My official job title is “Engagement and Communications Coordinator,” which is a fancy way of saying that I spend a lot of my time on social media. At least eight hours of my week, one full day, is spent on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. When I tell people this, they look at me like I’ve lost my mind. My own mother once asked me how I could consider it a real job – thanks, Ma. Unfortunately, I have gotten that response from multiple people simply because they believe that social media is just a part of life, not an exciting career.
Social media is everywhere around us. We see signs all around us that say “Like Us on Facebook” or “Follow Us on Twitter.” The table signs at the restaurant down the street is running a photo contest on Instagram, and we automatically look to LinkedIn when we think about networking with people in our field. It’s such a natural part of life now that most people tend to not even think about the people who are running the show behind the scenes.
This is also true in higher education, if not more so. Social media is everywhere on the university campus – in fact, a recent study discovered that one in three college students consider the Internet to be as important as basic human needs like air, water, food, and shelter. The benefits of using social media in higher education are obvious. It’s an easy way to interact with students, who you know are constantly on their phones and computers. It allows administrators to quickly share information, particularly if there is a crisis like a tornado or shooter on campus. It is used to promote events, show the culture of the school, and encourage potential students and ranking systems to take an extra look at the university. We’re even being graded on it now. It’s something that is present in every aspect of the university – we can no longer escape it – but social media does not come without its challenges.
When using social media, universities are talking to more than just their students. There are also talking to the alumni, the potential students, the faculty and staff, the parents of the students and potential students, and anyone who happens to stumble across the page. They are doing more than simply reporting on student activity – they are creating a brand that must be upheld. With that many people to impress, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, how do we know what to say? Are we supposed to be recruiting students, promoting the events around campus this week, or asking the alumni to take part in the giving campaign? Are we supposed to be showcasing how nice the dorm rooms are, explaining where Counseling and Health Services is located on campus, or encouraging alumni to attend Homecoming? With so many different audiences and so many different people following the page, how do we know what to post?
In an effort to combat the above-mentioned problem, there is a major trend among universities where each section and subsection of the university controls their own social media presence. This means that every department from Graduate Housing to the Men’s Golf Team to the Department of English has their own Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram page. Sometimes they even have multiple of those. At last count, the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech had fifty-three different social media accounts: one on each platform for the undergraduate programs, their Part-Time MBA Program, their Full-Time MBA Program, their Executive MBA Program, and the list goes on. A quick Facebook search pulls up more than 100 Georgia Tech affiliated pages – everything from the Library to the Chinese Club to the weekly Farmer’s Market. The official university pages are of course ran by someone who has a background in social media management – someone who understands what he or she is doing. But these extra pages are often ran by someone like me – someone who is interested in social media but doesn’t quite understand how to be super effective at it. But more importantly, when there is that much stuff going on, how does the university work to ensure that the message being sent is the correct one? And perhaps more importantly, with this many messages being sent, how can we even be sure that the people sending them are even affiliated with the university?
Every college is on some form of social media. No, seriously, 100% of colleges studied by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth(almost five hundred total) are on social media. But what does this mean? Do they only have a Facebook Page, or perhaps a Twitter Handle? The reality is that they probably have both, as well as Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and more. With so many options, how do social media managers keep up? And more importantly, how do you decide which platform will be the next big hit. With college-aged students being some of the first to become captivated by the next big thing, how do universities stay ahead of the social media game? For example, most universities have a Google+ account, which has essentially died, but relatively few connect with students on Vine, which was extremely popular with the millennial generation for a few years. That being said, “for a few years” is a problem in itself. With technology changing every single day, how do universities predict what will be popular tomorrow? Is it worth it to invest the time and effort to make and run a social media account if the platform is going to lose users within a few months? Should we instead just invest our time in the tried and true platforms that we know are working?
Social media is a necessary part of our lives – both inside and outside of the university. It is a wonderful tool that allows us to connect with our students and alumni in a way that we never could before. That being said, running these social media accounts comes with its own challenges, just like every other “real” career.
What other challenges come from using social media in a university setting? How are these similar or different from running social media pages in a corporate environment, or a non-profit organization?