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10 Social Media Strategies for The Ivory Tower

10 Social Media Strategies for The Ivory Tower

The main problem with university social media branding strategy is this:  There is no strategy.

Universities have not caught up yet.  They are unaware of the benefits that a university-wide, coherent social media strategy can bring.  A latin phrase, some colored logos, and Newsweek rankings seem to be the extent of the .edu’s marketing and community plan.

Here’s the current situation:  Each department finds their own time, staff and money to design online social networking platforms their current students and alumni are requesting.  If they don’t construct something (however haphazardly), students take it upon themselves to construct a Facebook group or a Ning for the department.  No thought is applied to coherent design interdepartmentally or globally.  Nothing is monitored, yet the university’s name is being employed and associated with these rogue websites (this makes lawyers quite nervous).

At barcampphilly this fall I sat in on a talk given by Geoff DiMasi of P’unk Avenue.  Geoff mentioned that the major roadblock to progress at any .edu is trying to unite its three factions: Administration, Faculty and Students.  Trying to get these three factions to agree on anything let along a coherent strategy even within an individual academic department is an incredible challenge at best.  Jen Yuan, an IT Communications Analyst at the University of Pennsylvania added that there was an unofficial but heavily recognized fourth faction, Reputation.  The Ivy League schools especially, Jen noted, weigh every move with the university’s reputation and perceived ranking (a.k.a. “brand”) in mind.  I’ve been employed by the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and my husband is currently an assistant dean there.  We both can attest to the truth in Jen’s statement.

I’ve worked within the academic computing environment, I’ve been a social media consultant for some local university departments, and I’m currently a Community Manager and webmaster for a public school parent/teacher organization.  Based on my experience, I’ve constructed the ten steps below to help your academy start controlling and utilizing a coherent brand strategy in order to grow your community and strengthen your reputation.

Ten Social Media Brand Strategies for The Ivory Tower

1. Design a strategy ASAP.  Realize that all online presence says something about your school.  Just as you label architecturally diverse or similar buildings with the same colors, same fonts, etc., you must think about a consistent design for each department’s social networking site.  It should be based on your overall look of your current websites.  Having consistently designed sites directly influences your school’s reputation worldwide.  Consider hiring a social media consultant.

2. Offer server space, template designs, and support to departments. Don’t leave the departments out in the cold.  Their students are demanding social spaces online.  Give them easy website and forum templates to choose from and set up the site for easy end-user administration.  You can charge their budgets with a discounted price so they avoid outside solutions.

3. Find quick alternatives. If disk or support is too expensive, utilize Ning.  Offer to set up a similarly branded Ning for each department at the University.  The department can pay the tiny fee to keep the Ning ads off the site.

4. Communicate the strategy. Have training sessions for all of the departments’ computing gurus or social website administrators.  Get the them connected online as a group.  Set it up so they are constantly working and communicating with each other across departments.

5. Work from the top down. University administration at the highest levels need to be educated on this ‘splintered brand’ dilemma.  They need to be on-board right away. Bottom-up grass roots initiatives are sprouting up outside of the administration’s control; this opens up the university to potential lawsuits with third-party solution houses and also risks the reputation of the faculty and students.

6. Get student and faculty input. Academia is founded on the concept of collaboration.  Make sure the website and forum templates make sense to your audience, or you’ll have a disk full of abandoned sites.  Rogue sites will start popping up again.  You don’t want your students making a Facebook group for the department.  Keep them happy, keep them home.

7. Don’t rule with an iron fist. There will be some varied needs from different departments.  As long as the basic branding is present, the templates can change pretty drastically and still fit within the school’s strategy.

8. Link similar departments together. Provide communication opportunities between all website participants.  Start with departments that have a lot of student cross-over.  For example, Chemistry and Biology.  You may even decide to make a combined space for the pre-med students who spend most of their time taking both classes in both the chemistry and biology departments.

9. Provide private areas.  Students, alumni, and faculty need their own areas on their respective departments’ online space.  Password level access is expected by most users now; it’s not offensive or against the social media tenet of “transparency”.  A group thrives when its members know they have a designated space to communicate without public scrutiny.

