Fastspot works with a number of higher education clients and the topic of social media and marketing is a hot one. On one hand, many higher educational institutions are scared pantless of the notion that content might be getting created that they can't control...

Fastspot works with a number of higher education clients and the topic of social media and marketing is a hot one. On one hand, many higher educational institutions are scared pantless of the notion that content might be getting created that they can't control. They are very used to being tight-handed when it comes to their own marketing materials. But then, social media arrived. Obvious culprits like Facebook and YouTube made it very easy for students to post embarrassing or less-than-"academic" content to share with the world; or, worse yet, hijack what might appear to others as the "official" school Facebook page. Then even more sinister sites like StudentsReview.com and College Prowler came on the scene, promoting student reviews. All of a sudden, it didn't really matter if colleges and universities thought social media was something beneath them—it was something they couldn't ignore.

Here is what some schools are forgetting: Your brand, your reputation, the overall impression people have of you is comprised of many things. If I go to a party, get drunk, cause a scene, break expensive things, and offend people, then I will have tarnished my reputation, my personal brand. And, likewise, if I hear that a story is circulating about my antics at the party, I will know that I may meet people who have now formed an opinion about me based on that story. So, I manage my reputation by acting in a way that I feel best reflects who I am and how I want others to perceive me, even people I haven't met yet. And here's the real kicker: If I do go out and act inappropriately or embarrass myself, chances are that word will spread fast thanks to the social media networks that are becoming embedded in our daily realities. It's not only words that are spreading; I should probably expect photos and videos to accompany the posts spreading like wildfire through my social networks about my less-than-optimal activities.

The above situation in corporate situations is called "crisis". Many PR agencies sell "Crisis Management" services to help these companies deal with bad news in a proactive manner. This is very important for companies; they need to show their board, their stock owners, and the public that they are aware of the realities facing them, and are addressing them head on. However, higher education—especially top tier institutions—face an interesting dilemma. Since part of their appeal to those top-tier-seeking students is their selectivity, the last thing they want to do is advertise any bad news or address any unsavory situations. This creates a predicament: Do schools acknowledge difficult situations, or do they try to ignore them and keep up a good front? Regardless of the decision, schools need to recognize that others outside of their control will be speaking of it whether they like it or not. In my opinion, this makes the case for embracing all the realities—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Now we arrive at the question: How do we embrace the realities being posted about us on these social media networks? Do we create a brochure talking about our Facebook page in hopes prospective students will become fans and get our take on things versus what they are finding elsewhere? Do we write long blog posts about things happening on campus with a positive slant? Do we hire a PR firm or advertising agency to help us spin things the right way?

None of those are the solution to the problem. The fact is, the people colleges and universities are seeking to communicate with are the very people who abhor direct marketing efforts, who can smell spam a mile away, who toss paper into the recycling bin with prickly disdain for the wastefulness of a mailer; all while juggling 20 text message conversations, checking their RSS feeds, commenting on a new video on YouTube, and posting to Facebook that they will not be applying to your school because you just ticked them off. Yes, the generation of the "entitled" and "self-righteous" may be one way to categorize this group. The other vantage point clearly shows a generation who places greater value on peer to peer networks, short blips of information, brands that put stories and reality in the forefront and embrace the “anti-marketing” approach. In the age of reality TV, social networks, blogger reporting, and instantaneous information sharing thanks to the newly-emerging real time sites like Twitter, a long winded page of copy about how great you are has a slim chance of getting any attention, let alone making a connection.

I was once given a very good bit of advice and some clever author made millions on this same tip when they published the book, The Secret. If you want something, ask for it. As a college or university, you undoubtedly have more fans than critics, especially if you consider not only current students, but also your faculty, staff and alumni. Chances are these fans are out there on campus right now, updating Flickr with some beautiful pictures they just took of their newly-decorated dorm room or of a speaker at commencement. Next, they are possibly shooting some video of friends at a party before they head off-campus for the summer. And most of them are probably posting their status, pictures or video to Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. With the exception of Facebook, you can see if my hypothesis is correct simply by going to these sites and searching for your institution’s name, then sorting the results by “most recent”. Amazing. All this great content is being poured out there on these networks, and most of it is probably benign, humorous or even flattering—it is, most importantly, real. Here lies the gold vein glittering in the mountain side. Now, how do you mine it?

Let me back up a bit and talk about Twitter. One of the reasons for Twitter’s meteoric rise to fame and popularity was due to the open platform on which it was developed. Any programmer can easily create their own app or Website, tweaking the way in which Twitter’s feeds are displayed and managed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of third party apps and Websites now jockey for a slice of this ever-expanding user group, and Twitter is happy to have so many dependents riding on its platform.

This idea isn’t new; it's been a critical element in the success of earlier Websites like YouTube and Flickr. This concept of aggregation allows users to access, gather and arrange all this great content in any variety of ways which cut down on the need for redundant behaviors (like uploading videos to multiple sites; who has the time?), makes sharing content in multiple places easier (I update my status in Twitter and it feeds into my wall on Facebook), and helps users stay connected with an ever-expanding social network. I get comments on my video, my blog, my Facebook status, a new follower on Twitter and I know about them all thanks to my handy email alerts. I check my RSS reader to see if any new mention of my brand has appeared on Twitter, on a blog, anywhere on the internet. I review Google Analytics to see who was visiting my Website, what they were doing and how long they were doing it. Are you seeing the trend here? All this information, content, everything—its portable and malleable. And trust me, the companies who are winning the battle to have the most users on their sites are spending millions ensuring they keep them there—by giving them what they want.

So, the key is to ask your fans to keep doing what they are doing, but ask them to allow you access to certain parts and in certain ways. You are asking them to become ambassadors for you, empowering them to shape the future of the place they love so dearly by being their own "reality TV star". Of course, you will be keeping a close eye as some ambassadors may get overzealous or misguided in their efforts, but you won’t tell them that. As you find the real gems in their mix, you will encourage them further by giving them a $100 Flip Cam to ensure they can make a video of graduation; highlighting their photos or blog posts; praising them for their witty status updates. And you use the power of these open networks to aggregate all this great content into your very own social media site. You're saying to your prospective students, “Here, have an unfiltered, non-marketing, authentic and real look at who we are. If you like what you see, get in touch.”

They're there browsing the photos being pulled in from Flickr and the newly-uploaded videos from YouTube, and considering following some of the students on Twitter who are posting interesting things. Guess what? You just tricked them into letting you market to them. Now you are speaking their language, giving them what they want, and staying out of the way. You are letting them decide to share a funny video within their own protected network of friends, comment on something they find interesting, or simply browse through the short, random, unmediated blips of data which form their opinion of you. You have the confidence of knowing you do in fact have some control over what has made it to the site, while also knowing these visitors are now less likely to seek that kind of user generated content out on their own. Why bother? It's just been served up to them in one convenient location.

Note: Facebook is one gigantic exception to this scenario due to their limited accessibility to outside programmers. However, they are slowly moving towards a more open network as a necessity to stay as relevant as newly-emerging networks such as Twitter. We hope to be pulling in Facebook profile data, wall posts and photos in a matter of months.

So, we propose this to our higher education clients: Are you giving your prospectives what they want? If not, we suggest you get in touch, we have lots of ideas to share with you on how to go about doing this. And, make haste as you read this because another photo or tweet or video that may be painting your institution in a less than vibrant palette is probably making the rounds out there somewhere.

Here are two sites that are using user generated content to promote their own marketing agendas:
Sharpie
Baltimore City
We expect to be adding to this list soon, and if you have any great examples please let us know!

Share on Twitter or Facebook Published June 26th 2009