How to create a social media strategy for universities

19 March 2014 By Northern Lights

How to create a social media strategy for universities image

If you are new to social media, where do you start?

This is the challenge facing university departments across the world.  Earlier this month, I delivered a one-day course for the Training Gateway to help universities develop a social media strategy.  We had people from Scotland to the South coast, and in roles ranging from REF manager, virtual learning and student marketing to CPD business development and business engagement.

traininggatewaybannerThe biggest challenge was that most of those attending felt over-whelmed at the whole idea of setting up and managing social media accounts.  But by the end of the day everyone had a clear plan and were really enthusiastic about embracing new opportunities.

So how did we get them there?!  Thanks to everyone attending who was kind enough to say they were happy to share our discussions – provided they weren’t individually identifiable.  And also happy to share their photos!

1.       Social media strategy should have a clear focus and target

Training for Training Gateway (6)Social media is no different from any other area of marketing and communications.  To be effective, you need to know what you are trying to achieve as a ‘business’, who you are targeting and be clear about what success should look like.

It was interesting when we went round the room to discuss what people wanted from social media, initially they used words like ‘awareness’, ‘more students’, ‘strong reputation’.  These are very big goals, even if you had unlimited budgets.  But for a typical university department they will never be achievable with typical resources.

So we drilled down into really tangible goals that we could set as our goals

  • 20 careers teachers to understand and recommend our course
  • Ability to measure economic and social impact of our research
  • Identify research collaborators
  • Build relationships with health professionals who would come on our CPD courses
  • Establish relationships with 10 new large employers – to offer placements, work on innovation etc

Later on, when I was covering LinkedIn, I asked people to name some of the companies on their target employer lists.  No-one had got target lists with organisations or even names of roles identified.  This is the first place to start.  If you have a list which has BT, Arsenal Football Club and Apple on it, social media comes alive.

2.       What content does a university have?

At the heart of any social media activity needs to be good ‘content’.  When you have your focus and theme, what will your blog be about, what will you tweet about?  You want to have a distinct identity and brand – a few ideas are covered in this blog about personal branding online.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

In our discussions we came up with the following ideas for social media content

  • Technologies used by academics and online practices
  • Spin-outs – how to work with advisors, planning an exit strategy
  • Employability – how businesses can work with employers, guest blog of 10 disappointments by an employer and, of course, 10 great successes
  • Dementia Week – the five big issues that we can’t solve
  • Leadership expertise – how do we develop leadership skills in apprentices
  • Patient perspectives
  • Knowledge transfer success stories
  • Academic research – controversy, debate, engaging with communities

3.       Which social media are best for targeting?

When you have clear targets, you can quickly see which social media are likely to be the best ones to target and build relationships.

If you are targeting the learning and development director at BT, the chances are that Facebook won’t help much, but LinkedIn is perfect.

If you are trying to disseminate your research and get discussions and feedback, a professional blog is likely to be the best way, supported by Twitter.

 4.       Research your target audience

When I asked for names of target companies, I was hoping to show them the power of LinkedIn and how to use it strategically.

I have just done an Advanced Search on LinkedIn for ‘learning and development’ at ‘BT’.  And this has thrown up the following people in my network

–          Director of Volunteering

–          Head of Learning and Development

–          VP, Global Sales and Marketing

So LinkedIn would be perfect to help start building relationships with this corporate.

But equally, I am at the moment researching the best social media for a corporate – nothing related to universities. This client is targeting businesses with turnover of less than £25m in manufacturing, leisure and retail.  Going through their target list, very few companies are on Twitter, have a blog or understand social media – if they do have accounts, they are not engaging.  (But most of them are on LinkedIn).

Any social media strategy needs to be grounded in reality – there is no point in targeting people or organisations who aren’t doing anything there!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

5.        Understand keywords and include them in your strategy

While social media is important for targeting and building relationships, it is also an invaluable tool to ensure you are found when others are searching – for courses, research, students to employ and so on.

To do this, you need to think like a search engine.  Make sure you have identified the keywords that your audience might search on and then ensure you have used these phrases and words on your profiles – LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, Facebook and so on; directories; in blogs and website content; in Twitter discussions.

To understand more, we have explained what to do in this blog on how to think like a search engine.

6.       Checklist for a social media strategy for universities

Through the day of training, we developed a plan for each person and their areas in the university.  We included these questions which will help you to focus your strategy and plan

–          What do you want to achieve?

–          Who are you targeting?

–          What keywords?

–          How will you measure success?

–          What themes for your social media (eg nuclear science, CPD for health professionals)?

–          How will you get comments?

–          How will you share?

None of this is exhaustive, but hopefully it will help you to start shaping a strategy for your social media and a plan.  We covered much more – these blogs include a lot of tips, including creating a social media editorial calendar, the process of building relationships online, the ROI of social media and using social media for REF impact.

Everyone agreed that the best tip for creating a social media strategy is to focus – and then to plan.  That way you can take one step at a time and it is no longer so over-whelming.              

Other tips on creating a social media strategy

–          The University of Chicago

–          Mashable

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Written by Northern Lights

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