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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 01/19/2011

Social media newbies: Advice from Harper College

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

This is the first in a new, occasional series about the college and university employees behind Twitter handles, Facebook feeds and social media campaigns.

Months ago, I received an e-mail from Erin Brooks, the media relations specialist at Harper College in Illinois, urging me to blog more about what colleges are doing with social media.

I had met Erin at a conference in Washington last year and follow her on Twitter (@HarperCollegePR) -- and since she suggested it, Erin gets to do my first "College Social Media Q&A." She is joined by Mike Barzacchini, Harper's marketing director.

Erin and Mike say "the social media bug first bit" Harper College in late 2008, but things really got rolling early last year. Harper is a community college in the Chicago suburbs that has more than 26,500 students. In the past year, Harper has grown its Twitter following and Facebook fan base.

Their basic advice: "The best way to get in the game is to dive right in and start listening, observing and participating in conversations."


Campus Overload: What advice do you have for someone who was just put in charge of social media at a university?

First off, don't panic.

Instinct tends to make us think only of the amount of time potentially involved. Getting social media rolling is certainly time-intensive -- particularly in the beginning, when you're learning to use the sites, determining which are best for your college and drumming up followers or fans.

But as time goes on, it becomes easier to know what to say and how to say it; to identify whom to target in a given message; to re-purpose messages you've already pushed out; and to take a few minutes a day to comb through other peoples' relevant posts.

Second thing: Learn the lingo and the lay of the land.

Know what a Twitter hashtag can do for you, and how to search for and keep an eye on trending topics. Know how to post pictures and video to Facebook (and via Twitter) and how to shorten Web links to make them more social-media-friendly.

From there, make sure you consistently aim to engage whichever audience you're
targeting. No one wants to read through a steady list of dull messages. Make it fun and worth their while. (And then use social media tracking sites to watch how it's all working for you.)

Third: Don't think of social media as an all-encompassing marketing and media relations (or admissions outreach) strategy. It's just another tool in our box of tricks.

No, it won't always work -- so don't assume that it will. By the same token, it will sometimes work exceptionally well -- maybe even better than traditional communications methods -- so don't discount it.

Last year, we had less than two weeks to promote an information session for a new public safety program. A Facebook posting generated a half-dozen RSVPs within a day. Along with Twitter and e-mail, we filled the first session with more than 30 attendees.

On the media side, we've sold stories within minutes.

Lastly, have fun. And remember social media is always evolving. Just when you think you've mastered everything -- it changes!

How do Harper students do most of their communicating (text message, Facebook, email, Twitter, etc)?

In general, we would say texting and Facebook are much more popular on Harper's campus than Twitter. Walk through our library, and you'll see many computer users logged in to Facebook -- further proof that we as a college need to be there, too, so that we meet these students where they already are.

How did Harper start using social media across campus? And how is it working so far?

Our marketing and media relations departments took the initial lead on the college's overall social media (we did not add additional staff to do this). But other parts of campus now also have a solid presence -- including admissions, the library, financial aid and continuing education.

We've landed media stories we otherwise wouldn't have landed, resolved student concerns, reconnected with alumni and successfully promoted campus events. More importantly, we've had meaningful conversations with our students, community members and alums.

Social media is definitely one more thing to take on -- and it takes time to have a functional and effective social media presence. We still work on gaining followers and fans and staying relevant. But it also is a dynamic and versatile tool in a field in which we're always looking for new, affordable, and wide-reaching ways of disseminating information and engaging our students and alumni.

What's one of your coolest ideas that other colleges should copy?

Last February, we rolled out an admissions live chat that enabled our staff to interact with students and prospective students online. Previously, students could send an e-mail, call or visit the office for help -- but that lacked the immediacy of social media venues.

We now offer the chat seven hours a day, Monday through Thursday. We've served hundreds of students so far, including 15 in one day alone.

We've found that, within the chat format, students let their guard down and are more honest about what they want to know. Our staff has been able to forward the
students to other contacts (recruiters, counselors or specific academic areas) when necessary.

We now offer Financial Aid live chats as well. (We also made a video series of Financial Aid FAQs that we posted to our YouTube channel.)

Last summer we did our first social media-centered enrollment campaign, which urged students and others to upload videos about their education- and career-related summer plans to our YouTube channel. The video with the most views at the contest's end scored a netbook.

But overall, engaging students one-on-one on issues important to them is the coolest thing colleges can do with social media. We've used Facebook and Twitter to identify students who are having specific problems, then used the same channels to reach out to them in a timely way to resolve issues.

In turn, they've posted positive feedback about these interactions, which adds a further social component for others to experience. This use of social media as a relationship-building and relationship-nurturing tool is truly the coolest application, and one we think many colleges will evolve toward in the coming months.

What should universities *not* do on Twitter or Facebook?

It's sometimes a struggle to resist the urge to simply push out volumes of information. Resist it.

Using Twitter, Facebook or other entities to simply re-post press releases and post tidbits of general information -- while perhaps necessary to an extent -- is not going to win you followers, fans or popularity. This results in a one-sided conversation.

Instead, be creative and engaged. Ask questions that will get a response. Solicit input. Comment on or re-tweet other peoples' posts. Put up pictures that show you have a
sense of humor and a sense of what social media truly is all about

That's the way to get your message noticed.

Note to readers: This Q&A was conducted over e-mail, then edited for length and clarity. The photo is from Harper College's Web site.

And if you have questions about how colleges are using -- or not using -- social media, please join my online chat, Campus Overload Live, at 1 p.m. Thursday.

By Jenna Johnson  | January 19, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Networking  | Tags:  Harper College  
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