10. Create an overall Community Manager (CM) position. This person would:

*Be a liaison between computing and the departments;

*Set up training of faculty, students and staff on the use of the sites;

*Protect and gently enforce the university’s web strategy and rules;

*Report to the higher offices that deal with public relations and/or computing;

*Help create a community of other CM’s in other universities;

*Be on-call for any problems that may influence the community or the university’s brand negatively.

*Ferret out rogue sites and influence the users to come back into the university’s plan.

*Perform any other duties as needed to improve and protect and foster your academy’s online community.

These ten steps should get universities, colleges and schools thinking in the right direction.  The unique environment of academia is based on collaboration, research, and careful thought.  Keeping true to those principles will lead you to coherent and effective online community that will enhance the world’s experience with your school.

Please add, subtract, collaborate on this list with your comments.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Toby 1 December 2008, 9:29 am

    I worked at the University of Minnesota for 4 years, and they have no online social media strategy. I totally agree that it is in the University’s best interest to adopt one. But I believe your approach is a bit off in that there would be more to be gained from participating in the rogue Facebook groups than by attempting to reign them in. People start these groups to fill a void, and, presumably they are filling that void. So why mess with a good thing? Take it in stride, engage in discussions, and don’t waste resources reinventing the wheel.

    • PurpleCar 1 December 2008, 9:54 am


      Thanks for writing. You’re 100% right that that it will be impossible to reign in Facebook groups or other grass-roots social networks, but these groups still may put the university at risk depending on who participates in them. An .edu site is a safer way to protect the brand. Private friends can always make their own networks, but the .edu can’t link to them or else they risk the law seeing that as an official endorsement. If libel occurs in the rogue group, the university needs to steer of it.

      You can kill off rogue group’s blood supply if you give your community a more recognized and more easily found public site at your .edu’s domain. Facebook group administration is done by volunteers, and volunteers get tired after a while. It’s been my experience that most community members aren’t willing to administer the group; they would rather let the group die off. That would mean there would be no consistency in community. If administration duties are under the purview of the .edu, you can have an ongoing community experience through which members will come and go. Plus, it’s just messy. Your alumni don’t have time to search a million 3rd party apps for their community.

      Any .edu that gets a comprehensive social media strategy together now will get a big boost in reputation score because they will be ahead of the game. They’ll be able to boast that they provide a wholistic online and offline experience as well as lifetime connections for their students. In the age of helicopter parents, this would be a strong selling point and a marked advantage over other universities.

      What do you think?



      • Eric Miltsch 1 December 2008, 6:26 pm

        Great ideas; shocked more universities/colleges haven’t adopted social platforms for student & faculty use.

        A private network a la Yammer could work well…could be a training ground creating the next generation scoble, brogan and kevinrose types….

  • Laura 1 December 2008, 7:11 pm

    Great post. I have done some work with universities and I was SHOCKED to discover that every department is left to defend for itself, just to get a simple website up!These universities have IT departments that are maintaining the main university site, why they cannot throw each department a template is beyond me.

  • PurpleCar 1 December 2008, 7:18 pm

    Emiltsch and Laura, thanks.

    Emiltch, I looked up http://www.yammer.com/ – it’s definitely worth a look if places would like to set up something quick. Better than a Facebook option for sure. People who work in academia in any way should test yammer and other options out and put in front of their superiors.


    you and my academic husband brought up the same point. Universities are notoriously decentralized. This is a challenge, no doubt. Probably smaller schools will adopt a social media strategy before the bigger ones do. Firstly, they may be decentralized but they are much smaller. Secondly, the competition for students/applicants is more fierce at the small liberal arts college level. Adopting SM could make them stand out; they’d appear ‘bleeding edge” to potential students and parents.

    I think big schools are about 10-20 years away from moving toward a unified strategy. The smaller schools will be on it in 2-5 years. What are your predictions?

  • PurpleCar 1 December 2008, 7:27 pm

    A comment I received via direct message in Twitter:

    Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Sense a hierarchical understructure in your 10 SMS. Counter to SM with person2person exchanges?

    Guilty as charged. There is a hierarchy in my 10 steps. I am thinking more about the university protecting its brand than the conversations that are the true base of social media.

    The two can co-exist though. The Ivory Tower can control its brand but still foster the same collaborative environment on-line as does off-line.

