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How Digital Communities Will Help Higher Ed Rebuild

Higher education is in a state of repair; rebuilding as we sprint toward the next academic calendar. Will your campus go back to business as usual? Start over? Reimagine?

While the evolution of the value of social media remains to be fully seen, it’s safe to say that the pandemic brought to light many ways these tools are powerful.

  1. The power of online community.
  2. The necessity of a highly skilled digital community manager. 

Even before we uttered the phrase “during these unprecedented times,” digital communities had widely sparked, fostered, and maintained relationships – across the globe. From a common hashtag to a Facebook group. In the darkest days of COVID-19, digital communities really came to life. From a Discord channel bringing light back into the eyes of a group of students to a subreddit offering honest realities for a senior choosing between two schools. These online tools helped create arenas where people felt like they belonged.

Digital community building isn’t about picking sides, f2f vs online. It also isn’t about hybrid delivery. It’s seeing value online that can deliver at scale. And just because it’s digital delivery, doesn’t make it less than.

Even as higher education rushes back on-campus, in order to fully rebuild at scale, online communication tools like social media must remain a core part of community engagement.

This is not just an onslaught of promotions. The power of social media is rooted in thoughtful, meaningful, and intentional digital community-building strategies, carried out by highly skilled and supported social media/community managers.

The gaps in higher education and many other industries – between fostering a community online and being a digital billboard – are trust, investing resources in social media, and consistent support for those tasked with digital communications. 

But the tighter an institution squeezes social media to be prescriptive, to be “on-brand”, be one-directional – the less likely the digital community will actually flourish. 

Digital communities need room to breathe.

And digital community managers – whether full-time, part-time, or other duties assigned – must have the resources to be successful. 

But I find overwhelmingly they do not. 

In my inaugural Digital Community Building Cohort, 85% of participants did not have defined goals for social media. We cover this in the first month. Goals first, then strategy, then platform practices and in the last month, we go all-in on evaluation. I repeat, goals are step one – not platforms. Not tactics.  

Without goals, digital community building on social media is like going into Target without a clear shopping list. You’ll aimlessly pick up platforms and tactics that you didn’t even mean to – and then wonder what you went in there for in the first place. We all should know this by now, do not go into Target without a plan – lol! 

To minimize the wandering, the guesswork, and, honestly, the loneliness of managing social media I created the Digital Community Building Cohort (#DigiCohort). The spring cohort was a joy on my calendar for three months. The ah-ha moments from the participants in the faculty workshops, the collective celebrations in the group gatherings reporting small to big wins, the Slack channel that erupted in emojis and gifs between meet-ups. The secret sauce of this program comes from a community approach to teaching the skills of community building. 

I am thrilled to offer this program again later this summer. 

In this post, you’ll hear directly from the Cohort Faculty Mentor team. In the program, each faculty teaches a 90-minute workshop – but also serves as a consistent mentor to participants all program long.

A Q&A with the #DigiCohort Faculty Mentor Team

One thing that I absolutely LOVE collectively about the faculty mentors is how much they get into and care about this stuff. Our faculty team calls often turn into nerd-out sessions. 

So I asked them all a few geeky questions about digital community building. Below you’ll get their thoughts, advice, experience, and more. I’ll add my two cents at the end of each Q. Enjoy! 

How do you personally define and approach building a digital community?

Katy Spencer Johnson, Higher Ed Content Strategist, Educator, and Consultant

Many have thought that there was a dividing line between in-person relationships and community built online, seemingly a lesser value to an online relationship. I use many of the same techniques, strategies and connections in real life to build digital communities. I take the time to listen to my community, understand their challenges, highlight passions, provide value, and explore the points of intersection creating a shared space – whether it’s physically on campus or in a digital space of a social media platform. 

