Elements of a Great (Institutional) Social Media Strategy

ImageYou see it every day: an institution asks its audience via social media to participate in a contest, provide content or in some way promote their name by sharing posts with their expanded networks. These campaigns help solidify that we are players in the social media conversations that we are repeatedly told are ever so important. But what are we doing at the highest level to tie all of these one-offs together and really strengthen the idea of our brand in the minds of our consumers? How many of us have a strong institutional level social media strategy and what does that even mean?

Below are ways I discussed how Hamilton College tackled this issue in my presentation last week at EduWeb in Boston.


Like all tactics, social does not stand alone. And like all good marketing and communication strategies, we begin with research.

There are several basic questions that we need to answer before we even begin to consider specific tactics or platforms.

  • What is the problem we are trying to address?
  • Who is our audience?
  • What are we trying to communicate?
  • What does success look like?
  • How do they currently engage with us? Do we know their preferences?
  • How else have we/do we currently communicate this information?
  • What is our call to action for the user?
  • Who is our competition? How do they address this?
  • What novel ways do other institutions or businesses deal with these issues?
  • Are there new tools at our disposal?
  • How can we be more creative while reinforcing the brand feeling?

Buy In

To get anything done, we know stakeholder buy in is important. But to do social media well, it’s even more so. We need to be sure that everyone understands how to make your own website as well as individual departments and their content areas. How will it support other projects?

Working from the top down and the bottom up will also allow us to meet people where they are in their understanding of the institutional brand and strategic social media use.

Ability To Implement

Having buy in is one thing, but the ability to actually implement your social media strategy is something different but also important.

You may be a social media department of one, or have a student who works with you part time, but somehow or another the work on your docket needs to get done. As much as we would love to have an animated gif of the day, we need to be realistic about what we can commit to accomplishing over the life of the strategy.

The culture and organization of your institution also plays a role in this. If your office does not control the main brand message or the channel of social media, it will be much harder for you to elevate your ideas and make the case as to why you should be the one steering the plan.

As always, any technical issues need to be addressed. Do you need a lot of web service’s time? A person on your design team? An external consultant? Be sure to know how much work you’re getting into before you commit.

Branding (Not Campaign) Focused

Campaigns mean a lot of things in higher ed. Capital campaigns. Admission campaigns. Social Media Campaigns, etc. But all of these fall under the larger umbrella of ‘branding’. Everything we do should support the brand idea. If we do not know what that idea is, then we need to back up.

Campaigns do have their place, but the institutional level strategy seeks to blend everything together in an even mix. No one voice should outshine another. Social media strategy should be a part of a larger whole, that supports the main brand idea, business goals and outcomes through content.


Audiences are more likely to trust reviews and outcomes from their peers rather than from the institution which obviously is selling itself. So making sure authentic content – content from our audiences – is a part of our strategy is crucial.

Stay away from gimmicks whenever possible. No follower baiting, like boosting, etc. This takes away from the idea that you are building a community of engaged people vs people to push marketing messages to. This doesn’t mean that we don’t publicize our accounts for others to follow or ask for them to share our content only that we respect the channel for the social activity that it was meant to foster.

We want to encourage others to play in our spaces, so we want as little barrier to entry as possible. This means promoting other institutional accounts that may be valuable to our audience members, even if they aren’t our own, as well as promoting content from our audiences. Student, community and alumni run accounts with great content are extremely valuable even if they are not internally managed. This also means having a clear set of guidelines as to how and when we use social media, who to go to for help/permission and expectations of how we will act.

There is a place for the good and the bad. If we sanitize our social media presences too much, we end up using them as another controlled marketing channel and risk losing the trust of our audience. Once lost it cannot be easily recovered.

There is also the issue of timeliness. We want to be sure we are taking part in conversations at the best time, during certain events or promoting content that is culturally or socially relevant at the right time. Not doing so also negates the trust we’ve built by portraying us as using the channel as one way only promotion. Being timely is building a type of currency in social media: it’s a benefit to our audience.


More often than not, education is needed to ensure that our colleagues see social media as part of an overall integrated strategy, not a stand alone. It should enhance all that we do, and if done well, will change the way we communicate influencing all other channels.

We know how important it is to publicize the existence and benefit of our social media channels, but even more important is their integration into all that we do as a team and as an institution. We cannot ask our communities to think or act this way if we do not do so ourselves.

How do we ensure that our social media strategy is integrated?

  • We make sure that they are easy to find: on our website, in our emails on print pieces.
  • We find a way to use social in meaningful ways to enhance experiences either in real life or on the web.
  • We share the ways we coordinate our conversations via a list of hashtags, accounts.
  • We incorporate social media into news stories on our site wherever possible via comments, sharing or hashtags.


In order to remain relevant, we need to ensure that our social media strategy includes regular feedback and crowd sourced ideas. Since this is a two way communication platform, incorporating ideas from our audience help to make our strategy stronger and authentic.

Because we are basically sharing the creation of brand focused content, we want ideas from our audience on how best to do that in fun, tangible and effective ways.

We also need to remember to continue educating both our internal stakeholders as well as our audiences on how to use these media to best connect with each other and the institution.

Keeping a low barrier to entry is also important. When we spend a lot of time policing accounts and trying to enforce a social media policy that is at best a set of guidelines, then we end up alienating those who could have gone on to do great things. We definitely need to let our community know what is expected of them should they choose to communicate via social media, but we can do this in a way that is less obstructive than a stringent ‘policy’.


Last but certainly not least is measurement. If we don’t know where we are coming from we wont know if we’ve reached out goal. Often we don’t think of this until it’s too late, especially in social media.

Through our research in the beginning, we should have identified areas that we’d like to improve. We can set our baseline from there.

We need to be careful not to confuse vanity metrics (likes, followers, etc) with actual outcomes. We need to move the needle somehow.

Some ways we may do this for the brand are:

  • Increase in positive sentiment
  • Increased visibility
  • Increased communication through social channels
  • Helping others complete their goals (donations, enrollment, event participation)

These will be different for everyone depending on your brand strengths and weaknesses.

What elements have I missed? Does your institution have a strong institutional strategy? What has worked/backfired for you?


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