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10 Social Media Best Practices in Higher Education

In an earlier post, I discussed the differences between a social media policy, guide and best practice within higher education.  As promised, this post follows with additional content on developing social media best practices: #SMBP.
Last year I was charged with leading a group of student affairs professionals at my previous institution through the development and implementation of a divisional social media guide. This guide has seven social media best practices, step–by-step model for social media strategy, as well as related campus policies for technology, branding and communication.  All content is available online here.
Before diving into this post I’d like to recognize this group, formally called the LMU Student Affairs Social Media Workgroup, as the development of the best practices was a collective effort.  These individuals included Alexandra Froehlich, Amy Grill, Anthony Garrison, AJ LaPan, John Shaffer and Will Sisk.   In developing the guide we scoured the internet for other universities and student affairs divisions for examples.  We adopted a number of existing higher education social media guides, policies and best practices from the University of Delaware, Oregon State University and Brock University.  I also appreciate Chapman University resources, in addition to their social media strategy.
This workgroup took two months in the creation of the entire guide.  We used listening sessions with each department to ‘hear’ where each department was in social media use and how our workgroup and future guide would support them.  After noting trends, strengths, weaknesses and suggestions we moved to action.
In total, I give you 10 of what I see as Social Media Best Practices in Higher Education.  Most of them were originally created for student affairs professionals, however many other areas of higher education can also find application with these practices.  I begin with the 7 best practices that I helped develop at LMU and end with 3 additional points I would propose.
Overall, The keys to success in social media are being honest about who you are, being thoughtful in what you post, and respecting the purpose of the community where you are posting.

  1. Implement a Social Media Strategy
  2. Produce Quality & Accurate Content
  3. Manage Platforms with Social Media Managers and Student Leaders
  4. Use an Authentic and Transparent Voice
  5. Represent the University/Division/Department Brand and University Resources
  6. Collaborate and Support other University Social Media Pages
  7. Respect Your Community
  8. Dive into Data
  9. Empower Influencers and Engage Audience
  10. Get Internal Buy-In

To give you a bit more ‘meat’ to this list, below I provide more content to back up each best practice.  Many points overlap and lead back to each other.  This is because doing social media really well has many moving parts, that if placed together properly, can be a well oiled machine!  I highlight under each section a #SMBP (social media best practice), to really pay attention to.  This should be tweetable/sharable content for consumption.  Like it, share, and add-on to it.
As you read on, keep in mind your own institution.  What practices are currently in place?  Strengths/weaknesses of those practices?  How does social media align/connect with your institutions mission, learning outcomes and/or strategic plan?  Who holds the power to implement any of these practices?  How does social media relate to your position responsibilities?  Who else in your division can you rally around these best practices?
Implement a Social Media Strategy: #SMBP: Social media activity without strategy is just busy work.

  • Ask what is your goal(s) for social media.
  • Know your audience; who are you trying to reach?
  • Commit to time/content to post.  How hard can social media management be?  It may seem simple at first, but to do it right takes more than the adhoc post here and there.  To see significant results, it takes a commitment.  Everyday.  Why?  Quality content takes an investment of time to curate.
  • Choose quality over quantity.  Considering the previous post, I must clarify.  Blasting messages, one after another, is not a best practice.  However, social media does moves fast.  A tweet posted at 9am is buried by noon, so posting more than once in a day is appropriate and recommended.  It all comes back to the platform.  For example, on Instagram typically posting the most quality images once or twice a day will be appropriate.
  • Seek collaborations with other social media accounts across campus.  This goes both ways, help promote and share content from other campus pages.  Social media is a supportive communication tool.  Help each other across campus as much as possible.
  • Most importantly ask: do we really need to be on (fill in the blank) social media platform?  Could it be possible that by closing a poorly managed or followed account and then distribute messaging through other social media accounts on campus would yield better results?

Here are some examples of reasons to consider changing your social media strategy and collaborate with other popular campus social media accounts:

  1. Your account(s) do not publish regular updates because of lack of content and/or events to share with your audience.
  2. There are other social media accounts that are already communicating similar information to the same target audience.
  3. There does not seem to be a response in followers, fans, &/or subscribers that warrants continuation of the platform.

