Social media is a great tool for reaching students, faculty, alumni and the community in today’s technology centered world. In fact, it’s no longer just a useful tool, but a requirement. Students and alumni now expect universities to be actively using a variety of social media outlets. These users are constantly engaged in social media, and if you want to create real conversations through valuable content, you should be too. Use these simple tips to ensure that the fundamentals are in place for your social media strategy to reach its full potential.

1. Start with a social media policy and a plan.

We’ve all witnessed the catastrophes that can happen when something goes wrong on social media (2012 had more than its share of examples). Many institutions have a social media policy in place to ensure that all contributors are using the selected outlets to reinforce the brand and are applying social media best practices to engage users. The social media policy should include legal and ethical guidelines to ensure proper use of personal and institutional social media accounts by everyone involved. Further social media training may be helpful to clearly communicate how social media should be used to best represent your institution.

Your social media plan should include specific details centered around strategy, content creation and delivery. There should be clearly defined roles inside of your marketing team to determine who will create, edit, approve and post content. Employing an organized system will guarantee that high quality content is distributed in a timely manner.

2. Consider your target audience.

The next step in creating a successful social media campaign is to identify and understand your unique target audience. For an institution of higher education, the target audience can include a variety of individuals, ranging from prospective and current students to faculty, staff and alumni. For most institutions, it is also important to consider parents, donors and the local community as part of the target audience. This list includes a wide variety of individuals, with different needs and expectations.

The key to creating a successful social media plan is to understand each audience segment, and create content to engage them on an individual level. In many cases this means creating a separate social media account tailored to each audience. For example, an alumni association can have a separate Twitter account from other university departments. This allows the alumni association to share updates about news and events that will be of specific interest to alumni, without overwhelming users with information that has little or no value for them. Providing your audience with quality content that is relevant to them is an important part of a successful social media campaign. Some questions to consider when crafting content for your target audience include:

What information are they seeking?
What decisions are they trying to make?
How are they searching for information?

Answering each of these questions will help your marketing team create strong content that is useful, relevant and easily accessible for your target audience.

3. Set clear and measurable goals.

In order to measure the success of your social media efforts, you must set clear goals from the beginning. These goals should always work to achieve your organization's fundamental objectives and can include anything from building brand awareness to driving admissions and increasing donations.

Regardless of what your goals are, they should be clearly defined and measurable using specific dates and numbers. For example, an organizational objective might be to increase the number of applicants to a specific program. A clearly defined and measurable goal would look something like this: Increase the number of qualified applicants to the School of Business by 10 percent by December 2014. Including a specific amount and a deadline allows you to easily determine if the goal has been achieved.

Social media can be a valuable tool to help achieve your overall business goals. If your objective is to raise brand awareness, an increasing number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers can be a good indication. In this case, a measurable goal based on social media could be to increase Twitter followers by 20 during the month of June. Not only will setting goals help you measure success, but it will also assist in laying out a strategic plan to achieve the desired results.

4. Follow through with the plan.

Now that you have a process in place, a clearly defined audience and a measurable goal in mind, the last step is to follow through. For many higher ed marketers, this is easier said than done. All contributors must be held accountable for their role in creating a strong and effective social media campaign. 

There’s a good chance people on your social media team, whether they’re creating content, posting to or managing an account, don’t consider social media their top priority. The team members you work with have other responsibilities to focus on, so make your plan easy to follow and have a calendar that breaks down who is expected to post content, what it will be about, and when it’s due to be reviewed and posted.

Once that calendar exists, schedule some brief regular meetings to track your team’s progress and the success of your efforts. A quick check-in is enough make sure everyone is following through with the plan and moving on schedule. If someone needs help, advice, or is overwhelmed with their workload, it will give the team an opportunity to alter the schedule as needed or provide support to those in need. This meeting can also be used to evaluate how well your social media plan is helping to achieve your long term goals.

We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on social media best practices at your organization. Please feel free to add your thoughts or questions in the comments section below.