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How to market One of the Largest Universities in the U.S

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Host: Hey everyone! My name is Keith. Thanks for joining the Seriously Social podcast where we take you behind the scenes of some of the world's greatest brands and get you a deeper look at what they're doing on a day-to-day basis when it comes to their social media strategy.

We have a very special guest today, Nikki Sunstrum, who is the director of social media and public engagement at the University of Michigan. Nikki, thank you so much for being with us today.

Guest: It's a pleasure!

Host: So, you know, for those of you who don't know about the University of Michigan, they're one of the top Universities in the world. And in 2019, they had over 70,000 applicants and their students come from all 50 States, and over 90 different countries around the world.

They also have a current enrollment of over 48,000 students. So very impressive numbers, which is why today, we're going to be talking about Nikki and her background and how she got involved in social media and then touch on a little bit about the University of Michigan's overall strategy and how you guys are currently dealing with the COVID-19 crisis which is very unfortunate. 

So, very simply Nikki, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and kind of how you got involved in social media?

Guest: Absolutely. So my background is primarily in politics and government, as well as civic engagement and community service. I started off my career working for the State of Michigan, our State government and social media became one of the jobs I was doing at the time.

I was young in my role and so I think there were a lot of assumptions in my role like I was the person who would know what that social media thing was all about.

And so we really started pitching it as a tool and an opportunity to engage constituents with all the cool tools, services and opportunities that the State government has to offer.

We also wanted to use it to build transparency and use the quick turnaround methods that social offered us to provide customer service and really sort of basic, fundamental elements of what a traditional communications office would do, but leveraging these tools in order to establish a larger reach, interact on a more regular basis and bring information to the masses, in something that wasn't a .PDF or a news release.

It allowed us to be interactive and engaging, and even build personality. So by the time the University of Michigan contacted me six years ago, I built the State of Michigan's social media pages from print to the third largest in the Nation.

Host: Wow, I love that.

Guest: Yeah, as the number one public institution in the world, right, had a similar interest in really demonstrating impact through innovative communication, and so I was happy to come down and take over strategy on behalf of the University.

Host: I love that, very impressive. So you mentioned you built it to the third, who were the top two?

Guest: I want to say it was California, which makes sense, you know, they're very large, but they were also early adopters; and the second one surpasses me, I'm not sure, it's been awhile.

Host: Yeah, I'm sure, though it's very, very impressive. So I want to touch on that just a little bit, because I'm interested in that myself. How different is it, because they're both still government entities, how different is it working for a University versus the State? Are there more regulations in one sector VS the other, or is leadership there giving you the freedom that, you know, you really need as the social media space changes so much, how are the two different?

Guest: It's an excellent question, and one I think I've answered pretty frequently. So working for a public institution is unique in the fact that it truly is just like government. It's a gigantic bureaucracy with a multitude of stakeholders.

We have nineteen different schools and colleges at the University of Michigan and all of us are trying to reach current students, prospective students, faculty, alumni and donors, or fans. 

So there's always a different message that has to be curated, which makes it very similar, as well, to State Government. We have a wide variety of research initiatives, since we're a publicly funded Institution, which means the tax payers of Michigan that I talk to in State government, are the same people that contribute to the University of Michigan.

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So we really have a huge opportunity to demonstrate what it is that a public Institution is capable of, and I spend a lot of my time creating messages that will ensure that everybody knows the knowledge that is shared, and the information that we, really give breath and life too, is also available to them, as a tax paying citizen.

Host: Very cool. Okay, so I want to know a little more about what your day-to-day looks like in your current position at the University of Michigan. Do you have a team that's working with you, do the independent schools, the nineteen schools that you talked about, are they working and running their own profiles? What's the overall set-up?

Guest: It's a little bit of both. So the University of Michigan currently has 1,026 social media properties, and that's only about a 1/3 of what it was when I arrived. So a lot of that streamlining and unification of messaging has to do with applying strategy and justification to social profiles, because anything that carries the block "M" represents our brand.

And so there's an expectation and a tone and a style that comes along with that. But certainly, on behalf of the entire Institution, anything that is a University of Michigan overarching account is run by my team of ten.

