Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How would you tackle using new/social media for a school?

I've been spending a huge hunk of time recently just mulling over the notion of a web writer at an independent, secondary, boarding school. My wife says I get like this: fixated on the very remote when it comes to new employment. Perhaps, but it gives me a chance to think big ideas.

To review, here's the job description for a web writer at a school in Massachusetts. This is a full-time staff opening (and one that I've applied for):
The School, an independent co-educational boarding school in the folds of the Connecticut River valley, seeks a versatile, innovative, and prolific wordsmith with an appreciation for institutional strategy and priorities to develop crisp, lively, and targeted copy and other content for the school’s website and other electronic communications. Flexibility is key to success in this position, which will also include some media-relations work and special projects, as assigned.

The successful candidate will have knowledge and facility with and writing for social media and the web; experience with web-based content management and web applications for marketing and communications purposes; demonstrated talent and skill in writing; a basic understanding of media relations; copyediting skills; proven organizational and communication skills; and excellent interpersonal skills. Experience in a school or higher education environment a plus. Additional qualifications include the ability to work collaboratively with a team, as well as being a self-starter capable of working independently. Candidates should be familiar with boarding school life and have a demonstrated interest in making a positive impact on the lives of adolescents.
For someone who has a passion for boarding schools and social media, this reads like the ideal job. I know, because I have a passion for boarding schools and social media, and it does read like the ideal job.

So, what would I do if I were the new web writer?

Well, first, the school is using three primary social media applications, with a fourth tool in the works. They're using Twitter, Facebook, and flickr; YouTube is in the works. As an outside social media pundit has said, their journey thus far has been social media done right. I agree. What I'd do is simple: build on the school's successes in a strategic and systematic manner.

Josh Bernoff notes that when organizations enter the social media realm, they don't really know their objectives. To address strategic threats and capabilities, one needs a strategic planning process, and Mr. Bernoff provides in The POST Method: A systematic approach to social strategy.
  • People
  • Objectives
  • Strategies
  • Technology
A good, basic model. I'd use this in conjunction with Prosci's change management model and link to the school's overall strategic objectives and associated goals. Chris Brogan had a recent post with guidance on strategic blogging that fits nicely with the POST model. See his Strategic Blogging and Some Tactics to Nail It

Over at Web Worker Daily, Meryl Evans has some suggestions on Ways to Avoid Overwhelming Your Followers’ Twitter Stream. I like his fifth suggestion, one I use (having thought I was unique):
Schedule tweets: Typically, I don’t recommend automating anything in Twitter as it will likely lower your rep. However, if you’re like me and only check Twitter a couple of times a day, then you may want to spread out your tweets, replies, etc., using an automated service. This avoids cluttering a person’s stream with bursts of tweets.
Indeed. Having said that, there is something for consistency. In building a brand, it's work; it's presence. Chris Brogan tells us there are 19 Presence Management Chores You COULD Do Every Day. Chris lays out tasks to be completed on various platforms/applications. He specifically mentions:
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Blogs
I'm not sure about the value of LinkedIn for a non-profit organization, although perhaps it would be good for alumni and be more professionally oriented. I am encouraged by Mr. Brogan's inclusion of blogs. I think blogs are missed opportunity for this school along the shores of the Connecticut River. Some people would suggest that blogs are well past their prime. I don't buy it. Blogs are still an excellent way to post current pieces, generally longer than 140 characters. Ideally, each of the senior staff at the school would have a blog to which they posted at least weekly.

Another issue to consider along with creating objectives and goals for the social media effort is creating measures to track as indicators of completing the goals and attaining the objectives. These might be considered ROI measures, perhaps, in the model of Jack Phillips. Ideally, these would follow from the goals and objectives; generally measures don't come first. Having said that, I can imagine metrics of various flavors including:
  • Activity measures such as number of tweets or posts or the numbers of followers.
  • Survey to incoming students in 2010 to see if they used any of the social media tools with the school and what the benefit was.
  • Surveys to other stakeholders.
  • Number of initial admissions queries generated through social media.
  • Increase in annual fund giving.
In essence, a full-blown program evaluation (and I might know a little something about program evaluation).

In short, then, what is my counsel? Aside from hiring me, it is this: be deliberate and strategic in building and deploying a full social media initiative, ensuring it is fully tied in with the larger enterprise and various internal stakeholders and their programs (admissions, development, academics, dean of students, etc.).

For schools just starting out and not committing a full FTE to the iniative, I'd suggest splitting the load between several key staffers. Still need to do the planning. Still need to link to the larger organization.  But, instead of a single person responsible, split the duties, perhaps by tool. One person takes Twitter, another takes Facebook, and so on.

What are your thoughts?


sflowers said...

Social media could definitely be leveraged as a secondary informal channel. I get the feeling from the job announcement that the primary communication will be persistent articles / comms via the school's hosted presence.

Seems to me that the school would be primarily interested in communicating with the familiar audience (parents, kids attached to the school.) With a peripheral, nearly as important, goal of maintaining a progressive visionary appearance for prospective students. Attempting to elicit a 'Wow, that's what I can expect... from a school? Amazing!' in addition to pride, motivation, and a sense of inclusion for the current students.

I'd keep in mind that a significant portion of the audience is kids. If you've got some writing that engages at that level - bring it to the table.

Peter A. Stinson said...

Great point; thank you for the feedback.

Of the many things I didn't write about (but may still) are a couple of other ideas I have.

One is to teach a class, perhaps as an English elective, on social media. The students in the class would use the tools, blogs primarily, to build two brands: themselves and the school. An artist might blog about his art and the school; an athlete about his team. You get the idea. The students would be both building a portfolio of their own work as well as promoting the school.

Another thought I had was for me to write a blog with each post focusing on some different aspect of the school and life at the school. Perhaps I'd visit different after-school activities and observe and blog. Not sure, but I know there's huge value here, somewhere.

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