Tufts U uses ‘Vibe’ in massive outreach to prospective students

Tufts tries to draw people to Facebook without driving them away from other content.

Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief of StudentAdvisor.com, recently interviewed Daniel Grayson, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, which ranked 81st on StudentAdvisor’s Top 100 Social Media Colleges.

Grayson pushed to begin Tufts’ social media outreach and founded the admissions presences on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and CollegeConfidential.com, as well as managing the development of Tufts Admissions’ blogging from a single wordpress-hosted blog in 2008 to several dozen bloggers on an integrated blogging platform today.

He currently oversees Tufts admissions web outreach strategy, including the management and development of admissions.tufts.edu.  His tenure at Tufts stretches into its seventh year for 2012-2013, with experience reading applications within the United States and abroad.

At Tufts, what does it mean to be successful with social media in admissions?

Daniel Grayson: Success is all about one word: “Vibe” (yes, capital V). In all our outreach, whether through pubs, the campus visit, our traditional website, or our social media efforts, we want our prospective students to garner a sense of our values, attitudes, and personality. We know that the intangible quality of a school’s “vibe” drives our students’ ultimate university selection – so what we put out needs to reflect the vibe of Tufts. Personality matters, and every post or tweet needs to reflect that. Of course, easier said than done – even before you jump into the process of created content and building out media platforms, you have to answer the question, “What is my Vibe?”

What is Tufts’ primary purpose for social media?

DG: Engagement is our primary aim. Regardless of how active and vocal followers are, they don’t like to click on news links. The most potent benefit is fostering a sense of connection between students and our office. There are times when posting a news article furthers that effort (even if no one clicks), so I do not advocate ditching all news posts, rather, I’d suggest reframing the purpose of those posts around that sense of connection. For our current students and alums, that sense of connection is a form of social capital on which Tufts can build our programs and develop better outreach tools.

How do you grow your fans and followers?

DG: Consistency of presence and broader integration are our main strategies. Integration means that someone should be able to consume our work with the fewest number of clicks possible. Twitter/Facebook/blogs/Tufts.edu should feature each other without being redundant and navigation needs to be easy. Usability is often overlooked, I think, in the rush to jump on the bandwagon. If getting people to your Facebook page means driving them away from all your other content, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

What tips do you have for schools looking to get more fans or followers?

DG: My political science professor once said that people will only consume information that is either useful or gratifying to them – and I wholeheartedly believe that. A few articles or Facebook posts in a row that fail to meet the “usefulness and gratification test” mean that your followers stop paying attention. A few in a row that catch their eye means that the next post is more likely to attract attention.  Media is about momentum, too. Updates need to come regularly, and they need to be consistently relevant or interesting.

Highly engaged followers can become the sort of evangelists who drive more traffic to your work.

Back in 2010, Tufts was one of the first (if not the first) university to accept a one-minute YouTube college video essay as part of the application process. What was the catalyst behind embracing YouTube and what have you learned in the past few years about the students and video applications?

DG: There were others – St Mary’s College in Maryland, for instance – but we got the most attention for it. The YouTube option was designed to work alongside the traditional essay option, and to let students demonstrate something about their personalities that just can’t be fit into a written prompt.

How many people are involved with Tufts’ official social media accounts and which department is responsible for them? What training or education do you give to those running your social media accounts?

DG: It seems like every office at Tufts now has a Twitter account. Dining Services tweets their menus for every dining hall meal now. Most departments run their own accounts. The broader Tufts University accounts – the ones responsible for representing the entire institution – are administered by our Office of Web Communications. Tufts has a social media working group that meets regularly.

In admissions, we train ourselves. Social media changes too quickly to do otherwise, and you constantly have to teach yourself new tricks. As soon as something gets recognized as a “best practice,” Facebook changes and everything’s the Wild West again.

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

DG: We do. Web Communications maintains a page that lists Key Principles, best practices, offers training suggestions, and provides an entry point to the community of students, faculty, or staff doing formal social media work at Tufts.

How are students involved in helping the official social media efforts at Tufts? How do students get involved with the official social media program?

DG: In admissions, we create the opportunity for conversation between prospective students and current students and then get out of the way. We encourage students to unofficially become involved with our program as much as they can. Authenticity of information is key and a prospective student will sooner trust a current Tufts student than an admissions officer who says the same thing. Sometimes, this manifests in an obvious way – such as a student taking over our Twitter handle for a day of “guest tweets.”

It’s the same with Facebook. We invite any Tufts student to participate on our Facebook page and answer questions about Tufts. When we starting doing this, many schools were still wringing their hands about the potential for unscreened students to create mischief or air grievances in a way that would discourage applicants. Part of what it means to be authentic, however, is being willing to let go of control and allow students to talk to each other as peers without oversight.

Tufts hosts many student blogs on your blogging platform, Jumbo Talk. What is the value of student bloggers and why did Tufts decide to start a student blogging system?

DG: Tufts is aspirational, and we want students to choose us over comparable quality, though better ranked, institutions. For a student to do this, they need to believe that they will be happier at Tufts, that they will be more likely to find friends and that they are more likely to be challenged intellectually with us than with another school. That isn’t about ratios or class sizes or stats; it’s about personality and intellectualism. Our prospective students need to have a deep understanding of the qualitative pieces for us to reach our aspirations, and the blogs are perhaps the best vehicle to develop that. More than any other feature on our website, the blogs are where we get the most positive feedback. More than any other feature, the blogs are where our personality and intellectualism shine.

Do you have any suggestions for applicants who have social media accounts and are interested in Tufts University?

DG: Use Facebook and Twitter to track down current students and to verify the claims that you hear from the admissions office. If a school says that undergraduate research is easy, then use the internet’s tools to find current students who aren’t tour guides and ask them, “is getting involved in research easy?” There’s tremendous potential for applicants to completely sidestep the admissions offices in their search for an educational home – and while I believe there’s a lot of value to connecting with an admissions office, there are now so many unofficial channels available to today’s applicant that did not exist even 5 years ago. Use them.

Can you share Tufts’s next step for your evolving social media strategy? What’s next?

DG: We are in the process now of hiring six first-year students to be our Admissions Communications Board. These students will produce our web content and keep us honest and current in how we present Tufts. We’ll let them, with shaky hands and imperfect editing, produce our YouTube videos and grade our work on Facebook and Twitter. We did this last year for our publications and were consistently impressed with the insight those student brought. They kept us on our toes, and now a new crop will keep us moving forward with web and social media.

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