An Interview with Rebecca Kilcullen, The University of Birmingham

What do alumni really want online? Rebecca Kilcullen, alumni communications officer at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, is among those searching for the answer. The university has found success through your.bham, an online alumni community custom-made to its requirements. There alumni can share memories, join geographic or society subgroups and give to the University of Birmingham’s Circles of Influence campaign. LinkedIn and Facebook have also been popular. Below, Rebecca talks with Marina Pedreira-Vilarino, acting development director for the University of Sussex, about successes and challenges.

MP-V: What social media initiatives is the university currently engaged in?

RK: On LinkedIn, we host a general alumni group open to anyone, anywhere in the world. There are no entry criteria for this group, so it’s called an “Alumni and Friends” group. There is also a specific U.S. alumni group. Both these groups were originally set up by alumni themselves.

We also have an online alumni community that we host via our alumni website, and an official alumni Facebook group which we are currently in the process of switching into a fan page to give our members more ownership and to allow wider access.

The university has a Twitter feed which we have begun to tap into, for example tweeting throughout our summer reunions to share the day with people who couldn’t be there. And we are able to use the university’s YouTube channel to share films supporting our core messages around the benefits of philanthropy for example. The channel was also a crucial resource in helping alumni all over the world feel part of the buzz when a major news event, the final Leaders’ Debate before the General Election, was happening on campus.

We are also beginning to use alumni who are social media experts as volunteer consultants, and kickstarting an audit of all our social media activity with the aim of having a strategy in place by spring.

MP-V: Which initiatives do you think are most effective?

RK: LinkedIn is proving successful, in terms of picking up alumni who have been lost to us for some time and encouraging them to update their contact details with us, providing us with clean data. It has also highlighted pockets of alumni interest (for example, in Australia) that we weren’t previously aware of. Facebook is useful for promoting events, particularly those with a younger focus, to a large audience in a quick and cost-effective way.

Facebook and LinkedIn can also prove helpful in immediately gauging broader feeling about everything from our printed publications to national issues such as the Browne Report. Many of the people who post on our Facebook and LinkedIn groups are part of the ‘silent majority’ – those we rarely hear from via other avenues – so in that respect, offering them these channels to talk to us and each other is invaluable.

MP-V: What have you tried that you think hasn’t worked?

RK: At the moment, we are not really using LinkedIn to its maximum effect, and the main reason is resources. We haven’t yet been able to get members to participate much in the discussions we are posting, and don’t really have the time to find out why—are they too busy? Not interested in the subject matter?

MP-V: Looking forward, what social media initiatives are you considering?

RK: We would also like to generally do more with all the social media we have, from posting and managing job vacancies and careers information to more regularly updating news and images on the sites. These are all resource-related issues, rather than a case of us not recognising the value of these tools.

MP-V: Are social media initiatives integrated into your strategic communications plan?

RK: Our own online community is built into our overall communications plan, in as much as we cross-promote it in our other communications channels (such as our printed publications) and consider how we can best use content across all of our different tools. We also consider broader university-wide strategies within social media development, such as our focus on promoting alumni groups and activity around the world and how that helps to serve the university’s overall international strategy.

MP-V: How are your social media initiatives organized and resourced?

RK: All the alumni social media is managed by me, the communications officer, and the events officer roles. We do not have a specific resource or budget allocations other than to provide for the maintenance of our online alumni community (your.bham).

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

RK: The level of maintenance needed to properly manage and develop an effective social media presence.

What users are thinking! What do they really want from a university’s social media presence so our groups are genuinely useful to them without spamming them?

And what will be the next big thing in terms of social media, so we can get there first!

MP-V: What are some pieces of advice you would give to someone planning to launch any type of social media initiative today?

RK: Do research with user groups before you start to see what their demands are and whether you can meet them. Consider where you might be able to bring in colleagues from other departments or areas that might be able to really add value. And don’t overpromise to your users. Social media is very fast-moving, and users have high expectations in terms of how much and how often content will change. If you launch with a big bang, be prepared to make an ongoing time commitment.

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