Sprout All Star Elite, Josh Kohnert, is a Senior Social Media and Web Specialist for the Development and Alumni Relations at Western Michigan University. He spoke with us about how he helped take the Office of Development and Alumni Relations Instagram community from 200 followers to roughly 10,000 followers, his work on connecting with alumni and current students via social and the benefits of advocacy in higher education.

How did you get started at WMU?

I am an alumnus. I went to grad school here at Western for the higher education and student affairs program. At the time, my mentor and supervisor was really big into using Twitter to network. The student affairs field—isn’t that big, but there is a huge social media presence: weekly chats, ongoing discussions and a lot of resources being shared. I found that fascinating.

Pretty soon all of my research when I was going through my grad program was geared toward social media in higher education. My program chair was also the department chair and during my job search one day she called me in and said, “I have an idea.”

I was hired right after graduation for a year temp position, where I started two of the departments in the college’s social presence. They still use it now to recruit and share resources with their students.

What were your biggest challenges in building a social presence from scratch?

We really pushed the personal connections. Being physical, being out there. As much we recruit online, a lot of our work is done at our events or getting to campus events. Our office identifies social as the gateway to connect with our future alumni, A.K.A. our current students, so I’m constantly plugging us physically into campus events throughout the year. Our presence is pretty well known. Students know who we are, they know what we do and then they’re connected and engaged the most on social media.

You’re forever affiliated with your institution. So being able to connect and share stories, share successes, from your institution out to the alumni and then alumni hearing that across to each other—it just maintains that relationship between you, the alumni and your institution. It keeps the story going.

How do you measure success?

Right now we’re really heavy in the alumni relations portion of our office. If we’re going to do a campaign to build the audience, we set a goal for a certain number of connections and see if we hit that goal—and then just day-to-day, month-to month, we actually track how many likes, comments, shares our posts are getting. Are people engaged with the content that we’re sharing—things like that. We’ve done some giving aspects for students and those have been pretty successful—we shoot out a goal dollar amount and see how close we get to it.

What are some best practices for fostering advocacy among professors and faculty?

For the faculty—even though they have crazy schedules and they’re all different, they all come together at some point. So finding those department meetings where you can get in and talk becomes pretty important. Also finding those professors who are active. For example, we have a couple of communications professors who are very, very active on social media. We want to tap on their shoulder and say, “You guys reach an audience, we’ve got some pretty good content, would you mind every once in a while sharing them?” So they do it on their own. They want to reach out to their students and so it’s just like any other relationship building. I’ve come to learn there’s really no secret—it’s finding the right tool to use and the right method to use.

Do you have any presences in any major Midwest cities of alumni? How do you connect with them and get them to host events and share volunteering opportunities?

Most of our alumni fall into four different regions: Metro Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Chicago. Two to four times a year we host events at local bars in those towns. We invite our alumni to come out and reconnect. We restarted and reamplified it a couple of years ago and it’s taken off.

Get ready Broncos!

A post shared by MyWMU (@mywmu) on

We’ve seen 400-500 of our alumni in each region over the course of a year. That gives us the time to physically connect but always close—and say, you know, you can stay connected with us throughout the whole year on social media. With that, we’ll use the Facebook ads and digital postcards—it’s mixed-marketing.

Do alumni advocate for you on social informally?

Very informally. We’re looking at trying to formalize and build brand ambassadors this year.

Within that, do you have a plan for identifying those ambassadors?

We have over 200,000 alumni and my accounts are 10% of that—5% sometimes. So it’s forever growing and connecting and bringing everyone together. At the same time, it’s highlighting those that could do it for us and acknowledging that they exist and motivate them to further share.
What social channels do you see your alumni most active on?

Facebook definitely has our older alumni and Instagram is our younger alumni. Twitter is across the board—it’s the middle-ground for everyone. But our current students are very well-connected to us on Instagram.

How does your office use SnapChat to connect?

We launched our Snapchat on April Fool’s day. We thought it would be great—like, “April Fools? Follow to find out.” So a lot of people followed us and with every new follower we sent them a photo, like, “This isn’t a joke, welcome to our Snapchat.”

So with that, I’ve explored filters and have successfully built two filters on our campus. People send Snapchat messages to us all the time. We reply back to everything.

Where do you believe the biggest opportunities exist for advocacy and higher ed?

It’s untapped opportunities. Higher ed is behind the other industries in terms of practices. Right now, social media is nonexistent or really slow across. You’ve got some major hitters—your bigger institutions—but for most institutions, they don’t think about it. Being able to look at those who can speak on your behalf and share on your behalf—it’s an extra force to help you out. Because trying to start it up on your own seems like a daunting task. If you have people who have a strong affinity for you and for your institution, use it. It’s a great resource. Right now it is just really untapped.

Final thoughts on fostering advocacy with current and former students?

Advocacy is like building an empire. It starts off by taking one little village at a time and then just quickly snowballs into something much larger. With every one little connection, you’re adding so much more. People in higher ed. look at this and say, “I can’t, there’s no way we can do this, it seems like it’s too daunting and too big,” but you just have to start with one person at a time. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve gone from 200 Instagram followers to roughly 10,000 Instagram followers in two years.

Being in higher ed., people have an affinity to you. That relationship is a lot easier than you might think, in creating those advocates—they’re already advocates for you because they like you. It’s just being able to tap into that—that’s the hard part.

A version of this article originally appeared on Bambu