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Small Town Mindset to Social Media

Josie Ahlquist: Hello and welcome to this shorty episode of Josie and the podcast. This is Josie. I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me today, and for this season. This is going to serve as a little mid-season break, before we get into the spring semester of 2020.

So I hope this will send you off for some substance, for a little bit of sugar and sass, to think about social media just a little bit differently. But I would not be able to do this podcast without my sponsor, Campus Sonar.

Y’all, The internet is real life, which means the perception of your campus online is reality. But do you know what your reality actually is and if it aligns with your strategic initiatives. Social listening can help answer questions you have about your campuses’ online conversations, both what people are saying to you when they tag you, as well as when they don’t, and how to incorporate insight from those online conversations into your institution’s goals.

And getting started doesn’t have to be a huge investment of time or money. Campus Sonar, a higher ed social listening agency and the sponsor of Josie and the podcast, has the goods to help you get started. Whether you’re looking to read up or want to try a low cost introductory project, you can learn more at info.campussonar.com\podcast.

All right. This topic today is coming from my roots, and I think is very relative today, talking about small towns. Where am I small town listeners, yeah? Like the real, real smalls. Okay, I’m not talking about these suburbs or like, “Oh, I was there for a year.” I’m saying you lived in it, and maybe you still live in a small town today. I should know. Okay.

I spent my first 18 years in a town of about 3,000, but we’ll dig into a little bit of that in a moment. In this episode, I’d like to shine light on how we can approach community engagement on social media platforms through the lens of a small town. Now, let me also just pause to say I didn’t always feel so proud to say, or excited to be in a small town, born and raised in Wyoming. Again, 3,000, everybody knows everybody.

But the values and experiences that built me help explain a lot of who I am, and what I’m finding and what I’m talking about today helps explain my philosophy about digital engagement in building digital communities. Some of it’s as simple as really seeing people and recognizing people, like a wave. When I go for a run back home, and this is also quite fitting right around the holidays, people are heading back to their homes, maybe smaller towns, or we’re in a small town, we’re going to a big city, and now you’ll see big differences is, I’ll go for a run and people are still waving to me. I don’t know who they are, they probably don’t even know me, but there’s this recognition piece, and that we can do these small little things on social as well.

Before I moved away and went to college, South Dakota State University. Brooking, South Dakota is still a pretty small town. Even my Master’s was in Flagstaff at Northern Arizona. Not the largest of Metropolitans, but I grew up before broadband and Amazon Prime. So what it means now to live in more rural communities, they have way more access to what we had, right? You got to still probably wait two days to get something from Amazon. So some access has increased, but again, the values and experiences of what it meant to be in a small town, I think still remain.

But here’s just a little peek into my small town roots. My town is nestled at the start of the Black Hills, about an hour or so from Mount Rushmore. We’ll see what the next census says. But again, we’re about around 3,000, 3,500, and my graduating class was 72, and I’m pretty sure those class sizes are significantly going down. So again, sometimes the movies and Hollywood don’t lie about being a one stoplight town.

The majority of businesses are churches, bars and gas stations. It was a big deal when we got a new gas station in town. It’s like one of these big regional ones that’s like a big deal. And some of the largest gatherings is the high school homecoming events and the County fair. People, yeah, really do know your business. My grandma took this so far growing up, she had a CB scanner. She would know if I was driving over to her house, which is like 45 minutes away in another small town, Sundance, Wyoming. She would know if I got pulled over for speeding before I even would arrive to her doors. My mom again, she also had a CB scanner. I’m pretty sure she might still, so she would know if there’s a fire out of town or some accident, they would be all up in the know.

So they were already digging into technology before you could scroll on Facebook to see or Twitter, about what was going on. Talking about driving, we did that a lot. At least where I grew up, you could get a worker’s permit super young. Like you said, you were working on your family’s ranch or farm or whatnot. So a lot of my classmates drove very early, and really though you needed a car to get places, even today there is no Uber.

And talking about driving and access, the closest mall was 90 minutes away, but we made a whole week and day of it. We just planned for it. We didn’t know any better. Also, most of our specialist doctors were also at least an hour away. It was common for you to be excused from school a half or sometimes a full day off of school, just to go to doctors. No-one blinked at you if you were just getting a checkup and had to do that.

And I’m not sure if it still happens today, but cruising through town was the thing to do and to be seen. So if you would have told me growing up that I would have ended up in the largest cities in the world, Los Angeles, California, I would have laughed in your face. I remember telling people vocally I had no interest in California, especially Los Angeles, even if Disneyland was here because this was the ’80s, y’all, a time when California and especially LA, were going through a lot, earthquakes, significant pollution, riots, and honestly Hollywood, and it’s so ironic to who I’m married today, I didn’t want anything to do with, I pretended everyone I saw on TV were really just living in the TV. Now of course you can’t escape it if you live in LA or not.

