The world's leading universities are leveraging social media to connect with prospective students, current students, and alumni. Here's how their tactics can be applied in the business world.
It has been a month to remember in sports...between the run for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes, the Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Finals, and the World Cup kickoff, sports fans were in their glory as people gathered together to watch and engage in conversations on social media.
Watching many of these events unfold, I was reminded of the power of social media to build connections worldwide. It has taken events and our engagement with them to new heights and has impacted our experiences. However, as the hashtag trending shifted day by day - #Triplecrown, #StanleyCup, #NBAChamps, #WorldCup - I was also reminded of the power, lessons, and importance of the many other smaller, but undoubtedly more personal communities in our lives. While these communities rarely reach "trending" status on Twitter, they connect us to the things, people, and events that matter to us and our loved ones.
In some respects, these social communities may be even more complex to manage. That was never more evident than my experience going through the college selection process with my daughter these past few months. As a father of a high school senior, I have been particularly intrigued with the social media efforts and complexities at some of the world's leading universities. How developed and established would they be? What role would they play in helping us stay connected and share this experience with our daughter?
Well, to start, I've been fairly impressed with how universities are using social media today and the sophistication of their evolving programs. While these programs rarely reach the participation of a World Cup event, the depth and breadth of these programs, along with the various constituencies that they serve, is impressive. They also serve as great examples that can be applied to business.
Programs include robust efforts focused on attracting new students, serving existing students and their parents, supporting/promoting faculty and events, and communicating with alumni - to name just a few. It is a diverse audience that requires unique content and a focused effort in order to provide value that drives engagement. Not that different from acquiring, retaining, and driving loyalty among customers in the business world. Done well, these social communities help us stay connected and informed and ultimately enrich and impact the lives and experiences for us and our respective loved ones. I also believe these communities will increasingly play a role in the future success and growth of universities for years to come, in terms of enrollment, satisfaction, networking, and endowments, as graduates and their families reflect positively on their overall experience years later. The parallels for companies and their respective brands are evident.
What follows is what I've learned from some of the world's leading universities and how it can be applied in the business world.
Student participation and social media encouragement was dialed up during the decision-making process and promoted heavily during the accepted students days with contests and mascot photos that administration encouraged students to tweet and post to social media sites (along with university branded hashtags). Participation was mixed, as some students and parents who were still in the decision-making process hesitated to show support for one institution over another. Others jumped in - fully sharing their positive experience and excitement with friends and followers - demonstrating it's never too early to get students/prospective students involved.
In business, think about your engagement efforts during the awareness, intent portion of the marketing funnel. Use sponsorships and branded icons to further engage communities.
The best programs have efforts dedicated to specific interests and areas - be it news, parent services, events, etc. - catering to key constituencies. After returning from a three-day university orientation where my daughter will attend classes this fall, she returned with a list of social community musts for me to follow to allow me to share in her experience over the next few years. The sites included a mix of Twitter handles, hashtag musts, and social sites (i.e. Facebook and Instagram addresses) for the latest and greatest at her university. All were followed in a matter of minutes.
In business, think about B2C, B2B, and partner social media efforts and plan accordingly to appeal to each audience and promote them aggressively.
Front and center at the three-day orientation was the vice provost and dean of student affairs. With more than 5,000 followers, the dean remains one of the leading voices and key influencers at the university. In fact, the best university social media programs leverage the power and influence of the faculty, particularly those professors who specialize in business, marketing, and journalism, who typically understand and have embraced social media. Faculty members who are published authors, or who have achieved professional recognition, can further strengthen a university's voice and reach. For more examples, check out: the 30 most influential professors, the 50 online university professors on Twitter worth following, and the 50 most social media-savvy professors in America.
In business, think about the executives and subject matter experts whose knowledge and audience can be leveraged in a way to socially engage prospects and customers and extend visibility for your brand.
The Ivy League schools, schools in urban locations, and those with robust sports programs seem to have a bit of an edge on this front and have been ranked among the top 100 best programs. They leverage unique events, history, faculty, and the enthusiasm students have for sports programs to rally school spirit, drive engagement, and spread visibility for their university.
In business, build programs around your key assets and differentiation to help assure success.
School slogans are typically used as hashtags. But, the best of the best brand their differentiation. One example of this I love is The George Washington University social media program. It has taken its location (Washington, D.C.), and access to key influencers and politicians and events, to reinforce their messaging and differentiate its school experience using the hashtag #onlyatGW.
In business, brand tag lines and key differentiators for your own brand.
YouTube offers a great opportunity to share student and faculty experiences, including providing prospective, new, and existing students and parents an inside glimpse of life on campus. Videos usually include campus tours, day-in-the-life videos, Greek life, tips, course and curriculum overviews by professors, and more.
In business, share customer and employee videos to bring your brand to life.
Highlight guest speakers and special events. One powerful example I can recall is Hofstra University's efforts on social media to promote their hosting of the last two presidential debates. These high-profile events, and social media buzz surrounding them, help lift both the visibility and the prestige of the university making them more attractive to prospective students and parents. They also instill a sense of pride and excitement for the faculty and existing students and alumni.
In business, invest in a robust content strategy to bring conferences, webinars, and guest speakers to life across key social media outlets.
The best universities use a mix of all digital channels including email, social media, and traditional marketing (direct mail, telemarketing) to effectively communicate key events and news. Surrounding these efforts with a robust preference center, which allows all constituents to choose their channel of choice, is a best practice.
In business, it is all about multi-channel orchestration. Spend time to understand and track interactions to time messaging and channel efforts appropriately as to not overwhelm prospects and customers.
Let's face it, college students and their parents are always connected via their phones. The best institutions are extending the ability to connect with the university and communities via apps. One great example is Ohio State University's Buckeye pride on the go. Nearly everything at OSU, including grades, schedules, sports, and more, are available on mobile apps.
In business, create and build a mobile experience that allows your prospects and customer to have a great experience on the go.
Innovation and creativity is key. It almost goes without saying that the most effective programs monitor and measure to sense and respond to the key constituencies' needs.
In business, invest in technologies that allow you to efficiently monitor, measure, and respond to audiences in real time.
There is little doubt that college makes up some of the most transformative years of people's lives. For parents sending their kids off to college, social media helps us feel more connected to our kids. In fact, I believe many of the efforts at these leading and innovative institutions - be it their events, apps, or targeted/niche social communities - have transformed and extended the college experience for those currently attending as well as those that have graduated. While these efforts do not reach the scale of a global event like the World Cup, they once again remind us how to forge better connections and provide great examples that can be used in business as well.
'Til Next Time.
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Michael Della Penna is a seasoned marketing professional with a long, proven track record of launching successful marketing, branding, and sales strategies for leading public and private companies. Most recently, Michael was the senior vice president of Emerging Channels at Responsys. His responsibilities included spearheading the overall strategic direction, partnerships, and solution offering across key emerging channels including social, mobile, and display for the company. Prior to Responsys, Michael founded SuiteDialog and Conversa Marketing, a full-service email and social CRM agency that helped brands ignite conversations and cultivate relationships with customers across the social web. Conversa Marketing, was acquired by StrongMail Systems in 2010. Before branching out on his own, Michael served as chief marketing officer for Epsilon, a leading provider of multichannel, data-driven marketing services. Michael's other key marketing leadership roles include CMO at Bigfoot Interactive, vice president of strategic development at CNET Networks, Inc., and vice president of marketing at ZDNet. Michael received a B.B.A. and an M.B.A. from Hofstra University.
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