I have five full-time staff that cover both social communications, and also the President's public engagement and impact initiatives, which focus on faculty research work, and really focus on encouraging them to demonstrate publicly how their work impacts our citizen and people around the world.

And then we usually have anywhere between 4-5 student interns, who really help us "keep pulse" on campus. And then in addition to that, I oversee a team that I call "social leadership" which is a team of 50 individuals, one from each school, college and educational unit.

That team and I get together in person every other month and then I have bi-weekly meetings with our largest stakeholders.

We have an entire hospital unit at the University of Michigan, we have one of the top performing sports programs in collegiate, so I'm constantly checking in with them. 

My closest ally is public affairs at the University of Michigan, because we very much run the tracking arm and the brand monitoring and maintenance arm of the Institution, we want to know what's being said in relation to our programming, or our people, just the academy as a whole, on a regular basis so we know how best to break our own news and be really proactive in the communication space.

Host: Got it.

Guest: We're constantly working in a wide variety of ways to try to make sure that we are providing the best service to our stakeholders, and then with that social leadership team, that they are keeping me in the loop about any concerns that they might have, because as we know, all news breaks in social.

Host: Right, no, I love that. That's also very impressive. So over 1,200 social profiles, wow! First of all, I wouldn't even have thought that, wow. So maybe talk a little bit about, you know, what are some of the social profiles that people might not know of? So obviously I can think of the football team has their own profile, and the different schools, what are some unconventional ones you're having to monitor to make sure they're staying within brand?

Guest: yeah, you know the interesting thing is that in addition to a profile, right, like you mentioned our Michigan football program. It's not just that they have a Facebook profile, it's that they also have a Twitter and an Instagram, so that's three already.

Every single one of our sports programs has all three of the same. So multiply that by forty-something programs and you're already getting up there.

In addition to that, we also have Michigan athletics accounts, which are on behalf of the actual athletics program. Every single one of our schools and colleges, so all nineteen of them have Facebook, Twitter and some of them have Instagram, not all.

Really we become then dependent on the types of content that they have to offer, so if they don't have dail, recurring, visually appealing photos that they can share, we start to pick and choose which networks justify the best return on our investment.

Beyond that, when you look at a school or college the size of our literature, arts and science school, which is very, very large, they might have hundreds of academic programs.

So you might see something that could be associated with student life, it could be associated with studies, we set justification guidelines based on engagement, growth and also content expectations.

So if you can meet those guidelines and cultivate a proactive community, than you get to move ahead. And it's a constant battle. Something is always popping up, we're always monitoring new platforms.

We were able to renew our platforms, implement some one and done. We have one university Snapchat account and we were the first major University to launch one in 2014.

We were also one of the first major Universities to abandon the platform strategically because we were only seeing people DMing back and forth and there wasn't really space for a brand there.

We're watching TikTok, right? We have a pretty streamlined Youtube presence, with a lot of people moving into playlists. So we're constantly watching that number.

We've been underneath a social media account freeze since 2018, so we've really been trying to stamp down new account creation in favor of mitigating Institutional risks and strengthening what exists.

Host: Yeah, and that makes sense. I mean, you mentioned that it's now 1/3 of what it was when you first started. So do you guys use some sort of formatting in the naming of these different profiles, like is it U of M and then the organization, or is it just a free-for-all?

Guest: Mostly. Mostly, there's some sort of naming configuration, sometimes it's a free-for-all. A lot of accounts still pre-date me, so I've been in my role for six years, but many of them were created prior to their being a government structure.

So whatever they might have been created as at the time, with the limited ability of some platforms to allow you to change your name, some we've been able to change, some we've been able to merge, thinking of Facebook, for example, and some accounts we've been able to unpublish and say, "let's revisit that at a later date" but for the most part, we pretty much have that U of M naming configuration.

Host: Gotcha. Very cool. Thinking about the different audience groups you mentioned earlier, so like, recruiting students, alumni and you mentioned a few others, how do weigh the type of content that goes out and is communicating to each of those different groups. You know, is it equal across the board, or is one deemed a little more important? How do you think about that?

