September 5, 2011 12:44 am

Learning the game of social media

As the Duke University men’s basketball team slam-dunked their way to a 77-64 victory over the Chinese Olympic team in Kunshan, China, last month, some of the loudest cheers came from Jennifer Hills, an out-of-work MBA graduate.

Ms Hills, who graduated from Duke’s Fuqua Business School in 1997, lost her job as an investment manager in New York last year. But she took a break from job-hunting to enter an innovative social media game for students and alumni created by the Fuqua marketing team. Her prize: a pair of tickets to accompany the “Blue Devils” pre-season tour to China and Dubai.

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Just a few years ago, business schools viewed social media as a distraction. But now that admissions offices are enrolling a generation of students and executives who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, schools are grasping the importance of “social CRM” – customer relationship management through social media.

Some schools deploy social media as just another advertising channel, using Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for little more than broadcasting their marketing messages.

However, other schools are discovering the potential of social media as a tool for establishing and strengthening relationships with students before, during and after they have completed their studies.

“Social media channels give you daily contact with your fans and followers,” says Kendall Whitehouse, director of social media at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Other communications channels typically don’t allow for this frequency of ongoing engagement. On Facebook and Twitter we interact with prospective students and alumni multiple times each day – I doubt it would be as well received if we sent this volume of e-mail to our constituents. And you instantly know the response of each item you post and you can easily see what resonates with various segments of your audience.”

The Fuqua social media game – Campout – targeted alumni and is one of the more innovative and addictive initiatives yet.

“It was an opportunity to tell our graduates about what is happening in school now and also to attract resources,” explains Elizabeth Hogan, associate dean for marketing.

“Campout” is a reference to the Duke tradition of students camping out in tents and camper vans for 36 hours in order to buy tickets for basketball games. The high standard of Duke basketball – coach Mike Krzyzewski won gold with the US Olympic team at Beijing in 2008 – means tickets are much sought after.

More than 780 alumni took part in the online Campout game. As well as the tickets, participants had the chance to win other prizes including free places on executive education programmes and signed basketballs, by carrying out a variety of tasks. These ranged from simply “liking” the school, tagging a former classmate on Facebook, retweeting a link or taking a quiz about the school, to volunteering to serve on an admissions committee, mentoring a student or offering office space for a Duke information session.

Prizes and pitfalls

“Globally minded? Innovative and driven? Tippie can sharpen.” With this tweet John Yates answered the question “What makes you an exceptional Tippie full-time MBA candidate and future MBA hire?” And with it he won a full MBA scholarship last month, valued at more than $37,000, for the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Management.

The “application tweet” was offered as an alternative to Tippie’s usual essay question, although the winner also had to meet standard admissions criteria. None of the bite-sized essays made it on to Twitter, however. US federal law protects the privacy of educational records and Tippie decided not to ask applicants to waive their privacy rights by posting their scholarship tweets.

Business schools and applicants are beginning to understand the potential pitfalls of social media. Admissions offices now are more likely to look at how applicants present themselves on social media. Admissions consultant MBA Exchange offers applicants a “social media audit”, raking the internet on their behalf for damaging information. Its findings so far include an applicant who boasted on Facebook that he had not declared six-figure poker winnings on his tax return.

LBS does not use social media to screen applicants, “But ... it is a possibility we need to consider,” says Penny Smith. “At early stages it’s likely we would consider capturing information that could be considered alongside traditional screening methods to test the accuracy of qualifying applicants this way.”

But for Fuqua there was also a prize – 103 spreadsheets of “actionable data” on its alumni body.

“It created another place for graduates to connect,” says Ms Hogan, who plans to extend the game to all students next year. “Many alumni want to help the school, but they don’t always know how. But we were surprised at how much they were prepared to do. If, for example, we asked for a corporate learning and development contact at their company, they gave us not just names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses but also advice on what to say to them.”

Social media channels are proving particularly valuable for schools whose alumni are scattered across the globe. Hult Connect is an iPhone and iPad app designed by Boston start-up EverTrue that enables Hult International Business School’s 6,600 alumni to see whether other former students live and work in the same city. The intention is to keep relationships alive – nine out of 10 Hult alumni left their home country to study at one of the school’s campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai or Shanghai. The app, which integrates Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, also allows the business school to send updates directly, keeping alumni up to speed with news about events and reunions.

Not that social media communication needs to be technically sophisticated. Schools such as Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management simply put students in touch with alumni through Facebook and LinkedIn so that they can begin networking and asking questions about particular career paths. Bob Bruner, dean of the Darden school at the University of Virginia, was one of the first to grasp the significance of Twitter. His tweets are followed, retweeted and replied to by more than 1,600 students and alumni.

London Business School says social media has become a key communications tool for its Masters in Management programme. As applicants become students, then alumni, MiM’s Facebook page has become an online community that acts as an advocate for the programme and also a forum where applicants can ask questions.

The student-run Twitter feed, meanwhile, offers applicants, students and alumni a more real-time interaction.

“Our MiM applicants are the most active in social media, for finding out about the school, connecting to other students and building relationships before, during and after their time at the school,” explains Penny Smith, LBS director of marketing and communications.

“Social media is so much more responsive than traditional methods, reaching your audiences faster across the globe, potentially at less cost.”

A strong presence in social media allows schools to be more topical and responsive, she adds. They can target their content at specific audiences, demonstrating their relevance as a source of academic research.

But, she warns, social media has its limits. “From our experience there is nothing more powerful for prospective students that face-to-face discussions with existing students, alumni and our staff. That’s something social media can help facilitate, but not directly deliver.”

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