The State of Social Media in Higher Ed

Higher ed social media has never been more critical to marketing efforts than it is now, and that’s a good thing.

By: Higher Voltage
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On the latest Higher Voltage, University of Michigan’s Nikki Sunstrum and West Virginia University’s Tony Dobies sit down with Kevin Tyler to talk about the state of social media in higher education. As the school year kicks off, they share what they’ve learned over the years – and over the past 18 months – about managing teams, expectations, and crises.

  • Their big-picture philosophies about social media strategy and management (5:34)
  • How COVID changed everything at their schools and beyond (11:36)
  • How they approach PR crises (20:27)
  • How and when to participate in cultural conversations (25:21)
  • Their tips for content creation (35:42)
  • Their tips for small teams and teams of one (42:41)
  • Where they find inspiration inside and outside of higher ed (49:32)
  • The growing importance of older student audiences (57:02)
  • A call to arms for social media pros to value themselves and to ask for what they rightly deserve (1:02:52)

Read the full transcript

Kevin Tyler:

Hello, and welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education that explores what’s working, what’s not and what needs to change in higher ed marketing and administration. I’m your host, Kevin Tyler. I’m so excited to chat with these two folks today. Welcome to our first blue and gold episode, I suppose. It’s WVU, UCLA and University of Michigan all in one podcast.

Kevin Tyler:

So we have Tony Dobies, senior director of marketing at West Virginia University, also Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media and public engagement at the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for joining us on Higher Voltage today. I’m super excited to talk to you about your social practices at your respective universities. But before we get into that, can we get a brief kind of background on who you are, how you got to your role? And we’ll start with Tony.

Tony Dobies:

Yeah, sure. Well thanks for the invite. Happy to be here and happy to be with Nikki as well. So my background has been pretty much at WVU for the last 10 years, as of August 1st actually 10 years at the university. So went to WVU, I had planned a career in sports writing, did that for a little bit and realized that that’s a different type of grind that I just wasn’t prepared to do for the rest of my life. So I went into this field, which is just as hard.

Tony Dobies:

Started as a writer and a communication specialist at WVU, eventually realized that my passion kind of lies with social and started to manage a couple of accounts. I actually went to a conference my boss allowed me to go to at the time. I think it was probably in 2012, 2013 and came back and realized like, “Oh, there are other people who want to be social media managers at universities,” and like, “cool, that’s a real job.” So that turned into the job that I had, became a social media strategist, director of social media and now I’m a senior director of marketing at the university.

Tony Dobies:

So I don’t manage on a day-to-day basis social media accounts anymore, but I oversee our team that does. And the great thing about that is that I have the ability to create the team that we need to do the job and do it well here at WVU. So I was so thankful to have the opportunity to do that because I think what we’ve got set up here at WVU is really good. So that’s a little bit about me.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Thank you so much, Tony. Nikki, you’re up.

Nikki Sunstrum:

All right. Well, thank you. Thanks for having me and congratulations Tony on your full decade in higher education. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Tony Dobies:

I know.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Exactly.

Kevin Tyler:

Totally, congratulations.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So I’m coming up on almost eight years. I’m a little bit behind you in higher ed, but got my start, actually my background’s in policy and legislative affairs. Social media was just one of the advocacy tools that I started to use way back when and really tried to teach elected officials across the state and the state of Michigan, which is where I was employed to leverage for government transparency and constituent engagement and then it snowballed and became my full-time job.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So between policy and legislative affairs and constituent engagement and then going back to graduate school for education, I started doing a lot of teaching of these tools and designed the entire statewide digital footprint for the state of Michigan before you even came knocking on my door and asked me to come down here to Ann Arbor and do the same for them. So in addition to setting policy and establishing guidelines and getting to oversee a really phenomenal team like Tony that creates content on a daily basis, three years ago we also added the president’s public engagement impact initiative to my title.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So I also have the opportunity to elevate the research. As the number one public research institution, U of M has an excellent opportunity to really align with the state of Michigan, with our national audience and with our global audience what it is that’s taking place here in labs and classrooms, and then help educate people that don’t even grace the doors of our classrooms with knowledge and resources that can help them make informed decisions. So that’s how I spend each and every one of my days.

Kevin Tyler:

Let’s take a quick break to talk about our sponsor. Higher Voltage is brought to you by Squiz. University websites are filled with great information, but oftentimes a simple internal site search does not give users the information they’re looking for. Funnelback, a site search product by Squiz changes the way people engage with content by revolutionizing search. It delivers relevant and comprehensive search results for users which is key for business objectives.

Kevin Tyler:

Visit squiz.net, that’s S-Q-U-I-Z .net to see how Funnelback by Squiz can create a smarter site search option for your institution’s website today. Thank you for that background on each of you. I am very excited to talk to you both because I stumbled upon your accounts a number of years ago when I worked at a small agency in Columbus, Ohio, and the content that you both pump out is really compelling and very, very exciting. And granted you’re both at large public universities and I’m guessing that there’s somewhat of a team there, I’m curious if you could just start with kind of going over from a high level what your structure is for your social media team and then what your vision is for the work that you do for the brands you represent.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Sure. I’ll go first. So when I first arrived at U of M, it was the director level role and a full-time content manager and at that time we had two delightful, very capable, talented student interns. And I think that’s how likely a lot of people started, right? And we were lucky even to have two full-time staff. I now oversee a team of 12. And so that team has really been built out in order to accommodate the evolving needs of social media.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Obviously we went from having one person that could shoot and edit and take photographs and then now we need an animator, we need someone that can design GIPHY stickers. We need way more student interns to ensure that we are adequately representing all of our target demographics and audience members and ideating in a way that moves so quickly that we can also address all of the frontline concerns as the front door of the institution. And so we really divide and conquer through that arena and lens.