Produce Quality and Accurate Content: #SMBP Whatever social media method(s) choose, do it well and do it often. Even if this is only having ONE platform.

  • Be frequent, but not too frequent.  A key piece of engaging your community is posting regularly, however noted earlier posting too much can cause negative response as well.
  • Bring value.  There is value added with building community further with your target populations.   Ask yourself, what can these followers receive from your site they can’t get anywhere else?
  • Do you research.  Be knowledgable about what you put out.  Especially in blogs and campus post announcements ensure all contact, resources and event information are correct.
  • Be responsible, having awareness of the consequences of actions online.
  • Be accurate.  Mistakes happen, so if you make an error, correct it quickly and visibly. This will earn you respect in the online community.
  • Think twice about everything you post.  Use your colleagues, students and supervisors as your source for feedback when in question.

Manage Social Media Platforms with Social Media Managers and Student Leaders: #SMBP Invest in & empower higher ed social media staff, both professionals and students.

  • At minimum assign at least one administrator who can regularly monitor postings and update content.
  • Try for regular, consistent postings and updates, at least once a week and, depending on the platform, more frequently.
  • When practical and appropriate, hire, train and supervise student leaders to co-manage social media pages.  Allow their student voices to be heard to engage with fellow students.  Continually seek input and insight into your social media efforts, especially if current students are your target audience.

 Develop an Authentic and Transparent Social Media Voice: #SMBP No robots allowed in social media, be real, be you.

  • Find your voice.  Each department social media account represents a group on campus with a mission, purpose and goals, as well as brand and personality.  Consider your voice online and how it reflects your already established campus identity.  Are you clever, compassionate, inspirational, silly, straightforward?  Do you live tweet?  Do you share campus tips?
  • Make sure all social media managers and student leaders running your accounts understand and carry out this voice/personality.
  • Engage and Interact.  Engagement and interaction is more important than the number of subscribers, followers or fans.  Communications cues such as likes, comments, RT, shares and mentions are stronger than total community members.
  • Be a real person (not a robot or marketing machine).  Social Media needs to be authentic.  Especially if your target is students, this audience can tell when posts are automated or not personal
  • Be clear and own your content.  Don’t promote something that you personally or the university wouldn’t endorse.  Again make sure to communicate in an authentic voice.
  • Build an interactive and open online community.  For example, Facebook pages should be kept open so dialogue with your community can be two-way.   It might be tempting to make only page administrators have the ability to post anything.  This however is no more than a bulletin board, posting promotional and one-way messages.  This is not social media.
  • Responding to (don’t ignore or delete) negative comments.  If you follow the best practices listed above, building an interactive and open online community, there is a chance that negative comments/activity may arise.  If you find yourself in a position where the communication becomes antagonistic, avoid being defensive.  Having thoughtful discussions on important topics is a great to way to build your community and is a very important aspect of having a successful social media site.

Represent the Brand and University Resources:  #SMBP Love & Respect the Brand you’re with on Social Media.

  • Logos/Branding.  It is important that your social media presence and its main design accurately depict your department and the University.  In many cases, it is important to use a University approved logo and/or photography.
  • Be consistent with the brand.  This includes colors, images, mascots, fronts and another other university/department graphics.
  • Keep in mind copyright and trademark materials.  Don’t steal another persons work.  Always ask for permission and/or give credit.
  • Maintain confidentiality.  Do not post confidential or proprietary information about the campus, its students, its alumni or your fellow employees. Use good ethical judgment and follow university policies and federal requirements.
  • Be aware of liability.  You are legally liable for what you post on your own site and on the sites of others.  Be sure that what you post today will not come back to haunt you.
  • Respect University time and property.  University computers and your work time are to be used for University-related educational and business purposes.

Collaborate and Support other University Social Media Pages: #SMBP There are no Silos in social media, support each other!

  • Collaboration is a priority and value of the higher education and is seen in countless programs, events and committees.  Do the same online.
  • Social media should not be done in silos, as individuals can share best practices and learn from other people.
  • Content can and should be shared generously.  Social media platforms make it extremely easy to share, for example Twitter RT function, Facebook ‘share’ button, blogs have ‘reblog’ options, Instagram you can ‘heart’ or ‘comment’ and much more.

