those same thoughts. And while this is anecdotal, I think the quality of the photos I see being posted by our community have gotten better and certainly the amount of content shared has increased dramatically. Our community is much more engaged.
  • Students are proud to go to St. Lawrence, just because we have this account. When I meet with students, they tell me how great it is that we give them the chance to do something like this. They truly feel ownership over this account, which is exactly what I was hoping for. 
What Have I Learned?

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about who our current students are, what they care about and what experiences are offered at St. Lawrence today. This account has given me the chance to see what our students are talking about and care about in real time. This helps me with the other parts of my job in creating content for publications and the web.

As the main social media manager on campus, I find I have limited time to test the waters and try different types of content to see what resonates. While running this account, students have done a little bit of this for me without realizing they are doing so! In a lot of ways, it has helped reshape our overall approach on Instagram.

Other Fun Awesomeness

Since we launched our account in September, I’ve spoken with several colleagues at different institutions who have thought about launching similar accounts or initiatives. Take a look at the great things they are doing!

Valdosta State University (@vstateexperience)
Humboldt State University (@livefromhsu)
Webster University (@mywebsteru)
Southwestern University (The Captain at the Helm)

Have you created a similar account or initiative? What have you learned?