Social Media at a Crossroads

Matthew Herek (@mherek) currently serves as the interim director of career services, students, and young alumni  in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern  University.

These days, social media is often at the forefront of conversations and a hot topic at advancement-related conferences with sessions offering multiple opportunities to discuss tools and strategies. I suppose this is a good thing, but I also see a couple of disconcerting trends.

  1. There is a cacophony of misaligned viewpoints on social media. If you attend different social media sessions at a given conference (or even at multiple conferences), you might walk away from one presenter believing that the best place to start learning about social media is to use Google alerts only to learn from a presenter in another session that Twitter is the place to go.Does this mean one presenter is wrong? Probably not. However, I do think this exposes a problem with curriculum development around social media. As a profession, we have not devised standards of practice in social media and therefore have no best practices.
  2. Social is still being treated in some quarters as something “the kids” are doing. You can sense that some advancement professionals, who were never sure social media was worth worrying about, are now paying more attention but are still on the sidelines. This is a symptom of a larger issue. In our bottom-line driven, “return-on-investment” universe, advancement professionals often have a hard time seeing social media as important because they can’t directly measure its impact. And yet, it is everywhere.  Conferences would benefit from conversations about the lack of understanding around social media and from showing senior professionals how to lead these conversations.
  3. The future is not in your institution’s Facebook account; it’s in everybody else’s. Let’s call it the “Yelp-ification” of higher education. What a student says on Twitter about a school is potentially more impactful than what the school says about itself.  An employee speaking negatively about an institution via a blog or other social media platform could prevent that institution from attracting talented employees. We still seem stuck in the mud on when it comes to controlling and delivering the message. Perhaps, instead, we should be discussing the best way to train people to be solid ambassadors of our message and brand.

We have the talent as a profession to think harder about standards and learning outcomes for our social media discussions at conferences. I think it is time we focused on doing just that. I would be interested to know other’s thoughts on this issue in the comment section below.

9 responses to “Social Media at a Crossroads

  1. “In our bottom-line driven, “return-on-investment” universe, advancement professionals often have a hard time seeing social media as important because they can’t directly measure its impact. And yet, it is everywhere.” This is an interesting point given the online data that can be gathered. Perhaps using such data to convince decision makers can be more effective than conversational persuasion.

  2. Good point on #3, Matt. Social media has been so much about content, inbound, responsive web design, etc. that we forget that ultimately it’s a platform to build advocates. And they will be powerful allies if cultivated well. Talk to people. And remember, it’s all about them, not about you. Hard to pull off when we have had such a promotion mindset. But the truth today is, when you value your followers, you build them into a powerful marketing force. I’m looking forward to the CASE social media conference in Boston in April where I’ll touch on this some in my presentation on social media crisis.

  3. Matt, a great post. In particular I’ll be talking about point 2 in an alumni relations session at our upcoming CASE D1 conference. I said it on the #CASESMC chat the other day – I’d like to convert some of the abstainers who just don’t see the value. I’ve had some success doing that by showing the wealth of information I can get by following one person across social media platforms. Eyes tend to widen when social media posts unveil business deals, friends and connections, personal and business travel, and what a person had for dinner last night and who they dined with. Nevertheless, some can’t seem to fathom why one would want to invest their time in social media. I personally can’t see an alumni relations team whose not relation, both online and off.

  4. Great post. Pretty much agree with Matt and Andy, though actually in some ways you can measure the impact of social media much more readily than for a lot of advancement activities, particularly in alumni relations. Our institutions are mostly spending vastly larger sums of money on alumni magazines than online presence (which is not in itself a problem particularly, they are expensive and valuable), but you’re able to track the impact, growth, engagement etc. though social media tools far more effectively and immediately.
    Matt perhaps you could expand on your thoughts for 2?

  5. Well-said, Matt, especially on points 2 and 3. I think point 1 is only a problem if you attend those disparate conference sessions expecting to be told “what to do.” Diverging viewpoints are valuable to someone who is willing to try various approaches and assess results, and who is thoughtful when evaluating others’ views about what constitutes a best practice.

  6. The idea of having a set of students be social media ambassadors is something I got wind of at the Case V&VI conference in December and I am hooked on trying to get something set up.

  7. Regarding the last sentence of #3, I would argue we should also spend time making sure we deliver what we say we do in our marketing, so that we have plenty of satisfied ambassadors to train.

  8. “The future is not in your institution’s Facebook account; it’s in everybody else’s.” I like this and increasingly see an institution’s formal FB and Twitter interactions (likes, retweets, replies, comments) as trailing indicators of engagement, yet most social media gurus preach content creation, content creation, content creation and inbound linking as their sole sermon: get them to interact with what we say about ourselves. There’s an equally important role for learning great reputation management tools and skills… and remembering that public relations isn’t just about telling our story to the public, but relating to the public and what they say about us.

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