Mini lesson for the podcast listeners, never say never, y’all, because here I am. We have lived in Los Angeles now since 2003. How long we stay here, who knows? I do think this is too big of a city for me for long longterm, but I also don’t think I could live full time in a small, small town, but again, there are characteristics of a smaller community that I hold very near and dear, which again got me thinking about the work that I do today.

Internet and platforms like Twitter have grown so darn large. They feel like busy big cities or probably what the 405 is doing today around the holidays. They’re busy. You get lost, you don’t feel seen. And at one point, I’m sure these freeways were built for much less. Some researchers say that the internet is not real life, that you cannot recreate these in-person experiences and build relationships digitally, that we actually aren’t connecting on technology, that online friends don’t count, that connection doesn’t count.

Well, my strongly worded rebuttal to all that would probably take another podcast episode to do, but today I’m at least tackling on how we can make these digital spaces feel more manageable and meaningful with a small town mindset. Online is real life. It’s all about your intent and the energy that you put behind it. And most likely though, you’re going to need to break it down to more small and manageable, what I called in the very first episode of this season, micro digital communities.

Social media doesn’t have to be so hustle and bustle like a big city. What if we take some of the good warm things about living in a tight knit community into our digital spaces? So this is what got me thinking about a small town mindset to social media, creating customized and specialized relationships and strategies just like a small town.

And there were a few pieces of this wheel barrel, let’s call it, because that feels small town too, that these spokes that would hold that community in place, that social media strategy that felt like a small town mindset. No surprise, I start the book this same way. I start all of my strategy sessions this way. Your number one priority and philosophy and place to start with digital engagements is people. Know your people.

Numbers and metrics and stats are great. They don’t tell the story. That’s also why I’m a qualitative researcher and not quantitative is because I want to hear those stories, know those faces. Again, know your growth, know your data on social, but you have to treat those followers and connections more than a number. I want you to really get to know your followers and of course quick takeaway, engage way more than you post. Every single comment is a gift, every single like and share, really acknowledging people, and maybe surprise and delight a little bit to recognize that folks have engaged with your content.

Now, one of the amazing things about growing up in a small town is that I never felt like just a number. Literally I was the only girl on the soccer team. So that alone was a bit of anomaly, and everywhere I went people knew me or someone in my family since we went to a couple of generations back, or were at least familiar with my name or would be connected somehow. So we had already that spark for a conversation no matter what their age was. And this could be another way we think about social that I love, especially for those in higher level positions, using these tools to be that spark that you first form that connection in digital spaces, so then when you do see each other at an event or at a meeting, you already maybe have that connection, that shared knowledge about maybe something that you posted about your dog or some celebration about a staff member. Already allows for the first line conversation to get out like that icebreaker.

Going further, names are huge. And y’all, I am so bad at remembering names. Thank the Lord for name and badges at conferences, but really knowing the names of our most active users or those that we would really want to engage even further, and recognizing them at minimum, and paying attention to their own digital behavior, gives a personalized experience. It feels like it’s that recognition of, I see you. It’s okay also when knowing your people, recognizing your people, if you have a small following. If you only have 50 followers on Instagram, but every single person is engaged… Well, that would be a pretty big jump even for Instagram’s algorithm that every single person would engage with a post. But having higher engagement rate would be something to celebrate way more than having 5,000, but it’s crickets every time that you are posting.

And most likely to really draw in… Well, I don’t even want to say users, but people, in that way is the interaction. It’s really getting to know them and probably following them back and engaging with their content. So they’re like, “Oh my goodness, wow. They see me just as I see them.” And then you need to engage more than you post. Don’t just post and ghost. Stay in it. Comment, interact, share, ask for interaction on your posts and really celebrate when people do. And don’t just retweet a whole bunch of stuff without adding any context or your own spin on it. All these little things that bring these personalizations make social media feel a little bit less vast and again, more personal. Let’s get more relational behind our accounts, I think is a big theme of a Number two, also related, is know where your people are. I mentioned talking about small towns, is cruising, or the big events that we have that pretty much everybody will show up to. Know what those earmarks are, both physically and digitally. And this can also go back to the basics. Let’s say you’re really struggling with your Twitter presence, and I want you to just think for a moment, is that actually where your people are? Some campuses, Twitter is very active, and not just because there’s university accounts, but the students are actually there, but I’m not finding that as common across the board. So where your community? Where are your people? Who are your people? Really know that crystal clear, and then go to the platforms they are at.