    What is happening now is contrary for any conversation between departments. If students get any online space at all, it is class-specific and temporary, let alone for an entire department. They are miles away from starting conversations across disciplines/schools.

    My proposal is that the Ivory Tower must build the space online, just as they build dormitories, lecture halls, and athletic arenas. In the near future, our online lives will be considered a healthy part of our personalities, and will be essential for work and play. Ya can’t cook if there ain’t no fire, and ya can’t mingle if there ain’t no place to gather in.

    The University must provide that place. If you build it, they will come. Once they come, they’ll start chatting. Let’s start with the fist steps: building it.

  • Rachel Reuben 1 December 2008, 7:38 pm

    I have a post titled, “Do we really need a social media strategy” that’s scheduled to publish at 7 a.m. ET tomorrow (12/2) on http://doteduguru.com. I’d be very interested in your feedback on it. The ten steps you outline are fantastic – however, I argue that they’re part of a bigger marketing/branding picture (strategy), and social media is just one spoke in the wheel. Stay tuned for the rest tomorrow. 🙂

    • PurpleCar 1 December 2008, 7:44 pm

      Awesome Rachel! Let’s keep talking about it. Maybe together we can all come up with a comprehensive approach that would work for most schools. Will check out http://doteduguru.com for your post “Do we really need a social media strategy?” tomorrow! Thanks!

  • Karlyn Morissette 1 December 2008, 7:53 pm

    While I agree with the sentiments in this post, I think you make what is a very complex thing seem very simplistic. It’s just not that easy and the politics of implementation are greater than you’ve begun to consider here. For instance, create a community manager position? Is this really the most vital thing a university needs, particularly when a lot of them out there are in dire economic strife to the point of budget cuts, financial cuts and hiring freezes/layoffs? Who’s really in charge of this at a large, decentralized institution? You really don’t think senior administrators (particularly those who are marketers and communicators) don’t understand splinter branding? Again, I agree with you that institutions need to take this stuff more seriously but I think posts like this that are kind of scolding them into doing so miss the larger picture at work.

    • PurpleCar 1 December 2008, 8:58 pm

      Karlyn, thanks. Sorry, I didn’t mean to seem scolding, just stark. You are right that the university structure is complex, but social networks are happening. Brand splintering is happening. True, every university has to decide what its priorities are, but I don’t understand why a SM strategy wouldn’t fit under the existing IT and/or PR areas. A new position may not be necessary but rather new duties to address this very real issue. Universities should, at the very least, be keeping tabs on where affiliated groups are popping up and what kinds of activities and conversations are happening in them. Legal issues are at stake here, as well as the university’s image. Reputation score is probably the biggest concern for all administrators, alumni and students. Shouldn’t measures be taken to promote and protect that brand? I’m interested in what you think.

  • GoingLikeSixty 2 December 2008, 7:19 pm

    I’m not in education, but I know somebody who is and will forward this to them. Don’t you love BarCamps? I went to my first (and so far only) BarCamp in Nashville. Blew the Xer’s minds when a Geezer strolled in!

    BTW: be careful if you decide to visit JuicyCampus.com – I got the Antivirus 2009 trojan from the site. Just Google search for stories about the site. Talk about destroying the university brand!

  • Cheryl 7 December 2008, 3:49 pm

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry reading this post. All great ideas. I agree with you on everything pretty much. Having been a small part of the web steering committee at a local community college for one semester, I look at this list and think: “Never. Going. to Happen.” …. “Ever.” As Karlyn mentioned, you’ve barely scratched the politics of implementation. You probably need to add several more factions to your list, starting with the IT Dept.

    From my personal experience, my bet is that the IT Dept anywhere will not want to support such a plan or even touch it with a 10ft pole, and they are in a position to permanently kill it.

    1. Design strategy ASAP – can’t happen because a committee must be formed first, and the people who should be on it won’t be, because clueless people with big egos and more seniority will be on it instead. After a whole 16 week semester, they *might* have studied the issue. Next semester they might make some recommendations. Eventually they’ll get around to user / usability studies. Maybe in a couple years you’ll have something … that doesn’t meet anyone’s needs and is already out of date. This will happen with or without a consultant, because the ego people won’t take the consultant’s word for anything, they’ll have to vet it against their own ancient outmoded ideas.

