Want to Build Social Media Success? Build a Successful Network First

Higher ed social media is tricky. Once in a while, you’ll post a unicorn. Alumni competed in the Olympics, your basketball team made March Madness, the university president received a prestigious award. But the day-to-day content that makes you a consistent voice in the social media world results from intentional networking and subsequently reciprocal relationships.

As the Assistant Director of Marketing and Social Media at Drexel University, I create and publish content you see on the university’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram pages. I juggle our strategic goals of athletics, civic engagement, admissions, media mentions, cooperative education, alumni testimonies, and student events, to name a few. If you work in higher ed or a similar industry, you’re most likely playing the same balancing act.

After six years of professional experience in social media, I have a secret to share. A strong network is your best asset as a social media manager.

How Does a Network Help?

From an outside perspective, social media management appears to be a highly technical job. While I hesitate to downplay the importance of skills such as photo and video editing, analyzing social listening data, and managing publishing software, I would argue that interpersonal skills are more critical.

A few of Drexel University’s top-performing posts from the year—those posts with the most lifetime engagements—wouldn’t have been possible without my network.

  • The Lindy Center for Civic Engagement and I promote volunteer opportunities through a recurring “Community Partner of the Month” feature. As a result of this project, I received news that two Drexel Dragons, Matt and Nick, received a “Volunteer of the Month” award at a local nonprofit that I shared on Drexel’s Instagram.
  • In my meetings with Drexel Athletics, I learned the wrestling team prioritizes recruiting brothers. The Manager of Marketing and Fan Engagement, Allison Campbell, volunteered to secure a picture of the four sets of brothers, and I published it on Drexel's Instagram.
  • Cooperative education is the value proposition at Drexel University, and the best way to highlight co-op is to share student testimonials. After a meeting with the Executive Director of Steinbright Career Development Center, I established a process to approve student testimonials. To date, 25 student stories are on our profiles. These testimonies regularly provide positive feedback and are sometimes shared more widely, such as on Drexel’s LinkedIn.

These posts met the strategic marketing goals of the university by building awareness and appreciation of Drexel’s cooperative education (co-op) program, establishing Drexel as an essential part of the community through civic engagement, and fostering a sense of pride and belonging among Drexel students. Through LinkedIn, we received 12 comments, where users interacted directly with the student featured, praising her for her experience and reflecting on their own co-op experiences. In addition, the two posts on Instagram were shared 71 times, expanding the reach to 3,206 users who don’t follow Drexel’s social media.

Building a Network

If you’re wondering how you can establish these cross-departmental relationships, let’s look at how I built some.

Relationships with Followers

Although I remain anonymous as the voice of Drexel University, I work hard to ensure our followers can count on us to read, respond to, and use content they share with our brand accounts.

In a perfect world, I’d provide a personalized response to every comment, message, and mention on Drexel’s social media channels. Unfortunately, this level of engagement isn’t always feasible as a lone social media manager. It is realistic to be generally responsive, provide opportunities to interact in our content, and follow through on promises. Through back-and-forth communication in inboxes, sharing content on our story, and responding to comments, I humanize Drexel’s social media and make it a two-way street with our followers.

Participation Opportunities

Instagram question stickers are a relaxed way for our followers to share their thoughts. I’ve experimented with fun questions from “Share a lunch recommendation for our New Dragons!” to more brand-focused questions like, “Why did you choose to attend Drexel?” 

It’s exciting to repost the creative responses our followers generate. It also gives them a reason to keep clicking through our story! The benefit of Instagram sticker questions is the ability to review the content before posting and it’s anonymous. If you’re looking for a low-risk way to start engaging with your followers, I recommend starting here.


Recently, I generated a post for Instagram from a direct message. A follower sent me a picture of his friend, Mike. Mike had just celebrated his tenth anniversary as a Drexel Dragon and recently became engaged to another Drexel Dragon. We shared his story on Instagram, and it was a top-performing post with over 15,000 people reached, more than 1,200 content interactions, and four new followers. Most importantly? Mike and his friend, who private messaged us, felt like Drexel University was listening to them.

When was the last time you received a direct message from a follower with a relevant story? If you haven’t, consider doing a call-to-action on your Instagram story. Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

  • Valentine’s Day: “Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. We’re sharing stories of friendships and relationships started at XXX University to celebrate. Show some love by sharing your story.”
  • First-Generation Celebration Day: “Are you a first-generation college student at XXX University? We want to hear from you!”
  • Internship testimonials: “How did co-op [internship] set you up for success in your professional career? Share your experiences through a brief survey and inspire our community to take full advantage of professional opportunities!”

Relationships with Co-workers

Upon joining the marketing communications team at Drexel University, I assimilated into a knowledgeable and collaborative social media team, with the charge of taking ownership of the university’s core accounts. The team managed social media collectively, on top of their other full-time responsibilities, and during COVID, which we all know was a trying time for social media managers.