Guest: So that's the beauty of having a multitude of accounts, really. We allow each of those entities to cultivate and curate their own content that's very specific to their audience and the overarching properties than become the breath of the Institution. 

So we get to look at the internal, the external, the maybe you're going to get athletics and sports fans on the weekend, but we're going to follow that up with cancer research on the following day.

All of our content aligns with the overall objective or the brand pillars at the University of Michigan Institution. So we use thematic brand pillars, which means we don't schedule any of our content more than 24 hours in advance in order to make sure that it is the most timely and the most relevant news going to our communities as possible.

But that doesn't mean that I can't tell you that today, because it's Wednesday, something related to what we call Wolverine wellness went out. So that means our school public health got us content, our medicine, any sort of health and wellness entity, mental health, physical health, sports, they give us content in preparation for Wednesday.

Host: I love that.

Guest: Whatever they've got this week that is the best of the best, we're going to help them share.

Host: Got it. So I was under the impression that they are the ones publishing, but they actually send content to YOU and you guys approve it, make sure it aligns with the brand and then you are the ones publishing the content. 

Guest: They do both. So on their own individual platforms, they're responsible for publishing that content, but they also submit to the overarching accounts which have the largest reach so that we're constantly highlighting everything.

Host: Understood. Very impressive. So what would you say is U of M's overall goal as far as social media goes? You mentioned communicating to the different audiences that you have, what is the overall goal for social?

Guest: You know, social for us is first and foremost a communications tool, so we want to make sure that we're breaking our own news and being proactive in the space, as well as listening and engaging with our audience.

It is and has always been the only place where you can instantaneously reach a global audience for free, and it continues to be so, and so that absolutely makes it a powerful tool in our repertoire, but social media is a tool and not a single solution, so it's just one thing of many that we do to regularly engage with our audience.

It also gives us a perfect opportunity to listen overall. We can track conversations to make sure that our leadership knows when something surpasses a threshold that means that it probably warrants a response.

We can take a look and evaluate things that perhaps we didn't know that we needed to evaluate, because the students are chiming in on things that are happening.

With the current pandemic, social gave us an excellent outlet to make sure we were getting out resources as quickly as possible, and in creative ways.

We created an entire meme series directed exclusively at our student communities when we started moving towards remote instruction, because we were right in the midst of the St. Patrick's Day holiday, which typically brings everyone out and we wanted everyone to stay in.

And you know, sometimes it's a video, sometimes it's a still photo and sometimes it is because of social media, something a little more creative. 

Host: Got you. I love that perspective, and you know, we tell our clients this all the time, social media is a tool and ultimately not a solution, so I love that perspective.

You mentioned you came up with this meme library. How do you guys brainstorm and come up with these new campaigns? Do you and your team get together in a room and just come up with ideas? What does the process look like?

Guest: We used to get together in a room. Now we have virtual meetings and a wide variety of tools, including an entire .GIF library, a sticker library, you know, we're constantly looking at new ways we can serve up content that our users will really WANT to incorporate into their posting and scheduling.

So it's not just about throwing things out at them, it's about giving them opportunities to incorporate that content into their own lives. Because as we know, we trust the person that we know personally more so than a brand.

Now that doesn't mean we don't also have official resources and things to offer, but if YOU shared an article with me I would be like, "oh, yeah, Keith! You read that? Cool!" Whereas if a brand threw it at me, I'd be like: "hmmmm" you know, kind of skeptical.

Host: Makes total sense.

Guest: I'm going to read the headline, right? And then walk away. So we're really looking at things like memes or .gifs, or last year, for example, we launched an 8 episode series of Instagram videos.

And we released one each week and it was just a couple of our interns on campus showing you what was cool to do in the summer and just circling it back around to the historical prominence of the Institution. 

And then in the fall we launched a student driven vlog, and so we bought the camera technology and then allowed students to sign up to take it over. It's usually like, once a week someone else is taking it over and then we can just strategically make sure that they're first generation student or someone who is traveling abroad, and yeah! We just basically give them the technology and they give us back the footage and we publish it on the U of M accounts.

