Tweet victory or much ado? Jury still out on social media

Poll detects uncertainty about efficacy among marketers and alumni. Hannah Fearn reports

October 14, 2010

As universities embrace the brave new world of social networking to connect with alumni and supporters, not everyone in the academy is convinced the tactic is working.

A survey of university marketing and fundraising staff worldwide has concluded that at present there is not enough guidance available in this area and little clear evidence of positive results.

The study, carried out for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, polled almost 1,000 alumni and marketing staff across the US, the UK and Asia Pacific.

Preliminary results reveal that staff overwhelmingly prefer Facebook as a means of communicating with supporters, with 94 per cent making use of the service.

A further 67 per cent use Twitter, 61 per cent use business-networking site LinkedIn and 59 per cent use YouTube.

However, the poll found that only 5 per cent use Ning, a more focused online tool that allows alumni-facing staff to build social networks around particular causes.

"People feel more comfortable with Facebook, maybe because it's been around for longer," said Rae Goldsmith, vice-president for advancement resources at Case.

The main use of social media is to contact potential donors, according to survey responses, with 96 per cent using it to maintain connections with former students and 77 per cent to engage with other "supporters and friends".

Yet despite the widespread uptake of social networking, respondents are cautious about its successes.

The majority of staff surveyed (64 per cent) say that they feel it has been only "somewhat successful" so far.

Dr Goldsmith cautioned against simply counting the number of friends an institution had on Facebook as an indicator of success. He said that repeated interaction between the university and individuals on the site was a far better indicator, if harder to measure.

Respondents to the survey say they need more guidance from their institutions on which tactics to pursue online, and the study reveals that at present staff making use of online networks usually take on the extra work themselves.

Use of social media is not extensively monitored or planned, but there is little reported concern about the potential ethical or legal issues that could arise from it.

Liesl Elder, director of development at the University of Edinburgh, said it was encouraging that universities were expanding their efforts to reach out to alumni.

However, she said that while social media have a role to play, "as with all communication, it should be meaningful and useful for both parties, so universities should consider why and how they use social media rather than simply launching a Twitter account because it seems like the trendy thing to do".

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