Nikki Sunstrum:

A lot of my time is spent on risk mitigation and kind of crisis communications, it plays well into my background. And then some of my team is able to focus on creatively developing content, another is able to align the research with that. So that’s kind of how our structure works. In addition to the team that I oversee and manage, I’ve also built a network that I call social leadership across the institution as well as our satellite campuses.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so I have one primary communicator and decision-maker within every individual school, college and organizational unit that I work with on a weekly and daily basis to ensure that we are adequately promoting content that represents the breadth of our academic research and impact and really pulling all of those things out from individual schools, colleges and units because we do currently have over 1200 active official social media properties here at the institution.

Kevin Tyler:

Oh my gosh, 1200?

Nikki Sunstrum:

Yeah.

Kevin Tyler:

Oh, my word. And I love that idea of having people kind of planted across campus or across the footprint to have those kinds of daily, weekly conversations with. That’s a great, great call. How about you, Tony?

Tony Dobies:

Yeah, so it’s kind of similar. I think maybe the structure of the team might be different at WVU, but the team size I think are very similar. So we have eight full time members of our Morgantown Campus social media team. Two of those are dedicated to just our main accounts and the other six, they do some main account work for us, but their primary role is more focused around some of the smaller more focused accounts like safety, wellness, transportation and parking, our health sciences accounts, our student life accounts, talent and culture, which is our employee arm of the university.

Tony Dobies:

We have people dedicated to those and admissions as well. So we’ve got that team. We’ve got two branch campuses at WVU, smaller campuses, and we have a social media manager, both of those which sit on our larger social media team. One of those reports to me full-time, the other one’s more of a dotted line, but works in the same way. The idea really was to try to bring all of the social media managers who are full-time under somebody who understood how to manage social media on a day-to-day basis.

Tony Dobies:

What had happened before was really we had somebody at our talent and culture situation that was sitting over with them, their boss had no idea what social media should look like there. And so when annual review time came around, they have no idea where they’re like, “Oh, did you hit your goals? Did you not? Are you doing the things that you’re supposed to do? We have no idea.” And so we started to change the culture here to bring them within our university relations teams so that’s kind of how we have that set up today.

Tony Dobies:

We’ve got three student workers as well who all work 20 hours a week. One is dedicated page social, the other two are more organic focused. And we treat them like full-time employees at the university. They sit on our staff meeting, they’re involved in just about everything. So by the time they graduate, they are ready to go for the business and we try to keep some of them too if we can. And then when it comes to our team, we have not all of them are the same.

Tony Dobies:

We have some who are strategists, some who are content developers, some who are really good at keeping us on track with our content calendar and those types of things. Everybody kind of has their focus and really makes the team well-rounded, makes us better moving forward. And then that team is part of our larger marketing team, which I oversee and which includes advertising, marketing strategy, the enrollment strategy as well. So we try to make sure that everything we do in social, it gets to all of the right places and that we’re doing it in a strategic way. So that’s kind of how we’re set up here at WVU.

Kevin Tyler:

Thank you both for going over that. I think especially in higher ed, there can be so many different variations of a social team. For instance, at UCLA we’re having kind of a team of about four but all of the communications folks who are embedded in each school have social media responsibilities as well, right? And so I just wanted to get a kind of an idea of how you guys were set up so that the conversation that we have for people who might have similar teams, but I have questions here about tips for smaller teams, et cetera that’s good background. I’m curious, I guess, I mean, the elephant in the room is how did or has COVID changed the way you do business at your respective institutions?

Tony Dobies:

It’s just changed everything.

Kevin Tyler:

How’s it I can’t imagine why? [crosstalk 00:11:53].

Tony Dobies:

Well-

Nikki Sunstrum:

COVID who? What are you talking about?

Kevin Tyler:

Right? I don’t know what you’re talking about. COVID, what is that?

Tony Dobies:

I think I guess just I’ll start out and say that it has made the job so much harder. I think the job of a social media manager is already tough, even with a larger team like Nikki and I have. I think that the job has always been hard, this last year and a half has been so much harder though. I can say at least for us at WVU we have focused much more on the customer service side of things than we have in the past.

Tony Dobies:

We had tended in previous years to really be organic content focused, trying to put out what’s best for the brand. And while we’re still doing that, we’re doing it with a little bit more of a customer service focus, trying to not only push what we want to as a brand on our accounts, but taking care of our communities, listening to the audiences, those types of things.

Tony Dobies:

I think we’re much more aligned with the institution as a whole because of all of the crisis situations that we’ve dealt with too. So our social team is in cell phones of every other leader on our campus and when something pops up, they have a direct route to get information and those types of things. We’ve always been nimble, but I think we’ve had to be even more nimble and probably more empathetic even when it’s really, really hard not to be when you just want to turn off and call a complaint not worth listening to. We’ve had to step back from that and stay empathetic and understanding. And I think just everybody is just a little bit more tired. I don’t think that’s just social media managers, I think that’s everybody.

Kevin Tyler:

I would agree with you.

Tony Dobies:

And last thing I’ll say is that we have maybe more than anything realized what is truly most important to put on our social accounts because we had to kind of stop doing some of those things that we didn’t have time to do anymore. And so we have really prioritized what are our goals, how do we reach those, at the same time, managing all of the other crisis situations and things that pop up on a day-to-day basis that we can’t expect.

Kevin Tyler:

I appreciate you saying all of that. One of the things that I mean, obviously COVID in this period that we’re in is traumatic, there’s been lots of tragedy. However, in terms of social media, it does feel like, especially in terms of in the higher ed space, it has been elevated to a more substantive place in the marketing plans and communication plans of so many institutions because it was one of the only ways that remote students could have access to what was going on “on campus”.

Kevin Tyler:

And so all of that said, I am happy about social media moving from, “Oh, just give it to an intern to handle,” to, “we need to make this a cabinet level kind of conversation because of the material that we need to get out to our constituents and stakeholders.” Nikki, how has this changed your work if at all?

Nikki Sunstrum:

I’m actually going to take the opportunity to pivot on this response because I would absolutely echo everything that Tony has said and focus instead on what it has done to our industry because to your point, Kevin, it has elevated something that I worked very tirelessly on pre pandemic, which was the absolute critical importance of a social media team, of actually allocating proper resources. And the pandemic has gutted our industry.

