Many student affairs professionals are feeling pressured to build strong social media followings to connect with students.
Even if your campus is operating remotely or will be encouraging social-distancing measures on campus this fall, it is important to create a community with students wherever they’re at, including virtual spaces.
So, whether you have been connecting with students through social media for years or are just getting started, this post is for you.
I consulted Liam Rice, assistant director of student conduct and resident director at Emmanuel College, to learn these amazing tips and tricks. Liam oversees Emmanuel Residence Life’s social media presence, including their Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok accounts.
Although it is not officially part of his job description, Liam is proud to share that he has built his office’s Instagram account from four followers to over 1,000 in less than one year. (That’s almost half the total number of students attending Emmanuel!) Liam has become an inadvertent expert in social media engagement and has presented at numerous conferences on how to maximize student involvement through social media.
Below, I’ll answer several pressing questions based on Liam’s words of social media wisdom.
Why should your office have a social media account?
The obvious benefit is based on Involvement Theory, which postulates that the more psychosocial energy a student puts into their education, the more likely they are to remain at that institution and succeed academically.
Liam also sees three amazing additional benefits:
- A strong online presence can attract future students.
- Students connected online are more likely to stay engaged and enrolled.
- Social media can help to continue to build community remotely despite the pandemic.
What strategies work best in engaging students via social media?
Student affairs offices have the unique opportunity of being student-facing rather than public-facing. In other words, you have more freedom to be creative in your posts since they’re geared towards students.
Here are six ways to make your social media accounts extra fun and engaging.
1. Ask your students what they want to see.
Use surveys to garner as much feedback as possible. Ask students “what content would you like to engage with?” with contests, take-overs, giveaways, and quizzes as suggested answers.
You can also use surveys to continually inquire about how you’re doing. At Emmanuel, Liam found that 80% of students responded that the ResLife accounts made them feel connected to campus (aww).
2. Use humor.
Break through the wall of having a “businessy” social media account by using memes, funny videos, and comical captions. Go above and beyond by having a Create Your Own Meme contest, allowing you to crowdsource and post memes referencing jokes and traditions specific to your institution.
3. Know your brand.
Emmanuel’s counseling and athletics departments also have large followings. Counseling shares wellness tips and giveaways while Athletics shares game updates. Each office focuses on their own particular niche.
Look introspectively at what your office specializes in so that you can avoid overlapping content with another department.
4. Humanize your department.
This tactic was a great ‘foot in the door’ for building relationships with first-year students.
5. Post student-submitted content.
Emmanuel students submitted MTV Cribs-style posts showcasing how they decorated their rooms. This built community through a fun competition, and the winner enjoyed being featured on the Residence Life Instagram.
You could also invite students to do a temporary social media takeover, which will help them to develop skills in marketing, communication, and community building.
6. Be intentional.
Don’t post aimlessly; work with a purpose. Have a specific reason for every single post, such as inviting students to an event, building community, or brightening students’ days.
However, engaging every day is also important. Engagement does not always need to mean a new, original post; it but can be done in the form of comments, retweets, or replies.
What doesn’t work so well?
If your social media accounts feel stuck in a rut or students aren’t engaging, here are a three “don’ts” that you can begin avoiding, hopefully leading to increased engagement:
1. Avoid oversharing.
Oversharing can lead to student fatigue while under-posting can result in lost student interest. Studies have shown that the optimal number of social media posts is one per day on Facebook and Instagram, and 15 on Twitter.
2. Be mindful of when you post on social media.
The peak times for social media engagement with college students are 1 -4 pm on Facebook and 6 pm on Instagram.
3. Don’t just post event fliers.
Your department likely does so much more than host events! Plus, students are less likely to engage with information they may have already seen in an email or flyer.
Focus on providing content that is exciting and is immediately relevant, rather than for an event that’s still weeks away.
What challenges come with interacting with students on social media?
Social media certainly has had its drawbacks and can even pose ethical dilemmas. Liam shared with me seven common issues campus social media accounts may face and how to proactively address them.
1. Work with campus marketing and communications.
Make sure your accounts are supported by your institution, preventing political headaches later. Your marketing office can also provide you with great high-quality photos to post!
2. Be mindful of the line between casual and inappropriate posts.
Although your office’s posts may be much more casual than the institution’s flagship accounts, be mindful that upper-level administrators and students’ families may still come across what you share. Avoid profanity, potential conduct violations, and anything that could be considered negative press, especially when reposting or retweeting student content.
3. Be aware of context collapse.
Context collapse is a sociological concept describing what happens when many social groups exist in one space, such as students having both family members and friends on Facebook, causing certain populations to leave a social media platform.
Know when to call it quits on a social media account by comparing the amount of time you are putting into an account versus how much student engagement on the account is occurring as a result. If it feels like way more effort to post than it’s worth, it might be time to deactivate.
4. Don’t overload the social media expert in your department.
Liam recommends that no single person be responsible for more than two or three social media accounts as it takes time out of their day and their main responsibilities in working with students.
5. Be prepared to address conduct issues.
Plan ahead and consult with your conduct office to develop policies for how you’ll address conduct issues within the realm of social media. For example, how will you respond if a student submits a photo of their room for a contest showing a prohibited candle or if you spot a student tweeting racist sentiments?
6. Have a plan to address larger issues that are pointed out on social media.
Many institutions have begun to see a rise in accounts addressing racial trauma experienced at their school. Some campuses have chosen to “turtle up” and ignore those accounts, while others have used the platforms as a way to discuss how they address racism on campus.
7. Follow up.
Follow through on your social media statements —whether by sharing photos after a student event, tweeting results from a poll, or sharing your institution’s statement on racial violence rather than just posting a black square.
What are some great resources to help me start an account?
There’s a ton of research out there about social media — from community building, to marketing, and even on students’ online identities. Founding your practice in research can help you gain departmental and institutional buy-in.
- Campus Sonar provides social media conversation research, audience analysis, and actionable insights for colleges and universities. Additionally, they have free publications for those who want to dive deeper.
- Josie Ahlquist shares advice, research, and insights on social media usage and online leadership from the perspective of both a former student affairs professional and social media account manager.
- Find support through groups on supporting social media professionals in higher education, such as #HigherEdSocial, Social Media for Higher Education, ACPA’s Taskforce on Digital Technology, and NASPA’s Technology Knowledge Community.
And some final pieces of advice…
1. Start or refresh your social media accounts with an open mind.
Don’t be afraid to try something new or let the students take the wheel!
2. Failure is unavoidable but not unaddressable.
Make sure you have a plan for addressing student concerns, potential conduct violations, or even interacting with a disgruntled family member or member of the public.
There is no singular ideal route in making a great social media account; what really matters is that you are building a community where your students are: Online!
By providing your students with opportunities to share, connect, and laugh, even when they’re stuck at home, you are still encouraging them to build identities and relationships online with their peers, support staff, and campus.