Question: How can our office utilize social media to build community and enhance connections with students?
Answer: This is a question that has challenged a lot of Student Affairs departments. My first thought is that it helps to ask a few questions in order to focus your efforts. What does building community mean in the context of your department? What are you trying to accomplish? Do you have a strategic communications plan?
The social media secret
Oftentimes with social media, we get tangled up in using the tools before we figure out what it is that we’re trying to do. The challenge in asking “how” you can use a communications tool is that that generally means that you need more experience in using it. It’s far easier to strategize ways to use social media when you’re using it on a regular basis. The social media “secret sauce” is in doing it instead of talking about it. It sounds simple. Active participation on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit is the best way to become fluent enough with each community that you can then figure out how you can align the tools with your strategic communications plan.
It’s also helpful to ask your students about the social media sites that they frequent. Additionally, go ahead and search for social commentary. For example, Twitter can be a fantastic site for social media “listening.” Whenever I’m giving a talk on digital identity development  to a group of students, I’m always able to find numerous social media posts, tweets, and photographs that relate to my presentation.
Social Media is not a bulletin board
Most bulletin boards are exceptionally boring. Social media can function just like a bulletin board. However, outbound-only communiques will rarely result in community generation or connnection. The “magic” of social media is that it is social. As representatives of a Student Affairs department, your social media use will largely be focused on how you provide value to your students. Are you giving them a reason to follow you, to like you, to participate in a community? Initially, you’ll be excited about the number of followers that you have on Twitter or the number of likes on your Facebook Page. As I’ve previously mentioned, these are vanity metrics . Interactions (mentions, favorites, and retweets) on Twitter are simple, but effective ways of gauging the effectiveness of your forays into the Twittersphere. On Facebook, it is crucial that you use a Page. A lot of departments, when they first started using Faebook, began with a Profile. Remember this, Profiles are for individuals, and Pages are for organizations/departments/units/divisions. Now, it will be tempting to attempt to simultaneously hop in all of the social media “pools.” My advice is that unless you have staff who are dedicated to strategic communications that you pare down your efforts. Focus on using either Twitter or Facebook. If you want to incorporate Tumblr, Instagram, or Reddit, ask yourself, are we able to manage all of these channels at a high level.
What are you going to say?
A lot of people ask me for tips on what they should say when they start posting on social media sites. My question to them is whether or not they know what to say to/with students in a face-to-face setting. Engaging students using social media is not that complicated. If you have a strategic communications plan that is an offshoot of your departments yearlong plan, then you’re going to be fine. A content creation/posting calendar can help too. Additionally, if staff are not given enough time to do social media then it becomes incredibly difficult to engage in conversations and community-building.
Are you ready for a curveball? Sometimes your strategy will not matter. Current events can dictate how you use social media. A photograph on your page can go viral (at least within your community) and a seemingly random tweet can generate a multitude of retweets, favorites, and mentions. The best way to use social media is to recognize that the channels are full of nuance and humanity. Experiment, engage, learn, listen, and lead.
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