Organizing Social Media in .Edu

Michael Stoner is president of mStoner. He co-presented the key findings of the 2011 social media survey at the CASE Social Media and Community conference in April 2011.

Organizing social media in .edu sounds like an oxymoron if there ever was one.

Many institutions have some degree of difficulty managing marketing and brand activities.  Social media is much newer and some leaders doubt its value—and perhaps don’t see a reason to manage it.

Participation in social media is baked into the culture on many campuses, with faculty, staff and students participating in social media via blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and many other tools. This cacophony of voices shares many disparate views, using social media for personal and professional purposes, mixing it up, incorporating it in learning and teaching activities, and conducting research via social media.

It’s more important than ever that institutions find ways to manage some of this activity.

Successful Institutions Manage Social Media

The 2010 Survey of Social Media in Advancement found that institutions that considered themselves to be successful in social media generally spent more time managing their social media presence.  Our 2011 findings are similar.

A major area of focus for our 2011 white paper will be exploring how institutions organize their social media activities. We’ll focus specifically on social media for marketing, advancement, recruiting and other external relations purposes.

To guide my thinking, I’ve relied on work done by the inestimable analyst, Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang), a partner in the Altimeter Group (with Charlene Li, the author of Open Leadership). Jeremiah has identified five different models for managing social media. Three in particular apply in education: the distributed (organic) model, the centralized model and the coordinated model.

Distributed (Organic)

This model of social media management is typical of organizations where social media activity develops in many areas at once and empowered staff members throughout the organization would find other types of social media appealing, too, and be free to explore them. In this kind of organization, there isn’t much “management” of social media—it simply happens, bubbling up from everywhere.

In .edu innovations begin at the edges and may flourish there long before they are taken up by the institution as a whole.  This is the way social media developed on most campuses: individuals or offices began to blog, then launched Facebook pages or groups or began tweeting. There was no thought to coordinating or asking from input from anyone with overall institutional responsibilities for marketing or communications.

Many institutions continue to function this way today. Other institutions haven’t been able to come to terms with the importance of social media and therefore don’t see a need to manage it, or have difficulty managing anything across units.


In contrast to the organic model, the centralized model reflects organizations where social media is controlled by a central office, often a marketing department.

The major advantage of this model is that by adopting it, an institution can achieve an incredible amount of consistency in tone and voice across social media.

But you can see the problems inherent in adopting this model in education.

First, there aren’t many institutions where it would work.Too many people would question the control that the central team would have over social media and many of them would simply continue to do exactly what they’re already doing. It would be very difficult to police or shut down rogue social media accounts—the result would be too much ill will.

A major drawback with this model is that it won’t scale: large institutions like Ohio State or the University of Michigan will never be able to staff a centralized office to manage social media and even colleges would find it difficult.

Finally, while the centralized model may seem appealing to some, it could easily result in social media that appears way too controlled and inauthentic: too much like advertising or broadcasting rather than engagement.


In this model, one office develops policies, guidelines and other procedures and is responsible for communicating them across the institution. The central unit may continue to play a role as a coach, helping to establish and communicate best practices.

You can see the appeal of this model immediately. Because various units control their own social media, there’s likely to be less push-back against guidelines but there can be quality control over messages, usage, frequency and tone. This model is the only one that is likely to provide any ability to scale—it can work equally well at a small college or a large university.

What’s Your Model?

What model does your institution use? How’s it working? What are its advantages and drawbacks? We want to know: we’ll include information from institutions that have a story to share in our 2011 white paper. Please leave a comment below.

An expanded version of this blog post is cross-posted at 

6 responses to “Organizing Social Media in .Edu

  1. The first step is to get a clearer picture of your current social media content. Before you begin filling out your content calendar, you need to evaluate your current social media. Figure out which areas of your social media strategy you need to focus on and where needs improving. An audit is crucial to optimizing your efforts so that you put the work into the right areas. This will help you to determine which channels you want to use and the type of content you want to produce.

  2. Coordinated is certainly the most effective way for a major institution to manage its online reputation. Most organizations begin with organic, and for obvious reasons. Everything starts somewhere, and when people eventually catch on to the benefits, they jump aboard. Attempting to centralize this process will most likely result in a stuffy atmosphere and most readers, or followers can pick up on that in an instant and become disinterested. Coordinated allows for there to be a general guideline (best practices), yet still allows for a certain level of creative freedom, which is where new ideas can begin to flourish.

  3. IMHO Distributed Organic will generate a more lively spontaneous form of content, whilst Centralized will always be favored by large organizations with PR to protect.
    As ever it’s “Horses for Courses”

  4. I fully agree with Michael that a coordinated approach is sustainable and doable in higher ed since it’s my reality. It hasn’t been easy to carve out this role, but it can happen over time. I avoid telling people what to do and instead concentrate my pitches on the value and benefits they’ll bring to departments and the department’s constituents. Small gains here and there can be leveraged to create even bigger gains in a snowball sort of effect. That’s where I currently find myself.

  5. I have found that some Social Marketing works better than others. It is hugely time consuming to manage the various social networks available online where by not always the most popular are the most successful. For us Twitter out performs Facebook in terms of click throughs etc.
    Whilst this may be apparent with our current Twitter following compared to our FB fan page they were started together with equal time resources. One has simply outperformed the other and warranted a more dedication. Others such as Bleet, Digg & Stumble take very little time. They seem to have some staying power so well worth a few minutes just once a month. IMHO!

  6. Social was decentralized when it made it’s appearance by employees. But I’ve moved toward the coordinated model for the reasons Michael outlines.
    I work in university communications, a centralized comms group and when I took over management of social media, it was clear that I had no control over other units, no prospect of controlling other units and no desire to control other units. Another variable to bring up is that working in a central admin unit, I’m not close to students and therefore I don’t feel that I should dictate nor participate in engaging with students through the channels our office manages. That’s better left to the units and people who do work with students on a daily basis. Because of this, I slowly shifted my role to be less about engagement, running contests, conversing with individuals, etc. and more as a support and organizing role.
    I now run bi-weekly sessions (you could call them training) on topics relating to the web and social media. I also coordinate people across silos who should be working together because they’re trying to do similar things. In essence, I’m a hub for information, governance, training, consulting and other behind-the-scenes work. I still manage a few social accounts, but I’m currently trying to partner (again, across silos, which is always difficult) with groups who can provide more focused content and value than I can being a step removed because of what my role has become.
    I fully agree with Michael that a coordinated approach is sustainable and doable in higher ed since it’s my reality. It hasn’t been easy to carve out this role, but it can happen over time. I avoid telling people what to do and instead concentrate my pitches on the value and benefits they’ll bring to departments and the department’s constituents. Small gains here and there can be leveraged to create even bigger gains in a snowball sort of effect. That’s where I currently find myself. Things are moving in the right direction for all involved and I’m optimistic that the organizational baggage that’s ever present in higher ed can be effectively sidestepped to produce positive gains. It takes a lot more time and attention than it should, but perseverance, asking for forgiveness after the fact and a positive outlook will do wonders.

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