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How Samford University Rode the Rise of Social Media

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Host: Thank you, everyone, for joining the Seriously Social Podcast: the podcast where we give YOU a behind the scenes look at some of the world's largest brands and what they're doing on social media, as well as the strategies behind it.

Today we have an awesome guest, Charissa, thank you so much for joining us today! For those of you who don't know, Charissa Carnall is the social media manager for Samford University, which is the largest private University in the State of Alabama.

Charissa, again, thank you so much for doing this.

Guest: Yes! Thank you so much for asking me and having me on your podcast.

Host: Yeah! Thank you for taking the time. So I want to start off learning a little bit about how you got into the social media space, and maybe- do you have a marketing degree?

Guest: Yeah, so I actually had a really interesting journey to get here.

I graduated from Samford University in 2006, so this was a long time ago, and as you remember, Facebook started before that, so we got Facebook here on Campus around my sophomore year, so I was just kind of using it as a college student.

So I graduated, started my career in broadcast journalism. So I have a journalism and mass communications degree with a psychology minor, and I started working at Fox 10 news down in Mobile, and I just kind of fell into the role of what they were calling "new media" and "digital media" which we know now as "social media", so I had an on-air segment where I was talking about social media and technology and things like that.

Through that I met a lot of people who I was doing stories on, one of them being a start-up company, and they just reached out to me over Twitter and offered me a position. And to be honest, I mean, the whole transaction over Twitter PM- I just sent some bullet-points from my resume, and I had never been in a social media position before, but they just said: you know, we love what you're doing and we can tell you know what you're doing- we want you to come run social media for our start-up.

Host: Wow!

Guest: Yeah, so I said, yes! Ok, why not!?!

From there, Western Union Services bought the start-up and that's how I became a part of Western Union's global social media team, where ultimately I became their head of global community management. So I just focus on the engagement and community management portion for the company.

Host: So basically, you did social media to get a job in social media?

Guest: Yeah, yeah! I mean, it worked out perfectly for me and it was not a traditional route by any means.

Host: Yeah, no, on Twitter, I just love that. So how do you learn about social media, because like you said, the space changes so much, what are you doing to learn about social?

Guest: Yeah, so I just try to keep up with reading as much as I can daily, I stay involved in the channels, I'm not necessarily always posting on the channels I am involved in, but I'm constantly consuming a lot of information and you know, I go to conferences, I meet a lot of people and I really just try to build relationships one-on-one with the speakers and people who know what they're doing so I can stay in communication with them about what's happening in the space.

Host: Love that. So I want to switch out conversation just a little and bring our listeners some value about what you guys do behind the scenes at Samford. What does your day-to-day look like? Are you the one that's actively scheduling the posts, are you the one brainstorming? Let's just talk a little bit about what your day-to-day responsibilities look like!

Guest: Yeah, it's 100% me. I'm a one woman show.

Host: Wow, that's awesome!

Guest: Yeah, it's probably a little less "fancy" when you start talking about like, the behind-the-scenes/day-to-day type thing.

But yeah, I basically conceptualize ideas, I work a lot with our broadcast team because they create our videos, so you know, we collaborate a lot with ideas they have, or that I have, you know, how might that look on social and how can we use a video to make that idea happen.

And then, you know, we have photographers. When it comes down to actually creating the content, my secret sauce is that I have five student interns each semester that literally sits in the room right over on the other side of this wall from me. 

And yeah, they create a lot of content for me, so we go through training and then I'm regularly talking with them about things like what kind of content are we looking for, what kind of content should we be posting, and then they are the ones that are also helping me stay "in the know" about what are students talking about, what are they interested in on social media, what's "cool", so yeah!

Creating content is a big part of it, responding to comments, people who Tweet at us, my and my interns are constantly working to respond to that, and then of course reporting is a big part of that, so I'm always pulling in reports about, you know, how did our content do, what should we do differently, and then what should we never do again because it was terrible! *laughs*

And then, finally, just listening about what people are saying, what the public is saying about the university and everything positive and negative, and how those conversations should maybe adjust what we're doing strategically to, you know, push the kind of message that we're voicing. 

