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Purposeful Digital Student Engagement

Humans are hardwired to connect with others. With social media we can engage authentically, build community, and foster belonging. That is, if we prioritize People and Purpose before Platforms. Otherwise, social media is just busywork. This episode provides a Purposeful Digital Engagement Model that will help you form deeper relationships with the students you serve – and anyone else you invite into your digital communities.

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Notes from this Episode:

Josie Ahlquist:

Hi all. Welcome to another episode of Josie and the Podcast. This is Josie and this episode is a shorty episode about purposeful digital student engagement. Before we dig in, here’s a little spoiler alert from my sponsor Campus Sonar.

Guess what? Students talk about their experiences online. That’s a spoiler alert. And they talk about y’all a lot. But they’re often not talking to admission folks even when they’re looking for answers admission professionals can provide. Like advice on where to go to school, what to expect of the admission process, and even just how to make friends on campus.

Instead they take to social channels and forums to ask their peers. Campus Sonar, a social listening agency in higher ed and the sponsor of this podcast, they dug into online conversations of current and prospective students. You can download this report and bonus research at

So in this shorty episode today, I am very excited to be talking about getting super purposeful in digital engagement. Even if you are back to class, on campus or off, online or hybrid, whatever state of affairs you are currently in on this specific day, I hope the framework that I offer you is applicable and not just when we are in crisis and cleanup mode and constant troubleshooting during COVID, but hopefully after.

There’s a lot of campuses that have already been off to a rocky start having to quickly pivot one direction or the other. Amongst all of that pivoting, we have to always stay grounded in being very purposeful.

Before I get into that, I do want to tell you about a couple of blogs that I’ve released recently with a couple other social media managers in higher ed, Tony Dobies and Katie Spencer Johnson. We wrote two posts.

The first was about what it really means to be a social media manager right now in higher ed called Behind The Screens. And the second was a call to leadership to really understand what is the day in the life and the needs of those who are tasked with running social media.

A couple of quick takeaways, and I’ll link both of those blogs in the notes to the show, is that social media isn’t magic. Marketing is not magical. And those that do those two components have to have a great deal of skills, strategy, and knowledge. And so to make sure that as you are supporting those that do this for your universities, that you see that skill and you’re rewarding it as so.

Social media managers are also the front door of the institution. Are also what I call the first line of defense on the internet, but they can sometimes feel like the doormat. All kinds of folks are expressing their emotions to institutional accounts. And even though they know deep down it’s not directed to them, when they see this frustration over and over, it can wear on them. These professionals aren’t just the doormats. They can be the doorbell, the security camera, the garden flag, the house number and more if leaders just allow them the opportunities.

I want to share one quote from one of our features in this blog, the Vice President of Marketing Communications that Wheaton College, Gene Begin, said our audiences often forget that it’s a human being behind the account when they are reaching out to the brands in an activism campaign. Campus leaders must be there to support and empathize with their social media colleagues. Cause y’all, we are all humans behind the screen and we need to take care of each other, no matter the position.

In case you don’t already know which when you read the book, which is coming out soon, Digital Leadership In Higher Ed, I share that I am a fangirl of Brene Brown and she is quoted in the book. In Daring Greatly she shares “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. And without it, there is suffering.”

And that is what brings me to the topic today about purposeful digital engagement. And that might be for students, that might be for parents or family or alumni, faculty, administrators, whoever your people are we have to get super purposeful into the ways and means we are building that connection for them because we, as human beings, are hardwired for connection.

And in the book, the second part, the subtitle of the book is called Purposeful Social Media In A Connected World. And purposeful is a word that I am using all over the place because not only does it resonate with me personally, but I think it is a nice ear marker to get focused despite this pandemic.

When we can focus on connection, it does give us purpose and how we can be purposeful in how we connect. The internet can also be quite overwhelming just on a normal day. And so purpose gives focus there. And we also have to realize how these efforts we do in digital spaces are in an attempt to minimize space, time, and attention.

Right now, anything that we do online is competing against Netflix or Brittany Spears #freeBrittany or anything else that the Republican convention, the Democratic convention, anything that’s going out there when we are offering an open mic night or a leadership series, or even your online course, there is a potential for multiple tabs to be open at the exact same time. But we also know we have limited time and limited resources and many of these platforms, even our learning management systems, we don’t have full control over them. We’re trying to make things work within them.

So these are just a handful of obstacles. But fortunately, I’ve got a framework to give you a solution that I hope will help cut through the noise. And this framework is called The Purposeful Digital Engagement Model. Anyone can apply digital communication tools in their practices, whether you take this model and apply it as a campus executive, a social media manager or an educator from your courses to your services.

We have to have a clear purpose in order to transform the busywork that can result from social media or honestly, any type of technology because we need to be in the business of belonging. And this belonging work is what I call digital engagement.

Digital engagement is grounded in the following core tenants. That we have to engage authentically. We have to have the intent to build community in order to foster belonging in the ways of, as Brene Brown said, “to have connection.” And I also believe digital engagement is student engagement. It is alumni engagement is community engagement, whoever your audience is, all of those tenants and scholarship and priorities we had in quote unquote, offline on campus can be carried out in digital means.

