Back-to-school time means early mornings, homework and the opportunity to learn something new every day. As much as this applies to students, it’s also a reality for those who work in education — including John Kaufeld of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and Michele Morrical of Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast. Among their many responsibilities, John and Michele help manage their institutions’ social-media presences, communicating with students about everything from getting settled in for a new semester to finding resources that can help them reach their goals.
I recently discussed this work with both of them to learn more about how colleges are adapting to connect with tech-savvy students via social media. Here are the highlights from those conversations.
Anthony Juliano: Why is social media important to your college? What benefits do you think it provides to building relationships between the college, its students and other stakeholders?
Michele Morrical: Facebook, specifically, has been great for us. In a matter of a few years we built our fan base from 5,000 fans to over 75,000 fans, and that number grows every day. Not only is it a great way for us to communicate messages, but, more importantly, it helps us connect with students. Through Facebook we are able to provide excellent customer service to our students by answering all of their questions, saving them a phone call or a trip to campus.
John Kaufeld: It’s a key part of ongoing customer service for our students, alumni and community. When I started doing this five years ago, nobody had a vision for how big of a customer-service role social media would play at the university. Our social-media channels particularly shine during the weeks leading up to a new semester, the first few weeks of a new semester and any time the university issues a campus alert. Our students know they can turn to our social-media channels to get timely information and answers to their questions.
Juliano: Tell me a little bit about some of the successes you’ve had. What have you been able to achieve via social media that might not have been possible otherwise?
Morrical: One of the great benefits of social media is that it gives you a good sense of the student experience. Hearing positive and negative comments from students has helped us identify areas in which we can improve. This is especially true for financial aid. By listening to student feedback and identifying their pain points, we have been able to work with the financial-aid department to streamline some processes, which turned out to be a great benefit for all of our students.
Kaufeld: The biggest success I’ve had at IPFW through social media is the connections I’ve been able to help students make. Sometimes, they’re basic customer-service connections. The ones that give me the biggest sense of accomplishment are when a student is frustrated or confused and simply doesn’t know where else to turn. When I can help those students get the information they need or find the assistance to get them through a problem, I feel like I’ve really done my job.
Juliano: Have you faced any significant challenges along the way? What’s one of the most difficult things you’ve encountered?
Morrical: We face the same challenge as other colleges: the staffing issue. Since social media never sleeps, you need to have moderators available nearly 24/7 if you really want to do it well. In a perfect world, colleges would have staff members dedicated to social media, but in all my years I have never heard of a college that does it this way. Thankfully for us, our team members are very giving of their time and truly enjoy talking to students and answering their questions.
Kaufeld: The biggest challenge I’ve faced at IPFW is a very common challenge among all kinds of organizations as they get started in social media. It’s that question of “What if somebody says something negative about us?” Frankly, I love getting a chance to reply to someone who’s frustrated or angry. Without social media, that conversation would happen in a dark corner of the Internet somewhere, and I wouldn’t be there to help the person.
Juliano: What advice would you have for someone at another college who’s trying to make social media work? What should they focus on, or how can they reboot if their efforts aren’t delivering the results they would like?
Morrical: First, find out where your users are, who they are and what they want. The answers may vary for each social-media site. Next you have to build a strategy that includes your goals, processes, procedures, staffing and measurement points. Be prepared to make changes to your strategy as you see what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is trial and error at first. You have to find what works best for you and your students.
Kaufeld: First, know your audience. Decide who you’re going to speak to, how you’re going to speak and even more importantly, who you are not going to speak to. Our main social-media channels are for our students, either our current students or prospective students. Social media is a conversation, and you can’t have a conversation with everybody. Identify your audience, get to know them, and think about what will interest them.
Juliano: Anything else you’d like to add?
Morrical: Social media is a big commitment. Don’t jump in without a plan or you may do more harm than good.
Kaufeld: It’s very easy to think that social media is about technology or tablets or clever text or beautiful pictures. It isn’t. Social media is about people.
ANTHONY JULIANO is a marketing and social media strategist, teacher, trainer and writer. He is vice president of marketing and social media strategy at Asher Agency in Fort Wayne, and he teaches social media and marketing classes at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Connect with him at LinkedIn.com/in/anthonyjuliano or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.