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Cornerstones of Digital Engagement for Community Colleges

When we talk about higher education institutions adopting and excelling on social media, I’ve noticed that one kind of institution rarely gets the spotlight: community colleges. Looking back at my own past writing and speaking, I realized I too had fallen short of this important inclusion.

So, I’m taking up significant space in this post to recognize community colleges and spelling out digital engagement tactics that I find resonating for those that serve as these institutions.

Community Colleges have an undeniable impact on students, families and their communities that need to be amplified. I recently interviewed President of Owens College, Steve Robinson on Josie and The Podcast, who is shaking up misconceptions of community college, initiating the movement/hashtag #EndCCStigma.

Check out that convo, where Steve helped me make the connection to my own community college roots, as I took two Eastern Wyoming Community College courses that were dual enrollment while finishing my senior year in high school. Steve encouraged I add those to my CV and even LinkedIn!

New York Magazine journalist, Yahsari Ali also recently brought a new wave of energy to community colleges with the following tweet:

This #EndCCStigma movement recognizes that we have a perception problem and we must be active and vocal storytellers of our institutions and the entire community college system. Even a recent Atlantic article fed into this misconception, with the title “The Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College

Spoiler alert Atlantic, Trade school IS college!

Another major movement to elevate community colleges and the attention on student basic needs is amplified by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and The Hope Center for College, who have ignited the #RealCollege conversation online and around the world. Check out our podcast interview here, recorded in fall 2018. Sara actively exposes the gap between student access, resources, and actual realities, at all institutional types.


The disconnect of the value of community college is also present in our discourse around higher education and social media.  Hashtags like #RealCollege and #EndCCStigma are one way to bring national attention, but we need to do better.

When I realized I too was part of that disconnect, I was inspired to do a social media deep dive into community college institutions and executives (Deans, VPs, Presidents, Chancellors) who serve these communites. I was energized with excitement, and I hope as you read you will too.

A special note about the cornerstones: While these are written as highly encouraged engaging elements, online status, followers or “going viral” is not the metric. Why?

If your social media strategy does not align with your institution’s strategic goals and actually help your community, then all of this is just busy work.

Second, I considered adding a fifth cornerstone, advocacy – which should be apparent after the entire start to this post. Advocacy and the education/re-education of our society about community colleges should be an outcome and intention in every single one of these cornerstones. I’ll be sure to add an example or two to see advocacy come to life.

Without further ado, let’s get to those cornerstones!

Looking through community college accounts (institutional and executives), I noticed four main cornerstones for meaningful and impactful digital engagement for community college on social media:

  • Community First Mentality
  • Show, Then Tell
  • Personality Over Perfection
  • Featuring Simple and Significant Stories

For each cornerstone, I’ve included a number of examples of community colleges and CC leaders that truly exemplify them. If I were to include every single example, this would be an exceptionally long blog post (and it already is!) This is why I’ve also created a Twitter list of community college executives that you should definitely check out.

1. Community First Mentality

Community colleges must use social media as a platform to engage with and serve both their “campus” community (students, faculty, staff) and the community beyond the walls of the campus (local town/city/county). While engaging with enrolled students is a priority, community colleges especially need to consider multiple audiences, as they may serve at the center of a broader community context.

Bronx Community College is one example of a community college that engages with their community, both on and beyond campus. They consistently post updates for students attending their college and also take part in efforts promoting the health and well being of the broader Bronx community like partnering with a pop up mobile health unit and hosting a 5K/10k/2 Mile walk event called Run the Bronx.

Community colleges and their leadership, like presidents and vice presidents, have over time embraced active community building on social media.

For example, Ed Cabellon, Vice President for Student Services & Enrollment Management at Bristol Community College, is a wonderful example of how to actively build community on Twitter! His Twitter is chock full of highlights from around campus, insights into higher education issues, and personal replies like this one:

These messages go beyond just posting; they’re starting points for real conversations. Ed also does a fantastic job of retweeting his campus community, but not just leaving it at a retweet.

