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See Blue? Why University of Kentucky Dominates Social Media

Dean Tsouvalas, Editor-in-Chief of StudentAdvisor.com, interviewed Whitney Hale, Senior Public Relations Specialist in Public Relations and Marketing at University of Kentucky. The University of Kentucky was ranked #7 on the just released Top 100 Social Media Colleges rankings Spring 2012.

The University of Kentucky is a public, land-grant university dedicated to improving people's lives through excellence in education, research and creative work, service, and health care. As Kentucky's flagship institution, the university plays a critical leadership role by promoting diversity, inclusion, economic development and human well-being. Ranked nationally in more than 70 academic programs, UK is focused on research and outreach that will change lives for the people of Kentucky, the nation, and the world.

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DT: Fresh off your win in the NCAA Final Four, how did the University of Kentucky’s social media play a part before, during and after March Madness?

WH: Sports at the University of Kentucky, especially UK Men's Basketball, has had a special place in the heart of the UK community for more than a century. UK's social media accounts attempt to leverage that popular tradition as part of sharing the UK story. In the weeks leading up to the Final Four, we shared stories, photos and videos related to the team's SEC Season Championship and eventually the NCAA Championship. We know from experience that March Madness is a time when traffic on our accounts grows quite rapidly because the university is in a national spotlight for an extended period of time.

To help feed that thirst for information about UK, we attempt to share fun content related to basketball while also sharing stories about the accomplishments, research and activities happening on the university's campus. For example, this year we had fun sharing the mayor's proclamation of Big Blue Day during Final Four weekend. We shared the actual proclamation on our Facebook, Twitter and Flickr pages and asked our audiences where they would be celebrating Big Blue Day. It was a fun way to show the size of the UK community around the world. We had soldiers responding from as far away as Afghanistan to regional UK fans rooting the Wildcats on in our competitors' territories of Louisville and Kansas.

DT: During the weeks of the tournament, were there any challenges balancing Basketball related messages with other things happening at UK?

WH: Not really, it is our practice to regularly share content related to sports, academics and research at UK to give visitors to our pages a well-rounded view of the university as a whole. For example, each day on Facebook we highlight a sports story and a news story related to research, academics, people or activities on campus. So during March Madness, we shared stories related to both our men and women's teams in our sports posts on Facebook while maintaining our regular schedule of academic and research stories. We did however notice the week leading up to the semifinal and final game that most of our active audience was interested primarily in talking about basketball and we gladly participated in these conversations.

DT: How many people are involved with UK’s official social media accounts and which department is responsible for them?

WH: The university's social media accounts are maintained by a team of six from UK Public Relations and Marketing. The team is comprised of staff from our health and campus news staffs, as well as members of our marketing staff. We believe the team makeup helps us provide a well-rounded view of the university community.

DT: Are students involved in helping the official social media efforts at UK? If yes, how do students get involved with the official social media program?

WH: A select group of students at UK are involved with the university's social media efforts. Our office offers internships to students interested in advancing their social media skills. We send out a notice of our internships to our College of Communications and Information Studies before the fall, spring and summer semesters.

DT: What is UK’s primary purpose for social media? Do you use it as a news source, to actively engage with students, both or additional purposes?

WH: UK uses social media to both engage students and prospective students, as well as to share news and information about the university with students, faculty, staff, alumni and residents of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

university-of-kentucky-student

DT: On Flickr, we saw a hashtag on a poster that students hung up related to March Madness (#BlueOrleans). You also used #8pril and #BBN – who came up with these hashtags? For a university, is there a danger in having too many hashtags at once?

WH: The hashtags you are referencing evolved organically. Two of the hashtags, #BlueOrleans and #8pril, reference particular timeframes related to March Madness and won't be seen much after April of this year. The hashtag #BBN refers to Big Blue Nation, a popular name for the contingent of UK faithful. We do use #BBN often to promote a sense of community, as well as abbreviate the name. In addition to #BBN, followers on our Twitter account may see us use #seeblue, which references our popular admissions marketing campaign, and #WeAreUK, a hashtag used by UK Athletics.

DT: UK’s YouTube Channel is constantly updated with cool videos. Can you tell us about your strategy behind the channel as well as the production of the videos?

