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Social Media Research Plan: 101

Where to Begin?

As a starting point for any research plan, it’s key to assess an organization’s goals and needs within the context of your focus area. Then communication goals and the appropriate audience must be identified. Communication objectives must align with organizational goals before any campaign is initiated.

When a strategic social media plan is required, it is important to find out ‘where’ on the Internet the specific community you want to reach is engaging. Once you find the conversation, it’s important to monitor the discussion before jumping in. It’s also important to evaluate what you’re already doing to reach these audiences and periodically check in on how your campaign is progressing to determine success or failure of any tactics.

My #SMRTCCE research plan will consider all of the above as well as identify risks, assumptions, key issues and opportunities for my case study client, McMaster University. Once the above elements are defined, a gap analysis will identify what research will help the organization reach the desired outcome of a social media strategy. After that, we can consider the ‘how’ and develop tactics to achieve our goals.

General Overview

Scope of Plan

Organization: McMaster University Focus Area: Admissions
(Higher Education Liaison & Outreach)
Organizational Goal: To build McMaster University’s reputation as a world-class post-secondary institution known for research and innovation and as a community of engaged teachers and learners. Specific Goal: To increase applications and enrolment of high achieving high school students in Ontario.
Audiences: broad, ‘general public’ exposure (current students, future students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, and industry). Audience: Ontario secondary school students (ages 16-18) who are prospective undergraduate program applicants.
Current initiatives: McMasterUTV(YouTube), Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, iTunes University Focus on: Facebook, Twitter (@McMasterU @macadmit) – mobile usage and integration with http://future.mcmaster.ca
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Twittersphere on a rampage over #McDStories

Today I woke up to stories about McDonald’s Twitter campaign going ‘horribly wrong’. It’s fascinating to see how a corporate giant like McDonald’s ( #McDstories) or Walgreens ( #iLoveWalgreens) can attempt to buy social buzz and control what folks are talking about. Then to watch it backfire is very interesting.

“Despite everything we say in the conference room, we can’t “own” the conversation.  We can put it out there, but consumers decide which direction it takes. If a brand wants to open up, which it should, then a brand needs to be prepared for what comes back.  And continue to dialogue in their own brand spirit.” Says Jim Joseph (@JimJosephExp), author of “The Experience Effect”.

A well-known Blogger and NYU professor, Joseph calls marketing a ‘spectator sport’ in which we can learn from others ‘gaffs’. He wrote a great article on the uprising of McDonald’s criticisms that occurred yesterday on Twitter after they attempted to start a ‘love fest’ and it backfired. He compares it to the Walgreens campaign attempt to drive discussions on consumer loyalty, which also failed to enhance the brand. Although the Twitter trend was clearly marked “promoted”, Joseph claims people reject the concept of paid ‘love’ as inauthentic.

Transparent & Talking

Push marketing is no longer as effective as it may have once been.
This is so relevant to the research I’m doing and the understanding that companies must be prepared to deal with social media backlash. In public relations, transparency is a top priority in creating a two-way communication and building relationships. People are very quick to spot inauthenticity and reject what feels like ‘push marketing’ where key messages are presented to audiences, regardless of their needs or interests.  This kind of one-way communication is not a discussion and does not allow for a consumer or client to feel empowered with regard to the product or service being offered. Brand loyalty comes from the quality of service or product accompanied by demonstrated values that allow for clients, users or consumers to participate in ‘the conversation’ and feel important to the organization.

So, the moral of the story is, don’t open a discussion in which you are not willing or prepared to participate. Not all opinions or stories will be positive and supportive, and the Internet communities that are willing to voice them will not be easily influenced, controlled or satisfied.

Do you think “promoted” (purchased) trending topics are ethical or effective?

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By George, I think she’s got it!

To clear up any potential confusion, this post is intended to satisfy a research proposal assignment for my Social Media Research & Techniques class (#SMRTCCE). It aligns with the series of “SWOT-ting” posts I’ve published over the last week. My general focus has been on social media usage in Canadian Universities and I chose to narrow my scope and have a close look at McMaster University. So, as suggested by my instructor, Jared Lenover (@autoblot), I will provide a ‘pitch’ in Scott Berkun’s style of 5 seconds (‘elevator’), 30 seconds and 5 minute versions.

