How Basketball Made Me A Web 2.0 Convert

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When I first signed up for Facebook in the spring of 2006, the primary goal was to evaluate the potential for negative stories about the basketball team.  I was spokesperson for The George Washington University at the time and several other sports teams in the area had received critical media coverage because students posted photos suggesting underage drinking and other questionable behaviors. While the GW Colonials received media scrutiny for its recruiting practices that spring, the players’ Facebook profiles and photos did not generate any buzz. But I caught the social media fever.

In 2006 and 2007, I answered many media requests regarding how universities might use Facebook—was it a “big brother” hammer to crack down on illicit behaviors? Were administrators using Facebook and MySpace to “spy” on students? At GW, no policy to this effect existed, but administrators would review Facebook data if it were presented as part of a judicial inquiry. To test this premise, some enterprising students posted a fake notice about a dorm room kegger in an effort to lure university police and demonstrate that administrators were spying on students via Facebook. The “gottcha” ploy failed.

Facebook remains an excellent research tool—whether using the information as part of an investigation or an ancillary reference as part of the job interview process. (Hence, posting photos involving alcohol or even partial nudity are discouraged.)

But as Facebook, YouTube and then Twitter grew in popularity, it was time to rethink these tools as proactive, two-way communications channels. By 2007, it was evident social media could open new avenues to attract students and share information about university services and events. However, universities are inherently silo-based organizations wherein building consensus on a new and untested university-wide communications strategy is challenging.

As such, innovation began to emerge within individual schools and divisions. By 2008, there were Facebook groups and Twitter feeds for sustainability, alumni and international relations, among others. This entrepreneurial approach demonstrated the effectiveness of the social media channels but emphasized the need for a centralized strategy.

The university also was overhauling its Web site and online brand strategy, which created a natural synergy to build a more cohesive social media strategy and establish a platform to include a YouTube channel, Facebook fan pages and Twitter. In preparing for the launch, we were initially daunted by the fact that there were already several GW YouTube channels, dozens of Facebook groups and a few GW fan pages, as well as numerous GW schools and groups on Twitter.  However, this diverse Web 2.0 presence confirmed an audience willing to engage with the university. As we designed our messaging strategy, we had to ensure we offered new and useful information, leveraging audience fragmentation to our advantage. And within 2 months of launch, we hit our goals for fans and followers. While there is more to be done, the foundation is now set for future growth.

And now, The George Washington University is among the top 10 universities that twitter according to U.S. News.

Here are a few considerations as you navigate the social media landscape.

1) Embrace Fragmentation. If your CEO isn’t ready to Twitter, identify another thought leader in the organization who can do so. If a business unit has an opportunity to engage customers before the corporate marketing team, encourage it. It may seem contrary to build brand loyalty from the bottom up, but many customers are interested in connecting. Get them before they leave you. If GW had discouraged efforts to create social media channels at the micro-level, we would have missed a critical opportunity to engage students in university happenings and initiatives.

2)    Differentiation Among Channels Is Increasingly Important. The tendency in social media is to post the same information to the different channels.  However, without variation, those fans and followers who subscribe to multiple social media from one organization will begin to tune out if the message is too similar.  It’s like receiving the same email multiple times. The sender labels everything from your company as spam.

3)    Dedicate Staff to Manage Social Media. This cannot be over emphasized. A staff member must be dedicated to writing, distributing and monitoring content and have authority for responding, if necessary, in a timely manner. The value of social media channels are the interaction with targeted audiences. If you are only sending information, the value of the two-way communications is lost.

After more than three years in the social media arena, the dynamic nature of Web 2.0 channels can still be somewhat daunting. It seems that every day there are new applications to fine-tune effectiveness.  For me, I may no longer monitor Facebook to predict possible calamity, but I do wish the GW Colonials a successful basketball season.

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