U, other orgs. take on social media, but consumers still run the conversation

Almost 90 percent of advertisers use social media for marketing.

by Rebecca Harrington

Social media played a large role at the University of Minnesota’s annual legislative briefing at the end of January.

Attendees were encouraged to voice their support for the University on social media. About 35 students armed with iPads acted as social media coaches, helping set up Twitter accounts and craft tweets to legislators.

Each social media coach received $25 from the University’s Alumni Association and University Government and Community Relations, which co-sponsored the event.

The University is using social media strategically to boost its public profile, rally support and increase community engagement.

About 89 percent of advertisers say they use free social media, according to a Nielsen study. But companies are still new to social media, and its use can sometimes backfire.

Students have used the “#UMNProud” hashtag the University created to tweet about things the University wouldn’t be proud of — like “murky” drinking fountain water or being stuck on the Campus Connector.

“Sitting on the floor because there isn’t enough chairs in the room #UMNproud,” agricultural education sophomore Eric Seifert tweeted last month.

Lindsey Heffern, social media manager for the University, said when this happens, she tries to take on a “customer service” role, responding to concerns positively.

“College students are 18 to 22, and, I think, still maybe learning how to filter some of the things they may or may want to say publically,” she said. “It’s easy to forget that Twitter is public; people can read everything.”

Shayla Thiel-Stern, assistant journalism professor, said companies should be prepared for this possible backlash.

“If a company is going to be using social media in some way, they’re going to have to expect that users have a lot of power to take their message, craft it in whatever way they want and throw it back to them,” she said.

Seifert said people commandeering hashtags that businesses create on Twitter to use them sarcastically is a beneficial part of social media.

“You get to see the real story instead of just what they want you to see,” he said.

The University largely uses social media to gain support from legislators for state funding, but it doesn’t always work.

Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, who’s on Twitter, said social media isn’t as effective for communicating with legislators as it used to be because “there’s so much out there that you miss it.” She said the most effective communication method is email.

“I encourage people to continue to use social media,” she said. “Just be aware that … it may not be as effective as people think it is.”

Heffern said she tries to achieve a “stickiness factor” with social media — being punchy and relevant so the University’s brand messages are more memorable.

Diana Ahnemann, 22, is transferring to the University next fall. She said companies have “entered the whole world of friends” taking advantage of how people communicate.

“There is a lot of care that needs to be taken in the world of information,” Ahnemann said. “You’ve just got to be a little bit wary. … There are obviously good and bad sides to everything.”

Thiel-Stern said she thinks the ability of consumers to immediately respond and react to company activity is great because it gives them more power.

But the immediacy and reach of social media can allow problems like a misused hashtag to get out of hand.

Last year, McDonald’s attempted to promote its brand using the hashtag #mcdstories. Tweeters instead repurposed it to share negative experiences with the restaurant, Thiel-Stern said.

The important thing in those situations, Seifert said, is for a company to “stick to their guns.”

“I think when something like that happens, a company needs to stick with their values and policies,” he said.

Heffern said the University has plans in place to coordinate with public relations in case things ever get out of hand on one of the University’s accounts.

Many students said a business being on social media was smart because that’s where their young customers are.

Communications senior Tom Wilsey said he doesn’t understand why people feel the need to voice their loyalty to brands on social media. He said he had mixed feelings on universities using social media to foster brand loyalty.

“I think it’s kind of sick,” Wilsey said, “but it’s smart.”