The following guest post was written by Courtney Mallam, content specialist at Glendon College, York University in Toronto, Canada.
Producing great web content isn’t easy — particularly when operating as the only designated content creator in your division. Some days, finding opportunities to thoughtfully plan and create content can feel like a small miracle.
At Glendon College, we needed someone (or a whole team of someones!) to help tell our story, and to tell it well. We needed to face the challenges of limited human resources, a shoestring budget and a growing need for content that attracted and sustained readers by showcasing our community and support services in a compelling way.
Cue our student eAmbassador team. Not unlike Rob Engelsman’s student army at Ithaca College, our eAmbassadors show off our campus personality in a genuine and accessible way, primarily through their own blogs and tweets. In order to do that effectively, it was important to trust our students to publish posts about their program, campus life, support services, life experiences, food options and residences on their blogs without obtaining prior administrative approval.
When we were launching the program in fall 2011, I maintained that letting students tell our story was a sticking point for our success; for administrators, on the other hand, it was an area for concern.
What if the student makes a misstep? What if they don’t do a good job? What if they say something that we don’t like? We had to ease worries about students’ relative inexperience with content creation while simultaneously finding ways to help the team succeed. For us, the key approach to both is comprehensive training, based on a few essential principles.
Approve the Student, Not the Post
True, we place a lot of trust with students when taking such an unfiltered approach. For many, this was an uncomfortably huge leap of faith. However, timeliness is crucial with social media, and content goes stale quick if it’s stuck in a bottleneck for approval.
The only solution we could foresee was to:
- hire the right students,
- build an intensive training experience that builds relationship and trust and
- maintain a strong team to facilitate coaching and feedback over the course of the year.
Find the Right People
My approach to finding the right students was to look for applicants who were actively involved in campus activities as well as the social web, and then fine-tune and guide their abilities without changing their voice.
Since the program’s success hinged not only on the quality of the content created but on the reliability of the posts, we knew that our ideal eAmbassador would need to be equal parts engaged student leader and self-starting web writer. This particular combination was crucial since students who are actually living an active life — not just sporadically blogging robotic how-tos for getting involved — tend to write the best posts.
During our first eAmbassador recruitment campaign in the fall of 2011, many of our existing student leaders found us before we found them. A lot of them were already creating web content on Tumblr, WordPress, or YouTube for their own personal use — some were even doing so with a little bit of strategy. A limited few used only Facebook on a personal basis, but they more than made up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm for the opportunity (and very promising writing skills).
Once selected, we gave students a heads-up on mandatory training dates. The approach to training student content creators varies considerably from institution to institution. While some teams take an experiential on-the-job approach to their training, and others provide basic guidelines before sending teams on their way, we differentiate ourselves by offering ongoing training.
The reason for this? Our team consists of 60 percent volunteers, so I wanted to build some extra face-time into the program to provide additional coaching and support in lieu of the incentive of a paycheck.
It’s difficult to turn a group into a team when they’re rarely in the same room together. However, there’s very little attrition in the program. I credit this to a strong sense of connection between the individual eAmbassador and their love of campus, but also with the team as a whole.
I’m a strong believer in relationship-building for volunteer management. The stronger the connection that a volunteer feels to the team and to the cause, the more they’ll commit … and the harder they’ll work. Because my team is so heavily weighted with volunteers, it’s important to establish that sense of community early on. For this reason, the entire eAmbassador team undergoes a full day of training (along with our campus tour guides) in early September, plus an additional evening training specifically geared to develop awesome web content, social media etiquette, general best practices and a sense of co-ownership of the program.
To keep them connected throughout the year, we also run bi-monthly workshops for ongoing coaching, development and support. Occasionally, we recommend other development opportunities to strengthen the eAmbassadors’ peer networks, enrich their knowledge of campus resources, take advantage of development opportunities, and break down information silos.
Given the budget and time limitations of a small team, affording students the opportunity to get involved with these types of training can help give them more breadth as a student leader and also give them a wider frame of reference for opportunities and services available on campus.
To help improve the writing abilities of students on our team, regular workshops have in the past featured:
- Peer-led best practices on publishing schedules, writing for the web, design inspiration and photography tutorials
- Guest speakers discussing social storytelling and personal branding
- Materials from higher ed web resources such as the mStoner blog, .eduGuru and, of course, Meet Content
- Poynters News U (which, although focused on journalism, frequently offers budget-friendly one-hour webinars that can be generalized enough for my purposes)
Finally, a private, dedicated Facebook group serves to further strengthen best practices for our community, allowing them to share memes, writing challenges, peer feedback and to offer companionship and support.
No Set-and-Forget Option
In my time working with student content creators, I’ve found that the amount of time I invest in building connections with them is almost always positively correlated with the level of success that the program enjoys.
Simply put: just as you need to put effort into managing and developing a full-time employee, student content creators — who often require more guidance than those who have more professional experience — shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves. In order to manage a team of developing writers who mostly work remotely, a firm sense of connection needs to be established and consistently maintained over the course of the year. For these reasons, the in-services and Facebook group are key ways to foster their ongoing development.
Despite the challenges we encountered obtaining buy-in for the approach we took with our publishing process, it’s without a doubt paid off in spades. We’ve encouraged our students to get creative (and honest) with their posts. What’s more, we’ve seen some deep connections forged between eAmbassadors and students that may not have otherwise been established.
In short, while many of our students cover the basics about campus resources, services, clubs, and everyday activities, it’s become no surprise to come across a post that’s soulfully honest and raw. Not unlike the It Gets Better campaign, these students have bared parts of their souls to the world in a way that’s incredibly rare in everyday life.
Krista McNamara, a 5th year Canadian Studies student wrote on her struggles with mental health. It was (and still is) one of the singly most-visited posts in the program’s history. Same goes for 2nd year International Studies student Nick Chaloux’s post on body image and how it’s affected him. Still others write frankly about the challenges they’ve encountered as students: 3rd year Communications student Esther wrote a post about how changing your mind — and changing your plans — is okay and that it’s good to be analytical of one’s direction in life.
These student writers are telling their stories in a straightforward, candid way that, while sometimes making marketers uncomfortable, has made them more real to their readers — and we could never have effectively produced such content with institutional gatekeepers and review processes in place.
Do you work with student content creators? How do you keep them at the top of their game?
Homepage photo credit: eAmbassador team ugly sweater party, by Courtney Mallam.