An Interview with Heidi Butler of Northampton Community College

Northampton Community College, in Bethlehem, Penn., was an early adopter in terms of social media. In this blog entry, Heidi Butler, director of public information and community relations, shares lessons learned with Melissa Starace, director of alumni affairs.

MS: What social media initiatives is your institution currently engaged in? 

HB: Facebook is definitely the most popular. The college mascot has been our “face” on Facebook for the past four years. Although he’s unusual looking, he’s a popular guy. We also have an official fan page. As of this fall, quite a few college departments are starting to add their own pages as well. We were excited to be one of the first community colleges to qualify for an EDU channel on YouTube. Videos posted there average about 4000 clicks a month. We haven’t done as much as some other colleges with LinkedIn, but we have groups for faculty and staff and for students and alumni. We have a fairly robust site on Wikipedia and a small photo collection on Flickr. We also tweet at NorthamptonComm and nccfan.

MS: Which initiatives do you think are most effective? 

HB: Different tools are effective for different purposes. Facebook is great for communicating with students, promoting participation in campus life, and monitoring student opinion. YouTube also generates excitement about student activities and gives prospective students — including international students — a feel for campus life. Twitter helps us connect with the media and with some alumni. And, whether you’re a Wikipedia fan or not, there’s no doubt prospective employees, students and funding sources look there for information. You can’t afford to neglect it. One benefit of Facebook we didn’t expect is that it has helped attract a lot of visitors to the college website. Links posted on Facebook usually result in 2,000-3,000 page views a month for news articles on the website.

MS: What have you tried that you think hasn’t worked? 

HB: We are no longer doing regular updates on MySpace. It is easier to interact with students on Facebook. Most students seem to have migrated there.

MS: Does Northampton have a social media policy?

HB: We chose to go with guidelines rather than with a policy. They have been well received. Social media is new territory for many of our faculty and staff. They seem to appreciate having some tips.

MS: Looking forward, what social media initiatives are you considering? 

HB: We definitely need to expand LinkedIn as a resource for students and alumni who are job-hunting. We also hope to use Facebook and YouTube to market non-credit courses. We haven’t done that before. And we want to make our social media sites more prominent on the college website.

MS: Are social media initiative integrated into your strategic communications plan? 

HB: Goals for social media are incorporated into the public information annual plan, into the institutional advancement action plan, and into the crisis communications plan. Now that we have our sites established, we’re starting to pay more attention to metrics, measuring not just how many fans we have and how many clicks the sites get, but how much interactivity there is. I wish we could say that we’ve found a foolproof formula for gauging what works and what doesn’t. We haven’t, but we’ve got data that tells us more than we knew before.

MS: How are your social media initiatives organized and resourced? 

HB: Public information staff members take the lead in social media initiatives and support other offices and organizations that want to become involved. The staff consists almost entirely of part-timers. One is the voice of the mascot on Facebook. Another coordinates the fan page. Another one manages the YouTube channel and Wikipedia. Two of us tweet. We offer workshops for faculty and staff who want to learn more about social media, and facilitate “SMUG,” the social media users group on campus.  This is on top of other responsibilities. There is no budget line for social media, but the college has invested in some professional development for staff involved in this work.

MS: What do you wish you knew when you were first exploring social media initiatives that you know now? 

HB: How useful social media would be for market research and student engagement, as well as for communicating with external publics.

MS: What social media resources would you recommend to your peers, and what resources do you wish were available? 

HB: CASE and Ragan Communications both offer excellent workshops and webinars on social media.  The tools are changing so rapidly that it’s also helpful to scan the PR Daily newsfeed on a regular basis.

MS: What are the two most important pieces of advice you would give to someone planning to launch any type of social media initiative today? 

HB: One: Have courage. Best practices are still being developed, so trial and error is part of the process. You can learn from students, and you can learn by watching what other organizations do. You’re still going to make some mistakes. Move on! Attention spans tend to be short in social media!

Two: Team up with at least one other colleague so you can brainstorm, calm each other down when things go amiss, and share the workload when sites need to be monitored and updated on evenings and weekends (not that it takes long).

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