Doing it Right?

I had a crazy day yesterday … not that I am complaining, as I spent it with smart people near or at the top of the decision making chain here at PSU. I spent all morning and into the afternoon talking to a couple of groups about social media, social networks, and their potential for impact on students. I was asked over and over again how we as administrators and as an Institution should take advantage of Facebook (and blogs and twitter, and …). The rooms were filled with people of varying levels of comfort with social media sites so you could almost draw a line down the middle between “these sites make no sense” and “we absolutely need to be there.” The interesting thing I kept hearing was that students don’t want us there and that has me thinking about one simple question — Should Universities maintain an official Facebook presence?

Before I get too far down the path let me say that I am not talking about individual professors adding students as friends. I am talking strictly about an Institutional commitment to taking part in the network. As an example I can point you to my alma mater, West Virginia University, where they have (as it appears) made a serious decision about embracing everyone’s favorite social network.

WVU on Facebook

WVU on Facebook

What I wonder is if we need to be there? Should we use our resources (in time and people) to build a strong brand in FB? What does it yield? A place for alumni to reconnect (do they need us for that)? A place where we can do targeted marketing (can’t we do that in FB without a space)? A place to alert students of issues on campus (I hate to think we are relying on FB as our broadcast engine)? I’m just not sure.

There’s been all sorts of chatter about how to deal with the rapidly expanding demographic and how to personally segment the network based on who you want to see your updates. To me what that means is that we are seeing a network that is growing up. What was once the haven of a few geeks and a whole bunch of college kids has turned into a social network with an emerging identity crisis. It is no longer the land of twenty somethings … my Mom, Mother-in-Law, as are parents of my friends are on FB and know how to use it relatively well so something is afoot. Take into account the following from iStrategyLabs as an example …

The biggest surprise (perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising) was that Facebook’s 35-54 year old demographic segment not only continued to grow the fastest, but it accelerated to a 276.4% growth rate over the past 6 months.

Basically what I’m saying is that it isn’t just for college kids anymore … there are now lots of people to think about. So, I’ll return to my question, should Universities maintain an official Facebook presence? Anyone have any thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Doing it Right?

  1. “Official facebook presence” sounds pretty intimidating. I think that a business site rather than sites from individual “faces” and the groups they create misses much of the networking point of a social application. Penn State can encourage it, can provide support, cool images and media, reference it and its groups in publications- but an official page is just wrong. After all, “we” are Penn State.

  2. @david stong I tend to agree. When I first started thinking about this I thought the University should take the time to do it, but am now thinking differently about it. I do like what WVU has done — provide a strong gateway into the social network.

    One of the issues I hear is that higher ups want to *control* every single drop of message that would go on any page that has a PSU mention on it. I don’t think you can have an open space and have be all positive and rosy, can you? My thought is that if they say they don’t like Creamery Ice Cream in a PSU FB space, then 100 other people would tell them they are crazy.

  3. I say yes–Universities should have an official Facebook presence. I discussed this in a post last month
    Here’s a little piece of my posted argument for an institutional presence on the social web (I’ll confess I’m too tired this morning to restate it in a new way) 
    “If Universities create official ‘Class of…” and other groups, this may at least help University-affiliated organizations and events gain some leverage within the Facebook environment. While I’m not advocating for barraging users with marketing strategies and ads (even if it is for something educationally useful), I’d like to see some advantages extended to University-affiliated groups on social networking sites. Is it time to begin creating custom environments (by school / by company / by geographic area) for Facebook users? Should the realm of student apps, like course schedules, the registrar, the Libraries, etc.. lay on top of and reside with Facebook social data? We’ve talked about doing this with the Facebook library app (for book recommendations), and it also holds unlimited promise for marketing.”

  4. As someone currently working on in Student Affair’s, I do see a benefit of having an official Penn State Facebook presence to centralize groups and information. The main benefit that I see (wearing my Student Affairs hat) is that we can provide some education (something like the Do and don’t on WVU’s page) to students and others who join the PSU group or add the page on using Facebook while at the same time adhering to University policy and ethics as they relate to online identities, privacy and common sense.

    But as a pragmatic person, I can see why we wouldn’t be able to do something like that very easily too. I think it would take a huge commitment from basically everyone to make this happen at the University level. The entire process could get bogged down in bureaucracy like the University’s website did back in the day with a team trying to decide what should and shouldn’t be represented and what the page should look like. Currently, there are over 500 groups representing departments, campuses, clubs, sports, etc.. Maybe that’s enough?

