The Last Laugh: Social Media as a Punchline

Keith Hannon (@KeithHannon) is the assistant director for social media at Cornell University.

As a retired, unsuccessful stand-up comic, I know when a room has gone cold. And, based on my experience, the era of using social
media and tech as a punchline during your institutional functions is over.

This is an unprecedented time of competition for most universities with regard to both admissions and alumni engagement. Talented high school students have many options for their undergraduate years and our alumni have an endless pool of nonprofits soliciting them for financial support. So what kind of message does it send when administrators or ambassadors inadvertently expose their own technological shortcomings by using Twitter as the basis for a joke that questions the legitimacy of the social web?

When I first joined the world of higher education a year and a half ago, it was clear such material would generate a contagious chuckle among audience members. Now, I notice the laughter isn’t quite as prevalent as it once was. Teenagers, who are most commonly associated with being early adopters of new technology, are not typically known for fiscal responsibility.

However, even their limited financial knowledge tells them they are staring down a possible price tag of more than $150,000 for an undergraduate education. Are they going to invest that money in an institution that laughs at the technology that has enabled entrepreneurs not much older than themselves to become billionaires?

As the majority of the world Velcros their hands to a smart phone, the notion that social media is solely a young person’s pastime is complete bunk. As I continue to learn more about Cornell’s online alumni communities, I’m finding they are chock full of high-ranking professionals who could single-handedly write a check that would fund a scholarship for half a dozen under graduates. Nearly 70 percent of our newly identified major gift prospects have accounts on LinkedIn, and they are not there because they are looking for a job.

Our alumni are intelligent, accomplished and savvy. They don’t create online profiles because they want to keep up with fads. They are online because they know it is vital to their future success.


“Social media power-user” should not be a prerequisite for individuals working in higher education. But as students and alumni continue to
use social tools to enhance their educational and professional development, we have to be mindful that there is great danger in being perceived as archaic. Prospective students have too many choices, and alumni are constantly being approached by nimble nonprofits that not only embrace technology but are also redefining the ways in which it can be used for fundraising.

For years, I endured the EKG that is the comedy audience only to see it flat line on several occasions. The influencers in higher education  need to make sure this doesn’t happen to them. They need to keep an eye on the monitor because once you’re perceived as obsolete, resuscitation is difficult.

4 responses to “The Last Laugh: Social Media as a Punchline

  1. Mara,
    I think as tuitions continue to skyrocket and more young people are successful as entrepreneurs (without college) I think the alumni network will be the most important thing a school can boast. Considering the current job market, parents are going to want assurances that they’re child will be able to find work after spending 200K on an education. I think social networking will play a pivotal role in improving those networks and increasing connectivity of alumni.

  2. Spot on, Keith. I wonder, when prospective students look at Cornell, do they ask about the strength of the alumni network and the college’s social media presence? Or are these stats highlighted in promotional materials? You’d think it’d be a standard question by now.

  3. Thanks, Chris! I would agree if you’re working in communications, you best be savvy. I think it’s less crucial for those in other sectors, but certainly I love the idea of presidents or popular faculty being on something like Twitter because it gives both potential students and alumni an opportunity to connect with a face of the university. That’s not to say those people shouldn’t have their accounts managed by others, because let’s face it, some people need guidance.

  4. Great insights, Keith. I would be willing to take your idea one step further and say that “social media power user” should be a prerequisite for anyone working in higher ed marketing, communications, advancement, recruiting, web, and any other place where touch points occur with the public. Who knows, in ten years there may be a whole new stable of skills needed. But for now, this is where we are. I agree with your observations totally.

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