[Steven App 00:00:14:41] talks about this all the time. Social listening and paying attention on Reddit. You don’t necessarily need to post original content on Reddit, but you are listening and hearing and understanding the student experience, and maybe what your community is already gathering there to ask questions and dialogue and troubleshoot, and maybe there’s other words for it that are used on Reddit, but really think about where are the places that they are already going. And you can think of physical places too.

Hashtags continue to evolve to know if your community are using certain hashtags, to pay attention there, which most likely are completely different than the ones that your community might be using on Instagram. Also, pay attention to your community and what tags they are using, especially on Instagram, do they continue to tag themselves on specific places around campus? So paying attention to those. Okay, maybe those are places that you want to make sure to capture content, and you’re tagging in those locations. Know where your people are, both digitally and physically, whether you are going out and about too.

Number three, our spoke of this wheel barrel of a social media mindset. I totally made that up on the fly. And this one’s stereotypical, what you would say of a small town, is knowing your neighborhood. So this is closer reach. I definitely knew all my neighbors, and I knew I could rely on them if anything happened and vice versa. That includes these elements of recognition. Again, I mentioned earlier when I go on a run, I’ll get a wave, or I’ll be at the store and someone will say, “Hi,” or they’ll know my name or ask questions. How can we reciprocate or replicate those things in digital spaces and not just the original content that we are creating?

I also want you to think about community pillars in your neighborhood and community, almost like archetypes. When you think about small towns, if you can find these archetypes, maybe it’s based upon families that have lived there forever, or the mayor, or the high school principal. The people that are going to be known around town, and we could translate this into digital influencers, both micro and macro. When we think about the influencers within certain churches or organizations or even sports teams, tapping into those archetypes, those pillars, and what we call within social media, those influencers, puts the community to work for you for some of your strategy.

A couple of other things that I think about with really knowing your neighbors, and you might say people be nosy, right, or really knowing your business is, I mentioned earlier about Reddit. We got to do a whole lot more of listening on social without a ton of judgment, going in just to scroll and listen. Teresa Riley, in our episode, she talked about, I think it was every morning, she would scroll through. She wasn’t even posting anything maybe in stories or Snapchat. She was just getting a pulse of what was happening.

And this reminds me a lot of people watching, and you could do this, no matter a small or big town, but in small towns especially, I notice certain types of your people sitting out on the porch or maybe in our downtown area, outside the courthouse, there’s these gathering places that people are just sitting and watching and paying attention to what’s happening. I would also say in smaller communities, celebrations become cornerstones, from homecoming, to a retirement, to last fall I was added to my high school’s hall of fame, and people that showed up from just all corners of the small community of this.

So how can we celebrate more, all kinds of nooks and corners, and not just the big, big things, but even smaller things throughout the year? And the final thing about knowing your neighbors and really getting to know them, is about this element of taking complaints or frustrations or even rumors in stride. In a small town, if just one person complains, even if they’re very loud, it’s just that one person, it’s not the entire town, city or internet. Sometimes when we get these complaints or frustrations, negativity on social, it might be just a few people but you feel like all of a sudden it’s the entire internet. And it’s just a reminder to keep… It’s just those three people, or even those 10 people. It’s not everyone. Again, some more advanced tools with social listening like that what Campus Sonar does, they could give you a bigger picture of sentiment of what’s what’s actually going on. There are these 10 people that are really loud and complaining, but overall the larger percentage are actually really celebrating and excited about everything the campus is doing.

So that’s three. I’ve got two more spokes to our wheel barrel of small town mindset to social media. This one I hope you will appreciate, is slowing down, making it a lot of quality content that calls folks in. Small towns, before the internet, we had to really rely on specific sources of information like our newspapers, regional and radio, and sometimes it came in slow, right. And we didn’t get full blast. So what might be happening, for Twitter for example, if you are posting so much, you might be overwhelming your users or they don’t know where to go, where, when and why. So are there other sources like a digital home, like a website, or some other newsletter that’s curated that they could go to when they do have the time and space capacity to actually look at it, and discover other types of content?

The other piece about slowing down that I do think my family and those that live back home, they have more boundaries of energy and time where, no, this is okay. Like after work I am clocking out, or this weekend. It’s to think about your own boundaries from social, whether you’re running it full time or you’re just thinking about these accounts for yourself. How can you think about supporting your own community to unplug, to be present, and to slow down, that that is role modeling and digital leadership as well.

Going into the holidays, where you do have some more downtime, think about how you could set up some kind of challenge for you or your community or your students or your team about monitoring screen time, and maybe even some kind of challenge about limiting, or doing an experiment like deleting certain apps off of your phone, and reporting back to see how that felt. I think especially students are hungry for experiential types of exercises like this that would also teach them digital wellness skills, but let me say, we need all society to have conversations about digital wellness and, again, the permission to slow down.

