New millennial-driven field of study focuses on the science of social media

As social media becomes a fixture in nearly every industry, institutions are equipping their students with the skills to excel in this field.

Innovation is increasingly important in helping colleges and universities attract and retain students, and when it comes to fields of study, many students look for majors that will guide them to career paths with healthy prospects for growth and success. (Read: “3 blossoming fields of study with massive potential.”)

While a career as a social media expert might have raised eyebrows two decades ago, today’s reality is that social media has a major impact on nearly every market–and institutions are rapidly working to integrate social media management into their academic offerings.

At the University of Texas, AdGrad is the social media brand and the curriculum for the School of Advertising & Public Relations, taught by Dr. Gary Wilcox.

Students learn to monitor and analyze social media conversations and their impact using NUVI monitoring dashboards.

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But their studies go deeper, too. Students work in teams to create content calendars and original content for the school’s channels and its hub, AdGradLife.

In the fall, AdGrad will have three teams working to produce original content for social media channels. Those teams are the content team, content management team, and the analytics team. The groups function together and meet once a week.

Students have access to tools they’ll likely use in real life, including the Spredfast platform and the NUVI social media marketing suite.

(Next page: Social media incorporates skills today’s students want to learn)

Skills Today’s Students Want to Learn

Data Analysis Skills

“These days, everything is analytics-driven, or it should be,” Wilcox said. “The analytics drive the original content strategy, as well as the content management strategy. It’s an analytics-driven business. The sooner everyone understands that, the faster they’ll integrate.”

Understanding data analytics and why it is so important is a skill students will take with them into their professional future.

“When we did a content analysis, we went through content with a fine-tooth comb before we started,” said AdGrad student Kristen Roman. “The second we got the data and saw if an approach was working or not, we adjusted. All of it is data-driven–we don’t make decisions without data we pull from our own year or previous years.”

Innovation Skills

Having freedom to experiment with different social media approaches empowers the students to innovate on their own, too.

“This class gives you the ability to have trial and error in what you’re doing,” Roman said. “We have the opportunity to try new things, fail, go back to the data, and see why we failed. Being able to do that has really affected many of the students in the class in a positive way.”

“We’re always trying to innovate and be at the edge of where we think things are going,” Wilcox said. “This is an important part of it–our students go out and land incredible jobs. They’re taking with them the tools they pick up here.”

Real-World Skills

At Illinois State University, students engage in real-world learning in the The Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC), a classroom social media lab/media war room run by SMACC is run by Nathan Carpenter, assistant director of Convergent Media. The SMACC was created to enhance social media analytics and strategy skill sets.

“What we really recognized is that there’s a growing concern that it is difficult to study social media,” Carpenter said. “Social media are really kind of the central node right now where so many things are happening at once. There are so many changes taking place around social media and so many constantly changing, emerging concerns around them.”

In the SMACC, six 65” touchscreens and two mobile 40” touchscreens powered by NUVI social media monitoring software captures and analyzes millions of conversations from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, YouTube, Delicious, Reddit, WordPress blogs and more than 20 million RSS feeds.

Communication Skills

In the School of Communication, PR students learn how social media influences public opinion, how companies use it to manage crisis situations, and to monitor their own social media campaigns. Journalism students learn how social media fits into the 24-hour news cycle and how it is supplementing traditional media as a news source. Mass Media majors use it to develop content for the campus-run TV station, radio station and paper.

Marketing Skills

Students in the school’s Department of Marketing participate in a social media strategy incubator where they team up with local businesses in their community to create a social profile and monitor conversations in the social space about the businesses product/service, their competitors, and other key performance indicators. Students present their findings and social media strategy recommendations to the businesses. Many students have been hired by these companies as a result of the SMACC incubator experience.

Carpenter said the SMACC’s focus is first on education, then on research, and finally, collaboration, including reaching out into the community. When it comes to the community priorities, the SMACC can serve a number of purposes. For instance, Carpenter said he hopes to use the space to bring in the local economic council and research how to bring more airlines into the university’s local airport.

“We needed to have a space that put our students front and center in front of these social media analytics tools,” Carpenter said.

“Within this space, we’re trying to provide our students accessibility to these tools, and when there is a major media event, we can turn all our screens to that event and get those students in front of these tools, finding the content and the interview sources,” he said.

During an event, students might use social media for any number of tasks, including fact-finding, verifying information, and analyzing misinformation or potential rumors, including to what extent social media might influence those rumors.

“It provides a lot of teaching moments where, again, the first battle is how we get students access to the analytics, the data, and once we have them in front of that, how do we ask the right questions,” Carpenter said. “This is primarily a space for critical engagement with the issues around us.”

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Laura Ascione

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