Nikki Sunstrum:

We are watching people leave in droves, my team impacted and included because for units that are not as blessed to lead with strategy as Tony and I have really screamed from the rooftops to do for years and years and find people and resources and create content and not sleep for a very long time, for teams of one, teams of two or people that are still within organizations where their work is undervalued and misunderstood, they’re done. We absolutely cannot blame them.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so this is absolutely a reckoning, I think for communications and marketing and across the board. I think that post pandemic, if that’s what we want to call a lot of the returns to offices that are about to happen, we really need to look at the wellbeing of our staff and employees first and we need to prioritize what it is that we’re going to do. We need to collaborate and communicate more clearly. And it’s always ironic that sometimes communications professionals are some of the worst communicators I’ve ever encountered when it comes to internal organization.

Nikki Sunstrum:

But that’s how COVID has changed everything. I mean, it’s pulled the rug out from a lot of us. It has opened the curtains and revealed a lot of our flaws and we absolutely can not go back to what would have been old normal because it wasn’t good enough then and it will not be good enough moving forward, whether it’s for your own staff or the communities that you are trying to reach out to.

Tony Dobies:

And I would just want to add to that too, Nikki is so right. And I think what I’m most nervous about for our industry is that we now have people Kevin, to your point that understand that yes, social is something that’s important and valuable based on everything that we learned but they are taking the steps to add another full-time person or check in on them more often and make sure that they understand what their duties are actually of a social media manager. Those steps need to happen.

Tony Dobies:

We’re even seeing people who now are saying like, “Hey, I am not making enough money for the job that I have.” And we weren’t seeing that a year and a half ago, we are now because the job was harder. People need to take all of that into account and we need to change as an industry. It’s not good enough to just say, “Hey, social is important.” It’s we need to take the step and say, “Our social teams are important, they’re valued.” We need to take care of them, we need to understand them. We need to advance the field.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Right.

Tony Dobies:

So yeah, agreed.

Kevin Tyler:

I think it’s-

Nikki Sunstrum:

Our team… I’ll add a statistic in here for you, Kevin, just to really nail the coffin on this one. Our team triaged over 70,000 comments last year. And I joked pre-pandemic that I’d been called every name under the sun online, but I really truly have at this point, and there’s only so much that we can take. And nobody signs up for that portion of the job because as those individuals that are triaging those concerns, valid concerns of our community, but struggle to even be the decision maker. It’s always been cute when you asked me for a free t-shirt, but it is not okay when you tell me that I’m putting your child’s life at risk because I tweeted out the new mask mandate, right?

Nikki Sunstrum:

And we’ve read those things so many times and tried… Under the best circumstances, we were very, very fortunate to already have phenomenal working relationships with marketing, with public relations, with public affairs, better off, I think, than probably most and it is still something that is toxic within. I mean, the platforms are toxic to begin with, but the toxicity seeps into our staff and retention is really difficult and it makes it even harder when you can’t blame people for wanting to create a better work-life balance, and that, COVID did that to us.

Kevin Tyler:

I couldn’t agree with you both more. I think it’s really easy for people to forget that there are people behind the brand avatar, right? There are people back there who are responding to every comment or in that social media never closes, right? There aren’t opening hours for Twitter, right? It is always open and running. And so for the people who manage these accounts, they are absorbing a ton of different kinds of emotions because of the work that they do. And I agree with all of you, I agree with all of your points about the protection and care of mental health and work-life balance, et cetera, because this is not going to get any easier at all. I’m really curious how each of you handle kind of PR crises that surface on campus and either bleed onto your feeds or vice versa, et cetera?

Nikki Sunstrum:

I’ll start. There is a crisis every day. It’s like, “What’s today’s crisis?” So I am very fortunate, as I mentioned previously, our assistant director of public affairs likes to say oftentimes she texts me more than her husband. Having a background in constituent relations and state engagement, very aware of everyone turning to social first, not just to celebrate, but to voice their concerns. And then also be critical of decisions that are being made.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so all crises seem to break in social and if we can proactively break our own news, which is what I’m always encouraging people to do, we have a better chance than hurting the cats of misinformation after they’ve already been released. And so we truly do serve, my whole entire team and partnership with public affairs, as the day to day risk mitigation and brand watch unit. It’s a large portion of what we’re doing, and then my team also coordinates the reportings and analytics through our tools that we have available to us to say here’s what the saturation of this conversation actually is in relationship to our brand and then creates that content on the backend, right?

Nikki Sunstrum:

That says, “Okay, what’s the official word? How are we going to make that visual? Who are we going to pull into a video? Are we going to do a live town hall? What kind of triaged aspects and elements do we need to work in and then executes kind of that plan in coordination with the rest of our vice president of communications office to make sure that those things go out in a very quick and timely manner?” I’m constantly the person that’s like, “Nope, I need it to be out five seconds ago. So where is that?”

Nikki Sunstrum:

Or maybe pushes send before that link is live because somebody is already talking about it on the internet and it’ll get there eventually. But we all know the pace at which it moves and so with social in particular, handling PR and crisis, you’ve got to get to it as quick as possible and try to anticipate any needs if at all possible.

Kevin Tyler:

Sure, sure, sure. How about WVU Tony?

Tony Dobies:

Our setup is really similar in a lot of ways, and so I’ll just add a couple of things. I think there’s so much pressure that people don’t know about on a social media manager to make the right gut call in almost all of these situations, to make the gut call when you see a post that has the potential to be bad but it’s not there yet so you have to make the call like, “Hey, do I send this up the chain or do I wait until I start to see the retweets coming in or the comments start to fly?”

Tony Dobies:

When do you do that? When do you start to scare people above you that there’s a crisis that started on social and keep an eye on it? And so I think a lot of that is such a skill that is learned over time and is why it’s so important that we don’t have this huge turnover in our industry of social media managers because it takes a long time to get that down. And so yeah, our situation is very similar to what Nikki was talking about.