Host: That's awesome! Yeah, really love that. So very interesting. Moving on though, since we're coming close to the end of our time here: you talked a little bit about how you were dealing with the crisis and how you were preparing students to deal with remote classes and such, but outside of that, how are y'all dealing with the pandemic personally and professionally? I mean, I won't lie, it's a little daunting even for me. This is my 40th day home and it's been crazy.

Guest: yeah, you know, this is where that responsibility for our President's public engagement initiative really becomes paramount.

On a regular basis, we are interacting with our faculty across the institution and doing a lot of virtual interviews. And we also have a fairly successful podcast called: "Michigan Minds" and so through that podcast we've been able to continuously keep a variety of different things that are happening on the radar, whether it has something to do with the financial impact of the global pandemic, the health impact, which was very apparent, both to our Michigan Medicine Institution, and all of the different schools and colleges that I spoke about, but also family well-being, technology, just up here in Michigan all of my children's school classes are cancelled through June, so they won't return again until Fall, but now they're being given online curriculum, just like our collegiate audience, and so we've been evaluating from every angle the sources that our faculty can help provide, conversations they can have and insights that they can share to help our very wide audience and stakeholders in this time of need.

And I think it's been immensely valuable. We've seen a lot of increased traffic and we've actually had to hit campus a couple times at a safe social distance to still record video and take photos.

We released a video in partnership with the government's office, some old connections came in handy and we were able to leverage some of our athletics coaches and our rival school, Michigan State University and their coaches as well to come together and create a message that maybe fans would identify with that would talk about washing your hands, staying inside if you're able, all that stuff.

And so the influence we yield is very helpful because we do have a long-standing reputation as far as pushing the envelope and being innovative in the social space. 

We did a quiet campus video a couple of weeks ago, that just talks about those who stay home will be champions, and that really resonated with people.

"Those who stay will be champions" has been a kind of long-standing mantra of the University, so you know, finding things that YOUR stakeholders have an affinity for and sort of flipping them to make an impact during this pivotal time in history has been thriving with.

So we have different resources coming out, you know, five, six, seven times a day that we're pushing as well as working on these long-standing collaborative pieces.

Host: Love that.

Guest: Yeah, tomorrow we're hoping to release something that's a little off-the-cuff, like a bad airline safety video, so stay tuned for that.

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Host: Oh, that's funny. That's great, I'll keep in tune for that. Yeah, that was incredibly insightful and I'm sure other universities will definitely find that beneficial.

So last question, where do you spend most of your time on the social channels? Is it LinkedIn, Twitter, what are your top three platforms and why?

Guest: So Twitter by far is the platform that still holds my heart. It's one of the first ones I adopted and I always like to joke that it moves at the same pace I do. I am an avid news buff and I love just consuming information. I max out my tabs, but I want to find out more. And that's also part of my role, you know, in order to keep our office high-performing, so I would always say #1 in my heart is Twitter.

Two and three are kind of a wash for me, you know, I spend some time on LinkedIn for professional outreach and it's a great place for that, but I'd put it up there with Instagram. I'm still looking at visually appealing content. 

I don't cultivate my personal profile there much, because it's public-facing, but a new one that's popping up is TikTok.

Host: Right? I was going to ask. Have you gotten on TikTok?

Guest: As an institution, we are not, we've reserved an account, but we haven't created content to date. However, as a personal user we've been looking at it for trends. I like to joke, I sent an intern out on campus one day to see if he could do that reflection shot and he said everyone was laughing because it looked like he was trying to stand on his head to take a photo.

Host: That's funny.

 Guest: So learning those things is going to be very important so that we can put those things through to the rest of our content, because its time type of things that people have an appetite for.

For instance, our student commencement is coming up in May and we're hoping we can have our leadership pass a cap from one side of the frame to the other, like we've seen in a lot of recent content, which would give everyone an element of personability, and makes it a little whimsical and a little funny, which everyone could really use right now.

Host: yeah, that's really insightful and really helpful, you know. Even if you're not publishing content on a platform like TikTok, you can utilize social listening to find out what the trends are and whether you can take things that are working on TikTok and use it elsewhere on other platforms.

Nikki, thank you so much again for your time, this is going to be incredibly helpful for Universities, especially smaller Universities.

Guest: Thank you! It's been a pleasure.

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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