This week sees a number of guest blog posts from plenary speakers at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop, which will be held at the University of York on 16-18 July.
Today’s guest blog post is by Paul Boag. The title of the post is “Social participation for student recruitment“.
Social participation renaissance
I am really looking forward to attending my first IWMW this year. In particular I am excited about the number of sessions touching on the subject of social participation.
Not that social participation is anything new. I remember writing my dissertation on a virtual community called “The Well” back in 1994. In fact the Web itself is very much about social participation, the idea of sharing information in a peer-to-peer manner.
However, it is certainly true that “community” is experiencing a renaissance. Sites like Flickr, Digg, Delicious, and MySpace are appearing all the time, each dedicated to user generated content and social interaction.
Business is quick to capitalize
The business community certainly recognizes the value of social participations, sinking millions of dollars of venture capital into these yet unprofitable businesses.
In fact business has always been very switched on to the value of peer-to-peer recommendation. They are acutely aware that a recommendation from a unbiased third party (such as a friend) is worth considerably more than endless TV commercials or billboard advertising.
It is therefore unsurprising that we are seeing elements of social participation such as ratings, reviews and recommendations, appearing on ecommerce sites like Amazon.
Even higher education websites are beginning to embrace the social participation phenomena with a growing number of institutions giving students blogs and encouraging participation in wikis, forums and other social software.
So does the “social participation revolution” offer a new and unique way of reaching prospective students? In my opinion it does, but I believe there are many opportunities to move beyond the current approach being used by many institutions.
As I see it there are two ways the social participation movement is currently being used by higher education institutions. The first is implementing social networking facilities of their own sites and the second is driving traffic by participating in existing social networking sites like YouTube or MySpace. In both these scenarios I would suggest that a slight change of approach would bring substantially improved returns.
Encouraging internal social networks
One of the factors that has spurred the explosion in social participation is the ease with which community software can be implemented on a website. Giving students a blog or implementing other similar tools is relatively straightforward but technology is not what drives social interaction, people do that.
Empowering existing students to speak to prospective students is a powerful (if slightly scary) way of promoting your organisation. As in business, HE institutions are recognizing that peer-to-peer recommendation is worth considerably more than any amount of traditional marketing.
However, simply adding some technology to your site is not going to make that interaction spontaneously happen. It has to be nurtured and encouraged by one or more individuals dedicated to the task.
Although building a community and social interaction cannot be forced or controlled, it can be encouraged. In many ways it is like tending a garden. In the early days it needs a lot of feeding and protection. As it grows it can require pruning and at times it may even need dead wood removing.
The garden metaphor aside, a good community is the result of a lot of effort behind the scenes to make it a reality. Currently I get the impression that many website owners (not just those in the HE sector) have the impression that if you build community tools, then the job is done.
Leveraging existing social networks
I am seeing similar first steps being made in the HE sector in leveraging existing social networks. I know of Universities who have posted videos to YouTube and other institutions who are exploring the use of social sites like del.icio.us, MySpace or third party forums.
However simply utilizing these sites does not guarantee you will reach your audience effectively. Successful Guerilla marketing using social networks involves two key factors that are largely missing from the HE campaigns I have seen.
The quality of the message being conveyed is fundamental to its success. Its not about how “slick” your message is, rather it is about how well it engages with your potential audience.
Let me share an example of what I mean. I recently came across a University who had submitted a promotional video to YouTube. It was a well-produced video, which was professionally put together. They also had the foresight to submit it to YouTube rather than just put it on their own website. However, despite this it was unlikely to grab anybody’s attention.
In order for a video like that to succeed on YouTube, people have to want to associate with it. By voting for a video or passing it on to a friend they are saying that they approve of, or associate with, that piece of content in someway. Different groups of people like to be associated with different values but it is fair to say that prospective undergraduate students likes to be associated with what is funny or “cool”. If your content doesn’t meet these criteria then people are not going to want to be associated with it. They are not going to vote for it or pass it on and so other more popular items will crowd out the content.
When it comes to other social sites like Digg, MySpace or even posting on forums the issue of trust and reputation comes to the fore. With so many individuals and organizations effectively spamming these sites in order to promote their business or product, it is important to build a reputation and relationship, which in turn earns you the right to post about your course or institution.
The primary way you build this trust is by contributing content of worth over a period of time and ensure your promotional messages are left firmly in the background. Over time the audience you are communicating with will naturally start enquiring more about what it is that you offer.
I myself am a member of several communities made up of prospective clients who maybe interested in my web design services. However, it is extremely rare for me to promote the services I offer in these communities. Instead I answer questions and help out in anyway I can and yet I regularly receive leads because of my contributions. No hard sell is required.
A call for resourcing
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I believe that nowhere is that more true than in the realm of social participation marketing. I often encounter management who perceive marketing through things like social networks as a “cheap option”. After all there is no media spend and no print costs. However, although the costs in these areas are extremely low there is an enormous overhead in time and manpower.
If HE institutions want to see student recruitment through social participation as a viable reality they need to invest properly in the human resources to achieve it. Building peer-to-peer communities, encouraging student ambassadors, seeding forums, and contributing to social websites all requires time. Too often this work falls to somebody from within the web or marketing team. This person almost always has far too much on his or her plate to do the job effectively. Only when adequate resources are dedicated to the task will we begin to experience a real return on investment.
About The Author
Paul Boag is a user interface designer and long time advocate for virtual communities. He runs a web design company in the south of England called Headscape and is a prominent blogger at boagworld.com.
He also hosts one of the biggest web design podcast currently online, as well as writing for publications such as .net magazine and Think Vitamin.
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