    On a personal note, I’ve been using Facebook a little more than I used to lately. I have had several high school friends find me recently after no contact for over 20 years all in the 37-41 age range. Chris’s mom, my step-mother and my ex-mother-in-law all friended me as well within the last couple of weeks. All three of them are between 57 and 68. So I see that the face of Facebook is changing indeed.

  5. @ Ellysa and @ April I struggle with what it means to “own” the FB presence for an Institution. The other day I got an email from someone in another department asking me how I force people to get on FB and participate in the ETS group … it actually made me laugh. If you want to connect (as evidenced by all the new connections) then you’ll find a way. My fear is constructing a community built around control. I’m just not sure … more discussion, please!

  6. A University’s Facebook presence is a good idea, but there are still a few reasons to proceed with caution.

    No one knows if Facebook will still be around in five years. What if some other company, like Microsoft buys it out? What if they implement new incompatible technologies, popups, ads, increased downtime or they start charging for services? While I believe there should be a presence, I think it should be small yet informative enough to warrant it’s own space.

    Also, would we have complete and unrestricted access to our content or would we be at the mercy of Facebook?

  7. At best the answer to “should Universities maintain an official Facebook presence?” is a “maybe” with all kinds of factors to consider of what is a “presence” and what is “official”. It would make sense, given the numbers you and others share on FB usage, to provide some sort of doorway to socially connecting people with a common interest (go Lions).

    Plus, given the spread of FB usage the previous messages of “get outta my FB” does not ring as true; it should all be optional.

    But again, the trick is that “presence” be more than PR-ware, a very tricky balance to be “official”.

    Statements like “No one knows if X will still be around in five years” don’t do much- no one gets that kind of guarantee. All of the major web services did not exist as theya re now 5 years ago.

    And while FB grows like no end on sight, I am concerned as it still seems FB is stingy with the data people put in it. It is now the biggest online photo storage site, yet, once your photos go into FB, it offers no tools, no APIs, no syndication to use that outside (as far as I know). FB sucks content in from other sites and returns nada. For photos, you cannot assign creative commons rights and FB’s TOS gives them the rights to re-use your photos.

    PS- If you post every day, I will comment every day 😉

  8. At this point, I think that the University as an institution still supports control as a culture and until we have some brave people begin to change that culture and allow communities to develop naturally, I don’t think that we can construct a community without control smack dab in the middle of it even if the community would police itself.

    I have conversations like this all the time which end up coming back to the Penn State brand and what that means to various entities around the University as well as controlling everything about the message from the content to how that content is written to who should be allowed to even send or access the message. Add to that whenever students are mentioned someone brings up student privacy and FERPA whether or not it really applies to the situation like what Brad was talking Penn State’s blog system at ELI last month. So when the institution of the University gets involved at this point in time, control is bound to be involved in some way because I don’t think the folks involved know how not to control. Maybe there is a way to limit the amount of control or to control the control? I hope that wasn’t too far off the original topic.

  9. @ Alan Levine I will post each day. I will not let into my feelings of being utterly overwhelmed. The thing about FB that does bother me are echos of Alan — what goes in, stays in. Perhaps they are working towards greater data portability, but at the moment it just isn’t there. I wonder if that even makes a difference to those who live in it?

  10. What WVU has done amounts to a very minimal institutional presence on FB.
    They created an official ‘Class of 2013’ page (something other schools are also considering doing, in light of commercial spamming on these pages)They created an official WVU Fan page. Penn State has fan page, but it doesn’t look very official–it certainly displays no linkages with any University-wide PR/marketing efforts. This is a missed opportunity.
    They created a listing of official WVU groups on Facebook.
    All of the above seem like great marketing efforts to me and an opportunity to present a consistent message in an environment where we know a majority of students are. To ignore taking on an institutional approach to this (at least as far as admissions / marketing and PR are concerned) is short-sighted. I think better data portability may be coming, in the form of efforts like Friend Connect, but in the meantime, developing a minimal, institutional, marketing-focused acknowledgment of the importance of FB to students seems like a complete no-brainer to me.

  11. @ Ellysa I like that WVU has built a presence outside FB directing folks into their different pages. I also like that they posted a few smart items about identity in their FAQ.

  12. If this is done, IMO you need students to populate it, run it, push new things out and maintain it.

    Otherwise it’s just another dead web site. The entire idea of a FB group is a dynamic place for social “stuff” to happen.

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