Host: Yeah, I love that, so I've talked to a few people who rely on interns to help them amplify their job. So are the interns you have on staff actually going on campus to get footage, Instagram stories, that kind of thing?

Guest: Yeah, so they're doing a little bit of that and then just in the office literally just sitting and responding to comments or writing content, you know, it just depends on their skill set.

So like I have some who are really good with photography and some who are really good with video, yeah, it just really depends on their skill set.

Host; Yeah, and I can imagine that being almost invaluable on their resume, because they can mention that they helped run social media for an amazing University. So yeah, that's very cool.

What would you say is the MAIN objective for a University like yours to be on social? Is it for admissions, is it like an internal communication tool? How do y'all think about that?

Guest: So it's not for internal communication, that's the definite first thing like, yeah, that's not why we're using social media. At least on what we consider our "flagship accounts" which are the "Samford University" across the channels. this position has been so interesting to me because our audiences are SO broad. So it starts from the perspective student, and that's the admission, recruiting aspect. And it's all the way through our current students, our alumni, young alumni, old alumni, parents, and because we're a private, non-profit institution, we also have donors.

So, yeah, there's a really wide range of people who are on our channels and interacting with us, so when it comes to our goals, you know, for social media, it differs depending on what audience we're trying to reach, so for us each channel- you know, and this is probably my biggest piece of advice for brands who are looking to use social media for their brand, is to make sure you're not taking the same piece of content and pushing it out on all channels in exactly the same way, because your audience is going to be different on different platforms.

We look at who our audience is on Facebook, do they like video or photo better? You know, what resonates best with them? And it will still be the same information that we're pushing out, but the way we push it out, how we word it, things like that will be different across our channels because our audience is different.

Host: Very good point, yeah, because even the psychology of how you consume content on each of the different platforms is different, so I love that y'all are thinking about each channel individually, because I see and talk to a lot of brands who aren't doing that, they just think it's an OK strategy to just publish the same piece of content across the board, and that's impressive that you're doing that as basically a one-person team, I mean, I know you have the interns, but driving that strategy and thinking about's really impressive.

So you mentioned you have all of these different groups of people, you've got prospective students, alumni, students, parents, donors, how are you thinking about the channels? Are you looking at the age and what channel they're on? How are you thinking about content? Do you make more content for prospective students or more content for donors?

Guest: Yeah! So we actually, again, it just depends on the channels, so the way we look at our audience depends on those who are actively engaging with us, so not necessarily just how many are in our followers, like how many are of what age, it's more about who is engaging with us and the kinds of content that they're engaging with, so that's how we determine what we're going to do. So for Facebook, it's primarily parents and Alumni.

So the content on Facebook is typically going to be pushed for parents and alumni, and for Instagram, it's for current students, so the content on Instagram is going to look wildly different than the content on Facebook.

Those are definitely our biggest platforms because we know our audience so well there, and we really can tailor the content better there than even Twitter and LinkedIn. For us. And our brand.

Host: Okay, cool, yeah. So I want to get into a little bit about how you guys measure success on social media. I know there are going to be a lot of other people from Universities that work in social media that have some sort of responsibility to create success, so how do YOU look at success? What do you measure to say, "Hey, we're doing a great job on social media."

Guest: Primarily we look at engagements. Total engagements and engagement rates, so number of engagements divided by the audience, so that's the primary number we look at.

Coming from a community management role at Western Union, I see engagement as the most important metric. We want to have good content, but if nobody cares about the content and nobody's doing anything with the content, than it really doesn't matter. And so for me and for us, our strategy is really high on engagement. And that's what we measure, like were we successful in this based on that.

The other thing for us and for others who are at Universities listening, totally understand this: here we don't measure this month to last month. So when we look at how many engagements we got this month VS last month, it doesn't matter. Other businesses and brands it does because they do things campaign to campaign.

For us, if we take graduation in May, and compare it to June when everyone is off campus, that doesn't tell us anything, so we have to look year over year, so that's where we take, you know, we look at how many pieces of content did we create, what kind of content did we create around this event, and how much engagement did we get. Because that can tell us if we create too much content, you know, if we just push too much about graduation to where everyone is just like, I don't care anymore, or maybe we didn't create or push enough. 