And so this model for success includes people and purpose over platforms and production. And I’m going to go through each of those four components. But first as we start to clear up the clutter, I want you to get really clear on all these tools you already have in your tool kit, or you’re already activating. We want to think through a process to get super strategic. And that is also the nod to being purposeful.

As a new platform, let’s say, TikTok enters your sphere, ask yourself, do you really need that account? What do you need to know that’s specifically possible? And I’ve got six questions for you to go through.

The first and the most important is the why. What is the goal? Not just for being on the platform, but what’s your why for your position, your institution, your organization, what is supposed to be the focus right now? And then you can add in as well, what are the goals? What are the outcomes?

The second question is the who. Who are you here to serve? Who is the focus of your audience? And number three is the what. What experiences are you trying to transform right now? What type of information are you trying to get out? What programs are you putting and innovating into digital spaces?

And then we start to think about the where. The platforms. What are platforms that are available? So TikTok could be one of those. But what are all the other ones we can think about too, about where this experience could live?

And the fifth question is how. How is the operations and the strategy? How the heck are we going to pull this off? Because while we know many social media and technology tools are free or low cost, there is a cost to them.

And the sixth bonus question is who is already using this platform or this tool on your campus that you could collaborate with? Maybe your institution already has a TikTok or one of your students have a really strong presence that you could collaborate with and still use that post to meet the goals of the other five questions that I just listed.

So that’s just creating a base for us before we get into this framework of people and purpose over platforms and production. And so we first focus on people. People are more important than the platforms that we are setting up and we are on as we think about creating a purposeful digital strategy.

So think about who you’re trying to connect with from those that you serve, as well as your stakeholders. What are some of the strengths and even struggles of some of those members right now? What do they need immediately? We can even take a throwback to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Emotionally what do they need? Physically? Spiritually? Think short term, as well as into the future.

And then knowing your specific audience. This has got to inform every other part of your digital engagement strategy. And you also have to know what your people are already on as far as having a little hint into platforms.

And I love staying updated with a Pew Research Center’s research. They research all kinds of topics, but especially if you go into their internet studies you’ll find out 89% of 18 to 29 year olds are active social media users. 92% of 13 to 17 year olds are daily active users. And then even further, we know 4 in 10, 18 to 29 year olds go online almost constantly. And Pew is also constantly updating their data. And I will drop a few links in the show notes so you can grab some of that data to help inform some of your decisions to know about your people and how those fit into potential platforms.

So the next part of this framework is purpose. Strategy leads us to purpose. Why are you here? What are you here to actually do and serve and support? And then what’s going to be the goals for your community? What do they need? What are the values that support these spaces, these platforms, these tools, and what are the outcomes you’re trying to achieve?

And what I love to do when I am exploring out purpose for a leader or for an institution or a division or department, we’re going to pull up some seminal documents, like the mission of the institution, the strategic plan, the vision statement, the stated goals that they had listed out for their next year. And now we’ve already got some language to pull from as we think about creating this space of purpose and then turning those into realistic and sustainable strategic goals.

So it’s two parts with purpose. The first part is knowing what you’re actually here to do. Your organization and your position, and even your personhood. But second then how do we translate those into a purpose within this digital tool or your entire strategy? Because what I also find us doing unfortunately, is we run to a platform like TikTok because it’s bright and shiny and fun. And maybe our students or some crazy consultant with a podcast is telling me to go and check that tool out. I’m not crazy, but …

So we have to be purposeful. There is a way to set very clear objectives and purpose for a tool like TikTok that is going to align back to the goals that you have no matter the digital or physical space, as well as relate it to the other outcomes and even problem solving that you’re doing right now, if you take the time to set those in place and on paper.

And if you think about these four pieces of the framework in a quadrant where people and purpose are at the top and then platform and production are in different quadrants at the bottom, and even that shows you where to prioritize your time in building strategy. Start in the upper left with people, move over to purpose. That should connect very clearly with the people that you serve.

And then we’re going to make our way down to the bottom left corner of platform. And even as you’re listening, as long as you’re not driving or walking and listening, because I tend to when I listen to podcasts and I’m walking, I just can’t multitask. I’m going to end up stumbling most likely. But that bottom left hand quadrant again, if you want to maybe make some notes when you are able, in this quadrant, your platform section is then going to connect with right above it, people.

What are the platforms that I know my people are already on? Or based on these platforms that I’m looking into, what considerations do I need to have in mind as it relates to access, as it relates to knowledge and literacy where there might be some gaps that I need to more clearly put in place to make sure that this platform is going to meet the needs of the people that I serve?

And platforms could be beyond just social. You could even think about a digital engagement purposeful strategy for your email to text messages and DMs to some kind of enterprise software or systems that you have in place. And as we think about those platforms, before we get into making plans and productions, now we also want to think about what do we already know these platforms are coming in with as far as maybe a ball and chain.

We know the perceptions that are already out there of Facebook or what our community might feel about email. But also what is the ideal experience that you would want your community to have on these platforms that you would want to create?