Tony Dobies:

We’ve got our social media managers that are monitoring and looking at the accounts and looking at the WVU tags and everything else that we have available to us. And when something starts to, I would say blow up or it has the potential to, they’ll send it to me and I’ll kind of give that help with the gut check. And usually it can stop at me, but if I start to see like, “Hey, okay, I might respond to them and say, “When it gets to this point, this many retweets or this many likes where you start to feel uncomfortable about it, let me know and I’ll pass it along and we’ll figure out what’s next.””

Tony Dobies:

Sometimes it might just be a lot of times it’s just, “Hey, let’s keep an eye on it. There’s really nothing we can say.” But other times part of our role is to be helpful. If there’s an issue that we can help solve and that can eliminate somebody having to call an office or complain and call the president’s office, if we can alleviate that by our team, that’s what we want to do. And so a lot of it is just kind of taking a look at what that situation, making a gut call, reacting, how we know to react and how we’ve done in the past.

Kevin Tyler:

Excellent. Excellent. The second kind of part of this question is about cultural conversations that are happening. I can’t obviously help but think about things like George Floyd and all the other cultural conversations that have taken place in the last several years. How do you determine if and how your brand participates in a trending cultural conversation and how do you know or ensure that it’s done correctly?

Tony Dobies:

I can start with this one. Again, this is one that I’m so glad that we have a team at WVU to help with so it’s not just on one person to make a call of what to do. And so in those moments, that’s when we have brought our team together and talked about how do we do this right before it goes into a much higher level conversation. I think with a lot of the issues of social unrest in the country over the last year, the reaction that the university has made started with the social team having a conversation of what should we do because we are the eyes and ears of our audiences and the platforms and what people are saying.

Tony Dobies:

And so if they’re clamoring for us to make a statement, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to, but it gives us a starting point to have a conversation about whether we show it or not and whether it’s the right thing to do. And again, that’s another one of those situations that’s kind of a gut call. And one of the things that I really like to say that we are very conscious of saying in these moments is just because one school does something a certain way does not mean that we have to follow it up because they’re right around the corner or they’re within the state, or they’re an hour up the road from us and we play football against them or something like that.

Tony Dobies:

Doesn’t mean we have to respond that same way, but we do need to take care of our people and we need to show again empathy and understanding for everybody involved. And at that point, you raise it up to another level and I think that’s when politics gets involved. I like to keep our social team outside of the politics and as much as possible and sometimes easier said than done. But we respond with what we think is best and then decisions are made and we do what we can.

Kevin Tyler:

All right, all right.

Nikki Sunstrum:

This is one of the spaces where I think institutions prioritizing a senior level strategic communicator within the social space really makes all the difference. If you are a part of an organization where you don’t have that seat at the table, it can be extremely challenging. And I’ve seen these things go terribly badly. I always look at it from the context of what our audience needs are and whether or not it’s in our swim lane or for establishing new precedents.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so sometimes new precedent needs to be set and we need to speak out. Other times when you are aware of perhaps blind spots within your organization, speaking out on an issue of societal unrest, it’s kind of like tend to your own backyard first. You create these potential issues for yourself where then they’re going to flip that narrative on you very quickly. So being well-intentioned and trying to be receptive to timely conversations that are happening, if you don’t put all of those strategy pieces in alignment first, we watch them blow up in organizations’ faces all of the time.

Nikki Sunstrum:

For us, we really try to make sure that as Tony mentioned, we’re bringing the right people to the table to say, “Hey, what do we think that we should do? And then how can we get the right people to either lead in that space?” Oftentimes we have strategically set up a public affairs Twitter account to use that platform, for example, where perhaps it’s not going to be right for the brand but something needs to be said and so we’ll allow public affairs to lead. I have worked very closely with our president since he was announced the third week on the job for me, our tenures are very much in tandem.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so oftentimes I’ll pitch something to him and say, “Listen, I think maybe it’s this one.” And then my boss and his executive speech writer and we’ll kind of sit there and triage and see who’s the right executive leader to speak up on an issue. We want to make it relatable, but we also want to make it authentic. Because if it is not right, you’re creating a bigger issue for yourself. There are times that we have spoken out and been absolutely right to do so and it has not been well received and I think everybody’s going to encounter that.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And there are other times where we’ve made the difficult decision to not speak out because it didn’t feel like it was going to be authentic and then people didn’t like that either, which is one of the things in talking about PR and crisis in our industry. I think becoming jaded to the concerns of our communities and the volume of concerns when everything has been a crisis for 18 months, or at least appeared to be one to varying degrees is certainly something that you also have to take into account.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And that’s where metrics and brand tools become really valuable because everybody that doesn’t work in social every day is like, “Oh, this has gone viral.” And I’m like, “It has 12 retweets. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Let me go ahead and engage that next to the other thing.” Or this was favorited by a reputable news organization and they even retweeted it and then you have to explain algorithms to people and the fact that nobody actually saw it. But that’s where that technical expertise and then your strategic knowledge really come into play.

Kevin Tyler:

I really appreciate you speaking about that part specifically because I think that it’s often forgotten how social media is an extension of your brand, right? And so being told, “Put this on social,” and it’s a statement about who we are as an institution. And if that is not an actual reality with what that message is saying, then there are all types of other questions to be asked, right?

Kevin Tyler:

And so I think about these social media accounts that pop up around like black@eivs and black@whateverxschool and what that means to the messaging that a school is pumping out the approved kind of marketing messaging and having these kinds of accounts kind of fly in the face of all of that when there’s a diversity statement and black and brown students are like, “Well, wait a minute, we’ve been having problems with this for years and now here you are making statements.” And so I mentioned that to say that the two of you create content that is obviously held up and is supported by the philosophy of the institution and your values and what you stand for.

Kevin Tyler:

But so often these things are just kind of thrown out onto a platform to be performative and there isn’t any thought or work put into the actual reality or the experience that students have on a campus. And so I just wanted to say that out loud because I know that your content is thoughtful in those ways and I initially want to say that, put it on a table for other folks who might be listening. Just putting it out does not make it reality, you have to look at your campus and say, “Have we earned the right to make this statement?”