5 seconds

My strategic social media research plan will assess McMaster University’s current online presence to find any gaps that could indicate opportunities for reputational benefits.

30 seconds

McMaster University has resources to build a ‘powerhouse’ community of online communications experts just by fostering a collaborative environment for staff specialists. Through consistent, professional social media representation, the University’s reputation and global outreach will benefit substantially. I can provide compelling research to offer McMaster a strategic social media plan which will achieve this goal.

5 minutes

To support the organizational goal of representing McMaster as a premier university that cares about the student experience and that offers a friendly community atmosphere, a cohesive internal group of social media strategists could work together to build a consistent online presence.

A fragmented online identity with multiple contributors and endless variations of quality, quantity and moderation requires solutions that are ‘top down’. For example, the ‘brand promise’ states: “At McMaster University, students explore and expand their potential in an innovative research community of teachers and learners.”

The focus for this research plan would be on external communications in terms of how the University brand and reputation is influenced by social media usage. Primarily, this segment of social media tools could be classified as administrative.

One reason is that the number of internal blogs, wikis, Facebook groups and YouTube channels intended for current students is extensive. Professors are also using social media tools to extend and encourage class discussions, for group work and collaboration. Each individual instructor or course uses online tools specific to their needs. So, to control the scope and focus of my research plan, the key areas I wish to analyze will all relate to McMaster’s administrative presence or external, online ambassadorship.

image courtesy of etechbee.comAccording to Canadian-universities.net, “Universities have always been the first to embrace new kinds of information technology.” After all, in 1969, the Arpanet project between UCLA and Stanford University launched the world’s first operational packet switching network and the core network that is considered the original global basis for the Internet.

I intend to take advantage of the benefits of working with an established, technology-fluent community that has arisen in the post-secondary sector and look at next steps for strategically harnessing the inherent opportunities in social media usage. In other words, who better to work with on enhancing online methodologies than those who already strive for innovation?

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More to SWOT about

So today my brain is busily assessing my thoughts on the SWOT points I shared in my previous two posts. Of course, there are always more things that pop into our heads after presenting our thoughts. Unlike a job interview or a live stage presentation, online communications vehicles allow for updating and appending. So here are a few of the things that stand out I would like to add to my list of strengths and weaknesses in McMaster’s social media infrastructure.Image courtesy of http://www.mindmapinspiration.com/the-rickety-old-house-of-creativity/

Strengths:

Internal communication to current students is easy to facilitate through social media. High school students are now entering University with a full understanding of social media and Internet technologies. Current and prospective students considering technology based course or information delivery commonplace. They are well positioned to take advantage of the University’s digital initiatives.

For example, the McMaster Library system provides a rich selection of eJournals, Databases and RSS feeds that share blog posts with subscribers. (Blogs such as “Library News”, however, seem to have lagged in postings since the past spring.)

As another example, Avenue2Learn is available to all course instructors; however, not all choose to populate the class ‘space’. Many students feel logging in to an education platform an extra chore which is only used when required. In my experience and through word of mouth, I have only heard of limited usage of Avenue2Learn as a social gathering place. It is designed to allow for discussions, but often you will find student communities interacting elsewhere, on the ‘popular’ platforms like Facebook or blogs.

In fact, the majority of Universities rely on text message, web pages and blog postings to communicate high-priority , emergency related or time sensitive messages (i.e. campus closure, dangerous situations).

Weakness:

With statistics such as there are over 600 million Facebook groups and the average user being connected to an average of 80 communities, there is a need to promote online addresses on the organization’s web pages as well as on other indexing sites.

However, there are solutions to this problem. External communications to prospective students can include Facebook groups where current students connect with prospects in a mentorship style relationship. Video channels on YouTube such as McMasterUTV allow for a congregation of postings featuring various areas of the University in one, easy to find location. The videos can be embedded in a way that sub-channels (i.e. departmental) will still track the ‘hits’ on their own channel.

Read my previous posts on SWOT-ting McMaster – part I or part II.

