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Schools Using Social Media in Savvy Ways

Wednesday, March 25, 2015  
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By Sarah Stewart 

When the marketing and communications staff at Randolph School in Huntsville, AL, began brainstorming how to revamp its viewbook in 2013, they had to return to ground zero, the school’s value proposition. A viewbook, as opposed to a yearbook or an advertisement, is an artistic expression representing the life of the school. It was intended to demonstrate not only what Randolph stood for, but why families chose the school and why students loved being there.

Randolph’s Director of Communications, Rebecca Moore, was in charge of leading the update to the school’s viewbook. Moore had some general ideas about the direction of the book, based on the work that had been done in the previous school year by a task force of parents with marketing experience. Along with input from the faculty, the group had identified four unique attributes they felt captured the school’s spirit – freedom, relationships, culture, and high expectations. At Randolph, students and teachers have the freedom to teach and learn; they enjoy an environment that fosters strong relationships; they are shaped by a culture that encourages inquiry, individuality, and character development; and they are challenged by high expectations in both the work they complete and the life decisions they make.

Moore needed to capture those values in a creative and compelling way in the new viewbook, and she felt the best people to tell the school’s story were its past and current students
. She said, "We didn’t want anything that felt staged or that had an adult spin on it. I thought we should really just ask the kids what these things mean to them and let the students tell the story.”

With this rough outline in place, the viewbook needed both copy and art, and Moore quickly realized how they could use social media in the process. Some of the strengths of social media are its ability to connect people, crowdsource information, and create momentum around a project. The school had already been using hashtags for student trips. Eighth graders visiting Washington, D.C., tagged photos and quotes with #dc8 when they posted on Twitter or Instagram, and then used the images later in their travel journals. Ninth graders visiting Chicago, IL, and the teachers, parents, and student interns visiting Williamsburg, VA, with the 4th grade did the same. Moore began to circulate the hashtag #rstories13 for students to contribute art to the new publication via Instagram or Twitter.

Moore also recruited a number of teachers and students to develop the viewbook’s copy and graphic design. Upper School English teacher Jennifer Rossuck and Upper School art teacher Peter Townsend actually built the project into their curricula. The students were enthusiastic and quickly took ownership of the book. They chose a small square format similar to those used on Instagram to showcase the art. They also devised a graphic motif of dotted lines that connected the pictures in the viewbook and represented the unique journey students made during their time at Randolph. They converted the hashtag, #rstories13, used to crowdsource the images to the book's title, Our Stories.

Moore crowdsourced more than 1,000 photos from August 2013 through May 2014 and posted previews on Randolph's Twitter and Instagram accounts. Students finished the writing and concept work for the viewbook in the first semester, some of which appeared on the school's blog. In the second semester, graphic design students created the layout. The group had countless images to work with and the use of social media meant that the images were authentic and fresh, offering unique viewpoints. The hashtag created an ongoing narrative about the school experience, which continues today with #rstories15.

The viewbook was released in August 2014 and was a huge success with students, families, alumni, and the greater Huntsville community. Former students sent notes saying the viewbook reminded them of what they loved about the school. The school’s leadership also believed the project’s student-led execution demonstrated the very things the school claimed to represent – freedom, relationships, culture, and high expectations.

When schools first began using social media around 2008, many questioned the role it played in school communications. They worried about privacy, control, and relevance. Social media was confusing. We knew how to create and use media, by putting out newsletters, publications, letters, or emails in a formal or straightforward manner. We also knew how to be social among friends or at events based on expectations. But social media wrapped these worlds into a 21st century burrito, testing many of the long held norms and boundaries educators had formed for working with students and families. Educators and schools rightly searched for the new rules of engagement.

As with many groundbreaking mediums, forming rules wasn’t something that could be accomplished overnight. The rules changed as people began using social media. Social media changed as people and businesses began using it. As the platforms have developed, so have their uses and the ability to use social media strategically; whether it’s a Facebook page for interacting with parents and alumni, or an Instagram account where students, teachers, and families can share art, or Twitter where schools and educators can interact with other schools and industry leaders on a public forum. And who needs an opinion page anymore when you can publish your own blog and market it on social media?

Brendan Schneider, Director of Admissions at Sewickley Academy in Pittsburg, PA, began dabbling in social media shortly after he was hired in 2008. Along with the rest of the country, the independent school market was facing hard times. The school needed to market itself creatively but didn’t want to pay the large amounts required for traditional billboards or similar advertisements. With his head’s encouragement, Schneider began experimenting with social media.

Over the course of the next seven years, Schneider built the school's social media presence and as well as a substantial following for his blog and podcasts, which are hosted on his website Schneider B. He’s been a regular speaker at conferences nationwide and his articles have been featured on edSocialMedia, Social Media Today, Business2Community, Admissions Quest, and the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP).

Schneider says there are no magic bullets with social media marketing; merely having a page or Twitter account means very little. Engagement is the key, as well as having a strategy and clear goals. It is important to be consistent about providing content and give people a reason to visit your page.

