Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tips for School District Social Media by Gary Feltman

Tips for School District Social Media by Gary Feltman

Social media for school districts seems to be gaining popularity. The purpose of this is to give suggestions based on my experience in facilitating social media on behalf of a school district. I will discuss my experiences with details, characteristics of Facebook and Twitter, successes, challenges, future outlooks, and a few other things I've learned along the way. Hopefully readers, particularly readers or educators with a vested interest in social media or ed-tech, find this information useful to the extend they use social media in their lives,

Facebook and Twitter seem fairly new for both schools and social media, but it seems as though when the year progressed, many more schools were participating more frequently through social media as well.

Getting pictures, photo and info is necessary and efficiency helps. When teachers and staff have pictures of positive things students and teachers are doing around the school, they need to be reminded to forward the pictures. Some teachers are good with emailing. Others need to be approached and reminded. It's comparable to customer service where the customers and product providers are both your teachers and students, and then the users are compared to the customers on the other end when viewing, interacting with, and sharing the information.

It's impossible to be at every school sports event, activity, performance, or even classroom. It helps to ask people to send pictures, but coaches and staff are always busy. One way to get pictures is to ask spectator staff attending the events to text or email an image of the event. A cup of coffee the next morning is a small price to pay in exchange for a school event picture being texted or emailed for posting purposes.

Facebook needs pictures. Just about every post needs a picture. Without images, the posts do not get any exposure. Also Facebook and Twitter are two different things. Twitter is a constant running feed and not every post requires a picture. Facebook requires pictures, and less frequency of posts.

Too many Facebook posts can be annoying; they need to be paced appropriately. For example, if there are a lot of happenings throughout the week, A good number of posts for Facebook is 3 per day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Another thing to be aware of is that too many Twitter posts at the wrong time or geared towards only one group can lose followers. In order to increase users engagement, the director must also strategically promote certain concepts at certain times. There are certain times when a post needs to be left for a few days. One example of this would be a huge district success, for example a team winning first place. The post should be posted for a few days and left alone. During times of nation or world disasters or events, it seems proper etiquette to quietly post apologies, recognitions, and condolences, and refrain from posting for a while.

Posting Content
The time of day when posts are made makes a difference depending on who is being targeted and how many viewers will see the post. Also the contents of the post make a big difference. There is much research for social media marketing in the business world that shows what times of day and what types of posts are most effective when marketing to promote the brand. One trick is understanding these viewpoints and using the marketing data geared towards a school environment. For example, in the business world, people work 9-5, but in a school the times are mostly 7-3.

The times make a difference when marketing to students, parents, alumni, and the school community. It seems as the majority of alumni check Facebook according to times before or after typical 9-5 work hours and mostly on weekends. It seems as if the older possibly retired generation checks during the middle of the day. Students tend to check either immediately before school, immediately after school, or after sports about 6pm. Finally it seems there are users that check in in the late evening, comprised of a variety of users; parents, students, alumni, and community members.

Understanding the district's culture is very important in order to successfully run the school's social media. This all depends on the community's beliefs, demographics, interests and priorities. Urban, suburban, and rural districts based in various regions may have differing needs, viewpoints, and opinions. Each school community places priorities in different areas including sports, clubs, referendums, neighborhoods, finances, alumni relations and various other agendas. Different school communities have different online participants, users, and followers; some have more parent involvement, some more student involvement, some more teacher involvement, community involvement, and even alumni involvement. Each party has different interests, motives, and purposes for using and connecting to the social media. It's important for the director to understand that various parties have different interests, and to cater to these needs and interests during various times of the day.

There are many purposes for social media in school districts, but the most important focus should obviously be education, both promoting the successes and positive aspects of the educational institution and system while educating and modeling to the school community about events or information. The idea of education still encompasses many factors, including informing the school community of happenings in the classroom, showcasing student successes sports and club achievements, alumni relations and events, promoting fundraisers, and much more.

There are many successes for school social media. Besides being a venue to share positive news and important information, it serves as a platform for the school community to socialize and communicate with each other. One of the benefits for students is that it makes a connection from their academic life to their personal lives, where there tends to be a wall dividing the two. Another benefit it does for the students is increase their awareness that the content and profiles students share are publicly available. Their words are public. It seems as though this would automatically make a social media user aware of the public's perception in seeing comments.

Another benefit of school social media is that all other schools, government institutions, and businesses are using it. Without it, it may seem as if a school or district is behind the times. It's possible that they want to move forward, and are having qualified or interested parties involved in facilitating it.