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SWOT-ting McMaster – part II

So I will continue on from my previous post with my SWOT Analysis for my #SMRTCCE Research Proposal, which highlights social media usage in Canadian post-secondary institutions, using McMaster as a case study.

Strengths:

McMaster is a large community of faculty, staff and students, many of which have expertise in digital communications, web design, social media, software and IT development. The list of positive attributes seems endless. And a large number of staff members are not only aware of the importance of building community through online relationships, they are actively pursuing best practices and creating a framework upon which decades of future public relations activities will be based.
McMaster students in Thode Library, courtesy of Engineering I Outreach
McMaster’s Alumni office and Office of Public Relations (OPR) have some key individuals who are keeping abreast of the social media trends and opportunities. There are formal committees or groups aimed at connecting the University community members who are responsible for brand presentation in traditional and new media. There is an established social media guideline policy listed online and available in hard copy upon request. A McMaster University brand style guide is available which even includes key messages along with graphic design requirements or writing style tips. (I must mention, however, that a weakness is that is very difficult to find this area of the website without knowing how to navigate the micro-site hosted by OPR.)

I conducted a brief review of online identities for the University. LinkedIn groups search resulted in 64 with term ‘McMaster’ and 35 with ‘McMaster University’. The number of results for Facebook and YouTube are very high and hard to measure accurately. One of the great opportunities with sites like Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn is that they allow for inter-referrals or cross promotion as traditional marketing might call it. Therefore, when a critical mass of McMaster staff and faculty formulate a strategic presence, it has incredible power to create awareness, persuade and influence.

Threats:

Most of the threats I detect in my research are similar for most post-secondary institutions. For example, McMaster’s ‘official’ social media barrens have a lack of control of student run Facebook groups, YouTube videos, student society websites, blogs, photos. While a blog like MacInsiders has some great, helpful information, it isn’t moderated by staff and may not always be appropriate. It claims to have over 18,000 members. If McMaster representatives are not aware of a site like this, rumors could quickly grow and cause immense reputational damage. And surprisingly, there are sites such as StudentAwards.com where discussions will often touch upon academic misinformation. Google alerts are therefore a necessity for the organization wishing to stay on top of the news and the untruths that can wash over the Internet in days, hours or minutes. This, of course, is true of any organization, but not everyone is attuned to that fact.

Mistaken identity is another possibility when users can’t distinguish between an ‘official’ and unauthorized online identity or website. And even if a site or page is presented by an officially sanctioned office or department, diluting an audience with too many similar sites can reduce brand impact and possibly cause over-exposure. There are not usually many easy ways to determine credibility. Appropriation of identity or media, which could be embedded, edited, changed to suit the user’s desires could work against organizational goals and damage reputation.

There are communications practitioners who have many years of experience in ‘traditional public relations’ but who, admittedly, may not have full comprehension of the true wilderness that is cyberspace. I’ve had individuals insist “we must control what video clips generate beside our search results on YouTube”. I would love to see exactly how some people who claim to be ‘guardians of the brand’ manage to control what is posted on the Internet about anything. Not realistic at all.

In addition to all of this, there is always a threat of abandoned online accounts with vacant identities, changes in staff causing loss of ‘organizational memory’ or even something as simple as lost usernames and passwords.

While the threats to an organization online are numerous, they are well worth combating with ideas, brainstormed solutions and innovation. The opportunity to ‘turn things around’ is always available on the Web because the very nature of the medium is one of evolution and change. With a strategic communications plan, and preparedness for crises, there is always a chance to create awareness, change perceptions and evoke action.

Haven’t read part I of SWOT-ting McMaster? Read it here.

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SWOT-ting McMaster Unversity – part I

As part of any public relations or marketing campaign strategy planning process, the SWOT tool is considered the basis for assessing the situation and identifying what can be done to support organizational goals. ‘Strengths’ and ‘Weaknesses’ are part of the internal analysis, while ‘Opportunities’ and ‘Threats’ represent external issues and considerations. courtesy of http://www.lucintel.com/SWOT_analysis.aspx

Just enter “SWOT” in your search engine and you’ll find hours of entertaining reading.

