How Columbia University unified a fragmented social marketing setup

Columbia University is the oldest university in New York, and the fifth oldest institution for higher education in the United States. Its School of Professional Studies offers 14 master's degree programs across a range of disciplines, and social media is a big part of connecting with new students, nurturing the alumni network and keeping the various programs aligned in their communications strategy.

But how can you bring social media to the forefront of communications in an institution that was founded in 1754? And how do you help entire faculties get comfortable with using social media as part of their everyday routine? I caught up with Caroline Henley, social media specialist at Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, to find out how she’s been using social to make waves in the academic world.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced using social in a higher education setting?

If you’re in a school with a wide variety of programs, things can quickly become chaotic on social if you don’t find a way to manage things effectively. Maybe a school has 60 different channels, and you have several people trying to log in to every account to post – suddenly you’re on a constant hunt for passwords or for the right person to help you.

When I came on board at Columbia SPS, I immediately brought on a social media management platform. With Falcon.io, we have the chance to connect everything in one place, and to make the process of becoming active on social easy and accessible. It creates home for a school that might be delving into bioethics on one hand, actuarial science on the other, and it unifies a lot of programs that wouldn’t be connected otherwise.

Connecting and unifying channels might sounds simple, but a lot of higher ed orgs are very traditional institutions, and they aren’t necessarily ahead in the digital curve. When you’re on campus, sometimes you rely on running around into different buildings, and just knowing who people are. And so sometimes the marketing/digital team isn't quite as in the loop as they might be in a more digitally-driven company. Unifying people onto digital through a platform was just huge for us.

How was social managed before you used Falcon?

There was no social hire before me, no one person responsible for overseeing all social activity. There was one team member sort of handling social as a side task, but there wasn’t sufficient investment for it to be a priority.

When I came on, I used the Falcon platform to inspire the different master’s programs to include me more. I showed them what listening could do for their outreach. I showed them how they could schedule posts in Publish and how they could keep all their passwords in one place. For the first time this brought all the programs together for social, and this enabled me to get a level of control over the overall brand voice for the first time.

What objectives does SPS have for social?

My title is social media specialist. I was initially brought on to get the dean’s social and online presence going. But it was clear there was more of a need for the school brand as well. So the strategy has been to dive into both, using the dean as the mouthpiece for the leadership of the school, giving students access to his office and highlight the strategic initiatives the school is building.

We’re now using social in more areas than ever. It’s been a great tool for opening up the channels of communication for our students, prospective students, alumni, faculty and staff. These people could be living across the country, all over the world (Columbia is one of the most international schools in the US) so we need to unite our community across a worldwide stage.

Social is also a way for us to break down the walls of the Ivy League. We live-tweet and livestream guest lectures, all the interesting insights from the top scholars and practitioners speaking at our events, and our social community has access to it whereas they could not before. What I love about my job is that I get to make all of this accessible to a wider audience.

Our chief academic officer, Dr Sharyn O’Halloran, recently launched a new fintech model to help implement new standards in finance, and we hosted a panel of speakers from across fintech and the finance industry to discuss it. This is an event that the Columbia community was invited to, but we could also broadcast it through social, which allows a greater access to our work, and offers a fascinating look into this intersection of university research and the needs of the market.

How do you use social to engage prospective students?

We host online info sessions where prospective students can can sign up to ask questions directly to the director of their chosen program. I promote these across our social channels.

Then there’s also the brand awareness, content marketing side of things – we promote our faculty when a program is mentioned in the press. We run alumni profiles to talk about how they're using their degrees in the real world. And we shine a light on the contents of our programs, so people researching can get an understanding of the student experience.

Suffice to say, there’s a ton going on, with new innovations, initiatives and events happening all the time. I’m just one social media person trying to unite it all, and this is where the Falcon platform is a huge help. With our various programs prioritizing what needs to be broadcast, having the platform at the center of everything makes it much easier – and incredibly enjoyable – to keep our school’s various social efforts unified and on brand.

Manita Dosanjh is PR and communications executive at Falcon IO

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