Nikki Sunstrum:

And you make an excellent point, Kevin, and I’ll explain a double-edged sword that I’ve recently encountered in hiring potential… our intern candidates for the fall. There are many of us that for decades have focused our careers on creating more diverse and inclusive content. Because we’re from a different generation and we prioritize that, whether it be pronoun conversations or race or religion. It’s been a huge emphasis in the work in the communications and marketing that I’ve done throughout my career.

Nikki Sunstrum:

However, that is, as I would refer to as aspirational diversity. I want every single person that looks at our social content to be able to see themselves reflected in the content that we’re putting forth, to know that they are welcome here and that they can achieve this leaders in best University of Michigan dream. But we also are potentially setting up a false expectation that when they arrive here, the campus will be as picturesque and diverse and inclusive as we’ve portrayed it to be online.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And that conversation I recently just had and I thought to myself in reflection afterwards, “Wow, our feeds do look great and we really go out of our way to make sure that the equity and the representation is there, but when somebody graces our doors in September, are they going to go, “Wait,” on Instagram? You looked way better than this?”

Tony Dobies:

Exactly.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Because that’s the way we should be. And so it’s a struggle because we should still be working to be the best that we can be, but we also have to have that reality to continuously ask ourselves, “Are we actually trying to be the best that we can be?”

Tony Dobies:

And I think having just having a conversation like that is a good place to start, aspirational versus what reality is and where is that sweet spot in the middle? And at what times does it make sense for social accounts to be aspirational versus realistic so that a student doesn’t walk in on day one and be like, “This is not what was sold to me and I don’t have a place here.” And that is the thing that scares me most as a marketer, is that a student especially at WVU where pretty much everything we do is enrollment focused.

Tony Dobies:

If a student is sold something knowing that higher ed is so expensive, and that’s the first thing that somebody will tell you, they come to and they don’t get what we sold them, that is painful. Because we control the message, right? We don’t necessarily control the experience that happens when they get there. So we need to be as tuned in as possible to campus so that we’re selling the right thing. And that’s part of the job.

Kevin Tyler:

I would like to kind of touch on your process for content creation. Obviously you both have to me, large teams. I am at UCLA School of Nursing kind of chilling on my own in terms of team size. It’s just a team of one. And so I’m just kind of curious around what you do to make the quality content that you make. I love it. I love what you do.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Thank you. So I’ll start with a couple of different things. So first and foremost, we work off something that I call a thematic calendar which really outlines areas of emphasis that align with both our brand pillars and our organizational goals and objectives. So on a given Wednesday, you’re likely going to see content coming from the university accounts that focuses within the health industry. We have a world renowned hospital here that does an array of different things.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Obviously we have a world-class public health organization but also there are things like kinesiology and our athletics programs and all of these different aspects of potentially mental health or something. And those are things that we want to make sure that every week we’re really kind of focusing on. And so we work with the stakeholders within those units, we pull forward whatever is the most timely and relevant thing.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And we build those foundational content pieces throughout the course of the week so that then the rest of our days, of course are spent on pulling forward things that might be new or breaking or a crisis that we’re looking to address or new public health guidance that we’re looking to go out. And so some of my team is allocated to those various units, right? And really building those relationships with the school of education or the school of social work and creating tiny little mini series of content that then we’ll place throughout those areas.

Nikki Sunstrum:

In other spaces, right? I’ve got a team member that is really looking towards admission content and prospective student and existing student life content. How are we making that fun? What new GIPHY sticker pack that shows accessibility and inclusivity is going out that week? Our audio visual person is constantly figuring out our weekly blogs or our weekly Instagram lives, or our commencement video content for the week. It’s very much a dividing kind of like conquer with areas of emphasis that then pull them in so that we’re creating on a daily basis, but at least kind of have a knowledge base of where we’re headed and in what direction each day.

Kevin Tyler:

I just got goosebumps of envy listening to you say that. Oh my gosh, that sounds incredible. And I-

Nikki Sunstrum:

I’ve got a massive operation over here.

Kevin Tyler:

Yes, you do. Okay. Tony, what’s your process look like for content creation?

Tony Dobies:

Yeah. I’m so glad that as Nikki was talking, I’m sitting over here and being like, “We’re states away and we’re at different institutions, but we do things so similarly,” differently in structure may be, but the ideas are very similar. So at WVU, we have content buckets that focus especially our organic content. So with each of our accounts that we run, we sit down as kind of a step one and talk through what are the goals and what are the available pieces of content, resources, events, things that come up as part of those accounts that are possibilities.

Tony Dobies:

So we develop most of our accounts have between three and five different content buckets. For our main accounts, we have brand awareness, academics and research and student life and experiences. Those are our three buckets. Everything, every piece of content fits within those. And as we’ve gone out and done this, we kind of create an idea every month how many posts on Instagram of brand awareness should we have versus academics and research versus student life and experience.

Tony Dobies:

So we’re getting the right types of content out on our accounts and just giving a little bit of a structure to the team. So they don’t have to come in every day thinking, “What do I need to do?” They know looking at the month ahead, “Okay, we’re going to be really light on academics and research. So let’s go proactively reach out to some of our researchers who are doing things around COVID. Let’s go get some content around that to show like, “Hey, at WVU we have premier healthcare experts who are helping the state with COVID-19 and getting past this and we want to show them on our accounts.””

Tony Dobies:

So that’s kind of how we structure content. And after that, it’s really free flowing. I want our team to come up with a good idea, pitch it, and really think about the why. Why is it a good idea and why does it meet the goals? If I sit down with them and they have a good plan and it meets a goal or two, we’ll make it happen. And to me, this is our bread and butter. We have team members not just on our social team, but across our university relations unit that can create video and photo and graphics and animations and stuff like that.

Tony Dobies:

So for us at that point, it’s more about, “Hey, I know it’s going to make it on social and it’s going to be great content, how do we take that and put that on our websites, in our recruitment materials, out on campus at other places, get the most use of it in kind of a social first way?” And one thing that I really push in these moments when we’re talking about content, we know what type of content is going to be most popular. I think what makes social media managers best is whenever they say, “Okay, we know what’s going to get the likes and retweets and shares, but what content makes the most sense for the university?”