Tyler Thomas, Senior Director of Integrated Content at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Building a community online or IRL to me are one in the same. Connecting with PEOPLE who have similar passions, interests and genuinely like to interact with one another to exchange ideas, dialogue, learn something, be entertained, etc. The core of any community is connecting intentionally and with empathy. Focusing on listening and being committed to a shared relationship, be it in Twitter thread, Instagram comment or the residence hall dining center. 

Danielle Sewell, Director of Digital Communications and Marketing at York College of Pennsylvania 

Our digital community is an extension of our in-person community — it just serves a different type of engagement and interaction. People have all kinds of different communication styles, learning preferences, preferred activities, and situations where they thrive. Digital platforms allow for variation in how we ask our community members to show up. Will all platforms be for everybody? Of course not. But for some, digital platforms will provide the most comfortable or most available means of building connections. 

Krista Boniface, Senior Social Media Strategist at University of Toronto

This year especially has taught us how important digital relationships are to maintaining, nurturing and strengthening community within our higher ed spaces. How people feel within the four walls of your school should be reflected in the four “walls” of your social platforms, websites, etc. My approach is to know the tools well enough to use them to create seamless digital experiences and opportunities for our students, staff and faculty to engage with our content. When you can have your overarching strategy match what your audience is after, then that to me is where community can start to be built.

Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT

For me, it’s about support and amplification. I want to help those in my community succeed.

Josie Ahlquist (hey that’s me!)

The philosophies and strategies shared by the faculty team bring out the humanizing practice of digital community building. We must listen, we must empathize, we must truly see our people. This can be done seamlessly no matter the delivery, in-person and online. 

Using a digital community building approach, the goals of social media can be deeper, like Jenny offered – to help your community succeed. That is what we want and need in higher education, right? For students to be engaged, to graduate, to get jobs – not just to follow and like our Instagram post. Digital community building asks us to go deeper – for a longer-term impact. 

What makes digital community building unique or the same as in-person? 

Jenny Li Fowler: In digital community building, you want to build a sense of place that people want to return to — give them a sense of, “this is where my people are.” The management and moderation might come in to make sure everyone feels safe in the space, but generally, the community will police each other if it’s necessary.

Tyler Thomas: We tend to take community building in person for granted. People showed up, that’s community, right? I like to look at how people are engaging, interacting, supporting, challenging, and connecting. In the digital space, you have to be more intentional and inclusive and listen. Providing new opportunities for users to connect and really focus on the human side of the community.

Danielle Sewell: In the most fundamental ways, community-building uses similar skills and strengths no matter if you’re in person or connecting digitally. It’s essential to focus on creating real, human connections and developing opportunities that are interesting enough that people will invest their time. That takes empathy, organizational skills, and interpersonal communication. All of that is still required in the digital space, although it may be expressed differently. The skills required will vary depending on the platforms you’re using, but it’s almost always helpful to have a team with technical/digital savvy, strong writing skills, web editing ability, and a good sense of visual aesthetics (design, photography, videography, etc.). 

Katy Spencer Johnson: Digital community-building employs similar skill sets to fostering communities in-person – empathy, social listening, investing time in building a relationship, and engagement. Your digital community strategies and tactics are grounded in leading a conversation and making space for others to join your conversation. 

Krista Boniface: Digital community-building is less immediate and temporal to me than in-person community. As posts are shared, they gather new eyes, new reactions, and new commentary on that specific piece. To me, the digital approach allows for more people to take part in your content, no matter the geographical location or time zone they’re watching from. There is a difference in the reactionary nature of the digital community that I don’t think exists in the same way in person. 

Josie Ahlquist: Higher education has historically placed a higher value and resources into in-person experiences. From in-person classes to on-campus student engagement experiences. But who has been left out because of that? Part-time students, working parents, commuters, weekend-only graduate students. Programs that are placed during “traditional” days and times are unrealistic for all. 

Digital community building isn’t about picking sides, f2f vs online. It also isn’t about hybrid delivery. It’s seeing value online that can deliver at scale. And just because it’s digital delivery, doesn’t make it less than.

