Allison Ralston and Josh Blankenship post pictures on Facebook, upload content and videos to YouTube, and tweet every day and some nights. They are part of a group of individuals employed at Texas Tech University who are behind the public persona of Texas Tech – and its various colleges and departments – portrayed on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“Basically, I run the three main social media networks that admissions operates: the Facebook page, the YouTube channel, and the Twitter account,” said Blankenship, a public relations major and social media intern with the Department of Admissions. “My whole job is to bring a more human element to Texas Tech, something students can relate to more.”
Ralston, a Texas Tech graduate with a degree in public relations, concurred with Blankenship and said that this human element is what social media is all about. In fact, she said, the conversations that happen in those online forums are what differentiate social media marketing from more traditional marketing. Those conversations let Tech’s representatives speak directly to fans and have a back-and-forth conversation with them.
In order to accomplish that, Ralston and Blankenship both say their content has to be designed for the specific audience they want to reach.
“If you put something history-related, the alumni love it. Put something like Polar Bear Swim up, students love it. And their parents [respond with], ‘Why are you jumping into pools [in January]?’” Ralston said. “But that’s kind of one of our goals: to make sure we’re posting different kinds of content for each of those audiences.”
For Blankenship, the challenge is finding the right content for a very specific, fickle audience – high school kids. Through the Admissions Facebook page, Twitter profile, and YouTube page representatives, including Blankenship, reach out to high school students who are trying to decide where to spend their collegiate years.
“The hardest thing has been figuring out what our fan base responds well to. The whole point is to put something on [a social media platform] that makes people become an advocate for Texas Tech,” Blankenship said. “They engage with it, they like it, they share it, and then they are essentially passing on our message without knowing it.”
Knowing what works and what doesn’t on a social media platform can be a tricky and oddly ambiguous.
“We’ll come up with awesome ideas we think people are just going to freak out over. We post it and nothing happens. Then, we post something we don’t really have high hopes for, and people flock to it,” Blankenship said. “A lot of what has been successful has been extremely timely messages. For example, on Texas Independence Day [in early March] I made this really ridiculous graphic that people could add to their Facebook profiles. People loved it – it was timely, it was Texas Tech, it was fun.”
Both social media professionals said the communications have to be timely, brief and effective enough to drive people to share the message. Sharing the message is really what drives these departments to devote resources to social media marketing. Every like, share or re-tweet pushes the university’s various marketing messages out, in front of new eyeballs.
For example, Blankenship said, every high school student who chooses to share or use the latest cover photo designed by Admissions, is putting the Texas Tech name and brand in front of all the people who are in that person’s network of friends. Blankenship said these shares are one of the primary ways that the Department of Admissions gains new “likes.”
Ralston said that while gaining new likes or followers is important, increasing these numbers is not the only goal the Communications and Marketing Department is trying to achieve through social networks.
“We’re more worried about the engagement. It’s an ‘if you build it they will come’ kind of idea,” Ralston said. “If we put the content there, and it’s engaging and they like it, they will come to us.”
Ralston said that universities and large corporations should utilize the technology as it enables these organizations to speak directly to many more fans, customers or interested individuals than ever before.
“Our No. 1 goal is to take the messages we are already communicating and get them to a larger audience. We’re already writing Texas Tech Today stories about what is going on throughout the campus. We’re already making ads and marketing messages, and there is no reason not to just get that out to an even wider audience,” Ralston said. “And our audience is there, so it makes it easy. We just go put ourselves [on social media platforms] and [our audience responds with] ‘Hey, we want to hear what you have to say.”
And this “larger” audience Ralston refers to is huge. The official Texas Tech University page has more than 135,600 “likes” on Facebook, meaning that every post made by the Office of Communications and Marketing social media team has the potential to be read, shared, commented on, or “liked” by more than 100,000 people.
Although the individual offices, colleges or departments handle the day-to-day operations a little differently, the process Ralston described sums up the process everyone seems to follow to one degree or another.
“There are four of us who access the account and make posts,” Ralston explained. “We have a running content plan, so we’re always at least [about] a day ahead. Obviously, if something big happens, we can be flexible and change. But we try to have posts written — and also checked for grammar and accuracy – [a day or more] before the [posts] go out.”
Though the job may sound fun, describing the job of managing a social media account as “easy” wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Both Blankenship and Ralston said they believe part of their job is to walk a tightrope – to one side is censoring their fans, to the other side is scaring away potential fans by allowing foul language and personal attacks by users.
“From afar, I would say the Mike Leach firing situation definitely was a tough time,” Ralston said. Because she was an intern at the time, Ralston said, she was not directly involved, but she learned from the experience and saw what a difficult task handling situations involving strong emotions can be.
“That’s one of the toughest things, because people want to vent. And you can’t sit there and say, ‘I’m not going to let you voice your opinion,’ because that is the entire purpose of social media — it’s to have a conversation,” Ralston said. “Obviously, with [situations like the Leach firing], where there are lawyers involved, some of the answers are not what people want to hear. But, at the very least, letting them voice their opinions and get it off their chests is the only way you can really handle that sort of situation.”
“That’s the whole point of social media. Pretty much my whole philosophy is people are going to be talking about you no matter what, so you might as well provide a place for people to talk where you can at least be in on it,” Blankenship said.
Ralston pointed out that the “policing” aspect is not an anonymous process.
“Anytime we take down a comment or a post, we message that person individually. That’s kind of where some of the intricacies happen,” Ralston said, explaining that group pages, unlike personal Facebook accounts, cannot send or receive private messages. “I think a lot of people think that the administrator of a social media page just gets to hide behind the [page] name. That’s not the case. If I have to message someone, I have to [use my personal Facebook account]. It makes for interesting conversations and messages back and forth. But, we always invite that person to repost.”
Ralston said her favorite part of the job is the one-on-one communications with people who interact with Texas Tech’s social media pages.
“College is a really scary place to people who aren’t used to it and don’t know how processes work and where to go,” Ralston said. “[It’s great to be able to help] when people have a problem [and say to us] ‘I have exhausted everything I can think of; [I’ve tried] every way I can think of to solve this problem.’ [It is wonderful to be able to say] ‘I am here; I am listening; let me try to find someone specific to talk to about that for you.’”
And Blankenship says these kinds of interpersonal communications between large organizations or universities and their fans is what social media is designed to accomplish.
“Everyone is a reporter now, everyone has a phone that can film and take pictures. Everyone can express his or her opinion and tweet and comment. It’s a huge liability, but it’s also a huge opportunity. That’s why social media is so exciting,” Blankenship said. “It isn’t like there is a time when social media starts and stops. Everyone is posting opinions and sharing ideas and it’s so much fun. I think it’s great that Texas Tech is embracing social media the way it has because I feel like [this kind of marketing] has a huge place [in Texas Tech’s marketing plan].”