Plugged in @ the 'U'

By Yardain Amron, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 12, 2014

The University of Michigan is a social media junkie. You name the platform, the school’s likely got it: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, LinkedIn, Vine, Google+ and, most recently, even a SnapChat now. And that’s just the central unit.

From there, the structure gets a little messy. Many other subunits exist — specific to individual schools, programs and offices across the University — with any number and combination of those channels.

But these branches have sprouted over the years without much oversight and are oftentimes handled informally by faculty and administrators.

When Nikki Sunstrum took over as director of social media for the University in late January after Jordan Miller abruptly resigned amid allegations she fabricated her application, she said it became clear just how unclear the size and scope of the University’s social presence was.

“One of the primary goals of my position is to create a core team of primary representatives in each of those individual areas,” Sunstrum said. “That way, if something goes wrong in social and it fell on the shoulders of athletics or someone else, I need to know who I can reach out to to get that resolved as quickly as possible.”

However, it’s a work in progress.

What cohesion does exist between these branches is held together by the central unit, a three-person team under of the Office of Global Communications that acts as a general promoter of all things Michigan — retweeting and sharing a blend of content posted by the collection of satellite units. For instance, on March 7, @umich retweeted a picture posted by @MottChildren of @umichbball players signing autographs for patients.

Between Hillary Frazier, senior social media specialist, and the two student interns she oversees — LSA junior Katie Szymanski, a former Michigan Daily staff reporter, and LSA sophomore Alex Fotis — the central team curates the content consumed by a considerable audience: that’s 67,000 Twitter followers, almost 550,000 Facebook likes, about 29,000 Instagram followers and roughly 14,000 Pinterest followers.

To put that in perspective, Michigan Football has 192,000 Twitter followers and Barack Obama has about 42 million. I’m still working on number 60.

The University is clearly not your casual social media user, but what’s the value of all these eyes?

The picture only grows from here.

Behind the ‘M’

When you think of Michigan, what comes to mind? An athletics powerhouse, the 99 top-ranked graduate programs, the investment in research, the large alumni network, maize and blue?

Whatever it may be, those associations — maybe gained on a campus tour or at orientation — define the University brand, packaged into one simple symbol: the block ‘M.’

You may not even notice it anymore, but there’s a reason the block ‘M’ is plastered atop every which document, building and banner, and most famously engraved in bronze into the center of the Diag.

Back in spring 2012, after a year-long brand review by a contracted independent research firm, the University rebranded itself to remain marketably competitive against peer institutions.

Behind Brand Manager Steve Busch, the ‘M’ logo also got a refresh and a template was created to help the lot of departments and offices create personal logos that visually unify the large, decentralized University — a standard block ‘M’ with proper dimensions, symmetry and color being the common denominator.

“If the College of Engineering is at a college fair for engineers and they’ve got a booth out there and they’re utilizing the symmetry system and the block ‘M’ and the colors accurately, there’s a good chance that there are eyeballs at that event that are not there just for engineering, and so the value and equity that the school of engineering has raises the overall value and perception of the brand,” Busch said. “So if I’m not an engineer but happen to see the block ‘M’ at this engineering event, if I then see the School of Music Theatre & Dance’s block ‘M’ somewhere else, there’s an immediate recognition on my part that, ‘Oh I know what that is, that’s University of Michigan and University of Michigan I hold in high esteem because they have a top-ranked engineering program.’ It immediately elevates the awareness and the perceived prestige of other units by aligning those logos.”

Right there is where the University starts making money.

I think back to the first time I hovered over that bronze Block ‘M’ on the Diag as the innocent campus tour guide recited that silly superstition just like those University officials had trained her: “And make sure not to step on the ‘M’ or you’ll fail your first Blue Book exam.”

I laughed to myself. Of course I didn’t actually believe that old wives’ tale ... Right?!

I left the campus tour with fresh buds of inculcated respect for the ‘M’. When I headed home the ‘M’ followed, determined to water those buds into green. Enter again, social media.

Promotion is critical for any brand, and the large audience at the fingertips of the University’s central unit is a powerful brand boosting tool. The more eyes seeing the content is the more mouths talking about “Michigan” — which hopefully translates into alumni donations, voluntary support, better attendance at events and more mainstream media coverage. Hopefully.

And similar to the University’s unified logo template, disseminating a unified message across all University channels is crucial.

Szymanski, the student intern who manages the central unit’s Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr platforms, said the content she posts “has to reflect back on our brand and what’s going to be relevant to students.”