William Dennis Epps, Acting Chancellor at Louisiana Delta Community College, is an excellent example of how to champion partnerships and initiatives with the community at large. He takes the time to amplify Louisiana Delta Community College’s connections with the community outside of campus without it feeling like a PR message.

Finally, as I intentionally showcase advocacy throughout these cornerstones, I bring to light the president of Amarillo College, Russell Lowery-Hart. His feed is consistent with celebrating his community, but it’s also in his bio that clearly states his community first mentality, “I fight for students and those that fight for students as @amarillocollege president. firm believer in community colleges as key to economic development.” He is also open about his own leadership journey, such as in sharing this article:

2. Show, Then Tell

Visual content is a non-negotiable on social media. In fact, it’s such a big deal on social that HubSpot puts together an annual post outlining important statistics about visual content. Here’s one of the standout stats from this year’s post:

“When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later.”

The power of visual content goes beyond just helping people remember your posts. According to Smart Bird Social, “Visual content is 40 times more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content” and “posts with images produce 650% higher engagement than text-only posts.” One reason why those posts get shared more often? People are more likely to share content that resonates with them emotionally.

Photos and videos are opportunities to add additional layers of emotional context to what you post. And guess, what – emotions are at the heartbeat of the educational experience. Why not, amplify this for community colleges?

I highly recommend checking out Bristol Community College’s YouTube channel for emotionally resonant visual content. It’s one thing to read about an event where people come together to reflect on a tragedy; it’s another to see and hear the emotions of each and every speaker at that event.

Speaking of video content, Mordecai Brownlee, VP for Student Success at St. Philip’s College is an excellent example of how to integrate videos into an executive social media presence. His videos are straightforward and feature Mordecai speaking directly to the camera about essential topics in the higher education industry. He simply holds up his phone and speaks from the heart an issue that is calling to him that week.

These videos allow him to go into detail while adding an element of personal connection to the conversation he’s helping to create online. You can find these on Twitter, YouTube and even LinkedIn!

Another fantastic video example is from Ventura College Vice President of Student Affairs, Damien Pena – who is capturing video content on Instagram to showcase upcoming events, as well as storytelling moments like this one. Keep this post in mind later in “Personality over perfection” as you’ll see his videos first lead with personality and not complicated with overly produced production/editing. Just turn on the camera!

View this post on Instagram

I love my job!

A post shared by Damien Peña, Ed.D. (@diegospapi) on

Visuals can be incredibly powerful, but especially when they’re vibrant with colors, clarity and plenty of light. Go for quality over quantity. Quality images and videos are a must for any social media strategy, and visual consistency can help you engage your community even more.

Not sure what I mean? Take a look at Kellogg Community College’s Instagram feed:

Kellogg Community College makes it a point to share photos that are high quality, framed similarly, and heavily feature their school colors. Each photo is edited to be sharp and focused on one subject, even if there are other people or items in the photo. Their landscape shots are even taken from incredibly similar angles!

Another way I’ve seen community college institutions and professionals resonate on social media is through the use of less commonly used visual formats like GIFs. For those of you who may not be familiar, GIFs are animated images that loop.

The motion of GIFs catches the eye in a crowded newsfeed, and according to Alex Chung, CEO of popular GIF platform Giphy, “if the average GIF contains sixty frames then they’re capable of conveying 60,000 words.” They can even be informational, like the example above with the former first lady, Michelle Obama.

I’m personally a huge fan of GIFs to further expression emotion, and Austin Community College (@accdistrict) is one community college that uses them incredibly well! They mix in pre-created GIFs that reference pop culture and create GIFs of their own to highlight their mascot and campus:

https://twitter.com/accdistrict/status/1067074653976477697

GIFs are also a great way to add humor and heart to a post, which brings us to cornerstone number 3!

3. Personality Over Perfection

I often find myself scrolling through social media feeds packed with perfectly curated and flawless posts from influencers and brands all vying for my attention. This can lead to the expectation that everything anyone posts on social media have to be totally perfect in every way – and teens and young adults have duplicated this same behavior.

The problematic perfect grid/feed has taken over. This “expectation” can be intimidating and also impersonal, especially for accounts that represent institutional brands or programs rather than just individuals.

