A CMO’s Thoughts on 'Why Your Department Needs Social Media'

Paul Redfern advocates for an integrated marketing solution when it comes to your academic department's social media presence.

September 22, 2015

Last month Rachel Herrmann, a lecturer in early modern American history at the University of Southampton (UK), published “Why Your Department Needs Social Media” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Herrmann is well aware of why social media can be an asset to an academic department in communicating about accomplishments, research, and other topics. She argues that academic department social accounts should be as free as possible from institutional interference. She adds, “Social media is crucial not only because it provides a fast way to share information, but also because it makes faculty workloads more transparent.”

As a chief marketing officer in higher education, I agree! Academic departments do need social media. And, since faculty often share invaluable insights and content through these accounts, my colleagues and I have a responsibility to work with faculty colleagues to make sure that what they share on Facebook and Twitter receive wider notice then they otherwise might. Doing so helps each other and our institutions.

Herrmann lists some great content ideas for social media: faculty and student interviews; tweets from department speakers or events; photos; conference presentations; and faculty appearances in the media. These are all great resources, but if they are only viewed by department social media account followers, they are not being used to maximum effect.

An integrated, institutional marketing effort can take this unique and authentic content well beyond the department. For example: make sure that prospective students know about it by including it in admissions communications, the president’s remarks to high school counselors, and alumni emails that ask them to share it with talented prospective students they may know. That’s integrated marketing at work.

The best way for that to happen is through collaboration, which will help faculty and marketers achieve goals that are important to both — and to their institution. Faculty want to attract and engage the kind of students they most want to teach. The CMO is invested in advancing institutional image and reputation. Great examples from academic departments help faculty tell stories about the work that they do and reinforce the quality and unique characteristics of the institution.

For example, we had an interesting success at Gettysburg College this year. We’ve worked hard to communicate with our faculty and they began to send us unsolicited story leads. The timing was perfect, coming as it did when accepted students were making their decisions about what college to attend. We used them as part of our yield campaign.

Our faculty could have told those stories solely on department Twitter feeds and Facebook Pages, hoping that they would bubble up and be noticed. But working with us meant that we could showcase these stories on the college website and department sites and share them on our college social media feeds. We reached many more people through our collaboration.

Herrmann is correct: social media is a fast way to share information, one that seems easy. But if it’s done well, it’s quite complex. She rightly points out that cumbersome business processes and approval chains pose obstacles to faculty who just want to tweet or post. Usually the intention of those processes is not to abridge academic freedom but to allow some strategizing about how to provide maximum exposure for great material. Marketers should work to make these processes simple, seamless, and responsive, with the focus on strategy and impact, not control.

Marketers, let’s face it: in today’s dynamic digital-first environment, it is counterproductive to hold tight on the reins.

We’ve come a long way from using stilted, formal language on social media. CMOs have learned the importance of strong visual storytelling, video, and the right mix of form and format of writing. Our goal should be to let faculty be faculty and let students be students — and incorporate their viewpoints, styles, and voices in the online channels we manage on behalf of the institution. But also to treat social media as any other official communications channel with content analysis, assessment of metrics and feedback, and ongoing observation of external benchmarks and best practices.

Maybe rather than “Departments Need Social Media,” we should stress that “institutions need to think about integrating their marketing efforts.” Working in a silo doesn’t move the marketing needle. My advice to marketing offices and academic departments is to work in collaboration and make your work count.

Paul Redfern leads the communications and marketing team at Gettysburg College and is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences.


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