That of course leaves out many important contentious issues surrounding the University currently. You’ll find no mention of the federal investigation regarding the Brendan Gibbons sexual assault allegations, nor much about the national #BBUM movement that began at the University and has led to the Black Student Union’s seven demands.

“We have to really pick and choose carefully what we step into,” Sunstrum said. “The individual issues in content-specific areas we leave to the individuals that are content experts in those specific areas and leave it out of social.”

Controversy is, of course, no good for the brand.

Data to dollars

That doesn’t mean it’s simply about garnering more followers, re-pins, or likes. While that’s definitely a part of it, Frazier said it’s more about engagement.

“It’s about our content and the performance of our content as opposed to having a million followers because if they’re not engaging with you, then really what’s the point?”

Engagement is hard to measure and varies across the many different channels but it boils down to maximizing the amount of eyes that see the content and the comments, likes, retweets, shares, etc. the content generates.

Thus, knowing thy audience and their tendencies is crucial. Say hello to a social media specialist’s best friend: analytics — deep data analysis.

“Primarily it shows us when people are online, when they’re engaging with us, what type of content is performing the best,” Fotis, an analytics intern for the social media central unit said. “Then we can adjust our strategy and tailor our content to that data.”

Online Marketing Strategist Shannon Riffe, who manages the Twitter and Facebook channels for the Office of University Development, said her content does better in the middle of the week.

“Friday is a little bit of a quieter day and the weekends are quiet too as far as engagement,” Riffe said. “I think people are at work or in class and using some of that time in front of their laptop all day to check in online. On the weekends, they’re not in front of the computers as much.”

Riffe said finding the ideal time of day to post is trickier because the University is a global institution.

“What is a traditional work hour for us is not for a donor or alum in Hong Kong, but in general around the times of 9 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m.”

The scope of data provided by the analytics is startling. Take Oct. 30, when Jerry May, vice president of development, sent an email to all 44,754 faculty and staff inviting them to the Victors for Michigan kickoff events. The analytics told the office that 7,277 (16 percent) of recipients opened the email and 777 (1.7 percent) of those clicked the Facebook event link.

A week later, #VictorsforMichigan was launched concurrently with the event and in the span of the next month reached 2.7 million people and had 7 million impressions, which is social jargon for times displayed on screen whether it is clicked or not.

Judy Malcolm, senior director of executive communications for the Office of University Development, said they had expected maybe one million impressions.

“In the past campaign there was no way that with newspaper articles, meetings and announcements, we could reach 7 million people,” Malcolm said.

The financial benefit of the office’s social campaign has yet to be determined because the Victors campaign is ongoing.

Paid to tweet.

I interviewed Frazier, Szymanski and Fotis together and it quickly became clear that keeping their large following stimulated was an around the clock job for the central team.

As Szymanski explained how she uses the analytics more as loose guidelines than strict regulations, Frazier and Fotis had their phones on their laps and were tapping away.

“Sometimes I get too excited and I don’t want to wait on the analytics which is so lame but I don't care — like if I see a really cute squirrel I’m like, ‘Oh I gotta post it’,” Szymanski said. “Other times I also want to experiment and I don't want to stick within what the analytics is telling me because maybe we can grab a different audience by posting at a different time. Obviously I’m not going to post on Instagram at 8 in the morning because nobody is going to look at that. But do I have to post at 1 p.m. everyday? — No, because then it becomes boring and people expect it. You always want to be versatile.”

Szymanski posts to Pinterest 40 to 50 times per week and to Tumblr at least 40 times per week, and said she’s picked up her own personal strategies since starting to work the channels over a year ago.

She went on: “I used to post on Instagram two, three times a day but now I’m finding one a day or every other day is most effective. I realized that we were getting more likes on our pictures if there weren’t as many posts.”

Frazier took over from there and Szymanski went straight to her phone. She said she’s solely responsible for the @umich Twitter account, which gets the most activity, and consumed because of it.

“I’m looking at it 24/7. I’m posting there five to 10 times a day but then responding to people all the time,” Frazier said. “Writing papers is so hard. The longest thing I write is 140 characters.”

Frazier has amassed her own arsenal of gadgets, so far limited to two phones, two laptops and two iPads.

I asked her if she had any stories.

“The cofounder of Reddit was speaking at Rackham earlier this year and I was there with one of our other interns who just graduated. We were both sitting in the back and without even realizing it, I’m sitting there with my legs crossed with an iPad on one leg, a laptop on the other, and phones in both hands and I'm using both of them at the same time. It’s moments like that I just sit back for a second and I asked him ‘Can you take a picture of me right now, because this is not ok.’”

I wondered if she tweeted it.