WH: Our video team is constantly searching for stories about our faculty, staff and students (current and former) who have amazing stories to show and tell. They try to pick the ideas that are most visual and that can help a variety of constituents to the university see how UK is shaping the lives of students, alumni, staff, faculty, the community, the state and even the world. We use YouTube to showcase our videos so that a larger worldwide audience can view and share them with others. We like to have a mix of human-interest stories, recruitment videos, research accomplishments and even some fun UK Athletics-related videos to keep it interesting.

DT: You post “Videos of the Week” on your Facebook page – videos made by UK students about the university for incoming students, as well as a series of alumni videos on your YouTube page. How do you think this affects students who are coming into the university?

WH: We use a mix of student-produced videos, as well as videos produced by our own video team. For the videos of the week and our alumni stories, we hope that we give prospective students an overarching view of what life at UK is really about. It's not just about the classroom or just about athletics or just about campus organizations. Life at UK is about having so many opportunities at your fingertips, if you just seek them out! We hope that the alumni stories show future Wildcats how valuable an education from UK really is. Our alumni are doing some amazing things throughout the state, country and world. We really hope that students can see the sky is the limit not just while they're attending UK, but once they've graduated, too.

DT: We are big fans of your campaign for recruiting students, called “See Blue.” How did this innovative platform come to be?

WH: One of the most ambitious components of UK's promise to the Commonwealth of Kentucky is to educate more students - this means increasing the size of the freshman class and overall enrollment over the next several years. In 2006, UK Public Relations and Marketing was charged to develop and implement an aggressive marketing plan to achieve this definitive goal. After a three-month research project with potential “customers,” high school students in the region, it became clear that UK faced several challenges in reaching their desired enrollment increase. First, there would not be enough students within the state of Kentucky to double the size of the freshman class by 2015. Second and most daunting, the research revealed a very low awareness for UK within key regional focus markets. It became clear, that without strong and consistent marketing—mainly in highly competitive, non-Kentucky markets—the goal would not be met.

Market share is impossible to attain without mind share. Research showed that UK’s regional mind share was not enough to expect dramatic increases in enrollment without significant financial and human resource investment. Based on existing research and small-scale success in these markets, it was determined that UK would continue to strengthen its brand within the state of Kentucky while also focusing resources on four specific out-of-state areas: Cincinnati, Columbus, Nashville and Indianapolis. Research confirmed that all of these markets contained a high number of potential UK students and that they were geographic “sweet spots” for students looking to be out-of-state, while still within an easy drive to their hometown.

Targets were high school students grades 9 through 11 who had shown academic ability to enroll at UK. To reach them with our marketing messages we developed an integrated marketing plan that tied together traditional media, non-traditional media, as well as a new outreach to key influencers: guidance counselors and UK alumni educators in the key markets. With increased mind share as our most critical goal, we strengthened the “see blue.” brand campaign to introduce them to and increase their knowledge of the University of Kentucky.

The "see blue." message leveraged our strong athletic brand and we owned the color “blue” in our out-of-state markets. UK’s signature color was unique to the red, maroon, black, scarlet and orange of our competition within a five hour drive from Lexington. And its call to action gave us a chance to explain what “seeing blue” was all about.

DT: Do you think it’s important for college admissions to have a theme, and how do you support that theme in social media?

WH: We absolutely believe that it is important for college admissions to have a theme – this has been evident in the success of our “see blue.” campaign. Originally created as a student recruiting campaign, the success of “see blue.” has quickly spread throughout campus and the Commonwealth. Former University President Lee T. Todd Jr. adopted the “see blue.” theme on his statewide bus tour as the way to show how UK positively impacts the Commonwealth and President Eli Capilouto, in his very first message to campus declared “see blue.”! Dr. Capilouto has recommitted to the next phase of “see blue.” – a campaign that is evolving every year. Various colleges on campus built “see blue.” themes into the visual presentation of their school to current students and outside visitors as well. But beyond the numbers, there were numerous other accomplishments.

