This Isn’t a Wendy’s

Why colleges and universities need to look to new sources of social media inspiration.

By: Jon-Stephen Stansel
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Whenever I’m fortunate enough to be asked to talk to a communications or marketing class, I always ask them what brands they think are doing well on social media. The top answer is inevitably the same: Wendy’s.

But while the fast food giant has made for some memorable viral social media moments, I always tell students that they should look to other areas for social media role models. Quirky accounts like Wendy’s, Steak-Umm, and Aviation Gin are the exception and not the rule when it comes to brand social media accounts. 

But students aren’t the only ones who need new social media marketing role models. In higher ed, we often look to a slate of usual suspects for inspiration, especially large, big-name institutions. Ask a higher ed social media manager who they think is doing well on social media and you’ll get answers like MIT, University of Michigan, and Texas A&M. And while these accounts are excellent and there is much to be learned from them, their goals, audience, resources are often far different than that of a community college or small private school.

Higher ed social media managers (and university leadership) need to look farther afield at social accounts in fields like healthcare, government, consumer products — and higher ed, too, of course. But to find useful, atypical higher ed inspirations, where can you look? Start by asking your university leadership who they consider peer institutions and what institutions they aspire to be more like. 

But what admissions teams think of as your peer or aspirational competitors can still limit the scope of where to look for great social media accounts within higher ed. So be sure to look, too, at schools that yours does not necessarily compete with, like HBCUs, smaller state schools, community colleges, and others (jump to the end of this post to see some of these accounts that I think are great). Many of these institutions are creating incredibly creative social media collateral and campaigns, and often with far fewer resources.

Follow all of those institutions — competitors, and non-competitors alike — and take a deep dive into their social accounts. You can even reach out to their social media managers to pick their brains (and to develop professional networking connections). I promise you that you’ll find new ideas and examples of campaigns that not only work for your goals, but likely were done with similar resources to yours. On top of that, I’ll venture to guess that you’ll find some social media managers at smaller institutions doing things that would impress even the most experienced social media managers.

Don’t lose sight of the big splashy accounts inside and outside of higher ed. But don’t fall into the trap of prioritizing them above all else; rather, those should really be in a second or third tier of where you get ideas from. By focusing on your competitors and smaller, lesser-known institutions, you can see techniques and strategies that are relevant to your work and are actually achievable for most schools. Dig down a little deeper and look to see what individual departments at these institutions are doing. You’ll be surprised by the creativity of some smaller accounts.

Here are a few HBCUs, smaller state schools, community colleges, and others with great social accounts:

Jon-Stephen Stansel

Jon-Stephen Stansel

Jon-Stephen Stansel is a social media professional with almost a decade of experience managing, building, and creating content for brand social media accounts. He has run social media accounts in entertainment, higher ed, and state government. He is also a co-host of the Thought Feeder Podcast, a weekly podcast offering insights on digital marketing in higher education. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Radio and Television Production and a Master’s degree in English both from Arkansas State University.


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