Tony Dobies:

It may not be the most popular thing or most viewed thing, but it’s really going to advance us in a certain way. And to get past that mindset of thinking in likes and more around what’s going to move our institution forward, that’s a huge process that we have gone through in our content. And so in the past, we may have done way more around football and basketball and sports, we still do that with an eye towards the student experience and not what happens on the field. But we do a whole lot more of other things because that’s what’s going to make the institution better in our eyes.

Kevin Tyler:

Oh, my word. I came for a podcast, but what I got is a sermon. Both of you guys are so preaching, and so great and so true.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Tony and I’ve been around a while. So to Kevin, to that point because we have been and I don’t want to discount at all the blessings that have come from the hard work that we’ve had the opportunity to put in at outstanding organizations. Whenever I speak in these types of environments, I always worry about the individuals that are going to just assume that they can’t do this because they don’t have 12 people yet, right? They’re not under the frame of marketing. So I want to give a couple of examples of things that I’ve done that could be helpful at other places.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So if you don’t have staff, right? For example, I have what I call a dotted line relationship with a member of the staff at our news agency, our department of public safety and security and within our public affairs office. So those three individuals attend every single one of my Monday morning staff meetings. They also are asked to contribute weekly content that might align with conversations that are happening within their own organizations.

Nikki Sunstrum:

DPSS, our department of public safety and security, they’re going to know if theft is up. I’m not going to know until somebody complains about it on the internet. And so having that person in my content meetings, they can say, “Hey we’re going to create an Instagram story for you,” and they have a designated spot every Saturday on our accounts where they can pull forward whatever it is. And we can work with them proactively to maybe talk to a sexual assault investigator because we’ve heard that there’s an uptake in things that are happening across campus or concerns amongst our community.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So we build those relationships and those are things that you can do without having somebody report to you, without getting an FTE. Bring the people that have the content expertise to the table and open your door to them and ask them for their input. Additionally, I’ve made some creative staff hires through shared funding. So everybody knows that even getting a full-time social media person can be difficult if you are a smaller organizational unit.

Nikki Sunstrum:

So I have two staff members on my team that report to me and sit in my office, but are designed to support either five different stakeholders that are all initiative based or five different stakeholders that are all schools and colleges. They create that content in alignment with our standards, best practice and policies, but they also have the added opportunity to place that content and elevate it through the main channels because they have that direct line into my office.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so we’re always happy to retweet a school or college that has something great, but we’ve created these shared staffing resources to kind of help us all out along the way, help content be optimized, help it be more creative, help them gauge the expertise and get the mentoring from my full team, but also provide a service to our smaller units that can’t afford potentially their own person. So if you are a team of one, right? Rely on collaboration, ask people for help even if they don’t report to you and be creative if you are trying to advocate for staffing. See if somebody else wants to share a role with you and then both of you come out a little better in the end.

Tony Dobies:

Nikki I feel I have the same concern every time that I speak at a conference or a podcast like this where you say, “Oh, I’ve got a team of eight,” and they go, “Oh, well, everything that he’s about to say is not relevant because I can’t make it happen.” And I would say Nikki, to your point, that’s exactly what we have here. Five of my team members are fully funded by other units. And that was from relationships that I have built, cases that I’ve made to those leaders that said, “Hey, a social position is important. They should be full-time and they should report to me because I know what this job should be.”

Tony Dobies:

And that’s how we’ve built our team. We’ve obviously as a university, put more funding into it, but our unit itself, we haven’t put much more into it which has been a good thing for us. And I would agree too from a team of one standpoint, the best social media managers that I’ve been around who are teams of one, they know just about everybody at the institution, they have made good relationships. They know who to call in the right moments even if it’s subtle things like, “Hey, I’m going to be out shooting photos and I need this light turned on, who do I call in facilities?” You have a person for that. It’s those subtle things that make that social person so much [crosstalk 00:47:36].

Nikki Sunstrum:

I have a list.

Tony Dobies:

Love it.

Nikki Sunstrum:

It just happened to be under my desk.

Tony Dobies:

And the other thing I would say too, is the expectations for a one person team are great, but they should be very specific. And I think that is working with that supervisor and saying, “Here is what I’m capable of doing. As a one person team, this is what I’m able to do in a week, work week or a workday.” And that 24/7 monitoring might not be a thing without some cross training of somebody else so that somebody can take a break or a vacation.

Tony Dobies:

And I think having that conversation with a supervisor and talking about realistic expectations and like, “Hey, as a one person team, I probably don’t have the ability to start a TikTok right now.” And that supervisor needs to be clued in enough and empathetic enough to that person to say, “Okay, I know your focus should be elsewhere.” And that’s on the supervisor, not the social media manager to react in the right way in those situations but I think that conversation can be initiated by the social media manager.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Or allow them the opportunity to prioritize, right? So if they do want to emphasize vertical video, you may not have a Facebook page anymore, right? You’ve got to really determine and make those decisions and be realistic in your expectations. There is no way if I was a team of one that we would have been able to put out 4,610 pieces of content last year.

Kevin Tyler:

Exactly.

Nikki Sunstrum:

There’s just no way. I wouldn’t even have been able to run that report and tell you we put out 4,610 pieces of content.

Tony Dobies:

Sure.

Nikki Sunstrum:

What happens if you’re busy?

Kevin Tyler:

Right. The investment that a high ride brand makes into its social is an indication of how it’s valued, right? To me at least.

Tony Dobies:

Sort of.

Kevin Tyler:

And so if there is not enough resources, people, money, whatever it is and the expectations need to align themselves with what the reality of the experience of doing that job. It’s right. Like you can’t want to have presence on every platform and have posts every day if you aren’t going to invest in the people to make that happen. I have been on a soapbox lately about instances when higher ed brands or communicators inside of a higher ed brand look to other schools, look to other higher ed institution brands to see what they’re doing to kind of replicate that.

