Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief of StudentAdvisor.com, recently interviewed Whitney Hale, senior public relations specialist in public relations and marketing at the University of Kentucky, ranked No. 7 on the just released Top 100 Social Media Colleges rankings from StudentAdvisor.com for spring 2012.
The University of Kentucky is a public, land-grant university dedicated to improving people’s lives through excellence in education, research, 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. The university is ranked nationally in more than 70 academic programs.
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. We know from experience that March Madness is a time when traffic on our accounts grows quite rapidly because the university is in the 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. 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’s 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.
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.
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 its 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.
Targets were high school students grades nine 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.
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.
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.
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: 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.