Finding Friends - and Ambiguity

NEW YORK -- Gatherings of fund raisers, alumni affairs leaders, and communications experts in higher education have for years, one panelist here said, engaged in “hand-wringing about social media.” Should they get involved? Do they need to take it seriously? What is its role?

July 20, 2010

NEW YORK -- Gatherings of fund raisers, alumni affairs leaders, and communications experts in higher education have for years, one panelist here said, engaged in “hand-wringing about social media.” Should they get involved? Do they need to take it seriously? What is its role?

Data released here Monday at a meeting of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education suggest a partial change. The vast majority of colleges’ fund raising and communications related divisions are now using social media -- only 4 percent aren’t doing something in the field. But the hand-wringing really isn’t over. The survey notes that while some colleges have clearly articulated goals for social networking, many remain uncertain about its role, its staffing and its value.

The split in thinking here was in evidence on the question of how to define success. Andrew Gossen, senior director for social media strategy at Cornell University, said that “I think five years from now the whole [return on investment] question is going to seem naïve. It would seem like asking for the ROI on your telephone service.”

But during the Q&A, several audience members pressed with questions about return on investment. Was there evidence that alumni who are Facebook friends with the institution are more likely to give? Are there bottom-line metrics that can been used to tell whether it’s worth developing a Facebook strategy?

The survey was conducted for CASE by mStoner and Slover Linett Strategies, two consulting groups. The results are based on answers from about 1,000 CASE members from a representative sampling of American colleges and universities. Some in the audience suggested that there may be self-selection bias in that those without a social media agenda may have been more likely to ignore the survey -- in which case the data may suggest a greater use of social media over all than is the case.

On the other hand, CASE’s membership doesn't focus on admissions, athletics and student affairs -- parts of higher education that have embraced social media at many institutions.

By far, the top social media tool used by those in the survey is Facebook, with 94 percent of respondents reporting that their units have pages there. Most units are using multiple forms of social media, as Twitter is being used by 67 percent of respondents, LinkedIn by 61 percent, and YouTube by 59 percent. About one third reported using blogs, Flickr and Ning and still others used their own social media tools or those sold by vendors.

Alumni are the target audience of the greatest number of colleges in the survey (96 percent of respondents), followed by “friends and supporters” (77 percent), students (69 percent) and donors (66 percent).

The data in the survey that seemed to lead to the greatest murmurs (and discussion in the halls later) concerned staffing. At 83 percent of the divisions of individuals responding to the survey, at least one full-time person is working on social media issues. Within that total, 8 percent reported having three full-time people and 7 percent reported having four or more people.

Asked how many people their entire institutions as a whole have working full time on social media, the answers suggested a serious investment:

Number of Full Time Positions Across Institution Working on Social Media

0 7%
1 13%
2 13%
3 11%
4 10%
5 11%
6-10 20%
11-19 6%
20 or more 10%

Cheryl Slover-Linett, one of the consultants who led the project, said that “nearly everyone is on the bandwagon now,” experimenting with social media and trying to figure out its role in advancement fields.

In answer to the question from the audience about measuring the impact of social media on alumni donor rates, Slover-Linett said there was a link, but that it was ambiguous. From her research for individual colleges (not part of the new survey), she said that alumni who are engaged with their colleges through social media are more likely to be donors. But she said these alumni were also the same alumni more likely to read the alumni magazine, attend alumni events and so forth -- so she couldn’t say that the social media impact alone could be measured.

Gossen, the Cornell social media official who spoke with confidence about the long-term need to stay with social media, said that the “sheer numbers” convinced him that this was not an area colleges would abandon or could ignore.

Indeed, Slover-Linett noted that the survey indicated that many colleges expanded social media ties to alumni at the request of alumni -- and that this was something that colleges weren’t “planful” with because it came to them and wasn’t something they thought through and then proposed.

So how do colleges measure success with social media now? The most common measure is the number of active “friends,” fans, participants or posts -- depending on the nature of the social media tool. That was followed by volume of participation (unique persons involved over a period of time), the number of click-throughs to an institutional Web site, and event participation.

In the next year, many colleges in the survey are planning to expand social media or to formalize organization of it -- which is largely decentralized, according to the survey.

Michael Stoner, another of the consultants involved, said that the survey used Oregon State University as an example of the way colleges could use social media for a variety of specific goals, measure the results, and mix new media and old media strategies. Oregon State’s Powered by Orange campaign features a variety of social media tools -- with several goals. One of them is to increase the university’s visibility in Portland, and Oregon State has been able to measure traffic to various parts of the campaign from Portland residents.

Further, he noted that Oregon State mixed a campaign with Google Maps and Twitter along with bus wrap-around ads -- and that there need not be an abandonment of more traditional promotional efforts.

While the panelists generally lauded the power of social media, they also noted the need for some self-restraint, suggesting that colleges that simply post every press release to Twitter or Facebook end up showing that they don’t really understand what social media are about.

Charlie Melichar, who is in transition from a communications position at Colgate University to one at Vanderbilt University, said it was key to remember that colleges’ use of social media isn’t restricted to sending out messages. Much of the discussion about social media in higher education focuses on how colleges can tell alumni one thing or students another thing. Melichar said that “listening” should be seen as a key advantage of social media in higher education.

Sometimes, he said, colleges send out information “that I’m not sure anybody was asking for,” while a strategy of following discussions might yield great ideas or insights. “You don’t need to start every conversation,” he said.


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