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Caring for Your Community – Not just the Numbers

It’s hard not to look. To track. To evaluate. The likes, comments, shares, RTs, saves, watch times, subscribers, connections, viewers, the list goes on. 

This data is important. It helps tell the story, connecting the dots between goals, strategy, and impact. 

There are entire courses, books, and conferences devoted to digital analytics, evaluation, and assessment. Heck, I’m attending one in April produced by HighEdWeb. These are critical skills for anyone tasked with managing social media, web, or any kind of digital communications.

But just like adopting technology platforms too quickly without a clear plan or purpose, diving into data too soon can actually distract from the core aims of being a digital community builder.

In a piece called “We’re Measuring Social Media Wrong,” Liz Gross, Founder of Campus Sonar, explained the misalignment between data and goals:

 “If your social media reporting focuses on followers, engagements, and impressions from a handful of ‘official’ campus accounts, it doesn’t assess your impact on campus priorities. Rather, it measures how well you’re conforming to the metrics social platforms choose to report, regardless of strategic alignment. Vanity metrics don’t assess how social media helps or hurts your brand, impacts enrollment, or secures alumni donations. Prioritizing vanity metrics forces your staff to align their social strategy and content creation to the demands of platforms instead of your strategic plan.”

In close, Liz challenged readers to measure what matters,

“Social media is part of an integrated marketing strategy, and every campus should treat it as the high-profile, high-potential communication channel it is.”

Vanity metrics are important to be aware of, but they don’t matter nearly as much as connecting those strategic dots: what helps provide an engaging and impactful experience to your students, what helps your institution accomplish its goals. 

Do you know what really matters? Your students. Your staff and faculty. Alumni. Facilities workers. And so many others.

One way to bridge this divide is communicating with humanity. And that means truly caring.

So let’s pause. Who are your people? Write them down. Be as specific as possible. Heck, write down their names, demographics, challenges. The more you know about them, the easier it will be to connect and communicate with them, and then build a digital community that resonates with them.

This gives us an opportunity to get a closer look at our audiences. To see them – really see them. Know them as individuals. 

The founder of TVP CommunicationsTeresa Valerio Parrot, penned a piece called Building Trust, explaining how communications aids in creating a more inclusive campus. 

She reflected on new study results from the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, which found that Black undergraduates have significantly less trust in campus leaders than white students. This study also discovered that during the last year, in the pandemic, there was an overall drop in trust in administrators. 

While root causes in this lack of trust could be a study all on its own, the article posits that this gap exists because students feel that their opinions don’t matter and are absent from the decision-making process, while they’re directly impacted by those decisions. 

Here is the thing. And it might hurt to hear it. Your community – your students – may not trust you. They may question your motives. Your words or actions may have hurt them. 

Acknowledging this trust gap is what communicators – and their institutions – need to prioritize to create a more inclusive campus. Demonstrate your heart and humanity and take action. Admit if you messed up. Say that you are sorry. And mean it. Honest and authentic messaging takes time to do well, but you can’t wait too long. Timing is everything.

Take for example the closing session at the NASPA Annual Conference, where Suze Orman (author on personal finance) was the invited keynote speaker. Her message became problematic, and it was loudly heard in the live chat and on Twitter. Her message seeped with toxic positivity and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But worse, she did not acknowledge systems of oppression that circle any conversation of equity or access.

To their credit, the NASPA conference organizers and association leadership quickly recognized the harm. Both live on camera, as well as in a (nearly) immediate response on social media and email, they said they messed up. They apologized. 

Especially online, we see in real-time the impact of our decisions, whether intended or not. The test of leadership is how you show up – with emotion – and timeliness, followed by action that supports your words. Because that is what your community deserves. 

My last digital leadership download was about love, and how to show and tell your community this explicitly. 

This one is Love’s cousin – like a Care Bear CousinCome on 80s babies – who was your favorite? 

Before I wander far off into 80s cartoon references, I have just one more. The Care Bear Stare. This was the ultimate “weapon” of the Care Bears as they combined rays of love, joy and care in the face of hardships. 

In higher education, human-centered communications are our Care Bear Stare. It’s not when, but if the next crisis will come to our campus doors or our countries. Bringing humanity, authenticity, and true caring into our communication channels allows us the opportunity to break down that “wall” that can sometimes be created by an official account or a job title. 

So, if you were to scroll through your campus/department/individual feed, do some of these rays appear?