I intend to go through these steps in my posts about McMaster University’s social media presence; however, since the Internet is all about non-linear, hyper-textual experiences, I’m going to write from the most natural approach. It’s always easy to see internal weakness and sometimes easy to brainstorm external opportunities, but sometimes actually defining what IS working, our strengths, and takes a bit of time to really consider. And I’ve always found ‘Threats’ to be a category no one likes to think about. But that comes from a fear of being helpless in the face of challenges. That’s why I love the ‘Opportunities’ quadrant in the chart. Threats sometimes wake us up to see what is actually going on and how we can leverage it to transform a situation.

Besides, with the way posts end up scrolling down the page in reverse order, would I want the first post you read to be about the threats? Let’s keep the positive in mind, while being fully aware of the ‘dark side’.

Strengths:

To be posted soon! (See above comment for explanation.)

Weaknesses:

So, McMaster University has a great team of people working together to establish a framework of guidelines for the rest of the organization, so that our brand is wisely represented. It also helps to enhance the University’s professional reputation for us to appear to have a common voice. It is so easy to critique efforts that appear to fall short, but I see it as refining and evolving as a team with a common goal. So I will speak frankly about the micro-site on McMaster’s website under the Office of Public Relation’s purview. Of course, I intend to recommend constructive ways of improving what I critique.

If you visit the directory of official social media sites representing McMaster, it becomes evident that this page could be an internal index that only a couple of people would know is there. I only found it by accident a while ago. Not only is there a questionable lack of design and polish, there are outdated names of now changed institution departments; I clicked broken links to nonexistent twitter accounts and most definitely not a definitive list of all the online activities our staff and faculty have undertaken as ambassadors of McMaster.

Although the Brand Café meeting was intended to create awareness and encourage solidarity in our approach to representing the brand online, I feel McMaster is not leveraging the existing online identities with any kind of strategic consistency. In fact, I’m sure there are probably many accounts not even listed on their directory. Personally, I saw a long delay between our office’s submission of links to accounts and the actual posting of our URLs. Who is this page designed to speak to and couldn’t it be used more effectively?

Why not send a call for submissions of social media presence/identities across the University departments? Why not use the Brand Café to have folks share their information about what they are doing online currently instead of just a one-way conversation/lecture on what to do or not do (without much depth of discussion or any brainstorming)? Who was invited to come to the roundtable when The Social Media Working Group put together their Social Media Guidelines in November 2010? Were the guidelines publicized to the internal community before now?

As a person working directly with online communications, representing the McMaster brand on a weekly if not daily basis, I’m just now discovering there is a formal group looking to be a central voice of guidance. While this may sound harsh, it’s not meant to be. What I recommend is internal communications that support the strategy of external communications and there are lots of opportunities for this to occur.

Opportunities:

The biggest opportunity I can see in the education sector as whole is collaboration between post-secondary institutions, where it sometimes feels like ‘the blind leading the blind’ but can turn to a more positive view such as ‘opening our eyes to possibilities together’. When I look at LinkedIn groups such as the Higher Education Public Relations and Marketing Group or PSEWEB: Canada’s PSE Web & Marketing Conference I find conversations between communicators at all levels of seniority reaching out with questions, advice, resources and feedback on campaign outcomes. There doesn’t seem to be a competitive ‘keep it to ourselves’ attitude prevailing, but rather, an opportunity for post-secondary communicators to set precedents and pioneer our way together through the cyber wilderness.

In fact, in my research regarding an upcoming project for my work role, I spoke with both Canadian and American clients of a particular platform and they were more than happy to spend some quality time discussing what they did with it and how it turned out. Human beings naturally blossom in situations that nurture reciprocity; not to mention that although we have similar target demographics, our specific geographic range of active recruitment is not in conflict. Now, had I spoken with folks at a GTA university, perhaps my experience would have been different.

Pete Stevens, marketing manager at Goss Interactive in the United Kingdom published a great article this week on using social media to increase university applications. (Read the full article here.)