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For the first time in the university’s history, three distinct business units—Enrollment Management, UKPR & Marketing and the UK Alumni Association—worked closely to impact recruiting efforts in out-of-state markets. For the first time, we invited all UK College of Education grads in our four “feeder” markets to show their affinity for UK by exposing their alma mater to many students and families. And lastly, for the first time, we sent more than a form letter to key gatekeepers (guidance counselors) to raise their awareness and acceptance of UK as a viable alternative for their students. A university has a broad base of internal and external constituencies. The “see blue.” campaign was one of those rare unifiers where all parties understood the mission and cooperated closely to increase our chances of success. Anyone who has worked with an educational institution will tell you this is very, very difficult to achieve.

The Office of Undergraduate Admission uses #seeblue as its official hashtag on social media, using it both on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve seen #seeblue not only as a reflection of pride from our current students and a note of enthusiasm from prospective students, it has crossed over into our world-class athletics program. Fans of the Kentucky Wildcats use #seeblue to share their love of the Cats.

We have also developed several Facebook applications that incorporate the “see blue.” theme directly onto our social media accounts. The “Become a Wildcat” app pulls visual elements from the current “see blue.” campaign and walks a prospective Wildcat through the steps of the application process. We’ve built similar apps for the Honors Program and for our President’s Blog.

The easiest way we’ve integrated the “see blue.” campaign into our social media outlets is visually. Images, avatars and timeline photos all reflect the visual attributes of “see blue.”

DT: Do you monitor the Facebook or Twitter profiles of students that have applied to UK?

WH: We do not. Social media is a fun way for us to interact with our current and prospective students but we do not use it in the application process.

DT: Any suggestions for applicants who have social media accounts?

WH: Follow UK's accounts and interact with them. Many of UK's accounts have student interns and staff who monitor and engage on our accounts, so they are a great way to get a real student perspective. We also answer questions on Facebook and Twitter within 24 hours of them being posted, so it is a great place for students to get feedback quickly.

The UK Office of Undergraduate Admission has many great social media resources.
Facebook: universityofkentuckyadmissions
Twitter: @UKYAdmission
Tumblr: applyuk

DT: Does UK have a social media policy or guidelines for staff, students, and/or student groups?

WH: UK's social media policy is more a set of guidelines of best practices for faculty and staff developing individual business accounts or college and/or department accounts. Official accounts of the university are reviewed by administration. You can find UK's guidelines here: http://www.uky.edu/regs/files/ar/AR10-4.pdf. A list of all of UK's official accounts can be found listed on our social media hub: http://www.uky.edu/PR/SocialMedia.

DT: Does UK offer a course in social media or are their courses where social media is a component of the curriculum?

WH: Social media is covered as a component of several integrated strategic communications and journalism courses at UK's College of Communications and Information Studies. In addition, the university's Student Government Association recently hosted a "social media week" with programming for students, staff and faculty interested in increasing their social media use and proficiency.

DT: Do you have a favorite social media platform, video or blog?

WH: My favorite video is actually a collection of videos spotlighting UK alumni and their success stories. UK has a large number of graduates with interesting and inspiring stories to tell and this series does a wonderful job of capturing some of the most engaging.

DT: Can you share about UK’s next step for your social media strategy?

WH: We recently launched UK accounts on Pinterest, Google+ and Foursquare. We are currently looking at ways to engage audiences on these new accounts, as well as attract new users to our Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr pages. We are also working with the university's Information Technology staff to grow the UK's iTunesU presence.

DT: Is there anything we missed that you think is important to UK’s social media community?

WH: I think the most significant word in your question is the word community. We like to show through our social media accounts that the university is making an impact not only in Lexington and Kentucky, but also worldwide. To emphasize that point we love to give a platform to all of the Big Blue Nation both here and abroad. Social media gives us an amazing platform to share those stories and interact with our community.

About Whitney Hale:

Whitney Hale is a senior public relations specialist at University of Kentucky Public Relations and Marketing. She heads up the UK Social Media Team and is one of the administrators for the UK College of Fine Arts' social media accounts. In addition to social media, Hale is the university's public relations representative for the university's colleges of Design and Fine Arts, as well as UK Libraries. Prior to working at UK, she served as a policy analyst and legislative researcher for the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General. Hale holds a bachelor's degree in political science from UK and a master's degree in public administration from the university's Martin School of Public Policy and Administration.

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