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What really works in digital engagement for building a community?

Without proper strategy and planning, digital engagement and online community building can make you feel like a lost fish surfing on the internet.

This is why in August 2020, a group of higher ed digital community builders got together to reflect and discuss what are some applicable, relevant, and effective strategies for building communities online. As educators become more intentional in creating opportunities for engagement, they are also becoming more aware of the limited resources for this topic. Using their expertise and experiences, this panel gets strategic and digs into practical tactics you can use right away.

About Higher Ed Digital Community Builders

Organized by Dr. Josie Ahlquist, this Facebook group is a clubhouse for higher education professionals to connect, reimagine and transform how we build genuine campus digital communities and strategic online engagement experiences. Every week, community members share resources, discussions, and opportunities to further develop digital communities that serve our students, families, and partners in timely, innovative, and supportive ways.

Highlighted Content from Panelists

Links to what was mentioned during the panel (Click on the Image for Links). 

[5:00] What does the digital community mean to you? Why is that important to your institution?

Pandemic made all of our community digital. Building a culture of trust means that even if your community didn’t start digital, they should be able to function digitally. So when we are apart and there might be confusions , we have these communities that can function digitally.

[12:00] What are some examples of things that you’ve been involved in as a community, and what are best practice and principles we can pull from them?

Authenticity and customer service. When students are asking questions, they are also being vulnerable. Allowing that vulnerability to shape your response, and be authentic and answer those questions to the best of your abilities.

We humanized the people answering these questions, letting students know that we don’t like this pandemic and are trying their best to find solutions, which gives students a sense of “we are all in this together”.

[27:20] Do you have examples of user-generated content?

When we are able to ask student workers, are we communicating with you in a way that you like and can consume, it becomes a lot easier not only when they are generating the content, but also giving feedback on our content.


[32:53] Tell us more about working with student workers for building a digital community. How is it structured?

[47:07] Can you share viral TikTok and how it impacted your community?

[52:14] What are some of your must-share info? What are future engagement tactics you are looking to implement or got inspired from somewhere else?


AJ Lopez III, Manager of Digital Marketing & Social Media, Midwestern State University

AJ creates social marketing campaigns, produces eye-catching photos, and engaging content for the university social media. Previously, he worked as the Communications and Marketing person for the Angelo State University Alumni Association. AJ has a newspaper background from his early days as a reporter and photographer for the “The Portland News.” He is a published writer and award-winning photographer with more than 13 years of experience in the creative marketing field.

Samantha Peebles, Assistant Director of Social Media, Nazareth College

After two years of working for a wonderful nonprofit in the Pittsburgh area, Kati returned to Youngstown State University to obtain a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Communication. She has previously served as the university’s Social Media & Digital Marketing Coordinator. She worked closely with colleges and departments across campus, building and maintaining a positive and brand-centered social footprint. Since June 2021, Kati has started a new adventure working in the Columbus Regional Airport Authority as a Digital Media Specialist.

Rachel Putman, Associate Director of Strategic Communications, University of Arkansas – Fort Smith

Rachel was named the associate director for strategic communications in February 2020 after serving as the interim public information officer since January 2019. She first joined the Office of Marketing and Communications in 2014 as lead photographer. As her role evolved, so too did her responsibilities. In 2017 she was named social media manager, developing the university’s first social media strategy and social media policy, which have since been used in nation-wide presentations on higher education social media use. Rachel also is an award-winning photojournalist.


Jon McBride, Director of Digital Communications, Brigham Young University

Jon is a media relations and social media manager at BYU where he combines those skill sets to build community and spread the digital reach of the university with influencer relations and through employee advocacy. His most unique professional accomplishment was landing a pitch to Beyoncé’s publicist and getting a post out to her 63 million followers, but his most meaningful work has been in using Instagram stories to address hard-hitting and impactful topics on campus such as sexual assault, consent, mental health, racism, hate speech, respect and more.

Community Founder, Josie

Dr. Josie Ahlquist is a digital engagement and leadership researcher, speaker, and consultant. She teaches teens, young adults, education professionals, and campus executives how to humanize technology tools and prioritize building community online.

Josie absolutely loves fostering and educating about digital community building. So, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she created a Facebook group called the Higher Ed Digital Community Builders, which has grown to nearly 2,000 members. She also created and manages the Digital Community Building Cohort, a mastermind educational program for higher education social media managers to improve online community building strategies.

As a researcher and writer, Josie is extensively published and maintains an active blog and podcast, which have received accolades from EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her new book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World was listed as an Amazon #1 new release for college and university student life.

She also serves as a teaching faculty at Florida State University, creating curriculum to build digital literacy and leadership skills for undergraduates up to doctorate level students. Josie received her doctorate from California Lutheran University in Higher Education Leadership, Masters in Education from Northern Arizona University. She majored in sociology and human development at South Dakota State University.

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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