So it's very long-term, we have to look at the long-term for us. You know, we can see those little one-off times where something may have been successful, but really it's a long-term view because we have events, the exact same events that happen every year at the same time, and we want to make sure that we're always doing better.

Host: And that's very interesting because we primarily work with brands and we do look at it month over month, but I didn't think about it from a University standpoint, where, you know, sure, when y'all have graduation, there's obviously much more happening at that time in comparison to June when people leave. So yeah, it's very interesting that y'all measure it like that. Makes total sense.

I'd like to talk a little bit about what y'all do from a paid advertising standpoint. Do y'all spend money on social? Obviously being a non-profit and trying to invest everything back into the University, the education and the curriculum, how do you guys look at that and what is that money primarily being used for?

Guest: Yeah! Great question So actually we just brought on a digital marketing manager to do just that. I was managing it before, and to be honest, managing organic and paid at the same time was very difficult as a one-person team. So we brought on a digital marketing manager and she is overseeing all of that.

It's still very new for us, so it'll be, it's a little hard for me to answer that just because we're still in the phase of just laying the groundwork and creating that benchmark to see where we see success.

Host: Alright, awesome. And how are y'all feeling about emerging platforms? Like have y'all thought about TikTok at all?

Guest: I knew you were going to ask about that!! Yes, we have thought about it. In higher ed, it's a little bit harder to jump into things so quickly. You know, we have to take a step back and really evaluate and take the time to find out what is our purpose there, what are we going to try to achieve?

And just have a plan for it before we just jump in and start doing it. So yes, we're thinking about and talking about doing TikTok, but that is, and I'm very interested in it. For a couple of reasons. One, the audience there I think is perfect for us. I've heard a lot of criticism about the audience there being so young and you know, I look at it in terms of sure, but one day they're going to be looking for a college and if we're already there and connecting with them, early on, I don't care if they're twelve, they're going to remember us at eighteen.

That is really important to me, so I'm really in the phase of consuming and really using the platform myself before we jump in and do anything from that perspective.

The other reason, which is so interesting and I don't know what other people think about this but I've seen, and I told you Instagram was primarily just current students right? Well the beginning of this semester we posted about, we have a day where our leadership makes grilled cheese sandwiches for all of the students and just hands them out for free. So it's a neat little annual thing that we do, so we posted about it.

And the very first comment was from a parent who tagged their student and asked "did you go get your grilled cheese sandwich today?" so my prediction is that very quickly Instagram is not going to be current students. They're going to move.

They're going to be like, whoa, mom is here, I'm going to leave, and I firmly believe that TikTok is where they're going to land. So it's so interesting to me because I'm starting to see that shift, and it'll be a while before it happens, but it's happening.

Host: Yeah, that's a very good point, I mean, even if you think about just the history of Facebook, it used to be just college students and then mom started to get on there and now when you think about it, it's primarily like grandparents and grandmothers. Yeah. I love that, and I love how y'all are thinking about the future and how you can connect with that 13-14 year-old and that yeah, they are going to get older and if we can create that meaningful relationship now, they'll remember us when it's time to start thinking about colleges. 

So last question, what is your primary objective for social media in 2020 for the University?

Guest: I think probably just, so this is a little more of a behind the scenes objective, and that's just in terms of content creation, and like I said, we have the same events over and over and we try to do new things.

But sometimes, it just kind of creeps up on you because there's so much to do in a day and you're just like whoa okay, this is happening and we need to think about it. So for 2020, we want to be strategic, which, we have been, but even looking at things much further in advance to really have a plan.

I came into this role almost three years ago and there was no social media manager before I came on, so we really had nothing to compare anything to, no analytics, nothing to look at.

So now we have all this data and that means in 2020 we're really looking at how do we make things better because now we have something to compare it to when we look at last year and the year before and continue to grow and do new things and try new things that hopefully are successful.

Host: Awesome! Well, Charissa, thank you so much for your time! That was incredibly insightful.

Guest: Thank YOU!

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Keith Kakadia

I am a native of New Orleans, LA with a passion for social media marketing, entrepreneurship, and making new connections. I enjoy the opportunity to work with amazing individuals and brands everyday.

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