What in the last year have you found to successfully bring community members together online – versus what have you learned that just didn’t work?

Danielle Sewell: The fear of flopping never helped anyone build a successful digital community. The internet can be a weird, unpredictable, inconsistent place; there’s no need to be afraid of looking a little silly (as long as you don’t go totally rogue from a brand perspective). This past year, we’ve tried a lot of engagement tactics that just didn’t work for us — like Instagram Story activities that required a little too much time investment. We also took some swings and struck gold — like a blog series following the adventures of an alum who went on The Bachelorette or asking people to nominate their on-campus heroes. We learned from both. And what worked two or three years ago doesn’t necessarily work this year, so we’re constantly evaluating and letting the data help us make decisions about how to move forward.

Krista Boniface: Writing to you from Canada, we have just finished up our third virtual ceremony and convocation from Spring 2020 to now. Despite it not being the best circumstances we had graduates, their families, and friends show up in big ways to support them online on our YouTube premiere, social wall, and engagement across so many channels. We encouraged our U of T grads to share using the hashtag and saw amazing user-generated content in the form of TikToks and Reels really come to life this year. We produced a few podcasts and video series this year that addressed the pandemic situation head-on such as The New Normal Podcast and Talking Shots, a video series filmed through Zoom with science communicator and alum Science Sam. I’m with Danielle on the Instagram activities, we created bingo and yearbook frames but engaging with short videos this year has really seemed to be key. My advice is to pay attention to where your audience is spending their time, what are they delving into right now? See how your brand can tap into that and still make it about your goals and what your institution is about. With the right intention, your ideas will go far.

Tyler Thomas: Listening to the wants, needs, and assessments of your community from your community members. Asking what they need. Trying things in various ways or at different times. Digital community seems easy, let’s just have a Zoom session. But it is so much more than that. What does your community crave? What excites them? What makes them sad? Understanding the community and then taking the risks to try things new can work. It will take more work, but your community is worth it, right? 

Jenny Li Fowler: This past year I’ve learned that prompts help to engage people like, “How are you feeling today, respond in gifs and emojis only.” As a manager of a space, showing vulnerability and being transparent allows others to feel the same. It allows others to come as they are, whatever they’re feeling or going through at the time.

Katy Spencer Johnson: Holding space was so critically important in community building and engagement this past year. Understanding that each individual community member was experiencing the year differently. The year was less about campaigns and more about open, active communication and transparency utilizing existing social media platforms and exploring different social media spaces like Reddit, Twitch, and TikTok that meet our communities where they are.  Sometimes our connections with each other were single GIFS highlighting how we were feeling, sometimes long-form storytelling. We actively learned to sit with discomfort and really challenge how and when we communicate as campus leaders. 

Josie Ahlquist: As an entire field, higher education must learn from the adaptability and nimbleness of digital community builders. They fail fast when a strategy stops working, they pivot when platforms change. Many times they are not given the full credit for what they are able to pull off; their skillsets are minimized by leadership or faculty as “the people who tweet.” I see professionals who have a high level of empathy and emotional intelligence that applies to their work daily. They are also researchers, listening to trends, data, and community activity. 

If you want to know what is really going on with your students – ask those given the keys to social media.

How do you see the next year evolving as campuses and organizations return to more in-person?

Danielle Sewell: First, and perhaps most importantly: look at your posts’ likes the same way you look at the comments. It’s easy to see the 10 super negative comments and get discouraged, while simultaneously ignoring the 300 likes that should tell you a piece of content is overwhelmingly appreciated by your audience. Negativity tends to be louder, but it’s important that we listen to the quieter supporters, too. As more in-person activities resume this fall, a huge part of our digital community-building will be showcasing the sense of joy we feel for being together again. This is a once-in-a-generation moment, and we will be on the front lines of telling the story from the perspective of our communities.

