American University: Universities are beginning to understand Social Media

Jon Hussey is helping to make American University more collaborative, more social, both internal and external to the University itself.  Jon and I had a great e-mail exchange, I hope you are as impressed as I am.

Q. Thanks for taking the time to chat Jon.  What is your role at American University?
A. I am the Manager of Web Communications for the university. I have been serving in that role since June 15, 2009, when I made the switch over from the Media Relations department at AU. In that role, I promoted AU experts and events for the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service and I ran the Media Relations Web site. In my current role, I manage the American University home page and oversee all news produced across the university. I also work with webmasters or CPLs (Content Publishing Leads) in each of the schools, colleges, and units to ensure that their web content is migrated from the old AU site to the new site and that the Web site as a whole meets design, content, and SEO standards.

Q. I have not seen a large number of Universities fully embrace social media.  How does social media fit into the overall communication plan of the University?
A. Higher education has been relatively slow in embracing social media. I have heard from colleagues—in higher ed and in other fields—that the lack of control over the conversation dissuades many companies from joining. However, over the last year I have met many social media enthusiasts in universities throughout the country. It is a relatively small group (a couple hundred), but we are well connected through Twitter and a higher ed web developers Ning network. The time of fearing social media seems to have passed and now everyone is jumping on board. Already there are some shining examples of social media use in higher education. One of the nicest I’ve seen is NC State’s Twitter aggregator—http://twitter.ncsu.edu/—for which they offer the source code.

For American University, social media is a complement to all of our traditional media methods. Like most of the public relations and communications world, we have recognized that social media is not a panacea. But when social media used effectively with press releases, advertising, etc., it will reach the largest audience. Social media also provides instant feedback and conversation that isn’t available through traditional methods.

Q. What is the University’s social media strategy?
A. An overall social media strategy for the university is a living, evolving document. Last year, myself and the Chief Web Strategist, Michael Heasley, thoroughly researched the demographics and ROI of many of the social networks and made a determination as to which sites we would dedicate our time and creativity. We have been very successful in our use of Facebook and Twitter, the top two sites on that list. We are just beginning to develop our use of Flickr and YouTube.

Q. How did you get started with social media? Did it begin as a grassroots effort or did the decision come from the top?
A. This was an entirely grassroots effort. While working as a Public Information Officer in the media relations office, I started seeing more and more blog posts and articles about Twitter. In January of 2009, I watched as the Iran elections played out on Twitter and journalists began to see just how powerful a tool it can be. That convinced me that there were opportunities to build relationships through social media that were far more difficult through regular pitching and lunches with media members. So I created the @aumedia Twitter account in February of 2009. As I followed journalists, saw what they were interested in, and developed relationships with them, I found that a growing number of students, alumni, staff, and faculty were following the account.

In April, my boss created the American University Facebook account and began posting news and events to the page. He also created the @AmericanU Twitter account, but did not begin using it. Since Facebook was created this past April, we have gained 100+ fans a week and currently have nearly 8,000 fans and great levels of interaction on our wall. In September, we developed a plan for the @AmericanU Twitter account and I have been managing that since. I am still learning as to what the AU community wants from the feed, but I regularly solicit advice. Below is a little more detail on the strategy and process that’s already in place for the account.

Q. What processes did you put in place to enable going social?
A. Our content management system has been built to allow schools, colleges, and units across the university to develop their own news. That news is then filtered based on taxonomy into different subsites throughout our AU web site. I use the RSS feeds built into our Web site to follow all news and events across the entire university. This gives me a wealth of content to push out through social media.

I’m not sure that speaks to what you were asking, but that’s a process that I put in place that allows me to find the news and events at AU that are often not publicized. Our university has so many events and so many things going on, that before our Web site was built with this taxonomy and the RSS feeds, much of this was not shared with the public or even the AU community.

Q. How did you go about tool selection?  What tools are you using?  For example, I know you run the AmericanU Twitter account, do you use the Twitter client or a third party client like CoTweet?
A. I am currently running the @AmericanU account, my personal/professional account @auwebmanager, and I assist with the @aumedia account. In order to run all of those accounts—and follow any mentions of American University—I find that TweetDeck is the most user-friendly. I have nicely organized Twitter lists and columns that allow me to follow all AU students, faculty, staff and alumni in one column, all AU schools, colleges, and offices in another, higher ed colleagues in another, etc. etc. Right now, I probably have 15 columns open in my TweetDeck, but I never feel overwhelmed. I keep my TweetDeck open all day at work and I find 5 minutes in between projects throughout the day to read posts, re-tweet, or push out content.