"My biggest advice for schools is to have a strategy. A lot of schools use social media like a scrapbook. They aren’t sure what they want to accomplish and they aren’t looking at analytics or engagement. They should ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish – whether it’s driving traffic to a blog or website, or engaging current families. If they have clear goals in place, they are going to be ahead of the game.” 

Darlington School, a day and boarding school in Rome, GA, has been developing a unique social imprint for some time. The school prides itself on being a place students can call home; an environment that is academically challenging and rigorous, but also fun, dynamic, and approachable. In 2010, the school redesigned its website around a number of social features with a section for blogs, a section called "1,000 Stories" where they post short videos of students sharing their Darlington experiences, a photo gallery, and a place for news articles. 

"We previously had the news and gallery sections, but we wanted to add the blogs and video stories, and integrate our sharing features so it would be very easy for people to share content on any social media platform,” said Tannika Wester, Director of Media Relations at Darlington. She added that a strong partnership with the school’s IT department has also been critical throughout the process. "We are very fortunate to have a talented IT department that gets marketing, and we also handle all of our web design in house. So we aren’t tied to a specific platform; ours is unique and it creates a great opportunity for us to dream up big ideas.”

Darlington also hired Luke Chaffin as the school’s first Content Manager this past October 2014. Chaffin, who has a background in tourism, promotions, and journalism, has been charged with leading the content creation at Darlington. His work involves helping students and faculty find the right platform to tell their stories – whether it’s a playful parody of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off video, or more serious blogs about education topics or life experiences. The recent Shake it Off video was created by the school's journalism students, and originally posted on YouTube by a boarding student, Gboyega Adeyeye. It has received more than 12,000 views. "They did a fabulous job of catching the many sides of the school. It was viral marketing at its best,” said Chaffin. Chaffin and Wester re-posted the video on Darlington’s website and have continued to receive positive feedback.

Darlington’s blogs section is extensive with sections for every department, from fine arts, to counseling, to academics, to IT, to athletics, and more. The blogs serve numerous purposes in marketing the school and connecting its community. For the faculty, the blogs position them as experts in their industry and provide a place where they can share important information with families, students, and the community. Some topics are serious and reflective while others are playful and outgoing. They each provide faculty and students the chance to learn about each other, comment, and reflect.

Darlington Head of School, Brent Bell, is also a leader on social media. He maintains an active Twitter account where he posts news about education and interacts with the public and other school leaders. Bell also maintains a more casual blog on Darlington’s website.

"I think it’s important that the community hears from the head of school in a more casual way because you get to see a real person behind the office,” said Wester. "It also gives the head a venue to communicate about things that you might not want to send out in a letter, but it’s interesting enough to discuss in a blog. It keeps the head of school's communications more current and ongoing.” 

James Milford is in his first year as Head of School at Maclay School in Tallahassee, FL. Milford had some large shoes to fill when he took the position last fall. The previous head, Bill Jablon, had been at Maclay for 45 years and his traditional style of leadership was synonymous with the position. When Jablon retired and the school’s board hired Milford, they had specific goals in mind. Along with acclimating to Maclay, they wanted Milford to help update the position of the school’s head, re-branding with a modern, data-driven, child-centered approach while maintaining the many traditional qualities that Maclay has enjoyed over the last four decades.

Milford quickly identified some ways he could accomplish this goal. He reached out to faculty offering to participate in class projects, whether it was reading to students or playing a part in spirit week. He opened doors in the carpool line and ventured into the notorious senior shack to play video games with the students. He also had some unique ideas that involved social media. Milford had seen a video years before of a university president hanging out at the school with the mascot during school break. He enlisted the help of students to make The Maclay School Holiday Video. During the video, Milford is seen biding his time with the school’s Marauder mascot, Rowdy. The video has many epic moments. Rowdy rides a scooter down the halls as Milford spot cleans the walls and library, and spends time talking to a bronze Bill Jablon bust at the school. Milford ventures into the senior shack in a Hazmat suit and (after cleaning it up) plays video games with Rowdy. He measures the grass on the football field and the two play sports together. 

The video was a hit. It connected with the students and the community and helped solidify Milford’s position at the school in a playful way. Milford says, "It was well-timed and communicated what we wanted: that we miss you and we are ready for you when you come back. It was also special because we were having fun with a lot of insides jokes that the students would appreciate. And we weren’t asking for anything like in a campaign. We were just paying homage to the school.” 

Milford also agrees with Schneider that it is important for schools to stay close to their message and stick to a strategy on social media. "It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing more for more sake, and with social media that’s a trap that schools have to be careful of, because you will never be able to be everywhere, and social media is changing so quickly.”

Moreover, with his background in the admission department, Milford says social media should enhance what’s going on on campus, but can never replace the human touches and efforts that build relationships. He says, "At the end of the day, leading a school and growing a school is about building personal relationship and trust with your faculty, your students, your families, and the community. There’s no replacement for a personal note, or visiting the seniors in the senior shack, or posting the student’s art in my office.”


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