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From eating healthier and exercising more to striking greater work/life balance, at the start of each new year we often make a variety of personal and professional resolutions in the hopes of establishing some better habits. For those of us in higher education marketing and communications, I propose we make 2017 the year of working more strategically, and a good place to start is with social media.

A sound social media strategy isn't about posting as much as possible to as many platforms as possible; it's about reaching the right audience, on the right platform, with the right message, at the right time, to encourage a desired outcome.

To help you take the most strategic approach to social media at your college or university this year, below are five best practices to keep in mind.    

Align social media goals with institutional goals
The beauty of social media is that it enables institutions to be extremely targeted with information sharing and greatly facilitates two-way engagement among alumni, current students, prospects, and other priority audiences, which makes it a highly strategic tool in your marketing arsenal. So rather than defaulting to a limited definition of success like, "growing brand awareness and followers," consider social media goals in the context of the institution's goals. What's most pressing? Retention? New enrollments? Alumni engagement? Then define social media success in support of those goals. Not only will this give you a north star to guide your efforts, it will be easier to show the value of the time and money you invest in social media when you can connect the dots back to institutional priorities.   

Match platform(s) with audience(s)
Once you have defined your goals, and in turn the audiences you must reach to achieve your goals, you need to decide on what platforms to focus your efforts. Unless you have an incredibly large staff and budget, you probably can't spend the same amount of time across Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc. – and even if you could, you shouldn't. Not all social platforms are created equal – some are better than others at reaching specific audiences. For example, when it comes to current students, you may want to focus more on Facebook and Twitter, but with prospective students, Instagram and Snapchat may be more effective. Do research to determine what platforms best reach your institution's target audiences based on their personas (their demographics, goals, preferences, motivators, etc.), and then focus your efforts on those platforms.

Define your institution's [authentic] social media voice
So you know what you're trying to accomplish, who your audience is, and where to connect with them. Now what do you say? Before considering the actual content of what you'll be sharing on social media, think about your institution's social media "voice" – what's the tone? Personality? Point of view? Since in all communications consistency is key, your social media voice should be within an octave of your institution's tone and voice. If it is too sharp of a departure, it won't seem authentic. A good way to determine voice is to identify the three or four most important adjectives you'd like your target audiences to use to describe your institution – once you have determined the perception you're trying to shape, you can use that as a guide to help you develop social media content that is true to your voice and advances your goals. 

Audit all institution affiliated social media profiles
Since it is unlikely you are starting a social media effort from scratch, you'll want to take stock of the social media profiles your institution already has established. This audit should include the institution's primary profiles, as well as any profiles being managed at the school or department level, including athletics. Note, if your audit uncovers unauthorized accounts, duplicate accounts, etc., action should be taken to disable, delete, or address those profiles. While the main communications office may not be directly managing every institution affiliated profile, it should know what profiles exist and someone in the main office should have some level of administrative access as a safe guard in the event of a crisis or staff turnover. Additionally, the main office should be working closely with the individuals responsible for the profiles across campus to make sure there is a common understanding about the purpose and goals of each of profile and to work together as partners. It may help to set up a quarterly social media planning meeting to create an opportunity to bring everyone together to collaborate and share tools and best practices. This partnership doesn't have to start at the main office – if you are at the school or department level, proactively reach out to begin a conversation.

Optimize all institution affiliated social media profiles
Whether you're undertaking this effort from the main communications office or at the school or department level, there are several ways you can optimize the profile(s) you manage.

  • Make sure the look and feel of each profile is consistent with the institution's brand identity. This includes logos, images, color-schemes, and "about" messaging.
  • Establish an engagement policy. The policy should clearly articulate expectations for all posts/comments and consequences if the policy is violated (the post or comment will be deleted, the user will be blocked, etc.). If the platform does not formally offer this feature, you should consider creating a page on your website with this information and including a link in the profile's "about" section.
  • Create a detailed social media editorial calendar that maps planned posts for the month. This may include posts related to upcoming announcements, events, and content packages, like video or other campaigns – really everything you are aware of in advance. The calendar should not only outline the content to be posted to each profile every day (which reflects your target audiences and goals), but also the time of day content should be shared to increase engagement (this information can be surfaced from analytics tools). To maximize the time spent managing the profiles each day, take advantage of any in-platform scheduling tools. This will allow you to minimize time spent manually inputting planned posts and focus more on monitoring and responding to posts and sharing timely news and information. The key is to find efficiencies and plan for what you can, while remaining flexible.
  • Leverage the full potential of available analytics tools. From free analytics tools offered by the platforms to inexpensive paid tools (like NUVI), make sure you are regularly reviewing the data to see what posts are getting the greatest engagement, what times of day your audiences are most engaged, etc. Pay special attention to the content topics and types performing the best, so you can use that intelligence to inform your planning and do more of what is working.

While this list of social media best practices is certainly not exhaustive, it offers several steps to start the new year off on the right foot. What other social media best practices do you have? Share in the comments section below!

Lindsey Read is senior vice president, education at Communications Strategy Group, an award-winning public relations firm that specializes in K-12 and higher education based in Denver with offices in Chicago and New York.