Reprinted from “Bright Ideas,” an online newsletter by The Woolbright Group.
Using Social Media to Engage Your Alumni and Donors
Mary Ann Cicala ‘99, MA ’09
Associate Director of Alumni Relations, Emerson College, Boston, MA
Associate Director, Electronic Communications
Office of University Advancement
This segment concludes the two part interview on using social media to enhance Advancement communications. You will find Part 1 of the interview in the November 2009 issue of Bright Ideas .
WG: Are there specific advantages for using one platform over another, or do they serve an integrated and mutually beneficial purpose?
Mary Ann: Fads are coming and going daily when it comes to Social Media. And for this reason, I believe that institutions benefit most when they have an integrated approach to using multiple social media platforms. That said, I believe the top four social media platforms as of today (October 8, 2009) are: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.
WG: Do you think you have greater insight into your constituents’ behaviors and needs due to the interactive qualities of social media?
Mary Ann: Absolutely. I wish we had enough money to hire 10 people into our research dept. With Facebook, we don’t take any emails or phone numbers even if people put it out there. But with LinkedIn, any time someone joins, we get their professional information and email address. It’s a quick and easy way to update our database. Emerson College, without a doubt, has greater insight into our constituent’s behaviors by engaging with our alumni through social media. Just take the long list of data that Facebook collects in its profile:
Your name, your profile picture, your gender, your birthday, your hometown location (city/state/country), your current location (city/state/country), your political view, your activities, your interests, your musical preferences, television shows in which you are interested, movies in which you are interested, books in which you are interested, your favorite quotes, the text of your “About Me” section, your relationship status, your dating interests, your relationship interests, your summer plans, your Facebook user network affiliations, your education history, your work history, your course information, copies of photos in your Facebook Site photo albums, metadata associated with your Facebook Site photo albums (e.g., time of upload, album name, comments on your photos, etc.), the total number of messages sent and/or received by you, the total number of unread messages in your Facebook in-box, the total number of “pokes” you have sent and/or received, the total number of wall posts on your Wall™, a list of user IDs mapped to your Facebook friends, your social timeline, and events associated with your Facebook profile.
Jen: We don’t collect any information. Our research department does when they are doing research on prospects. We haven’t had the resources to dig into the data.
WG: Has the use of social media replaced one-on-one meetings or personal contact? Do you think it ever will?
Jen: Definitely NOT! Not personal enough. I don’t think that social media is going to replace the personal contact. I don’t think you can just blast that out and expect people to respond.
Mary Ann: I hope that social media will never replace one-on-one meetings and personal contact. However, if used efficiently, social media can serve as an entree to cultivating relationships that lead to personal contact. What’s interesting is that we’ve never done a tweet about “make a gift,” but I met with the volunteer who is heading up her 10 year reunion. On her Gmail status and Facebook page she asked her friends to make their year-end gifts to their alma mater. People responded, so from peer to peer it works.
WG: Have you changed any other facets of your overall communications and/or campaign strategy as a result of the feedback you get?
Mary Ann: we’re just a bunch of rule-breakers here. The Institutional Advancement office has a strict policy that we leave minimum of 48 hour window between email communications. So we use Facebook to fill the gaps, i.e., when we can’t get something out via email. The alumni relations team is constantly evaluating our communication strategy based on feedback from alumni. We receive this feedback in the way of emails, tweets, comments on our “wall” and discussion groups, and conversations with alumni. The Institutional Advancement office has a strict policy that we leave minimum of 48 hour window between email communications.
Jen: Emails have grown to five a day to different chapters; I am guessing people receive two to three emails a week. What we’re trying to do is use social media instead of email to get messages out. But since they are opt-in, it’s been difficult to make the change. Last year was the first that our fundraising focus was on electronic communications. We had a very successful year: our goal was 25,000 donors and over 26,000 donors gave. People did complain, but we got to the goal. The unsubscribe rate is not drastically high. We’re going to modify [the strategy] this year, maybe short bursts instead of a steady stream of emails.
WG: Have you implemented formalized training in social media strategies for staff? Who makes the policy and/or creative decisions about social media?
Jen: you have to know how to use these things; alum assoc are training newcomers on their own.
Mary Ann: Outside of attending the occasional professional development panel or presentation on Social Media, Emerson College has no formal training in this department. That said, the Social Media working group meets monthly to review policies and goals and share information. Additionally, our annual fund team has incorporated a “book club” component to their weekly team meetings. Currently, they are reading the book Trust Agent, by Chris Brogan. Each week they are assigned one to two chapters of reading from the book and they discuss how the development team might incorporate ideas from the book in their current strategy.
WG: What, so far, have been the benefits of using social media at your institutions?