Q. What social communication policies have you put in place?
A. We have not put any “policies” in place. We regularly share best practices and I talk frequently with people across campus about what I’ve found to be the most successful tactics in social media. Over the last year, Twitter and Facebook accounts have been created by AU offices and groups at an incredible rate. Some have asked me and my boss for advice, others have found their voice on their own. As of my last count, we have 31 Twitter accounts and more than 50 Facebook groups or fan pages.

Just recently I created a AU Social Media (closed) Facebook group for staff and administration involved in social media to share their successes and inspiration. I believe that with collaboration of this sort, we can develop a more refined and unified social media strategy.

Q. What level of participation do you have from students?  From Faculty?  From the Administration?
A. I have found an incredible level of participation from students, alumni, faculty, staff and administration. While Twitter is still a relatively small community, the participation there has changed the way staff and administration interact with students and alumni. It’s as simple as the “What are you doing now?” question. Before, a small number of communications people around the university had to seek out stories and info about what students, faculty, and alumni were up to. Now, they see it in real time on Twitter, can re-tweet it from their own account, or follow their work and write a longer story on it.

If you look at the @AmericanU Twitter account, I have just begun to build lists of students, faculty, alumni, staff, and offices. That Twitter account has grown from 200 followers in October to 1,200 today.

On Facebook the participation has been consistent since we started. As I mentioned, we have seen incredible growth in just a year. I set an ambitious goal in September: to reach 10,000 fans by the end of May. We are currently slightly behind that pace, but with the enthusiasm of the entire community on Facebook, I think there’s a chance we can reach that goal. I continue to be amazed at the community spirit on Facebook, particularly the students and alumni rallying around the achievements of our current students and faculty. That to me is at the heart of social media.

Q. Do you measure ROI today?  If yes, how?  What have been the early results?
A. I have just begun to measure ROI extensively. I use a Bit.ly account for all posts to Facebook and Twitter. This allows me to see how many clickthroughs I get on all of that content. I have also embedded Google Analytics on the AU Facebook page (a little trick I learned here – http://www.webdigi.co.uk/blog/2010/google-analytics-for-facebook-fan-pages/) That, coupled with Bit.ly and Facebook’s “Insights” gives me a great deal of ROI information and has helped me mold more successful posts.

Q. How, if at all, do your social media tools fit in with your other back-end systems like CRM, ERP, HRIS, etc..?
A. I can’t speak to back-end systems like ERP, HRIS, but as for CRM, Twitter is king. Twitter is all about building relationships. Two offices in particular are doing a great job of this—@AUAdmission and @AUCareerCenter.  The Admissions office has done a great job of following mentions of “American University” on Twitter and interacting with prospective students who have recently applied, are considering applying, or who have taken a tour of AU. It’s amazing how many of those students tweet about it. It’s also amazing to see how impressed they are when they get a quick response from our admissions people. The Career Center is similarly doing a great job of connecting our students with local businesses and sharing the successes of students currently placed in internships.

Q. Any great stories from the real world to share?
A. One example that really resonated with me was a run-in I had with a very pessimistic student a few months ago. We currently have our own social network built into our Web site called, AUpedia http://www.american.edu/aupedia. It is a wiki-like application where students, faculty, and staff can share insider information about American University. Others can then edit the entry, comment on it, or provide links. It’s a great, user-generated feature that offers information that can’t be found anywhere else on the site.

A few months ago, I contacted a couple of students who were early adopters and had written great posts on AUpedia. I asked these students if they would be willing to come in for a photo shoot because we wanted to create posters using their entries to promote AUpedia around the campus. One student emailed back with a snarky response. He said that he would be willing to come in, but that he would like some assurances that AUpedia was truly user-generated and that content wouldn’t be edited by staff.

I told him that I would speak with him before the photo shoot about the vision of AUpedia. After explaining that it is a great opportunity for students and faculty to share their AU experience in their own words, he said, “Did you watch Conan O’Brien’s last show?” I said, yes, I did. He said, “When Conan said, ‘I hate cynicism—it’s my least favorite quality,’ I decided not to send you an email saying F-you and to give this a chance.”

I was struck by how often students look at staff and administration with that cynicism, but through social media—and the relationship building it affords—they are beginning to trust.

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Filed under: Social Strategies Tagged: CRM, Social Strategies, Twitter
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