Mission-Focused Planning in Higher Ed Social Media

Following Your North Star

In January of 2021, we collectively didn’t know much about the state of the world and asked ourselves: How long will masks stick around? When will the pandemic end? What odd item will disappear from the shelves next? 

In higher ed, questions were: How will classes be taught? Will students be on campus? What does our future as an industry look like? There was a lot of unknown. 

Social Media Managers in the best of times are consistently in a state of unknown. What will the new algorithm prioritize? How will this piece of content perform on one channel versus another? What “crisis” will “Karen” blow up our DM’s about today? 

With all of the shiny spots out there to chase, how do Higher Ed Social Media (HESM) Managers cut through the noise and determine how to best serve their campuses? Two words: their missions. 

My Journey to Setting Mission-Focused Goals

In January 2021, when we still had so many questions, I wrote a blog post: “A Strategy for Success: Mission Focused Planning for Social Media.” The post was based on what is still one of my favorite resources: Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses by Campus Sonar

I’ve written and used social media strategy documents before but they always seemed to fall flat. Through the course of reading Campus Sonar’s book, I realized why. I was focusing on the what and not the why. The what is the content—what kind of content is used for what kind of message and what audience we’re trying to reach. These questions are great and helpful but without the why, they’re pointless. 

The best part of building your social media strategy around your campus’s strategic plan is that much of the work is done for you. You can clearly define your goals, your measure of success, and who to target with each initiative. 

Leading into the spring semester, I focused on three goals. 

  1. Increasing enrollment yield.
  2. Elevating the perception of high-quality research, scholarship, and creative activities.
  3. Promoting operational excellence with a specific emphasis on departments looking toward capital investments.

Like I said, I didn’t come up with these on my own, they’re straight from our campus’s plan. Next I developed messaging and determined how to communicate the goals. Based on our goals and existing marketing documentation, the following messages emerged.

  1. We are committed to excellence.
  2. Our students engage, influence, and lead.
  3. Our research delivers real-world benefits.
  4. We serve the social good.

Now that we know what we want to talk about and how we want to talk about it, we determine who we want to say it to and how. If you talk to a HESM manager for any length of time they’ll tell you, “Every message is an admissions message. Every message is an advancement message. Every message is an academic message.” That sentiment is so true. However, the platform we say something on and how we say it can make all the difference

I won’t detail each segmentation I made in our social plan, but it helps to look at your analytics and use the data and trends as a guide to clearly show you who is on each platform. Consider your target audience, then find the platform where this group is primarily active. I say primarily because we know a 60-year-old could have Facebook and Instagram accounts and a 16-year-old may have TikTok and Twitter, but determining which audience segment is largest on each platform helps you build your messaging.

Once you define your goals, message, and audience, build out your strategy and tactics for each goal. To get an idea about how this might look, here is an example of one of our goals.

Auburn University's Social Media Strategy Goal

The process I used is explained in-depth in Campus Sonar’s book. And I wanted to share how it played out for me. 

If I’m being honest, I dreaded writing this post. Why? Because imposter syndrome is very real and I didn’t feel like I’d been as intentional as I wanted to be with our social media presence. But reading through our plan again, I realized we did better than I thought. Our platforms still don’t look the way I’d like and we haven’t fully implemented everything in our plan, but we stuck to the main focus of elevating our mission. 

What I Learned

Here are my tips if you’re looking to prepare for the unknown, elevate your mission, and define your social media strategy.

Work Collaboratively

Mission-focused marketing cannot be something that happens solely in the social media office (or cubicle or random desk in a converted closet). Mission-focused marketing must be embraced by the whole team for it to work to its full potential. Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy gives you some great tips for collaborating and discussing your strategies and tactics with your team—use them. 

Bonus: Work with the person who develops your larger marketing plan to incorporate social elements into it. You shouldn’t have a completely different plan from the larger marketing team. 

Be Realistic

I cannot stress this enough. If your marketing team has never produced three student spotlights a month, don’t put it in your tactics—it just won’t happen. Using the strategy in the book kept me realistic when normally I’d have the tendency to plan with rose-colored glasses.

It's Okay if Things Change

Just because something makes sense in January, doesn’t mean it will work in March. The great thing about mission-focused marketing is that the basis of the plan (your campus’s mission) gives you the flexibility to make adjustments as needed. 

Example: Tactic 4 on Goal 2 used a three-minute thesis-style video series to share research. Due to circumstances on campus, the idea didn’t work like I originally planned, so we pivoted. Instead we launched a podcast, “Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know.” Take a listen and see how the goals, messaging, voice, objectives, and tactics all play into the concept.

Your North Star

But here’s the best part of building your strategy based around your campus’s mission and strategic goals: while the tactics and objectives may change over time, the heart of what you’re striving for is solid. Use your campus’s strategic plan and mission as a north star. This type of planning gives you a filter to pass everything through. Does it fit the mission and support the strategic initiatives of the campus? If not, you can head back to the drawing board before wasting time that no HESM Manager has. 

We all know the next uncertainty-causing event is coming—it’s only a matter of time. You may not be able to answer every question when it comes, but building your social media strategy on a solid foundation gives you the guidance you need to support your campus’s values and goals despite the shiny spots or pandemics that try to throw you off course.   

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