Evaluating the U’s social media prowess

Last month the U of M was rated the 20th most “buzzed about” university.

Evaluating the U’s social media prowess

Rebecca Harrington

Data source: Global Language Monitor, 02/13/2013 sampling of social media accounts

When the state Legislature heard the University of Minnesota’s funding request, students and faculty were encouraged to use the hashtag #LightUMN on Twitter to show their support.

The University has slowly and steadily built a web presence since higher education institutions have flocked to promote their brands on social media sites in the last decade.

In a report published last month, Global Language Monitor, an analytics company based in Austin, Texas, ranked the University the 20th most “buzzed about” this year, moving up 15 spots from 2012.

The top universities on the list paralleled the top-ranked universities in the country, many of them in the Ivy League. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Columbia University took the top-three spots, respectively.

Global Language Monitor uses an algorithm to index the Internet and compare schools’ presence statistically, according to its website.

University Marketing Director Ann Aronson said branding is the main reason why more prestigious schools top the list. MIT has twice as many Twitter followers as the University, but only about a fifth of the students.

“Our goal with the overall brand is to talk to people where they are and we know that our students are on social media, that really an increasing number of the general public is on social media,” Aronson said.

The University has official accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Foursquare, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and Storify. But most departments, administrative units and groups also have their own accounts, resulting in several dozen accounts run by many different people. Aronson said the fragmentation is “just part of being in a really decentralized organization.”

Lindsey Heffern, social media manager, runs the University’s main social media accounts, including President Eric Kaler’s. When he tweets from his Twitter account, Kaler signs “Dr. K.”

Heffern’s goal is to get more students engaged with different social media to show people like legislators how much students care.

The University’s Facebook app for prospective students was helpful for sophomore Jordyn Lehmann when she transferred here this semester, but she doesn’t follow or “like” any of the University’s other main accounts.

American Indian studies senior Ethan Neerdaels said he only “likes” specific departments that he’s involved with on Facebook and also doesn’t follow the University’s Twitter account.

“I don’t think [social media] should be a priority,” he said, “but it is a way to reach students instead of [using] email or typical newsletters.”

Carlson School of Management professor Ravi Bapna founded the Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative to research social media.

He said the University is at the “forefront of research” but has a long way to go in terms of social media engagement because its policy and practices don’t encourage social media use as an educational tool.

Bapna envisions “virtual communities of learning” where people across the University can use social media to bring together different disciplines and ideas outside of the classroom.

“Right now, I teach my course, do my research and I’m done,” he said. “I don’t really have an incentive to participate in a virtual community of learning. But if that happens, it could actually benefit both myself and the students and my other colleagues.”

One of the challenges right now, Bapna said, is the fragmentation of disciplines and departments into dozens of different social media accounts. Having a “chief community officer,” he said, could bring them all together.

Heffern said she acts as an internal consultant to help departments successfully manage their social media accounts.

This also ensures the dozens of accounts are transmitting the same brand messages, Aronson said, and making announcements in sync. But she said the number of accounts is a hindrance sometimes, because “you’re almost competing with yourself.”

Heffern said their biggest social media successes have related to “nostalgia.” Pictures of campus and discoveries made by University researchers receive the most “likes” on the main Facebook page.

Most students grew up on social media, Bapna said, but companies and universities are just beginning to realize the potential for engagement.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Aronson said. “You find, kind of, what the sweet spot is of what your audiences want and who you are.”