Kevin Tyler:

And I’m challenged by that approach because I firmly believe that the folks who have the most compelling and higher ed appropriate messaging are outside of higher ed, right? The inspiration that I get comes from the TikTok brand, from the YouTube brand, from Instagram brand and commercials and advertising, et cetera. I’m curious about what inspires you because your content just feels different than most higher ed content often feels. And so I just wanted to have that conversation just because it feels newer and more modern.

Tony Dobies:

I think there’s some good, I think, in looking at what peer institutions especially in terms of size of institution and size of social team that we get. I love looking at the content that Nikki’s team puts out and looking at teams like Texas A&M, another great one, Nebraska. There are some others that do a really, really good job that I sit back and just say like, “Oh, I’m just glad that there are other schools out there that are prioritizing and doing good work.”

Tony Dobies:

From my team’s perspective, I try to focus in a little bit more on trying to see social through the eyes of a high school senior, or a college student. What are they looking at? They’re on YouTube and TikTok and they’re spending a lot of time there. We can take trends, we can take small pieces of the things that we see there and throw that into what we’re doing. It doesn’t have to mean that we’re on TikTok all the time, but it may be like, “Hey, we know what the trends are, we know what subtle language has changed like usage of emojis and things like that that would make us feel more relevant to that group of people.”

Tony Dobies:

And so just being able to have that knowledge and for me, I kind of tell our team like, “You should spend time looking at TikTok and watching YouTube.” But that’s something that I hope that you do and find those things that are most relevant for our audiences. To me, even I look at some of the bigger national international brands that I like to take some inspiration from them, I think sometimes it’s hard. It’s harder more than ever now because I feel like our world has just been so messed up for a while that everything is a little convoluted and it’s just tough. It’s tough to take inspiration because we’re all in our own situation.

Kevin Tyler:

Right.

Tony Dobies:

But I think those personalities, those influencers, those people that are really popular with this age group, they are as authentic as it gets. I think that’s what we have to try to push as our brand is being as authentically WVU as we can be. And so we can take some inspiration from them.

Kevin Tyler:

I love that.

Nikki Sunstrum:

For me, it really boils down to right-sizing trends and innovations for the brand. Obviously I’ve mentioned staying in your swim lane, which is probably the most candid and just frank way that you can put something. Everybody wants to do something cool, everybody wants to be viral. There are plenty of trends going around and they’re just not always going to be right for your brand. And you have to right-size them for your brand, or just stay away from that. Don’t do it, it’s not for you.

Nikki Sunstrum:

And so when it comes to peer institutions, I think all of us that have been in higher education long enough, we know the ones that we look to, not just for phenomenal content and strategy, but I’d take a gander to say that we have a pretty good counseling group too so we can all look to each other to see what’s kind of taking place and how people are addressing issues, burn cycles and crisis and media. And seeing each other at conferences is something that I think we kind of miss, maybe enjoying a cocktail maybe when we see each other.

Tony Dobies:

Maybe.

Nikki Sunstrum:

That’s right. All of those things that I look to within my own industry is more about, I think, support and thought leadership and exploration than it is about even inspiration. Because Michigan and every other institution, even if we’re in the same conference, we’re all completely different areas.

Kevin Tyler:

Right.

Nikki Sunstrum:

We’re just in higher education. But students make the decisions to go to these places for a multitude of different reasons. And so we need to assess our demographics, we need to see what they actually want from us and not worry about being the weird uncle at Thanksgiving that thinks he’s cool and cracks dad jokes, right?

Kevin Tyler:

That’s right.

Nikki Sunstrum:

That doesn’t adhere to our brand and sometimes that is unfortunate. There are trends that come across, I’m like, “Ooh, I wish we didn’t have to lead with that tone.” But we have an established tone and personality for our brand and we stay true to that, that’s the U of M way. And so you have to know those things. We look to a lot of big brands, of course, as we like to say we’re the number one recognized block M, that mason blue kind of thing. I’m sure every institution maybe says that, but we look to things like Nike or we’re looking to Apple.

Nikki Sunstrum:

If I saw one more video with an individual sitting with a white background behind them four years ago, I was going to lose my mind. And so that was a trend and people wanted to do that and thought it would be great and make them an innovator and it didn’t, it just kind of came off as cheesy. And so you got right-size that, and you have to make it appropriate and you have to stay in your swim lane. And you have to make those strategic decisions about what your front door communications vehicle is going to do. And if we’re going to continue to advocate for the relevancy and importance of this industry, we cannot tie ourselves to only being in the mean game or adopting the latest TikTok viral video if it doesn’t actually move the needle for the goals and objectives of our organizations.

Tony Dobies:

And that has been so much more clear in the last year and a half too, right? I think there have been times where we would have over the pandemic time, we would have seen a trend and we would have loved to take advantage of it. But then we sit down and we have the conversation, we say, “We can’t do that right now. The tone and tenure of our campus does not allow for us to talk in that way.” And it would just feel so off from everything else. And that’s okay because you’re sticking to what you know, you understand your brand, you understand your audience and the platform and it’s okay to say like, “Yeah, not right now. We’re going to pass on this one.”

Kevin Tyler:

And I’m really excited that you both brought up tone and personality in social because I think that’s often forgotten as part of the brand social altogether and then tone and personality on social is also an extension of your brand. And so if you sound markedly different on social than you do everywhere else, people are going to start to question the validity and the strength of the brand. And I’m so glad that you both brought that up.

Kevin Tyler:

The last question that came to mind as you were speaking, obviously a lot of people think that social media is only for the young set. But with 40% of the higher ed population coming from adult learners, being adult learners, they’re over 25, taking care of people, have different needs in their lives. How do you use social media to reach out to those folks who might not be part of the social media expected crowd?

Nikki Sunstrum:

Well, my 10,000 plus strong parents group would really have something to say about that. And they are far more vocal than our students on a daily basis. This is where it becomes really important to understand the various platforms, the communities that you create and the demographics that reside there. And then this plays even further into the content that you’re creating for each of those individual platforms, right? The questions that you’re asking, the cadence or the timing and the release of your information.