    2. Offer server space/templates and support – the IT dept will be so blindingly uninterested in doing this, so against it, so diplomatic lip service in support of it while quietly killing it in the background… it will take your breath away like it did mine.

    3. Quick alternatives / Ning – There is no “quick” by committee. There will be no Ning because they won’t be on the school’s approved vendor list, and Ning will just laugh at the ridiculously complicated archaic procedures they’d need to go through to become an approved vendor. If even asked.

    4. Communicating strategy by getting people working together across departments? – HA HA HA HA HA HA! Oh my sides hurt.

    5. Top down – I can’t imagine getting my own top level administrators to care unless it would somehow directly, quantifiably and quickly bring money to the campus.

    6. Student & Faculty input – all will fail without faculty input, because if they had no input they will give no support, same with student input. Students will give good input. Faculty will stick with what they know. The ones who embrace the web / technology / etc. will be right there with you. And the others will stubbornly insist we don’t need this thing or insist many of their own outmoded ways be accommodated – to the point of making any solution ridiculous.

    10. CM position? – HA HA HA HA HA HA! Oh my sides hurt. Again.

    What, me, bitter?

    Yes, actually.

    Great post. But at so many places, this just won’t happen. Sadly.

    • PurpleCar 7 December 2008, 10:26 pm


      What can I say? You are totally right. All of us who have ever worked in a university setting knows you are right, on all points. My suggestions are so far ahead of where colleges are right now. But we need to start the ball rolling. We need to plant the seeds now. the students will demand it soon. All of us who have worked with generational cohorts as customers knows the revolution is coming. What will the university do when the students start requiring that their networking needs be met? They will splinter. Once splintering happens, there will be lawsuits and brand dilution eventually.

      This is a case of what I call “Status quo until uh oh” — stoplights don’t go up at intersections until someone is killed. Universities won’t answer the call of web2.0 until they lose viability because of their lack of awareness.

      But even though the Ivory Tower is adopting the Status Quo Until Uh-Oh approach, we can still lay out plans for them. We can still encourage them to envision the total web2.0, mobile enabled, networked campus. I think that’s our duty as “thought leaders” and early adopters. We need to open source the knowledge so that it is there when they are ready (or forced!) to adopt it.

      Try not to be bitter. I know what you are up against. But you can plant a seed, right? Things will change. The dinosaurs from the old Ivory Tower will move on and Generation X and Y will move in to leadership positions. If you start talking about these ideas now, you will look like a pioneer when the rest of them catch up. Buck up little camper! The university will change/adapt. It has in the past and it will again.

      What do you think?

      -Thanks. -PC


      • eastside 9 December 2008, 9:55 am

        Rather than hire a CM, at our university the PR, webmaster and Admissions areas have hired a couple of bright young graduates who really know and use social media. We listen to them and turn them loose. It’s much better than having a 10-point plan and dealing with the inertia of committees. Building incrementally is far more effective than developing a comprehensive plan and probably never implementing it fully anyway.

        • PurpleCar 9 December 2008, 12:35 pm

          Eastside, thanks for writing! Congrats on the innovative and practical solution your school found. At least they are addressing the issue.

          Every school/organization has to find their own way. The ten-steps above are a suggestion on how to get schools moving toward a social media platform. No one strategy will work for every institution. I would propose your school’s way right now for anyone who wants to get the ball rolling now. Make sure the new hires search out the instances of brand splintering. Maybe they can convince the volunteer admins of those groups to brand the groups consistently, and to link back to official institution sites. Usually this request is honored and it only takes a few minutes to send off an email.

          If the students can keep a catalog of the splinter sites, they will be ready to hand it up if the school administrators hop on the bandwagon.

          It’s striking how cynical these comments are getting, don’t you think? I’ve been employed by universities for most of my career and I hold a Masters degree. Although universities are notorious for moving slowly if at all, it isn’t impossible. Plus the world at large is moving at a frenetic pace. It’s been my experience that most universities adapt when this happens. I hope the Ivory Tower residents have a bit more hope for progress than what is portrayed in the comments here.

          What do you think?



  • gochi 16 January 2009, 11:14 am

    Excellent strategies i bookmarked your website for reading in future.