That’s why it’s such a breath of fresh air when you see social media posts from leaders and institutions that aren’t afraid to be genuine, authentic, and personable.

“86% of people say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they like and support.”

Stackla 2017 Consumer Report

Whether you like the idea of your institution being a “brand” or not, prospective students, staff, faculty, and alumni will lump you in with the corporations that clog their feeds.

Being real and genuine on social media is magnetic to your audiences.

Personality is powerful (though often underestimated) and can be watered down with branded graphics or overly promotional material. A human element in your posts will resonate far more with the real people you’re trying to connect with.

Not sure how to balance amplifying what’s important to your campus while injecting personality into your posts? You need to check out Mission College’s Instagram. It goes beyond the glossy brochures we’ve come to associate with college promotions and shares photos of their teams, staff, and students that are packed with personality.

I want to know the story of every single one of those students. Posts like these are an invitation, instead of a cold graphic that feels like a call during dinner from a telemarketer.

Just because we’re in higher education doesn’t mean we can’t personalize our approach to social media, with heart, humor and soul.

Sometimes it can be challenging for branded institutional accounts for campus executives to lean into adding heart and humor to a post. It’s an interesting balancing act, making things personal without making them too personal.

San Diego Mesa College President, Pamela Luster takes this cornerstone into supporting her students on Twitter, as seen in this heartfelt message:

This isn’t just a cookie cutter copy/paste. It’s a genuine interaction that spark emotion. People like to see genuine people on their feed, and these kinds of messages show actual care for the real people who are on the other side of the tweets.

I’ve written previously about the secret sauce for campus executives on social media, including four ways they can personalize their feeds. One of these is sharing interests and hobbies that go beyond their lives as campus executives.

Take Arnel Cosy, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs & Executive Dean of Delgado Community College for example. She’s a big fan of the New Orleans Saints and celebrates her fandom through her Tweets:

Thom Chesney on the other hand, current president at Brookhaven community college, has us enjoying his spring break through status updates with his pups!

https://twitter.com/ThomChesney/status/1106323637286645760

Another post filled with the personalization of the presidency is from John J. “Ski” Sygielski the president HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. Who else can relate to their classic childhood picture on a bike?

4. Featuring Simple and Significant Stories

Storytelling is core to education. While the mediums of storytelling have changed in the social media age, the components that make stories so compelling remain the same.

“Stories are in our make-up. They help us interpret meaning, connect with people across generations, and articulate really complex stuff in easily digestible snippets.”

-Jeff Bullas

Storytelling is an excellent vehicle for getting across important facts. As shared in the Atlantic “people remember information when it is weaved into narratives ‘up to 22 times more than facts alone.’”

It can be more difficult to convey a solid narrative on social media platforms that focus on short form or visual content, but North Hennepin Community College’s Instagram captions pair incredibly well with their photos to tell the whole story behind the photo. They provide context, include a protagonist (or several!), and tell you about their journey in a way that’s simple for viewers to connect with.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BqvM7inlvSr/

Shoreline Community College created a YouTube campaign specifically focused on sharing stories of SCC students. They prominently feature a playlist of student stories right on the front page of their YouTube channel and celebrate student success by letting students tell their own stories in their own words.

Community colleges are filled with community members who have compelling stories. Best of all, they’re already posting it on social media.

Whenever someone posts using your branded hashtag or campus location, it’s a form of searchable and sharable priceless content. According to that same survey I mentioned earlier from Stackla,

“60% of consumers said user-generated content (UGC) is the most authentic form of content.”

Integrating UGC and stories from students, alumni, staff, and faculty is a great way to hit on not just one, but two cornerstones of social success!

Brookdale Community College (@BrookdaleCC) does a fantastic job on their Instagram of leveraging UGC. They consistently re-gram (repost) posts from other users that post with #SuccessStartsatBrookdale.

Setting up a school-specific hashtag, local geotag, or browsing through posts that use an existing branded hashtag is a great way to find content to share on your social platforms. Just be sure that you ask the original poster for permission before you do and tag the original content creator somewhere in your post!