Nikki Sunstrum:

We get stuff out on Twitter faster than the email gets delivered to your inbox sometimes. And people are like, “Wait, I have to go to Twitter to learn this?” Well, no, you just give us a second, it’s going to go everywhere. But it might come at different times and it’s going to come certainly in different ways. It might be a video in one space, it might be an Instagram story in another. And from a director level role, right? Tony and I are likely the ones, I know I am, that’s saying, “Let’s put this here and let’s make sure that this is getting aligned here.” Because our team is focused on creating great content that will be optimized for those spaces, but it’s up to us to really help on behalf of the brand those things be the most impactful that they can be. So that’s kind of how we approach it.

Tony Dobies:

And Nikki when you talked about the parent piece, that one spoke so much to me. We made a really conscious effort in March 2020 to focus in on parents when we started to communicate about COVID because we knew that they were probably the most concerned and nervous and probably felt like they were out of touch and so we focus on that. A lot of our Facebook content around COVID is with a parent in mind of a student. And they are by no means happy, but I think they are happier and they feel more clued into the university and the decisions that are being made because we’ve kept up that focus.

Kevin Tyler:

Right.

Tony Dobies:

And we’ve got a parents’ group as well. We’ve added moderators to that group because we’ve had to. The number of questions and conversations that have started on that group just exploded and continue to move in that direction, I don’t think it will ever slow down. And that’s okay because again, we are doing our job. As a customer service arm of the university, we are making them feel more invested. They are getting value for the money that they’re paying to have their student come here.

Tony Dobies:

And so I think it’s just understanding the audiences and what is expected of us as social media managers and of institutions in speaking to them. And Nikki and us role, I think it’s important for us to show how social connects the dots between the messages that are coming out from an institution and those audiences and that yeah, social, especially over the last year and a half is one of, if not the most important places to do that and probably will be for a long, long, long time because of everything that we’ve learned and moved over the last 18 months or so.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Yeah, between the 1st of August and the end of December in 2020, we put out 1500 pieces of content strictly around COVID. That is one of your primary vehicles, right? In addition to all of the other outreach mechanisms. And some of those were faculty experts talking about concerns that were happening as variants were emerging, some of it was us changing, right? We had to send students home midway through a semester. All of those things directionally we’re going either into our parents’ communities to alleviate their concerns or give them directional assistance.

Nikki Sunstrum:

They were resources, a quarantine housing that were going out to our student communities. There were town and gown conversations to help alleviate concerns of our community members about what was taking place on campus. That all is happening through social media. And so it’s really important that all of those things are being created to be impactful to all of those different demographics and that we are championing that it’s not just some students that are hanging out on social media.

Tony Dobies:

And I think the reality too, is that our social teams at institutions are speaking to more people on a daily basis on average than anybody else. And so when we talk about building a brand, we are the day to day conversationalists of the university. And the way that we speak and interact with people is the expectation. And I love that. I love that from our side of things, we have the team to be able to do it right and to have empathy in our responses and care for those people.

Tony Dobies:

I think that makes us better when it comes to setting a precedent for whenever somebody calls, a parent calls or a parent line. They know because they’ve seen the way that we responded on social publicly, maybe how to respond in the same empathetic way. And so I think we’re building that side of the brand every single day. That’s a great thing. I love that about social.

Kevin Tyler:

Nikki and Tony, thank you so much for your time today. Is there anything that you want to mention that I didn’t ask about?

Nikki Sunstrum:

I’ll add one thing. Just for everybody that’s kind of listening in, take care of yourselves. I think there has never been a more important time to think deeply. I know it’s different across the nation as far as we’re not back in the office, yet I came in today of course. But we’re going to begin transitioning our teams into more of a hybrid model in the coming month. In other areas across the nation, they’ve already been back in the office. But if there’s anything we should walk away with that said, it’s as important to take care of ourselves as it is the communities that we’re creating content for. And so I would encourage anyone to use that time off to unplug and disconnect and to make conscientious decisions that will put you on a path towards professional and personal success.

Tony Dobies:

And I think I would add value yourself and your expertise. There is going to come a time whenever we are out of the pandemic, I mean, hopefully where institutions will have more money, they will have more opportunities to spend time thinking about the future and in those moments, we need to make sure that all social media managers are taken care of. But I think the first step of that is that everyone out there who’s listening who does this on a day-to-day basis knows that you are doing a really, really good job in a situation that probably isn’t optimal for you to succeed.

Tony Dobies:

And so when it comes down to advocating for yourself and your role and your future, do it with confidence. I think it’s so important because I think so many social media managers are beaten down with the day-to-day workload. And because of all of the hate that we get every single day, you may have lost confidence in your work and you haven’t been able to be as creative as you wanted to be. Don’t forget that this part of the job has been hard, you’ve done a really good job. And when it comes to that conversation, go in there, sell yourself, prove to them that you deserve more and hopefully institutions are ready at that time to give you what you deserve, and if not, get out of there.

Kevin Tyler:

You are all bringing the heat today. Listen.

Nikki Sunstrum:

We double as inspirational and motivational speakers, and are our side gigs.

Kevin Tyler:

Yes, you do. I may need to have a session with each of you.

Nikki Sunstrum:

I have this couch in my office which I’ve really missed actually.

Kevin Tyler:

Hire a few sessions. We don’t just speak to minds here, we speak to hearts too huh, Tony? hunt.

Tony Dobies:

Exactly.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s great. Listen, I love it. This concludes our very first blue and gold episode of Higher Voltage. Thank you, Tony Dobies, thank you, Nikki Sunstrum for your time today.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Thanks.

Kevin Tyler:

I really appreciate it. We will have Nikki’s thematic calendar on our website. We will also see if Tony can send over his thematic bucket document for use. We’re all in this together, might as well share tools that help us all. So thank you again, until next time.

Nikki Sunstrum:

Thank you.

Kevin Tyler:

Appreciate your time today. That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. We’ll be back soon with a new episode. And until then, you can find us on Twitter @volthighered, and you can find me, Kevin Tyler, on Twitter @kevinctyler2.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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