Sending Snaps to a 109-Year-Old Alumna

Meg Bernier Keniston (@megkeniston)  is assistant director of editorial services and social media at St. Lawrence University.

What I love about managing social media is creating dynamic content and dreaming up creative ways to use it to engage as many members of our audiences as possible. There’s nothing more rewarding than watching meaningful interactions add up through likes, retweets, shares, clicks and beyond.

I spend the majority of my days in this mindset, but recently one assignment challenged me to change things up a bit: make one alumna smile.

Helena, St. Lawrence University’s oldest living graduate, turned 109 years old in February 2016. For the last few years, my colleagues and I have worked to find interesting ways for our community to celebrate this Class of 1927 graduate. One year, we created a giant birthday card, invited students to sign it and sent it to her. Another year, we printed out all of the Facebook comments we received on her birthday post (we receive hundreds every year!) and mailed them to her. The problem with this tactic? She received them after her birthday.

This year, we wanted Helena to know she was in our thoughts on her birthday, but the difference in age between our students, many of our alumni and Helena is… well, vast. So, digital celebration efforts didn’t seem like an option—at least not how we usually think about digital engagement.

A Snapchat Experiment

Helena_snapsMy student social media team and I had just launched St. Lawrence’s Snapchat account the week before. We’d already found Snapchat to be a great way to alert students about campus happenings. We decided to try to gather 109 birthday cards for Helena. We set up a table in our student center with plenty of craft materials and created a Snapchat story around the project.

Students lined up to make or sign a card for Helena, and it wasn’t long before an alumna messaged us and asked how she could contribute despite not being on campus. My first thought (because I’m 30!) was to have her make something digitally and email it to the team for us to print out. My team suggested we also put out a call on Snapchat itself for students and alumni to send us snaps wishing Helena a happy birthday. After the card-making event, we needed about 30 more “cards” to reach 109, so we put the request on Snapchat.

More than 40 snaps rolled in during the next four to five hours; I was shocked. They were full of color and energy! Many included students’ faces; most included emojis and all were genuinely heartfelt. I screenshotted them, printed them in color and added them to the package of 109 birthday cards being delivered by hand to Helena through a family friend.snaps

On Helena’s birthday just a few days later, we heard from her friend who sent us a photo and a note that read: “You just don’t know how much the cards delighted her. All she can do is laugh as she opens them—and she has a very infectious laugh!”

Meaningful Ties

I came away from this exchange feeling inspired. Sometimes, I find myself so deep in the weeds of managing social media that it takes a while for me to dig my way out. Digging through data, planning posts and trying to create innovative, meaningful content every day (while also considering what’s coming in the weeks ahead!) can be draining. The minutia of it all can sometimes make me forget why we’re doing this in the first place: to better connect people to each other and our colleges and universities in ways that matter to them and to us. These connections extend beyond the digital realm and into real life.

Because of a series of Snap stories, we inspired more than 109 people to spend time creating something for us to give to someone else. We were able to use Snapchat to connect 18-year-olds to a 109-year-old woman. While I normally assess the success of our social media efforts with a variety of numbers and stats, this one had a much easier benchmark by which to measure: Helena’s smile.

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