What I really found interesting is that, although his metrics could be argued as subjective (based on my interpretation of the Social Media ROI talk I mentioned in an earlier post), he is an advocate of setting up a measurable social media strategy. He says, “Universities should […] harness the power of social media by connecting with the prospects who use it”. He also ‘gets it’ that social media is built for individuals and is best used to build relationships. And I love that he says, “you don’t need to target every contact you have [or…] to create new communities. The communities already exist.”

Again, wise advice; go where your audience is and interact with them there. Be strategic in the channels you choose. I personally always advocate that organizations should remember places like Facebook or YouTube are our prospective students’ playgrounds. We should only go where we are invited and where we have value to offer in the conversation or games.

Threats:

You’ll have to keep following to find these out! Want to read more of my SWOT? Read it in part II.

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Social Media in Canadian Universities

Choosing my topic for my #SMRTCCE class research proposal has been overwhelming. Perhaps you know what I mean. Have you ever decided to research something (anything!) to do with social media and realized it is a monumental, all-encompassing topic?

There is no end to the long list of  ‘experts‘ who will tell you exactly what THEY think is strategic use of social media in communications and public relations. I will not claim to be so omniscient.
A collage of McMaster Engineering images from Imagine Your Future
I searched my heart and mind to find a market sector of interest and a company or organization to settle upon for analysis of the impact social media has had on the area. I live and breathe music, but taking on the impact of social media in the music industry as a topic is a veritable megalith. Am I interested in health and wellness, specifically natural or organic foods? Yes, but this didn’t pique my interest enough.

Just counting ‘likes’ doesn’t ‘cut it’

What do I know well that would be a great area to review? It seems the answer was presented to me this week at two events I attended.

First was the #CPRSHamilton Social Media ROI expert panel discussion organized by #McMaster faculty member @alexsevigny. Guest speakers @dave_scholz ,Andrew Laing, and @d_bourne discussed the challenges and opportunities with measuring reputation and engagement using social media tools as well as traditional survey methods. Just counting ‘likes’ doesn’t ‘cut it’. We still have to find where our specific, target audience is and meet them there. Measuring hits or likes is quantitative and looks at outputs but we really need to consider campaign outcomes.

This information is extremely useful in my role at McMaster University where I work for the Faculty of Engineering in outreach and enrolment. My area, much like many offices across the whole University, is building a framework of social media channels to communicate and connect with prospective undergraduate students. While creating our online presence, we must consider our impact on the university’s brand and reputation as a whole. In such a large institution, it’s a challenge to avoid creating a fragmented online representation. Each department or area is completely capable of jumping on to the ‘information highway’ and creating a login or identity in minutes. Whether or not there is a consistent brand, key messaging or even a capable communicator who understands that social media is a CONVERSATION not a pulpit from which to push your message to the masses ~ makes all the difference.Engineering students on campus enjoying some conversation time.

How do I get them to listen?

Then today, I attended a McMaster Brand Café 2012 meeting. A brilliant conceptual event hosted by the Office of Public Relations and the Integrated Marketing committee. Over 80 staff and faculty from across the University (or so I was told) gathered in the Lyons New Media Centre in Mills Library. (What an AMAZING facility for students!) We had a group presentation then moved to break-out sessions to discuss best practices for using social media, the ideal print/web mix, and tips for strong writing and photography which captures the McMaster brand. Although I am quite familiar with the topics (having previously worked as PR Coordinator in that office), I was still able to glean some great tips. The meeting is a good idea, and should be repeated at least once per year.

However…..more than just a few tips here and there stood out this week as I looked at various articles and attended these events. What really stood out to me, is that participants in the audiences at these two events and online writers all seem to have the same question, no matter how it is phrased: “How do I get them to listen?”

Hmm. That’s where the barricade stands. If you don’t see social media as a channel or tool to help you connect and communicate with others in a two-way model, then you are not ‘clued in’ and not really understanding what engagement means. You will fall short of your organizational goals if your strategy is to ‘make people listen‘.

Light bulb! My topic: Social Media in Canadian Universities and specifically McMaster University. There are many, many things we are doing ‘right’ here at Mac through social media outreach, but I’m sure I can find some ways to improve our strategies and help the University evolve with the ever changing, ever challenging landscape of online communities.

Onward with my journey!