Who should be responsible for social media? This has been a hot discussion topic on higher education listservs, community message boards, Twitter, and other forums. My answer? It depends. Institution size, strategy, community management, and monitoring are some of the factors higher education professionals should consider in determining where responsibility lies.

The current debate is reminiscent of the late 1990s, when higher education communications and marketing professionals were having conversations about who should be responsible for an institution’s website. Then, as now, people were calling for policies, guidelines, and rules. We’re in the same boat all over again. Facebook and other social networking sites were so easy to set up and launch that before we knew it, most colleges and universities already had a presence—official or not. While institutions’ use of social media has matured, we’re still working out how to best use our current social media platforms. And now we have to begin thinking about how to incorporate the various location-based social networks into the mix.

Just like the website, social media have evolved to a point where they have the attention of senior-level communications professionals and administrators. And like they did in the 1990s Web era, communications and marketing professionals need to incorporate these new media tools into their overall marketing strategy and ensure that they represent their institutions in the best possible light. It’s yet another area where knowledge, consistency of voice, and customer service skills are imperative to an institution’s online reputation.

An institution’s size, resources, and level of support for social media greatly affect its approach to these platforms, both in terms of what’s possible and what’s practical. Mark Greenfield, an associate consultant with the higher education marketing firm Noel-Levitz, believes it’s important to first understand an institution’s culture as it relates to transparency, openness, authenticity, and control. He uses the “openness audit” (from Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership) to begin the conversation about campus and organizational culture, which helps inform social media strategy planning.

Neil Bearse, manager of Web-based marketing for Queen’s School of Business at Queen’s University in Canada, concurs with Greenfield. “The same individuals who are in charge of setting the overall business strategy of an organization should be responsible for the oversight of strategic implementation of social media—the same way they are overseeing the use of other communication methods,” he says. “No single person should be in charge of all social media channels.”

Having just one person responsible for social media is akin to putting one person in charge of every aspect of the institution’s website. In social media strategy efforts, forming partnerships with staff members from admissions, student affairs, alumni affairs, and communications and marketing is critical.

Listen, assess, and evolve

Social media have provided higher education with an unprecedented opportunity to really listen to and engage with its various audiences. Mentions of your institution in blog posts and on community bulletin boards, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms can now be monitored, aggregated, and ranked with sentiment ratings, giving you an almost real-time look at what people are saying about your school.

The need for community managers, which has grown quickly in the corporate sector, is beginning to increase in higher education. It’s important to have staff members throughout your organization tracking this information and playing community management roles on your various social media presences. These functions help free up those who are driving social media strategy as well as the overall strategy for other marketing channels.

A committee of about 15 faculty and staff members managed the initial strategy for Emerson College’s social media presence. The group met biweekly to discuss the status of their efforts before launching the Massachusetts institution’s official social media channels, which are now managed by four staff members—three in the communications and marketing office and one in enrollment.

The committee no longer meets regularly, but representatives do attend the marketing and communications office’s weekly news editorial and Web content meetings. Committee members also plan to host monthly social media workshops for student organizations, faculty members, and departments to continue talking about the development of the college’s social media presence, says Mike Petroff, Web manager for enrollment at Emerson. Meanwhile, the overall strategy continues to evolve through new marketing initiatives by the admissions, marketing and communications, and institutional advancement offices.

At Tufts University, also in Massachusetts, a working group of up to 50 social media practitioners representing a wide range of schools and offices meets monthly to share information and examples of work and to discuss emerging services and platforms, challenges, and ideas about how to use certain tools, according to Georgy Cohen, manager of Web content and strategy. While the group is not a governing body, it devised the university’s social media guidelines and is working to develop more social media resources for the Tufts community.

Advise and collaborate

Many departments want to leap into developing their own social media presence, so guidance on the use of social media is often a critical need, particularly at small to midsize institutions. To facilitate such a discussion, Queen’s University developed a social media brief to help departments determine which social media outlets should be used and to address the surrounding strategy.

I adapted the Queen’s document at my previous institution—the State University of New York at New Paltz—and added questions to help me better understand why departments wanted their own social media presence, including a statement of purpose, objectives and goals, target audience, execution plans, and maintenance. The document promoted discussions and helped determine whether a department or office’s website could be expanded to fit the need or whether a specific tool would be more appropriate.

For example, one department wanted to use Facebook to share more timely information related to events and programming. Using the social media brief to outline their objectives and goals made me realize—and helped me show them—that Facebook was not the best solution, particularly because they didn’t want to engage in conversations about the events. Instead, we added a calendar-of-events module to the department website, which the staff began to promote. In another instance, members of an athletics team wanted to foster community between current student athletes and former team members. Initially, they thought they wanted a Facebook group. After completing the social media brief, I suggested that Ning, a platform in which users can create their own social networks, would be the better tool to help them achieve their goals.

The technology aspect of social media is not an obstacle. The challenge lies in finding the right mix of strategists and executors to manage an institution’s social media communities effectively, which in most cases is a team effort.

This article was written for and appeared in the January 2011 issue of CASE Currents magazine. Copyright (c) 2011 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

1 Comment

Mike McCready · February 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm

This is a really great post. At the college I work at we have organically grew a group of individuals into a social media group. The membership includes staff from Marketing, Web Services, Recruitment, Alumni, Student Experience, Athletics and the Student Association.

While the group is small and relatively new, I think this will be a great way to proceed. Social media really is a team sport.

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