First Strategic, Then Strategy

Susan Evans is the director of creative services for the senior strategic communication team at the College of William & Mary.

Much has been written and said about social media strategy in recent months. Actually, there is a lot of hand-wringing going on. Some resist the discussion, claiming that the very nature of social media makes strategy unnecessary, or at least less relevant. Others get wrapped up in the details of writing a strategy that will address every possible circumstance while the communication opportunities slip away.

My advice is first strategic, then strategy. In my view, early use of social media within an institutional communication plan can be strategic. I also think it’s reasonable to begin without a formal social media strategy, allowing it to evolve over time. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

To be frank, in 2006 I didn’t know enough about social media to craft a strategy. I started using social media for my job at William & Mary when I launched a blog to chronicle an 18-month campus web redesign. I wanted to run a redesign project that included transparent communication about our progress and figured a blog was an effective way to inform and educate stakeholders. I trusted my gut.

Just knowing your content really well and sharing it immediately is enough at first. When I later used social media for communicating about William & Mary’s search for a new mascot, I trusted my gut again, focusing on 1) information I had to share, 2) getting the word out in interesting ways, and 3) fun. Even without a mature strategy, I was strategic, using a blog as the source for official updates, a Facebook group to offer previews and insider info, a Twitter feed for unexpected and fun bits about the mascot suggestions we were getting and YouTube videos as a distraction when the mascot committee was deliberating and fairly silent. With 20/20 hindsight, I now know that my strategy was the integration of multiple social media platforms to run an Internet campaign that engaged alumni and students in our mascot search. It worked.

As time went on, the power of social media was revealed to me, again and again. When I became an admin for what was then the William & Mary fan page on Facebook, I was very, very careful. At the time, we had 10,000 or so fans and I would characterize my strategic approach as a “deep breath” just prior to every post. We used the feedback from fans to gauge the popularity of certain types of content. That’s when we learned that campus photos and the weather in Williamsburg are always crowd pleasers and that William & Mary alums will be all over you if you make a grammatical error. Next, we populated a Flickr site with our best photography and used photo contests to encourage others to play. Allowing our maturing social media strategy to percolate, we added Twitter figuring you couldn’t get into too much trouble with only 140 characters. It’s still working; we have nearly 23,000 following us on Facebook and nearly 5,000 on Twitter.

Social media @williamandmary is now fully integrated with wm.edu and includes a YouTube EDU channel, Foursquare and a social media aggregator. Just when we’re ready to write a strategy based on what we’ve done strategically for the past five years, we realize we shouldn’t. Instead, we’re planning to stop and evaluate and maybe, start from scratch. Knowing what we know now, what should our social media strategy look like? I’ll keep you posted.

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