There are few places where social media has created a greater impact than in the world of higher education. With a highly social audience of tech-aware early adapters, colleges are pioneering new and creative ways to use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and blogging to connect with both students and the wider campus community. For this reason, Barnes & Noble Colleges’ sponsoring of the 2014 Shorty Awards in the Most Social College #BNCollege category, is providing some hot competition among finalists eager to show their college at its most social. Senior Supervising Producer of the Shorty Awards, Natan Edelsburg, recently led a Google+ Hangout with this year’s finalists to discuss their views and ideas on how they have developed their university’s social presence.
With things moving so quickly in the world of social media, the first question Edelsburg put to the participants was what’s new and what’s changed in the social media landscape since last year’s Shorty’s? Some of the finalists are experimenting with platforms that are new to them, such as Monica Cowie, General Manager at the Barnes & Noble at Texas Tech bookstore, who has been holding events and promoting their hashtag to promote their entry into Twitter. It’s a participation that has taken Texas Tech all the way to the Shorty finals.
Others in the group have wide-ranging plans for their social participation. “We’re trying to go beyond the tweets and vines – which are a lot of fun – but we really wanted to show students and perspective students what COM was all about,” explains Greg Huntoon of Boston University’s College of Communication. “We wanted to make the college more accessible using social media tools,” he added. Together with fellow grad student, Andy Bunker, Huntoon created the #MyCom hashtag and started a podcast with some 40 episodes featuring interviews with professors and giving grad students a perspective on school life.
David Lang, Bookstore Manager at last year’s Shorty winner, West Virginia University (WVU), has found another way of getting student attention. “We think we probably have the first University President on Instagram,” he reports. Followers are able to track President E. Gordon Gee at various events around the campus, and have even prompted a rash of stylish students imitating his well-known preference for wearing bowties. Kimberly Davis, Social Media Coordinator at the University of Houston, has been using Snapchat to promote the college’s social media events. “We’re one of the first universities, and brands, to use it, gaining 1,500 friends and roughly 20 snaps a day,” she explains. Davis says the emphasis is on fun, and the channel provides a great excuse to take the school mascot out for photo calls, or reward students who wear their college red on Fridays.
Content is essential when it comes to social media, and Ryan Denham, a writer at Illinois State University, reports that he’s spending more time and seeing greater growth and audience engagement from Instagram. “We’re really pushing user-generated entries, and we’ve created contests with prizes to build content around a particular weekly theme,” he says. Increasingly, it seems, video is the content of choice, and Edelsburg complimented the finalists on many of their campaign videos.
New Jersey’s Rowan University produced the #RowanPROUD hashtag, featuring everything from a song about the things students love most about the university, to a mixture of Instagram and professionally produced videos. Meanwhile, at the University of Houston, a recently posted video of one of the school’s favorite professors being slimed went viral. Boston University’s Bunker said they have benefited from the home-grown pool of talent, comprised of the College of Communications’ writers, producers and editors who recently created ‘COM in a day,’ which chronicles a single day at the College of Communication. As a result, the #MyCom hashtag had been trending, particularly during the Red Sox’s participation in the World Series.
All the participants agreed that while the majority of their social media efforts were directed at students, the take up by a wider audience of faculty, perspective students, and staff was vitally important to them. “It really resonates with alumni too,” reports Ryan Yarosh, Binghamton University’s Director of Media & Public Relations. “They really want to know what’s going on at Binghamton.”
“We found perspective students were already tweeting about acceptances to Rowan,” says Tori Russell, Social Media Coordinator at Rowan University. “It’s how they communicate,” she adds, “so we can use that social participation as a tool and help people that are applying to really see what it’s like to be here, even before they’re accepted.” Russell’s point speaks to the responsive nature and sense of two-way communication social media demands “We’ve learned to respond to students and answer them in a way a friend would,” she says. “It’s important to show we do care, we do see what they are writing to us, and we want to address any concerns,” she adds.
“Be open to new ideas, new technologies and to be aware of new platform opportunities,” advises WVU’s Lang. “Know what’s going on your campus, what your community is thinking and be aware of the next horizon and how the university needs to position itself,” he says. It was a theme echoed repeatedly through the Shortys’ Google+ Hangout, as Boston University’s Bunker explains, “Interact with people as much as you can and don’t let people think their tweets are falling on deaf ears. People like to feel they’re being heard. Be social — that’s the whole idea.”
The Shorty’s Award Ceremony will be held April 7th in New York City. To view the Shorty’s Google+ Hangout with the Barnes & Noble College finalists, plus links to some of their entries, click here.