When I started, Joseph Master, our Assistant Vice President of Marketing & Digital Strategy (who is also my supervisor), could have dissolved the team and let me manage social media on an island. Instead, he encouraged this group to continue meeting and improving Drexel’s social media strategy. From day one, Joe made it clear that his top metric for my success was to make human connections to build credibility for both myself and for social media, in general. “I don’t care about vanity metrics,” is a mantra I often hear from Joe. “People first.”

To this day, we meet every week. These meetings are invaluable. Lauren, George, Nigel, Grace, and Joe are proofreaders, design experts, and out-of-the-box thinkers. I take care to listen to and consider their input, implement their recommendations, and thank them for their contributions as a small way to nurture these relationships.

Relationships with Peers

At the start of 2022, I scheduled meetings with social media communicators across the university. The best way for me to establish relationships with these individuals is to meet with them face to face (or zoom-to-zoom), listen to their content strategies and priorities, and ask how I can help. These simple 30-minute conversations allow me to feel more connected to the robust administrative community at Drexel and reinforce that I’m passionate about using the Drexel social media channels to amplify their messages.

I’ve worked hard to establish an open door with our athletic department—an important group that has been historically underrepresented by the content on our core social accounts. Allison first recommended jumping on a Zoom call when I reached out about content collaboration. Since then, we regularly communicate about upcoming games and events. As a result, I know that I can count on Allison to share creative assets, links, and copy for important athletics news.

Likewise, Allison knows she can count on me to follow through—posting the content and tagging their accounts. This helps them reach a larger audience and benefits Allison’s outreach efforts.

“Having our content posted to the University account has led to an obvious increase in student attendance and awareness of our athletic programs among the Drexel community. Students and the overall community can see that the university supports our athletic department and that athletics is an integral part of being a Dragon. I think this sense of belonging and pride equally benefits the overall messaging for the university's social media and marketing efforts,” Allison told me.

Similarly, I built a strong relationship with our publications team. When they were gathering responses about their student newsletter through a survey, I promoted it on social media and helped them receive more answers. On the flip side, they shared the survey responses with me, which sparked new content ideas and affirmed the topics the students looked at on our timeline.

Relationships with Leadership

Every social media manager needs a strong relationship with leadership, regardless of industry. In higher ed, this is essential to quickly answer questions, address crisis communications, and provide timely updates to the community.

I am in regular communication with our public relations team. Sometimes, they give me a heads up about a hot piece of news, and we coordinate releasing announcements. Sometimes, they reach out and ask what the public’s sentiment is on earned media. On the flip side, I reach out when I see Drexel tagged in negative news or if I need a canned response to incoming questions on social media.

I also have a process for reporting student issues of a sensitive nature. As I’m sure you can imagine, Drexel’s social media channels invite a wide array of individuals to drop comments, messages, and quote tweets. Unfortunately, there are days when the negative far outweighs the positive. A defined relationship with leadership allows me to quickly inform needed parties and streamline a process to respond if necessary.

If you currently don’t have a strategy for addressing crisis communication, I implore you to start by building a network of key players. Most likely, your public relations team will be your best asset, as well as representatives from student life.

Invest Your Time in a Network

Every social media manager wants to hit the ground running when given charge of a new brand. Building a network may feel like a slow way to gather content (especially if you’re an expert at creating content yourself). But, after six years of experience managing social media, I can tell you that a strong network has proven to be my best asset.

In the past year at Drexel, I’ve made a dent in cultivating relationships with students, faculty, staff, and leadership. Through these relationships, I’ve played a small part in sharing major university announcements, celebrating alumni, highlighting our student achievements, and promoting our athletic accomplishments. Our followers on social media, who represent the Drexel community, reap the benefits of these relationships by feeling connected with the university.

Over the last six months, Drexel’s cross-network performance (Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook) has shown positive returns on my investment. I reviewed the previous six months of social media activity (August–February), compared to my first six months on the job (February–August), and the numbers speak for themselves.

  • Total Net Audience Growth of 10,051 (36.4% change)
  • Total Received Messages increased to 13,372 (75.9% change)
  • Total Sent Messages increased to 2,114 (254.7% chance)
  • Total Engagements increased to 440,366 (17.5% change increase)

So, if you’re wondering where to start, send that introductory email. Learn more about the communication challenges of your peers and lend a hand in meeting those needs. If you notice an account flourishing at your university, send a compliment, and pick the administrator's brain on what is working well. Take the time to correspond with students who message your page, even if it doesn’t always benefit you. Ask your supervisor to make an introduction to a department you’re not familiar with yet. Trust me—over time, you’ll see the benefits.

Focusing on engagement is one of the key takeaways from our Higher Ed Social Listening Trends webinar. Register to watch the recording.

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