Attend a higher ed marketing conference or read a marketing blog these days and you’ll quickly conclude that the path to recruitment, fund-raising and mission attainment is social media. Whatever the issue, a campaign built around (fill in the blank) tweets, blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook or whatever seems to be the key to achieving institutional goals.
Social media activists are invariably trotted out at conferences and webinars to demonstrate their recent excursion into the age of social media enlightenment.
Being the first one in the swimming pool, however, doesn’t mean you’re the strongest swimmer. It doesn’t even mean you are much of a swimmer. It simply means you got wet first. Before we hurl ourselves headlong into the collective pool, we’d be advised to take a step or two back and look at social media from a broader perspective.
What is social media? It’s a communication vehicle -- a way to reach and converse with others. It’s not imbued with magical qualities to increase sales, raise money or feed the homeless. It’s simply a tool that can help you achieve a goal -- much like a hammer is to a carpenter. In the hands of a skilled carpenter, it can be used to create a beautiful house. In lesser hands, you might end up with a dysfunctional garage.
As we know, when wielding a hammer everything is apt to look like a nail. That’s what we’re seeing in the current environment: early-bird practitioners urging us to rush out and put up blogs, launch LinkedIn campaigns, create digital publications, start podcasts and engage in all manner of activities that are part of the social media bandwagon.
What’s wrong with that?
One big problem: a tool is not a strategy. A social media campaign does not equate with good marketing.
We can learn from the rush to execution that ensued when desktop publishing debuted in the '80s. With the purchase of PageMaker software, everyone suddenly became a graphic designer with the ability to produce ads, newsletters, logos and all manner of illustrations.
Obviously, managers and accountants didn’t really become designers. They used the tools of a designer to execute some functions. Graphic design requires more than just pretty pictures. Judgment and creativity, quantitative and analytic thinking is the key to successfully conveying specific messages to targeted audiences. These skills don’t come stuffed inside a software box. Graphic software may make the process easier, faster and less expensive but it’s only valuable in the hands of skilled designer.
Currently, social media is about execution. I’m all for exploring sexy, fun new ways of reaching an audience, but social media evangelists seem to spend little time comparing their medium with alternatives that may be a better strategic fit or more cost-efficient. We rarely hear headliners caution that social media can be a worthless exercise, a drag on precious resources or damaging to reputations. There’s little talk about limitations or failures or more reliable alternatives. It’s as if everyone is whistling their way down the path and over the cliff drinking the collective Kool-Aid.
Examples of disastrous social media campaigns abound and they are not limited to cash-strapped nonprofits. Take a look at ThoughtPick’s list of the top 10 social media campaign failures.  It’s littered with big brand names from Wal-Mart and GM to Skittles and Starbucks -- huge retailers that had the resources for success and should have known better.
Last year Penn State University lost credibility with students and ignited a social media flameout when the university jousted with students and attempted to control critical comments on Facebook after the university refused to close the campus for a snow day.  Students felt sufficiently abused to set up an alternative Facebook account  to get their comments out and thereby blowing up the incident exponentially.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tightened Twitter rules  after athletes' activities brought unwanted attention to their athletic program.
Regardless of size or good intentions, it’s easy to make a social media mistake.
A focus on social media places a disproportionate emphasis on one component of the marketing mix: promotion. A 2011 survey  of members pf the Council for Advancement and Support of Education found that 36 percent of higher education institutions had six or more full-time people assigned to social media. Ten percent had 20 or more.
This disproportionate emphasis leads practitioners to minimize or even overlook other components -- product, price and place -- key strategic considerations which are likely to be more important to ultimate success than social media. Before engaging in a social media campaign marketers should make sure the product is the best it can be, that consumer sentiment has helped shape it, that the price is appropriate for the marketplace and that we’ve made purchasing as easy and as convenient as possible. Each component in the marketing mix comes with a large body of work and research that should be seriously considered in any strategic marketing plan.
Ironically, Drake University’s infamous D+ advertising campaign , which received national attention for associating the institution with a barely passing grade, could have been avoided if the university had first tested it through social media.
Social media is one communication tool within the promotional component. Other functions such as advertising, public relations, personal selling and sales promotion may complement or be better alternatives to social media. We can’t increase bottom-line performance by ignoring other communication options.
Which brings me to some decidedly unsexy comments that you won’t hear from convention headliners but will be helpful if you are considering a social media campaign.
1. Social media is in its embryonic stage. Internet Explorer is distributing version 12.0, but early versions were barely functional and didn’t resemble today’s browser. Read, learn, experiment as much as you like but don’t place too many chips on the social media roulette wheel just yet. A few years ago headliners were urging clients to build campaigns around MySpace, which has tanked as an alternative to Facebook. The landscape is still in flux; products are trendy and largely untested.
2. Use a marketing plan to keep focused. Write a brief marketing plan before you start. Nothing elaborate, maybe one page. Identify the three key goals you are trying to achieve. Define the audience, your message and communication vehicles. Be critical. Ask yourself, Are there other, more cost-effective communication options that may more efficiently reach your audience? Sometimes a blog/Facebook page/SEO campaign is too slow/expensive/reaches the wrong demographic/sends the wrong message. Strategize first, execute second.
3. Rely on marketing principles -- not trendy ideas. Marketing principles are based on 70 years of research and practice. They are based on understanding consumer needs, wants and emotions. Fear, happiness, survival, love, jealousy, hunger are behavior motivators with a longer shelf life than a pair of Crocs. A good marketer will prod and survey, question and talk with the audience before creating the message and selecting the communication vehicles. We don’t select the vehicle first (read: Twitter), then hope it reaches the right audience.
4. A good convention headliner pushes limits and stimulates creativity. But most headliners are no more marketing mavens than PageMaker users were graphic designers. They were simply first into the pool. A smart swimmer watches others, considers the depth, assesses his skills and then decides when and whether to get wet. Remember, convention headliners are generally entertaining and upbeat so anything that doesn’t make the cut -- anything old school -- is edited out.
5. Get the facts behind the sizzle. Sure, putting an ad on a current events blog may give you street cred, but if you want to reach the typically affluent news junkie, for instance, try a newspaper. Recent Pew-funded research found that 95 percent of original news content on the Internet comes from legacy providers -- primarily newspapers. Gossip, opinion, speculation and hyperbole may attract readers but perhaps not those seeking authoritative, timely news.
One blogger  on Adrants.com recently wrote, “Agencies rightfully see social [media] as central to the future of marketing and work to develop in this space as fast as they can.” Central to the future of marketing? That’s the type of overblown hype we hear dispensed by headliners and pseudo-marketers. Sure, social media is an attractive communication vehicle but it’s just that – a vehicle -- what about product, price, strategy, distribution, research and promotion? Shouldn’t we focus on these key components before we select a communication vehicle?
And certainly agencies are working to develop the space as fast as they can; it’s a money-making opportunity. But don’t confuse the pronouncements of self-anointed, self-promoting social media experts with the need for a comprehensive marketing plan that’s a little more thoughtful and takes little longer to plan and execute but has a better chance of taking you where you want to go.
Kevin Tynan is executive director for marketing and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Exposure! How to Market So Your Message is Unavoidable, Dartnell and Multi-Channel Marketing.