Mary Ann: We’re friend-raisers [laughs]! Like other higher education institutions, Emerson College has a strong need to broadcast information to a range of audiences, including prospective students and parents, current students and parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and others. We have used social media as a supplemental platform to release news, important messages, and event information to those audiences. An “official” presence on these platforms allows Emerson College to broadcast messages directly from our Public Affairs, Alumni Relations, and Admission offices or other on-campus areas.
The variety of social media platforms allow Emerson College to communicate both internally and externally while also networking with and engaging constituents globally. We recognize that engaging alumni and friends of the college through social media has become part of the trade. Using social media for marketing and public relations has become essential because the most crucial stakeholders to a college—students, potential students, alumni, and parents—are all using these tools.
Jen: The more you’re engaged the more likely it is that you’re going to make a gift. It is difficult to measure results, but last year we very successful so I expect to keep doing it. We are driving people to our sites by using these tools. And, we use Bitley which provides free tracking. I have done some of that, but it takes time.
WG: How are results measured? Are you witnessing more gifts, more participation in giving? How are you measuring this against traditional methods of fundraising?
Mary Ann: Although Emerson College’s creative services team tracks internal and external hits via Google analytics, the College does not currently have formal benchmarks to measure our success with social media. The current social media group made up of Emerson College staff are working together to develop a policy, strategy, and best practices guide for social media use at Emerson College. The policy will most likely comprise of a process for creating official presence on the various platforms available. Requirements might include informing the appropriate advisory departments, getting approval for creating an official group, and incorporating the official brand and guidelines set in Emerson’s any policies that result from this working group.
Once a strategy has been established, offices producing content or responding to user questions and comments will likely have representatives that administer the public presence on these channels to help retain a consistent voice and tone. Additionally, goals will be set for the amount and type of content the administrators will add. After administrators have been assigned and goals have been made, the administrators will work to promote the each platform in order to increase the engagement of other users.
Emerson College is undergoing a complete website redesign, with an expected completion date of March 2010. During the redesign process, the social media strategy will be integrated into the new site so that users can easily go from the various social media platforms to http://www.emerson.edu, and vice versa. Emerson’s social media presence will continue to be used to drive more users to the official college website.
WG: Do you worry that all your efforts to develop your Facebook (or alternatives) presence could be wasted, when there is a chance that Facebook will one day become old hat, replaced by the next great thing?
Mary Ann: I don’t worry about any efforts the alumni relations team is investing to develop
our Facebook presence—or for that matter LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube or any other platforms. We’ve already experienced the wave of MySpace users who flocked in droves to Facebook. While we still have some official Emerson profiles and groups on MySpace (just in case), we have focused our attention on what we consider the top four platforms: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. At the end of the day, each platform has allowed us to develop our strategy and hone our message. When the next social media fad surfaces, we’ll be ready to ride that information wave.
Jen: that’s just part of the job, and keeping up is the exciting part for me. There is going to be something new in two years! It doesn’t make sense not to do it, so we’ve got to be willing to adapt.
WG: If one has limited time and budget, how might one determine what approach would be best for their institution?
Mary Ann: The beauty of social media is that, in most cases, it’s free and easy to use. With a limited budget, the essence of time management ends up feeding the bottom line. My suggestion is to have a plan that places an emphasis on branding and an integrated marketing and just dive right in.
Also, never overlook the value of empowering your volunteers to help manage the work flow. The reality is that, if your institution has not already built a formal presence on these social media platforms, a well-intentioned constituent has probably already built what I call a “bandit page or identity.”
Going back to the Third Places analogy, an online community is a community that exists offline first. And if your institution is not providing that opportunity for your community to connect, someone else will! Your institution stands a much better chance at controlling its own image and reputation if an administrator sets up a formal profile than if a random member of its community sets one up.
WG: What advice would you give to a team that hasn’t yet gotten on the social media bandwagon, but aspires to?
Mary Ann: Come on in, the water’s fine! If you’re still a little nervous about jumping in the ocean, here is some recommended beach reading:
Faculty Focus. “Twitter in Higher Education: Usage Habits and Trends of Today’s College Faculty.” Faculty Focus | Focused on Today’s Higher Education Professional. Web.
Falls, Jason. (June 15, 2009). The Key to Developing a Social Media Strategy. Message.
LeFever, L. S. (2008). “Vide, fromo: Social Media in Plain English.” Retrieved June 29, 2009.
Rueben, R. (2008, August 19). The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing
and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education.
Trust Agent, Chris Brogan
Groundswell, based on analysis by Forrester Research
Jen: It’s good to just try it out. I recommend that you judge how much of your audience is on Twitter or Facebook; these are better for pushing information out. I’d start with one and try it. Twitter is better for people who value their privacy. LinkedIn is very hands off; you can let it grow on its own if you don’t have the staff time.
WG: Thank you very much!
Both: You’re welcome!