This idea how crucial is it that you are adding and being active over what we would like our communities to have this sense of slowing down, to being physically present with their families, or does our content change that then has a slower tone or a more calming tone to it? Thinking about that emotion and tone that we can then reinforce during these potential downtimes, or even in times of high stress during finals week, or move in, or how are our platforms maybe being further triggers of anxiety and stress. Instead, how can we think about, again, flowing, having a different emotional approach to some of our content?

So leaning into the slow down, however you define that, posting less, shifting your emotional tone and approach and maybe even content. And so I do think this is a interesting timing to have a conversation with your teams, especially if you work in marketing. What would it look like if you did post some kind of message to say that limited posting, or that you would be logging off completely, and you encourage others to do some type of similar type of behavior. In case of emergencies, you’re sending folks to maybe a certain email. I think those kinds of strategies are just as important as informational ones that we might be sending out throughout the holidays.

And then finally, the one that I definitely realized as I’ve moved away and reflected back about my time living in a small town, is being grateful for what you actually have. And again, before the days of Amazon Prime and the internet and cell phones, we really didn’t know any differently about what we had or not. It was just normal to have to drive an hour to go to a McDonald’s, but goodness, when we got there, it was amazing. Right? Or like getting to that Dairy Queen when it was open, and only open certain times of year, and just already knowing what you were going to order. Having some of that gratitude, now that we do have open access to everything we want 24/7, even if you’re rural or in a big city, and things don’t feel quite as special and significant. But with that gratitude concept in mind, I know so many digital marketers and communicators are one stop shops with limited resources, or maybe you are an AVP and it’s just you trying to run your social, but you want to be able to do so much more.

We’re going to have to be quite resourceful, and know our own limits. When talking about that slowing down piece, is maybe you don’t take on that extra app, or you’re okay posting less, but when you do go on, you’re really going to stay focused and not jump to other apps. The other element about gratitude is asking the question, do you think your followers know you’re thankful that they are there? And whatever they’re doing in their lives, of them interacting with your content. I’ve said this word a few times, but do you see them? Do you really see them and acknowledge them, or do you just want things from them? Do you want them to do the things that you’re telling and asking them to do in your posts? Because that also can become quite exhausting. The celebrating, the recognition, the really seeing people I think could be the small town mindset that we could apply into our strategies.

And then finally, as we think about gratitude and resources, I want to put a plug in for you to think about how your platforms can serve as mentorship service, and the heartbeat of this entire podcast, leadership and legacy. Beyond all the information and events and content that we need to get out there that’s timely, how can we start to be stewards of these platforms? Again, really seeing people as people, and what they need, and what they’re feeling, and meeting them where they are. Knowing we have at least access to tools unlike ever before to connect with people around the globe, 24/7, these gifts to connect with people. I want you to think about what are you giving? I’ll share right now my gratitude for you listening to this podcast, whether it’s your very first episode or you have checked out dozens of them, I really do appreciate you checking them out, sharing them with colleagues, giving me feedback, and especially potentially giving me ideas for 2020.

As the book comes closer to being released, we’ll be getting into all kinds of goodies with that, even though I’ve already been teasing quite a bit of that this last fall. But I want you to know how grateful I am and through this journey, it’s such an honor and privilege to be part of. So I do want you all to know, whether it’s on my blog, on this podcast, or on a keynote stage at a campus or conference, I am evangelizing a community-centric digital engagement strategy with lots of considerations, like a small town mindset, like my keynote, engaging the digital generation. We get into the heart of it to really see and connect with your people. So I’m currently booking out 2020. You can email me at josie@josieahlquist.com to get planning and program for your campus or conference today.

So in close, social media can definitely use a little bit of small town love. It is a very massive and intimidating space sometimes that makes it seem like cultivating relationships is impossible, but I know from personal experience, putting in just a little extra effort beyond what you post, and more into interactions and seeing and appreciating people, is where relationships are sparked for potentially lifetime relationships and impact. I believe that some of the practices we talked about today about social media can make it feel more like a digital neighborhood, that real life moments can be replicated when we start to use these platforms to connect, acknowledge, know, and see people wherever they are in the world. And to you, my dear listener, I see you, and thank you.

Please subscribe to Josie and the podcast, so you don’t miss any future episodes, and click that share button to share it with your colleagues, friends, heck, maybe even your family. I would also be thrilled if you enjoyed the episode to leave a review in iTunes or any of your favorite podcasting platforms. If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking, coaching or consulting work on digital leadership in higher ed, or my research or publishing, check me out at josieahlquist.com. Find me on Twitter or Instagram @JosieAhlquist. You can also connect with me on Facebook and LinkedIn. Just search for my name. Sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and the podcast.

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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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