How does one create, cultivate and invest in a culture of care using digital community tools – way before a crisis hits? 

Let’s look at some examples. 

1. It’s about being accessible. 

It’s Dr. Lamar Hylton, the VPSA at Kent State, hosting “A Day in the Life” on his Instagram story – showing his whole audience what it’s like to be a senior administrator and making himself available to answer any questions thrown his way. 

VPSA at Kent State, Lamar Hylton, sourcing questions from his instagram followers. This one reads "some recommendations for students who want to work alongside administrators?"

It’s meeting students where they are and giving them the tools to find you. 

2. It’s also about listening. 

Simple as giving a student a bowl for their cereal because you saw them on Reddit, like Austin Braun, the Digital Media Strategist at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering & Applied Science. 

University of Colorado's College of Engineering & Applied Science Twitter post

3. It’s about consistency.

Like creating a web page for your blog and twitter feed like University of Missouri VPSA Bill Stackman, a dedicated place that celebrates your students and provides a space for you to be a little vulnerable with them about who you are and what drives you. 

The stack - web page for blog and twitter feed for university of Missouri's VPSA Bill Stackman

4. It’s about creating space.

At Wells College, caring is authentic and thoughtfully strategic. “Ask the Dean” and “Wellsian AMA” (Ask me Anything) are structured opportunities for students to ask questions of Dean Jenn through a private Facebook Group. 

The campaign tone is casual, welcoming, bubbly – matching Dean Jenn’s energy – and meets the students where they are. If students chose to submit their name, staff have a foundation for follow-up where necessary with a scaffolded approach to support outside of the digital community space for high-touch issues. 

Ask Dean Jenn #SummerwiththeDean graphic

Through these candid conversations, Wells College Student Life and Admissions were able to learn more about their students, understand what they were going through, and truly see them. They can now provide better support and be seen as an open resource, not just an office on campus. That’s the impact of care.

5. It’s about imperfection.

Sometimes strategy is as simple as being prepared for the moment and willing to show up when it arises. 

This last year, for better or worse, has given us so many moments to rise to. Our students have needed support and care now like we have not seen. 

The faculty at Lincoln Memorial University – DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine collectively pulled off a caring strategy, posting a video that empathized with their students and how much they were there for them. This was so wildly received, the class of 2023 created a video response of their own.   

Screenshot of a zoom meeting with the faculty at Lincoln Memorial University

6. It’s about compassion

While caring for and supporting our students, it can be easy to neglect the others around us that are helping to provide that support. Being intentional and building out the time and space for staff can go a long way. 

And as we evolve the concept of caring, we must look to adopt and express compassion. Compassion is a deeper emotional engagement and awareness, moving beyond displaying kindness and concern. Think of compassion as leveling up from caring. 

In the Ignatian Spiritual/Jesuit practice, Cura personalis means to care for the whole person. Working at Loyola Marymount University for seven years I learned to appreciate this shared language that tied back to the mission of LMU– such as ‘the education of the whole person.’

Annmarie Caño is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Gonzaga University and is exemplifying what it means to make time to care and be compassionate for staff. 

Dean's message to faculty screenshot of a YouTube video

For Annmarie, this means regular check-ins with staff via email, short video updates to provide encouragement or inspiration that speaks directly to them, and digital coffee hours for affinity groups or staff as a whole. In our communication, Annmarie shared that her staff members say they know her better and feel closer to her because of her videos.

“The emails convey what I think/feel and I can add resources and links, but the videos provide something more relational. I will probably continue to use them even after we go back to in-person, whenever that may be.”

This newsletter is one way for me to share my compassion with you. My Digital Leadership Download continues to connect leadership, emotion, and digital. Digital leadership calls for acquiring and enacting emotional intelligence online. 

I am also thinking more about the human and spiritual connection (and disconnection) that these tools offer (and withhold). I often get questions about what harm social media and digital communications tools are doing to our society if they are damaging our youth – and ourselves. I believe the answer lies in how we use these tools.

The Dalai Lama (XIV), spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, penned in the Art of Happiness, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 

While he does have a Instagram page, he makes no outright mention of social media. But it doesn’t need to be. We can connect those dots.

Without love and caring, all the data you collect will be just that – a number.

Behind these numbers are people. Our students. Our alumni. Our staff. Ourselves. We owe it to each other to show up and connect on a deeper level, as a true community. 

Take good care,

Josie

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

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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