Krista Boniface: Make the most of recovery efforts by working with your leadership and web teams to create FAQs, social reminders, stories, and even spots on important pages such as a helpdesk where students, staff, and faculty can write in with their questions. This forms a great aggregate of data for what people are most curious about or need more insight on to make informed decisions upon their return. Our team formed a whole campaign around this called UTogether, it’s been helpful having a spot where frequent updates are made in preparation for the fall term.  As far as how I see things evolving next year, no one can really say, but I predict (and hope) that in-person events, clubs, interactions will help with student morale and also give us more to drive people towards from social media to create those lasting connections. My advice is to remember the tough issues we’ve all been through this past year and let it anchor how we can ensure our community members belong in both digital and in-person spaces as we reopen.

Jenny Li Fowler: I believe now more than ever the listening and monitoring aspect of social media is crucial. This will tap you into the sentiment of your community — what they’re thinking, feeling — and you can address their needs by allowing it to inform the content you create. 

Tyler Thomas: Focus on what your community needs and prioritize. With an increase of in-person experiences, your time will now be even more stretched. Both your in-person and digital communities need you, and it’s our jobs to learn what they need from us so that we can tailor our content and our approach to community. By continually listening and adjusting our communities have a chance to adapt and grow. Don’t be afraid to do things differently. 

Katy Spencer Johnson: I agree with Tyler that now is the time to explore how to adapt and grow our communities out of lessons learned. Many of our colleagues, administrators, and campus leadership have seen the value of consistent communication, storytelling, and communities fostered with social media platforms. I’d like to maintain that momentum on campus and on social, exploring what worked, how we can engage and build even more advocates. 

Josie Ahlquist: What I want especially leadership to understand is that hybrid – offering anything both online and face to face – is two things. There should be an intersection between the two modalities, but this means double the workload. What will need to be removed from your team’s task list, so that a participant will fully experience this program, class, service, etc.? In the same breath, I’d remind anyone and everyone, that not every update needs to be another mass email, YouTube video, or meeting. This is a wonderful opportunity to honestly audit all of our communication practices. As the faculty above shared, start listening more instead of speaking so much. You’ll learn what your community really needs from the campus, not what you think they need.

Community Builders Need Community

I hope just from these responses you are feeling affirmed, inspired, and/or motivated to re-evaluate your approach. But I also understand fully, blog posts only go so far,

You need support; digital community builders need community too.

Whether that is a campus-based workgroup, a Facebook group like #HigherEdSocial or the community I founded called Higher Ed Digital Community Builders, or a collection of pros on Twitter – get you some community. This is not optional going into the fall. 

Sometimes open and large digital communities can be intimidating. Often having access to all the things on the internet ends up being more overwhelming and frustrating to find exactly what you need. 

The Digital Community Building Cohort is an intimate professional development program that aims to serve as a community for community builders. But further, you’ll receive timely skill-building, access to the faculty team for feedback and priceless tools to help you do your job not only more easily but better! 

I’d love for you to join the next Digital Community Building Cohort. The Cohort uses a group Mastermind format, allowing you to experience the benefits of online community firsthand as you learn digital community-building skills in a small group environment – from goals setting all the way through skills in evaluation. 

Registration will close on July 30th and we begin the following week! If this timing doesn’t work for you, don’t you worry – I’ll be offering the program again later this year!

Teaming Up on Resources

As the founder and facilitator of the Digital Community Building Cohort, I’m here year-round to support you and help you create a sustainable and values-based digital strategy. So, here are a few things I’ve been cooking up the last couple of years, especially for community builders.    

Connect with the #DigiCohort Faculty Mentor Team

Danielle Sewell, Director of Digital Communications and Marketing at York College of Pennsylvania 

Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT

Josie Ahlquist (hey, that’s me!), Cohort Director – Digital Engagement and Leadership Consultant, Speaker & Author

Katy Spencer Johnson, Higher Ed Content Strategist, Educator, and Consultant 

Krista Boniface, Senior Social Media Strategist at University of Toronto

Tyler A. Thomas, Senior Director of Integrated Content at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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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