Respect Your Audience:  #SMBP Be prepared for all social media content to live forever, so make it positive & purposeful.

  • Develop an online code of ethics, that will guide behavior and goal setting for your entire strategy and those that help manage it.
  • Respect the dignity of others by engaging in civil and thoughtful discourse of opposing ideas.
  • Post meaningful, staying clear of spam or making comments that are off-topic.
  • Only post when you are calm and level-headed.
  • Give proper credit, request the right to use something before you publish such as photos or content.
  • There’s no such thing as a “private” social media site.  Search engines can turn up posts years after the publication date. Comments can be forwarded or copied.  Archival systems save information even if you delete a post.

Dive into Data: #SMBP Show me the data, by backing up campus social media efforts with measurement tools.

  • Use Analytics.  There are a number of indicators available through analytics and analysis measures through social media.  In other ways, counting apples, oranges and bananas.  It is important and sometimes even required to prove programs are effective.  Many programs are evaluated based upon progress, return on invest, cost/benefit, attendance numbers, etc.
  • Assess based upon your social media strategy.  At first glance, social media can be daunting to determine what is notable.  After developing a social media strategy, which should include setting goals and learning outcomes, having a direction for what data to find will be clearer.  This is another important note to consider, the more platforms you attempting to manage, the more work it will take to track.  Be strategic in the platforms you adopt and then measure them right.
  • For example, if your primary community communication tool is Twitter, goals could include: Will tweet once per day, All comments will be responded to within 24 hours, All new followers will receive a personalized message, Page will build community to 300 followers within one calendar year, Profile Picture and Background will connect to University Branding, Will re-tweet (RT) at least three times per week.  Based upon these goals, you would simply track activity and response.  For example, how often you tweeted, commented, received new followers, etc.  With this in mind, you need to commit to track at minimum weekly this progress.  Open up an excel document and continue to update it.
  • Use Key Performance Indicators.  An article at the Higher Education Marketing journal noted Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Traffic data – How much referral traffic did your website/landing page generate from social media channels?
Fan/follower data – How active are your social platforms, and is your follower/fan count growing?
Social Engagement – Are your posts or Tweets being shared, +1′d, liked, and retweeted?
Social Content – How is the content produced through social networks performing? (how many links has it generated? how many times was it shared?)
This same article noted a number of tools to assist in the track progress. Google AnalyticsBit.lyHootsuite and Followerwonk
These are only the tip of the iceberg!  Check out 50 more sources here https://socialmediatoday.com/pamdyer/1458746/50-top-tools-social-media-monitoring-analytics-and-management-2013

Empower Campus Social Media Influencers: #SMBP Social Media campus influencers are all around, you could be one of them!

  • Look around your campus and consider what it is known for.  Look at celebrations, traditions, events, departments, the people, buildings, etc.  Are there ‘popular’ faculty, senior leaders, administrators or student leader positions that could be showcased?  Harness these influencers by showcasing them.  Collaborative strategies that use influencer’s user-generated content have the ability to reaching further into the influencers followers.
  • Consider the following ideas: Could you have the Student Government President take over the campus twitter feed for the day?  Can the university president take an Instagram photo every hour for one full business day, telling a story of ‘day in the life’ of a university president?
  • This idea can be taken to users not considered yet influencers.  As noted earlier, any content created by users/community members is like gold.  This can be shared via a RT that mentions your campus/department, asking them to write a blog post, tag your event/location in a picture, etc.  Empower and give action to your followers.  People trust people, not brands.

Pursue and Provide University/Division/Department Buy-In: #SMBP Preach the gospel of social media communication tools, one person at a time.

  • Educate current and future social media campus influencers.  Even with the most innovative and accurate social media strategy cannot be carried out alone.  If the university/division/department follows the guidance of establishing a social media manager, they need help.  In order to get your colleagues to buy into social media efforts, training, development and continued engagement must follow.
  • This can be through digital content, such as sharing videos, articles and social media research.  Ideally it would accompany in-person education that meets staff where they are, from those without accounts or exploring newbies up to expert content creators.
  • Be brave and seek out resources to support professional development both on and off campus.  This includes workshops, speakers, conferences and webinars.  Use social media users on your own campus for little to no cost trainers.

Need some more ideas?  Here are a few that inspire me!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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