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Secret Sauce of Social Media for Executives

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There’s a myth that there’s one magical secret recipe for social media success. Article after article promises that if you follow their recipe exactly, you’ll suddenly have adoring followers and your metrics will shoot through the roof. They present solid social media tactics and their advice is worth following, but there’s something missing with just tactics.

To kick your social media strategy up a notch, you need a little something special. A secret sauce.

In this post, you’re going to see a list of content not commonly listed for executives on social. Many articles tell leaders to post only thought leadership or “professional” content. But if you want to approach digital communication tools in a relatable and real way, then you need to crack open some secret sauce on social. Kirk and Noel Schulz, the first family of Washington State University talk about the secret sauce (without calling it the secret sauce) in their episode of Josie and the Podcast.

“I think it’s important for people to see that you don’t just have a professional life, but that you have a personal life too.” – Noel Schulz

Why? Because people want to “follow” people – not pages or bulletin boards. In order to be a digital leader, you have to bring your collective self to the table. This is where I lose a lot of executives who aren’t ready to show their cards. So, stay with me! This post will give you easy wins to letting others into your life while still have solid boundaries.

Your life, that’s right – from the boardroom to your favorite board game. People aren’t just following you to see how brilliant you are (although that’s definitely part of it). They’re following you because they want to see how a real person leads and lives. Of course, that leads to a brand new challenge: how do I mix personal and professional on my social media channels?

Luckily for you, I’ve got a “secret sauce” for social success that removes definitions of “personal” or “professional” – we are really talking about people because if you are reading this then you are a human…or an internet bot. And if you’re a bot, you’re not my audience so scram 😉

The recipe is simple: these four ways to bring a special touch to your social media strategy.
Secret Sauce Recipe

1. A Double Scoop of Relationships

Social media is all about connecting with people and building relationships, which makes it perfect for celebrating your IRL relationships. People love seeing you connect with other real people, especially if they’re not someone you see every day. For me, that’s online friends I meet in-person at conferences. For university presidents, it might look like photos with students and visitors on campus.

Think about the celebrities making headlines for their Instagram posts. Sure, plenty of them are in the news for social scandals, but there are just as many who are getting attention for sharing family moments and news. Okay, you’re not Beyonce or Kim Kardashian, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t interested in seeing sweet or funny family moments like these:

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Photo credits: Len Diaz

A post shared by Santa J. Ono (@ubcprez) on

Wish family or even campus community members happy birthday. Craft a heartfelt tweet celebrating your mom or dad or grandparents or kids. Just make sure that the people you’re posting about are okay with it! As with all social media, internet safety and privacy concerns should always be at the back of your mind.

2. A Pinch of Pets and Places

Some executives aren’t comfortable getting in front of the camera, and that’s totally okay! There are ways to make your social more personal without ever appearing in the pictures you post.

I admit it: I’m a sucker for a cute cat or dog picture. As it turns out, I’m not the only one obsessed with them. NewsWhip did a deep dive into the effect pet posts have on Instagram engagement, and the results were astounding. Brands from all industries saw an 89% increase in comments and a 19% increase in likes on pics that featured pets.

One of the best things about pet posts is that they’re a great way to show off what you care about without putting yourself in the spotlight. Another major positive? Pet photos are some of the least controversial pieces of content that you can put out there. Sure, some people may be more partial to cats than dogs, but pictures of your favorite furry (or feathered or fuzzless) friends tend to attract mostly positive sentiment.

If you don’t have pets, consider posting some of your favorite places. If you think the view from your office is breathtaking, chances are so will your followers. Whenever you experience a change of scenery, let people know! Take pictures of conference stages, events, heck, even vacation spots. Pictures of the places you spend time at are windows that allow people to peek into your life without revealing too much about the details.

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Giraffe garden statues. Beautiful! #USC #FightOn

A post shared by C. L. Max Nikias (@clmaxnikias) on

3. A Dollop of Personality

Let’s face it: not everyone understands corporate buzzwords or obvious lines fed to you by where you work. People want to see some personality! That may seem like a broad ask, but the key part of personality is the word personal. Show off some humor and some heart, just make sure you keep to your institution’s social media guidelines.
One of my personal favorite ways to add personality to a post is to add a GIF. There’s a GIF for just about everything, from giving people a standing ovation to showcasing your disapproval. Be sure to check the context of the GIF before you post it though!

Here’s a small litmus test for post personality. Start by thinking of a few people in a similar position or industry as you. Look critically at your post and ask yourself if it could easily be posted by one or all of them without any tweaks. If it can, you’ll want to try to find ways to make it more uniquely yours. Maybe it’s a GIF (serious or humorous), a video, or even just the voice you use while writing the post. Always ask yourself about ways to add your personal perspective to whatever you’re posting about.

4. A Sprinkle of Hobbies

People like to see what you’re passionate about, but they want to see more than just your passion for your institution. What do you do outside of work? Maybe you’ve shied away from sharing your woodworking projects or your incredible horseshoe throwing talent in the past, but I’m giving you permission to show that stuff off!
Kent Fuchs, President of Univeristy of Florida, is a great example of how to show off your hobbies in posts

Showing off his interest in coffee and grilling invites people to start a casual conversation with the UF president on social media. While it’s great to use social media to start really deep, meaningful dialogues, there’s a lot to be gained from just seeming approachable. Shared hobbies connect people IRL and online. Use that to your advantage!

As you can see, being authentic and genuine doesn’t mean you have to start with strong opinions or taking a stand on controversies. It’s as simple as sharing the slices of your life that are relatable to the people around you. Not everyone can connect with the demands of executive life, but they can connect with the things that make you human like your pets or your hobbies.

If you want more secret sauce of social, I have good news! I offer executive coaching opportunities that will give you the tools and confidence to harness social media in your leadership position or executive job search. For more information on what my coaching services can do for you, click here.

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If you’re ready to connect with your campus, you’ll love this resource that I’ve created called Get Connected: The Social Media Guide for Campus Leaders.

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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