Monday, November 23, 2009

From Nit Wit to Net Wit: 4 Social Networking Rules for Schools

On the heels of yesterday's post about mistakes schools make entering into social networking, I submit the following ideas and suggestions to schools who want to get the most out of the opportunities social networking offers.

1. Don't use it just because it's there.

Having a Facebook page does not demonstrate that you understand a darned thing about 21st century networking. There are over 400 million users on Facebook; welcome to the club.

I hear so often how excited some institutions are because they've set up a "Facebook presence". And I want to tell these people: "Don't you get it? It's not about you being excited about being on Facebook, it's about folks on Facebook being excited about you being there."

The same folks tend to use Facebook (and social media in general) as an analogue to the sorts of communications they made in the pre-digital days. And I want to tell them: "No, no, no! The comments wall of a Facebook Group is not a place to post your press releases. It's a place to make an offer of community and to join in the already happening conversation."

Likewise, I see schools creating Facebook pages because they think that's what 'being hip to social networking' is all about. Fact of the matter is, in many cases a user-defined Ning would work so much better to help the institution achieve its goals.

The key to getting the most out of social networking is in understanding one simple maxim: Don't use it just because it's there. If you find yourself creating a need, then you are doing the wrong thing.

Step back, figure out what it is that you want to do (and be specific, don't just say 'reach more people'), and find the tool that best helps you achieve that goal.

Personal example: For years, I maintained a class blog where I'd post homework assignments and links to further reading. Over the last two years, I've found that I can use Twitter along with Delicious and a wiki more effectively than I was using the blog. I post assignments and maintain conversations about classwork on the former and I archive, brainstorm, and create reference libraries on the latter two. So, I stopped using one totally legitimate technology in favour of using another.

The trick isn't 'using technology'.

The trick is finding the technology that's right for you, whether you are a classroom teacher or a large institution.

2. Don't centralize your Facebook communications.

I'm an alumnus; I'm not really interested in whether or not school's closed next week. I was also a bit of a geek back in high school (go figure), so whether or not the varsity football team is having a winning season really isn't all that interesting to me. I was, however, in the Drama Club; I'd love to know what's happening with the Spring Musical. And I was a member of the Jazz Band; I'd love to know what songs are in the current set list.

Now, if you send information forth from a centralized point, you might get my attention once or twice. Soon, however, I get too bored by the football headlines to bother even reading through whatever other information you may have sent out. You lost me.

I still count as a number in your 'friends' list, but you've effectively lost me.

It didn't have to be this way.

This is social media, after all. So be social. Don't style yourself after the PR that worked back in the days of print. Instead, let the individual departments and programs establish networks with their own alumni and constituents; and let me be a part of whatever network I so choose.

If you are using Facebook for networking, this is an essential understanding.

The football team should have it's own network run by the football team and football alums. The Drama Club should have it's own network -- and not limited to current students, but engaging alumni and local professionals.

Now, it's fine to have a 'school' presence. But by-and-large, that central hub serves mostly as a glorified calendar and business card. It's the micro-networks that do the real job of engaging like-minded folks. To use a popular term: your school is comprised of tribes. The job of a communications director or alumni office, therefore, should not be to 'tell constituents the news', but rather to show them where to find the tribe of their choice.

3. Think outside the Tweet.

Twitter is essentially whatever you want it to be.

As a quick and effective way to send a message or link to your public, it's unparalleled. Just don't let the "What are you doing? / What's happening?" prompts squelch your message; they're just red herrings. What you need to do is make your Tweets work for you. For a main office, I suggest a daily morning Tweet with a highlight and a link to morning announcements. For Athletic Depts, go ahead and Tweet your game schedules, rankings, and links to news coverage of your student athletes. Guidance Depts: Tweet college links, links to sites useful for stress relief, and links to sites where students can get further tutoring or mentoring. Academic Depts: there's no reason why the English Dept isn't Tweeting its reading list or why the Math Dept doesn't Tweet classic problems in Analytic Geometry or Calculus.

Now, the first instinct of many an educator is: But, why?

Well, the short answer is: because Tweeting is one of the most positive things you can do to foster motivation.

Students and Parents will appreciate the daily Tweeted schedule; the Athletic Dept may see a surge in its fan-base as videos of players go viral and schools compete against one another virtually for fans -- particularly in the case of High Schools looking to recruit, a sound Twitter community will bode well towards getting great information and a variety of perspectives out to parents and students. For the Guidance Office, you may well find that students start picking up the ball to create their own tutoring programs and clubs based around academic and social issues discussed via Twitter; and certainly the Departmental Tweets have the potential of fostering communities based around common love for a subject.

The trick here is to allow it to grow naturally. Don't force all of the kids to follow your English department feed; that's a disaster in the making. Rather, let the kids discover their own tribes and use Twitter to let those tribes flourish. Go ahead: create content and send it out there; before long, your constituents will be the ones creating the majority of the content and you'll be the one learning what makes a community a community.

4. Don't be afraid of the 'unofficial'.

Despite the best intentions of a school to 'own' its brand, no institution ever really 'owns' its memory. Schools are comprised of people, and the people themselves are the reality of the school.

Now, those folks in charge of creating a web presence soon will have realized that there exist 'unofficial' versions of your brand all over the place -- in the form of blogs, Tweets, Facebook Groups, and more.

What does an effective communications director do?

Well, he or she points to the best of the 'unofficial' and says: "Check this out."

For those of you choking on that last sentence, consider the example of the band Radiohead. For years, the band has listed (under alt/radiohead sites) 'unofficial' sites created by folks all over the world with one thing in common: a love for Radiohead.

The result?

More love for Radiohead.

People love to be in a community with like-minded people. People love to debate the minutiae of their passions. People long for means to connect.

Translate this into your situation.

Now, I realize most of you aren't rock stars. But you are the people who produce the environment in which most human beings undergo the fundamental changes that make them into young adults.

That's powerful stuff.

Now there will be students who have not liked their school experience. And they may use the Net to express this to the world. And that's fine. Because there are also students who will have loved their experience. And some of them too will use the Net to try to express this to the world. You can think of these constituencies as the Yin and Yang of Net identity.

The trick is to mute neither while pointing folks towards what you think is most valuable.

And hagiography and glowing hyperbole is not always deemed 'most valuable', so make your decisions wisely. The goal here is not to use your links to create the impression of what your school is like, but rather to use your links as a means of being a partner in the creation of a broader digital alumni and school community.

'Unofficial' sites and 'Unofficial' networks are good. It means that there are folks whose experience connects in some way to your place. You then have to decide whether given site or given network provides value to your community.


  1. Good post with strong opinions. I like what you had to say.

    1. Facebook can be challenging to get users/fans to participate on schools walls. Telling stories is not a bad way to use it. Seth Godin said it best, "Social Media is not an event it is an ongoing effort." Letting things evolve naturally is important but to do so effort, involvement and community consultation is key.

    2. The one thing not properly addressed in this post is the human resource issue and the fact that within some institutions there is little to no interest on behalf of the football team or drama club to maintain a GOOD social media prescence. Centralization has it's place. For some institutions with a large variety of programs centralization can help others in the institute learn about what's happenning in another corner.

    3. Think outside the Tweet. TOTAL AGREEMENT, but again it's up to each individual to decide if tweeting or delicious or blogging are for them. They can't be 'forced' to do it and within a tenured environment profs can just say NO (sadly) for students.

    4. Don't be afraid of the Unofficial. TOTAL AGREEMENT, it's important to have individuals who can help with general inquiries and institute related questions active on those groups/pages as themselves.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Learned a lot from this post.

  3. Found this post to be highly informative.


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