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Universities face a unique set of challenges in building a social media presence. Schools and colleges are marketing intangible goods; learning from a specific group of professors, meeting life-long friends, carrying the school’s reputation, and experiencing four unique years on campus. In addition, most universities have official presences that are supplemented by profiles for different academic departments and student groups.

How do they convey those intangibles? How do they maintain a consistent voice and message across so many profiles? Despite the distinct challenges to academia, universities’ approaches to social media have a large overlap with other traditional businesses.

We spoke with some experts and looked behind the scenes at some of the top universities using social media. Aaron Jaco is the digital media specialist with the Office of Marketing and Communications at Drake University. Megan Troppito works with University Marketing and Communications at Loyola University Chicago as a communications specialist. Even though they are representing universities, the ideas and actions those schools take on Facebook, Twitter, and other channels will likely sound familiar to any social media veteran.

Drake University

Drake University

Aaron Jaco described Drake University’s approach as focusing on building relationships and community as a way to further the school’s reputation and image. To that end, Drake has a wide network of social profiles across its academic departments, school facilities, and student organizations. A full list of Drake-affiliated social media outlets can be found on the school’s social media directory.

That community focus is evident in the school’s policies for social media posting. “Drake’s social media practitioners are careful to abide by copyright laws, student privacy laws, and other legal and best practice guidelines concerning social media use,” Jaco explained. “But beyond the ‘thou-shalt-nots’ of social media are deeper rules of engagement. Be attentive. Be conversational. Thrive on relationships, not on one-way communication.”

With so many different channels for conducting conversations, Drake needed a reliable way to monitor its social profiles. Jaco oversees the school’s top-level social presence across all platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. “Every office, college and school, department, and campus organization follows a slightly different model when it comes to delegation of social media responsibilities,” he said. “It is very important for [Drake] University leadership to facilitate strong internal communications networks and empower faculty and staff members to effectively represent Drake on social media platforms.”

Community has also been a draw for prospective students looking to attend Drake. Jaco mentioned a survey sent out by the school’s admissions staff in Fall 2013 to incoming students, where one-fifth of the respondents said Drake’s social media presence helped them decide where to enroll. “Prospective students have shown the greatest enthusiasm toward Facebook Pages specific to their incoming class,” he said. “Students say they use incoming class communities to gather admission information and deadline reminders, meet other incoming students and find roommates, and peruse videos and photos related to the University.”

Since the social leaders know what prospective students might be most interested in on social, they’re better equipped to deliver on those needs. “The key is to meet your audience where they are and where they are receptive to your message,” Jaco said. “In every case, the message should be something that sparks positive affinity and starts a dialogue among your audience, their peers, and your brand.” For instance, since more admitted students joined the incoming class Pages on Facebook than eventually enrolled as freshmen, the team knows that Facebook is a very popular channel for those new students.

“Facebook is a tried-and-true rallying point for the Drake community to reconnect and to share their enthusiasm for the University,” he said. “Twitter has proven to be a powerful platform for one-to-one conversations, notably with prospective students, as well as an effective means of driving traffic to the University website and raising general awareness of major news.” Drake’s social team knows how to give the right nuance to what it shares on each channel so that the key message stays consistent while playing to the strengths of each platform. “These outlets are most effective when used collaboratively — and in conjunction with traditional communications methods — to amplify and reinforce a message,” Jaco said.

Loyola University Chicago

Loyola Chicago

Loyola’s approach to social media includes a high degree of transparency. The school’s website includes a section dedicated to outlining its policies for use of social media at the university.

The guidelines came together as a collaboration between several members of Loyola’s marketing and communication department, including insights from experts on media and internal communication and the school’s web team. Loyola made the official policy publicly available on the University Marketing and Communication site because, as Troppito explained, “it’s a site that most internal audiences visit when looking for guidance and support for their events and programs.”

Troppito also talked about how Loyola has tailored its approach to content on the available social media channels. “In general, we use Twitter for conversations, responding to students’ concerns, sharing live events, retweeting engaging and positive content from the Loyola community, and more,” she said. “We use Facebook for longer messages including, but not limited to, promoting events on campus, sharing student profiles, and posting professional videos.” The school has also distinguished between the available photo-sharing networks, with Instagram delivering “very visual, quick messages with photos and video” while the team reserves YouTube and Flickr for professionally produced visual content.

There is some overlap in content posted to each network, but that is part of how the Loyola team has developed strong followings across the channels. “We use all of our traditional communications and social media channels to cross promote, but many times it is through word of mouth and other organic online sharing that people find our social media accounts,” Troppito said.

Mixing social with traditional communications has frequently proven successful for the school. Troppito gave the example of a Student Dinner Crawl hosted by the Community Relations department. The team initially had a low rate of RSVPs from students, but after posting about the event on all of Loyola’s social media channels and its student communication site, the responses poured in.

Loyola has a similarly holistic approach for new student recruitment. “We interact with prospective students via social media and answer many of their questions and concerns through the channels, but the actual results are hard to measure,” she said. “Our undergraduate admissions office is also very focused on recruitment and uses social media as part of its marketing mix.”

Tips from Universities

Loyola students

As you can see from the insights of these two professionals, the university approach to social fits naturally into the common best practices for any business. Both Drake University and Loyola University Chicago have incorporated social media tools into their broader marketing and communications programs as one of many pillars supporting a main message.

Sharing what makes you unique, building community around a shared experience or interest, and focusing on conversations are strategies that brands in any sector can employ successfully. While the story changes to reflect the specific university (or company, or public figure, or other business), the importance of telling the story in the first place stays the same.

[Image credit: John Walker]