Michael Stoner is the president of mStoner (mStoner.com), a marketing firm that works with education institutions.
In April, I spent several days locked in a room with more than a dozen other folks judging the websites and social media initiatives entered in the 2011 CASE Circle of Excellence awards program. Imagine looking at hundreds of websites, Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds—and then arguing over what works well and what doesn’t with a bunch of smart, plugged-in and opinionated people. It’s inspiring and, at times, stupefying.
Here are some characteristics of the award-winners that are worth emulating if you want your social media initiatives to be effective.
1. When you define your challenge, be as clear as you can about it.
Last year, William & Mary’s mascot search won a gold medal. The challenge faced by Susan T. Evans, who led the initiative, was a directive from President Taylor Reveley to pick a mascot for the college’s Tribe athletic teams and to make it fun.
One of this year’s gold award winners was the University of Nottingham’s Election 2010 blog, created to draw attention to the university’s political scientists as expert commentators on the elections in the U.K.
2. Determine who your target audience is.
Are you targeting prospective students? The media and influencers? Your internal community? Your strategy and tactics will differ depending upon your answer to this question.
Consider St. Edwards University’s socially connected graduation, which was powered by Whrrl, a location-based game. St. Edwards understood that although people know Facebook, they wouldn’t be familiar with Whrrl. To address this, they conducted trial runs and provided simple instructions on how to use the tool. That led to audience participation—and amusement from those who didn’t participate as the Whrrl stream was displayed on large screens during graduation ceremonies.
3. Don’t rely on a single social channel.
For many institutions, it’s essential to have a well-administered presence on Facebook. But, having an excellent Facebook page or a president or chancellor who tweets or blogs, isn’t a social media strategy.
Effective social media programs usually rely on multiple channels. The University of Nottingham used a blog, YouTube—and good, old-fashioned media relations—to achieve stellar results with its Election 2010 program. William & Mary’s mascot search involved blogs, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, email and even some print ads.
You could say that William & Mary’s blogs—a gold award winner this year—are a “single channel.” What makes them particularly impressive is their scale, including the number of participants and how the college integrates blog content within relevant areas of WM.edu.
One of the big differences between entries for the “best in social media” category this year versus previous years was the fact that many institutions entered programs that relied on multiple social channels. We took this as a clear indication of the growing sophistication of social media use.
4. Muster the power of your internal community as well as your external audience.
One of the impressive characteristics of William & Mary’s blogging program was the fact that there were 63 active bloggers including students, staff and faculty. The blog posts were authentic while being on message.
The University of Nottingham’s Election 2010 effort involved 14 professional and academic staff members who were blogging, tweeting and publicizing both the blogs and the university’s experts to the appropriate media.
5. Develop yardsticks that will determine the success of your effort.
We know that it is difficult to project the success of a social media-based campaign, but jumping in without a sense of what you’d like to achieve is not a wise approach. Here are a few of the University of Nottingham’s objectives for the Election 2010 project. Note that some don’t pertain to social media at all.
- involve at least four new academics in media activity by the end of the campaign
- position Nottingham academics as key political commentators
- generate at least 20 pieces of national and international coverage
- support recruitment activity and help increase admissions applications by at least five percent
It helps that the university exceeded all these goals. But without explicitly stating them up front, who would know how successful the Election 2010 program was?
Much of this sounds like smart strategy for just about any successful effort whether a media relations campaign or a recruitment program—and to a large extent, it is. Institutions are still learning how to manage Facebook communities effectively or use Twitter to its best advantage. But that doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned about being successful in public relations or alumni relations doesn’t transfer to social media. It does.