Positive behavior is encouraged. In the beginning, there were not so many comments on Facebook, and students seemed resistant to follow the school Twitter. Yet through "liking" positive comments on Facebook, and retweeting positive mentions on Twitter, it seems as the appropriate interactions are reinforced, which allows them to evolve and continue through the social media. It seems as the are and amount of appropriate and positive activity has grown exponentially.

One final thing social media benefits the school community is its a place to model and practice appropriate online communications. One of the best examples of this is when a sports team or club makes first place in a competition, the online Facebook and Twitter communities click "like", make many supportive comments, and retweet and "favorite" posts.

Engaging the users is necessary to promote social media, yet it needs close monitoring to ensure comments being made are appropriate. There aren't too many challenges, although the occasional inappropriate or snarky comment appears, an inappropriate profile bio or pic, or an angry user.

This activity happened more so in the beginning when the school's Facebook activity was in its early stages and users would use inappropriate language or being snarky, whether directly commenting to or describing a picture. There are several ways to deal with this depending on the severity of the post or communication. If it's an appropriate respectful expression of disagreement with the post, as long as it doesn't violate any rules or policies and is in relation to the post, it usually works out fine to leave it and let others respond. Conversations tend to die down after a few days. In many cases, both parties communicate good points in a civil manner, and others witness various viewpoints on a situation while observing demonstration of civil disagreement online. Others might throw in an occasional jab at a topic or person in a picture. A polite reminder to the community, not directed at any user in particular, just posting a general statement reminding the rules of etiquette and guidelines for social networking seems to work.

Occasional language not appropriate for school settings appears, seemingly with good intentions, for example, "Let's kick the other team's ass!" These types of situations are just hidden from the public, yet still viewable by the poster and their friends. Last but not least another Facebook offense is when users get really upset or angry and use the social network as a platform to vent their opinions on a situation while possibly including staff names and/or false statements. These users are blocked and banned. Again these are rare instances that deserve immediate attention or close monitoring. I do wonder what other types of situations directors face and how they are dealt with.

On Twitter, there seems to be more of a following from the students, with a higher frequency usage from staff and teachers, rather than alumni and parents. Some accounts are blocked due to inappropriate usernames, bios, profile pictures, or handles. It seems these users have either not been educated on the appropriate online behavior, or just simply do not care for their actions or public perceptions of the way users portray themselves online. It seems commonplace for organizations to block inappropriate Twitter handles, even though the users have positive intentions of attempting to network with an organization and communicate and share information with users.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers in starting social media is fear. There seems to be many fears, especially from people unfamiliar with social media. Even those that are, seem skeptical due to horror stories of Facebook or warnings from legal organizations in regards to online behavior. Of course, it's a public online platform where virtually anybody can express their thoughts or feelings in a manner they choose. Yet, just like in the physical world, there are consequences for that behavior. In every system, there is a system in place for dealing with situations, and there are typically good or bad consequences for every action made, depending on each situation.

One thing a director needs to be ready for are situations where the school urgently needs to communicate information. One example is if school will be cancelled or post-poned or dismissed early to due dangerous weather conditions. This might mean standing by for a phone call in the very late evening or early morning hours to report the info online. Social media allows for more than one manner to communicate and contact with the school community.

A final challenge from the social media director perspective is continuing the use of social media through other school staff. It seems some users get excited, open Twitter accounts or group/department Facebook pages, but then there is not continued use. Almost as if they try it, yet don't continue to maintain using it. I'm pleased the users gave it a try. But I do wonder what happens that it doesn't continue to get used. I personally can't see myself stopping using Twitter any time soon. They're probably just not that into it. Should there be more support, or is there a disconnect somewhere?

Final Thoughts
Social media and technology moves at a rate typically faster than people can keep up with. One thing social media directors should be aware of is not getting too comfortable, because trends change and new fads quickly replace old ones. In moving forward with school social media directors should be ready to address the school community if the community requests to be more educated in the area of social media. Another trend that seems to be rising in both high school and college settings is student-created and maintained accounts, appropriately representing school clubs, organizations, or activities. Similar to teacher or program related accounts that begin and do not continue, there are a couple student accounts that aim to make a positive online change through the online school community, however do not continue to be active, or are sporadically active. Some staff seem to find useful professional development in various areas of social media.

One last thing to think about is that occasionally Twitter users request follow-backs. As of now, it seems the norm to not follow the majority of followers, and only sticking with official educational accounts or local education-related handles, yet it seems as though bigger organizations are beginning to follow back their followers. For right now, I would suggest to follow back established alumni or accounts with a positive objective.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome any questions, thoughts, comments,  experiences, or any thoughtful answers to above thoughts and questions regarding social media for schools.

Gary Feltman

Twitter: @garyfeltman 

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