Another simple example is from Anne Kress, President at Monroe Community College, as she re-posts content from an event she spoke at. But she didn’t just RT. She adds more context and recognition to others involved.

This president also was paying attention to social media, (also known as social listening) but not just when she is tagged – but when there are crucial conversations going on about community colleges.

For example, as shared at the beginning of this post, Yashar Ali put out a call to twitter users to claim their community college experience. President Kress and many others have responded!

But just jumping onto a hashtag once in awhile, or waiting for a celebrity or news reporter to bring to light the value of community colleges is a gamble we can’t afford to wait on.

How can we consistently be the curators and content creators of the significance of community colleges?

Community colleges must become chief storytellers. And long-form storytelling is a fantastic tool for this advocacy.

Take Matt Reed, Vice President for Learning at Brookdale Community College is a masterful storyteller in both his tweets and his blog series for Inside Higher Ed, Confessions of a Community College Dean. These posts blend higher education insights with narrative elements that evoke readers to action. Check out a couple of his posts like The Other Side of Free Tuition, End CC Stigma or this one:


These four cornerstones are what I’m seeing now as highly engaging for community colleges – or one could argue for all institution types. They transcend platforms that will most definitely change in the next year. That being said, there are a few new and emerging practices and platforms that you should keep your eye on.

Here are just a few areas of opportunity that Community Colleges and leaders should be aware of:

  • LinkedIn for Transfer/Alumni Relations: LinkedIn is all about building valuable connections and networking, two things that are incredibly important when engaging with alumni. This article from Sprout Social has some great tips for how to effectively maintain a relationship with your alumni on the platform.
  • Podcasting: Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular, and there’s a real opportunity for institutions and campus leaders to leverage with podcasts. For more insight on how universities are developing a podcast, I recommend checking out the fantastic write up from Carol Jackson, 10 Things We Learned From Producing a Podcast at a University.
  • Centralizing Support and Strategy for Social: In the past, social media accounts have been relatively decentralized with each department or division having their accounts and strategies. Centralizing your digital engagement strategies can help you streamline your workflow, resources, and analysis. I recommend reading this post by Marketo for ideas on how to implement a more centralized social media strategy.

Putting These Cornerstones into Practice

One important thing to note is that it takes time and some experimentation to make these cornerstones work for your particular community college. Many of these cornerstones require dedicated people-power and constant attention to put them into practice entirely. If you want to kick start these cornerstones, it’s important to empower the people and departments behind your social media.

No matter what kind of campus you represent, these cornerstones are a great way to start claiming your institution story on social media and better serve your students.

I’d love to hear how these cornerstones resonate with you and other examples you want me and others to know about. The comments are open for your feedback, as well as my email josie@josieoldsite.meljudsonclientportal.com.

Let’s work together!

While completing my doctorate in 2013, I began to be invited to share what I was discovering in my coursework and grant-funded research to institituions and educational conferences, that connected the dots between leadership development and digital engagement strategy. Fast forward to today, I serve higher education institutions, campus executives and even colleges students to successfully navigate social media through the lens of leadership.

So, are you ready for your college, division or department to prioritize digital engagement with these cornerstones? I offer keynote speaking, consulting and coaching services where I support administrators, academics and even students, click here to learn more.

You can also contact me at josie@josieoldsite.meljudsonclientportal.com to learn about my monthly, semester, and year-long consulting services.

If you’re an executive looking to jump-start or hone your social media strategy, I offer executive coaching that gives you the tools and tactics to confidently and clearly harness social media in your leadership position or executive job search. For more information on what my coaching services can do for you, reach out here.

Finally, if you’re looking for a community of executives who are excited to discuss all things digital engagement and leadership, you’re going to love The Connected Exec Community—a private Facebook group I created for just that. Click here to join; I can’t wait to see you in there!

Resources

With all of that in mind, here are a few resources for each cornerstone to help you kickstart them!

Engaging With Your Community

Embracing Visual Content

Adding Humor and Heart

Featuring Simple and Significant Stories

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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