From the Principal's Office: 5 Keys to Effective Social Media Strategy for Schools and School Districts

Should schools and school districts have a "social media strategy" like business and industry? In the corporate world, social media has moved from being a novelty to a deliberate strategy to engage the public. It seems like schools and school districts mostly do social media as an add on, where someone in the central office "just happens" to post announcements to Facebook or Twitter. But if schools were going to be more deliberate about their social media strategy, what would they do? According to Brad Friedman, in a recent post called "5 Must-Haves for Social Media Management," companies are "bringing in whole teams of specialists to craft effective social media strategies and manage their multiplying numbers of social media accounts." In education, with our austere budgets, hiring a whole team of specialists to craft a social media strategy won't happen any time soon. In fact, though some social media experts might argue otherwise, I am not entirely sure schools and school districts need the heavy-duty social media strategy that companies need, at least not yet. But we can learn a great deal from those experts and apply it to our situation as non-profit educational establishments.

When it comes to social media strategy, I think we really have to begin with the question of "What can social media do for us?" And we should also ask the question, "Is it the most effective way to accomplish what we are trying to accomplish?" If it is being used as a simple communication tool, is that the best way to communicate our message? One of the main characteristics of social media is that it is a "multi-way" connection medium. Users can engage to multi-way communication with constituents. School administrators are often unskilled in this kind of engagement, and very often either uncomfortable or even unwilling to engage in a multi-way conversation that social media offers. There's a "desire for control" of the conversation or its outcomes which is an anathema to social media thinking altogether.

Taking Friedman's ideas regarding 5 keys for social media management and applying them to schools requires adjusting them a bit, and transforming them so that they fit the needs of a school or district. If school districts are going to engage in social media in the manner in which it is designed, which means engaging in its use as a multi-way medium, then here's 5 keys to effectively managing a school or district's social media strategy.

1. Have deliberate plan on when and how your school or district will use social media. In his post, Friedman talks about the need for businesses to maximize scheduling of their messages through social media. The time of day and day of the week a social media message is sent does matter. When it is received by constituents will determine the message's effectiveness. This is true in business, and I suspect it is true with schools and districts too. My own experience has taught me that a message posted on our school Facebook page tends to get more "likes" and comments if I post early in the mornings, before 6:30 AM than in the middle of the day. Also, a message posted over the weekend is likely to get the same level of attention as early mornings. Why is that? I suspect many of our students and their parents, look over their Facebook timeline first thing in the mornings to see what they received over night, and on the weekends they simply have more time to follow their messages. I have no studies to prove such, but it does make sense. A school or district would do well to plan when is the most effective times to get the word out through social media. They also would do well to think about how they will deliver that message. Will it be through Facebook, Twitter. Google +? In addition, schools and school districts need to plan to use social media tools like Facebook, not just as a digital intercom on which to make announcements, but also as a way to engage constituents in a multi-way conversation.

2. Know your constituents and know the kinds of content they want and need. There are the obvious kinds of content for social media: announcements, photos, etc. But if a school or district tunes in and listens to its constituents, they will get an accurate idea regarding what kind of content they want and expect. School districts should use social media to also engage constituents in conversations about how they are doing. Why not post proposed schedule changes on Facebook and allow students and parents comment on them? More importantly, respond to their comments to show you as a school or district are listening. Listening in social media is as important as posting.

3. Use the tools at hand to monitor the social media and web stream to listen to what constituents and others are saying about your school or district. Tools like Ice Rocket and Addictomatic are two free web tools school leaders can use to see what others are saying about their organizations. Google Alerts is another. Using social media and other tools to listen to the conversation about your school or district is important in the 21st century, and to make an effective social media strategy.

4. Collaborate with other school and district leaders and develop a genuine social media strategy and plan for your organization. It is great to hear that school leaders are now wading into social media use with their Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts, but perhaps it's time to get serious about using the medium. Maybe it is time to earnestly develop a social media plan and actually consider social media campaigns to promote what the school or district is doing. Making the most of social media means perhaps using it the way businesses are: they are using it to promote their brand. It's time for schools to do the same.

5. Monitor the effectiveness of your school or district's social media strategy by tracking and analyzing statistics regarding its use. Using tools like Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, and web site view data should not be just done by businesses. As schools wade further into social media use, and also spend more resources on social media strategy, monitoring the effectiveness of that use is important. If your school or district spends hours setting up and maintaining a web site, and no one is visiting that site, that is hardly effective use of resources. School leaders must begin to use the tools available to track and analyze the effectiveness of their social media use.

As our schools move deeper into the 21st century, school leaders must rethink social media's place in the school or district. Many still see it as a fad or a nusiance, and fight to keep it out, as if that were possible. Perhaps it is time for schools and districts to begin thinking in terms of having an effective social media strategy instead.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.