It also might mean in this platform section, you might need to get to know some of these platforms more. You need to become an explorer. So again, going back to the TikTok example, spending some time to explore and search and have fun and understand and follow and probably create a couple of your own to see how these platforms really do tick.

And then start to ask your people, as you think about the platform or platforms that you want to create this purposeful strategy around, you have to get feedback. Either what they currently think of your presence or ideas they have for you in using that tool now more strategically.

And then as we eek closer to our preparations for production in our plan, again, going back to that concept of what do you want that experience to be? Think about the emotional field, the visual look, the knowledge gained, the relationships fostered. Now we’re starting to look and pull back into our purpose. How are we making sure that the purpose that we have, the goals we are even drawing very clearly into what we know the platforms can and cannot do for us? Because there is an emotional feel to every page, to every tool, to every email and branding that we have options sometimes on different tools to help with that emotional feel and experience.

And finally, we get to the production side. And the reason why even visually creating the four quadrants of the framework, we prioritize people and purpose first before platforms and production, because I find so many individuals first go to making plans and adopting platforms. And again, we have such limited time and resources, and honestly the platforms will just keep coming. So we need to make those tough calls about what are the ones that we’re going to really focus on and do very well.

And then we look at production knowing the how are we going to accomplish this? And with who? My goal for you is that you can create a sustainable plan that’s going to consistently meet the needs of your people where they are that is grounded in your purpose.

So what is your strategy right now and how do you feel like it’s currently connecting all the dots in order to be purposeful and meet the needs of your people? Take some time to maybe work through this people purpose platform and then reevaluate your plan thinking about things from those daily, weekly, and even monthly experiences. And I really liked the idea of approaching technology through the lens of these are experiences. This isn’t just one-way communication. We want it to be interactive and meaningful, and that’s what makes it an experience.

We also have to ask the hard questions. How much time can you commit? How many hours could it actually take to create just one TikTok? I’m sure there’s an article out there about that somewhere. Or if you have an idea of creating a digital community, like I talked about last shorty episode, how much time might that take and how many people can be part of this strategy?

And then there are a variety of different frameworks for setting your goals, pulling back into your purpose section down into your plan and production. You could use something like SMART goals or other tools that you have established within other goal-setting strategies.

But here’s a quick recipe to make sure we’re super clear. So for example, you could say in order to serve first generation students through the fall 2020 semester, a Discord channel will be fostered to provide blank, blank, and blank. Getting very, very specific with the people, the platform and the purpose. So that is also why I created that framework to help you write out some pretty clear goals.

I also suggest before you get into production mode, you perform a 30-day audit to look back about what’s already working, where you might need some improvement and growth, and you may also find in this audit, you have some outstanding channels or tools that you’re actually not using that often or not in the way that you realize that will help inform this production part.

So be willing to evolve, learn from some hiccups, commit to some fun, new ways to connect. One place that you can find lots of folks talking about purposeful digital engagement is a Higher Ed Digital Community Builders Facebook group, which I’ll make sure to link in the show notes.

So again, that framework, you always start with your people then move to defining and clarifying your purpose. Then we get into platforms, discerning and really critiquing what those tools are and if they’re going to connect with your people and your purpose. And then finally we move on to production, which will be a consistent evolution, experimenting being in beta and always keeping your people at the forefront.

So going back to Brene Brown, her quote “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. And without it, there is suffering.” Are your platforms and the technology tools that you use, are they offering that purpose and meaning for those that you serve? Because there are a lot of folks suffering right now. So can we use these platforms for connection way more than just constant information one direction?

Social media is not perfect. It’s darn right problematic sometimes, but it can help bridge some divides. I have seen it build community around the globe and relationships that have lasted a lifetime. We have to have empathy as we move through these difficult times. So start with purpose, start with a why and everything else with heart and soul will follow.

You can always check out the notes to the podcast for lots of helpful resources from my blog, webinars and panels that I’ve hosted, the book that’s coming up and of course those Facebook groups that I was sharing earlier. In all those scenarios, reach out to me, of course, on all the socials @josieahlquist or on my email

I am cooking up something related to the last two shorty episodes to help you to offer a community and education about digital community building and purposeful digital engagement. It is a fall semester long program that I’m launching to help you develop, create and sustain digital community and engagement strategies as you go through the roller coasters of daily pivots and possibilities and problem solving. So keep your eye guys on my website and my socials, as I announce that new program that will help bring a small group of professionals through an educational experience in order to build community.

Thank you so much for checking out this episode. I sure do hope it was helpful and I would absolutely love to know what you have applied. If you enjoyed it, make sure to consider giving a review on iTunes or any of your favorite podcasts platforms. Please subscribe so you don’t miss any future episode. We’ve got a lot cooking up for you this fall.

You can join the conversation online by tweeting at me @JosieAhlquist or the podcast, Twitter JosieATpodcast. Wherever the show notes and additional resources can be found at If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking and consulting work on digital engagement and leadership or an early purchase of my forthcoming book, learn all about that at

Thank you again to our podcast sponsor Campus Sonar, learn more about them over at I’m sending digital hugs, loves and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and The Podcast.


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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