One of my favorite projects when working at Tufts University was leading the creation of our social media hub, a custom-built page which hosted feeds from all of our social media accounts and served as an at-a-glance destination for campus social chatter. I was (and still am) extremely proud of what we built.
But that was back in 2010. Now, four years later, these types of pages (often called hubs, mashups, or aggregators) are still very common, but I think we’ve gotten better at them. Look at MIT’s Connect, which blends highlighted social media posts and accounts with a robust directory; Chapman University’s slick Social.Chapman hub; Hamilton College’s robustly curated The Scroll; or Vanderbilt’s smart use of the RebelMouse platform. (RebelMouse is one of several available third-party tools, such as Tintup, Tagboard, and Pressi, that you can use to help create and manage social media hubs.)
The difference between then and now is that we’ve realized the value of (and achieved easier capability for) moderation and curation as opposed to simple aggregation. We’re also creating better touchpoints for people to follow accounts directly, as well as more effectively enabling smart discovery, be it via search or smartly organized directories.
But I think there’s still further to go. And that journey may end with the demise of the social media hub.
Eye on the Prize
Is a form of communication as young as social media still capable of yielding an anachronism? Yes, wrote University of Maryland, Baltimore County communications manager Dinah Winnick in a thoughtful CASE blog post last year. And the social media directory may be that very anachronism.
“One of the primary goals of social media is to engage directly with current and prospective students, alumni and others where they already hang out,” wrote Winnick. “Does a phone book-style listing of accounts posted on a university website help achieve that goal?”
Yet, curation-based models like The Scroll, wrote Winnick, are attractive but time-intensive. How do we strike a balance? “We must adapt successful models to fit our institutions’ particular needs and resources, using them to inform creative solutions that are uniquely our own,” she concluded.
Winnick hit on a lot of critical points in her post. Is a hub/directory/mashup the best way to leverage social media content, given the nature of the medium? Are we pursuing hubs and the like because they are strategically prudent, or simply because they have become the default solution for featuring social media content on our website? And with regard to some of the third-party social media aggregation platforms I mentioned, it is always important to make sure that we are utilizing services that we can align with our goals and use effectively with the resources at our disposal.
As with all things, our goals must drive us. Has the hub become a habit? Is this the best use of our social media content?
I really like how Chapman’s interactive marketing specialist Sheri Lehman thinks about the purpose of her university’s social media hub — not just to collect content from the community, but to use it to reinforce a sense of openness.
“Aggregating posts and collecting user-generated content requires brands to be open, honest, and genuine,” she wrote in an October 2013 blog post. “Transparency holds universities accountable for answering questions, addressing concerns, and engaging in every day dialogue.”
This idea of transparency is key when it comes to creating powerful social media content, as well as all web content, since transparency reinforces clarity. The less we are perceived to be hiding or obscuring, the more effective we will be at forming meaningful relationships built on trust.
But let’s expand upon this concept. A social media aggregator may be effective at transparently representing conversations on campus, but our challenge is to take that sense of transparency even further. If tweets by and for alumni are on our aggregator page, but not on our alumni-specific webpages, we may in effect be obscuring information and inhibiting transparency. If our program pages aren’t speckled with tweets from relevant clubs, professors, and even students, we may not be representing these programs as fully as we can (and should) be.
As social media in higher ed has grown up, we’ve come around to the realization that it’s not a separate, special unicorn that needs to reside in an organizational and publishing silo. Rather, social media is just one part of a smart communications strategy, and its true power is best revealed in integration with other platforms and mediums.
With that in mind, social media is not destined to live contained in a separate hub or aggregator. It is destined to live contextually across our entire website, enhancing more static elements with real-time, personality-driven social content.
- A course description comes to life with a tweet from the professor showing today’s in-class demonstration
- A page listing study abroad offerings is made more vibrant by a feed of recent photos taken by students in Spain
- A list of student organization becomes more meaningful when accompanied by a feed of their Twitter accounts, highlighting upcoming performances, event photos, and competition results
- A faculty bio reinforces the professor’s relevance in her field by hosting a feed of recent, topical blog posts
This means going further than simply placing our most recent tweets on our homepage. By complementing copy with conversation, we’re closer to achieving that powerful sense of transparency, while also improving how the user comprehends our information and receives our messaging. This approach speaks to our confidence in the full-bodied academic experience—not just our controlled representation of our programs, but how that is corroborated by people sharing their relevant experiences in real-time.
The honesty that permeates social media lends a credibility to our programs that no accreditor can match. It is only by enabling social media to lend context to what we’re saying on the web that this opportunity can be unlocked
This is Lehman’s vision, too: “For us, Social.Chapman is only the beginning of an overall campaign to seed social throughout our web presence.” She adds:
Social.Chapman was simply an aggregator of many elements… elements that should be collected and curated by Social.Chapman, but strategically placed across all of Chapman’s web sites. Therefore, Social.Chapman was developed into a widget for our blogs’ right hand sidebar and we hope to feature social elements similarly on the university’s homepage in the future.”
Putting the Pieces Together
I said before that we’ve gotten better at our social media aggregators, and that’s largely because we’re putting more work into them. I love how MIT’s Connect enables you to, from one organization’s social profile, discover similar organizations and connect with them via social media. I feel a certain nerdy glee when I think about the spreadsheets housing all the work done to not only compile social accounts, but identify the relationships between them.
I also love how Hamilton’s The Scroll thrives not on a plethora of accounts, but rather a plethora of organic conversation — and that comes from extensive mining and moderation of social content produced campus-wide. I love how Vanderbilt has made good use of tabs to create social landing pages for campaigns like VU2018 and categories like athletics. (Similarly, The Scroll organizes content by audience.) I love the attention to technical detail paid by the Chapman team to make their hub more than just a page, but a social portal in its own right.
All of this work — collecting data, doing research, identifying and charting relationships and connections, fostering organic content, organizing related content, and applying technical prowess — can be brought to bear to achieve this vision of contextually integrating social content on the web. Rather than centralizing the output of that work in a hub, we instead distribute it appropriately across our website.
That’s almost the easy part. The harder part is the vision — both articulating it and getting others to buy into it. It’s up to us to reasonably map out just how social content can most effectively support web and other content, while fending off the perception that social content devalues more “serious” academic content and assuaging concerns about potentially unmoderated voices sharing online real estate with programmatic copy.
For some, it’s a mental sea change. But it’s where the tide is taking us. And while social media hubs were a great first attempt to incorporate social content into our web presence, the future is all about context.
What do you think? Have social media hubs outlived their usefulness, or do they remain valuable destinations? How are you contextually integrating social media content across your website?