Over the last few weeks at Think Up we have been getting our Workshed site (an open educational resource) ready for the start of the new university academic year. Part of this process has been putting in place our social media strategy for the year ahead. Over dinner with a friend last week I realise that this is easier said than done, especially as it is based on working with a number of social media tools over the last few years. To come at it cold can potentially be daunting, and potentially frustratingly slow.
This post therefore is to share with my friend and people in his position our approach to developing a social media strategy for an educational resource. It is by no means definitive or authoritative, and it is a work in progress. Where things do or don’t work I will be happy to report them. I am also aware that people reading this post will be much more experienced in developing social media strategies. If that is you, and you see great big holes in what we are doing, then please tell me. Ultimately, the Workshed site that we are promoting is designed to improve the way people learn about engineering, and is free to use. Anything that can be done to meet its aims can only be a good thing.
A bit of background
The Expedition Workshed website is now entering its third year in operation. The aim of the site is to make the world’s best engineering teaching resources available to all. The project was started by Expedition Engineering, and is developed and operated by Think Up, Expedition’s sister education company in the Useful Simple Trust. Highlights of the site include:
- The interactive Push Me Pull Me tools which allow students to play with structures and to develop an intuitive understanding of structural behaviour without having to solve a single equation;
- The Materials section, an online laboratory that allows students to watch over and over again stunning videos of experiments on materials that they would otherwise rarely get the chance to see;
- The People and Projects section, giving access to archive footage to help students develop their knowledge of important engineers and their achievements.
The aim of the social media strategy
The site is free, and full of really useful things; the challenge is to spread the word about it. The engineering education sector does not have a single place where people go to get their news. It does not have a single place for online educational resources that people know to go to (that’s what we are trying to create!).
Matching audiences and social media channels.
There are two quite district audiences for the site: students and academic staff – both use social media differently. For students, Facebook is the obvious way to get in touch. Twitter seems to be popular among student organisations, which in turn are a good channel for a wider student audience. The academic community seems to be reachable through a mixture of LinkedIn, Twitter and blogs.
And of course for both audiences there’s the more old fashioned channels. Posters for student common rooms; and mailing lists.
Be useful and not just a broadcast operation
I think that the biggest difference between using social media and previously ‘regular’ forms of promotion is that social media is a conversation. The normal rules of conversation follow. Be boring: no one will talk to you. Only talk about yourself; people will quickly stop talking to you. et cetera. Be helpful: people will come back to you. Enquire about other people: they will will gladly tell you how they are getting on.
A couple of people that I have spoken to have been disappointed to find that you can’t just sit on the right key words and wait for people to come to you. It’s got to be more active than that. Our strategy is therefore based around finding people to have conversations with.
For the academic community, this is about having a conversation about challenges that they face in their teaching, and looking for ways that the tools on Workshed, or elsewhere, can help. We look for opportunities to run workshops with universities, and use these as the opportunity to strike up conversations. One of the reasons for setting the blog was to help hold these conversations in public.
For the student community, we are keen to start conversations with student societies. There may be ways that we can help them meet their aims. For example, I was delighted to have recently been contacted by CivSoc, the student society that I used to run at Imperial College. I hope that through our network we can help them find contributions for their student newspaper Livic. Spreading the word about the Workshed website will be a byproduct.
We don’t have to be the people leading the conversation. Our aim is to get to a position where enthusiastic champions can be driving the conversation themselves. To do this you have to get the conditions right. A big inspiration here is the way lindy hop dance group Swing Patrol enthuses a group of volunteers to spread the word about swing dancing in London. The key here seems to be finding the people who already like what you are doing and saying ‘thank you’. We already have a group of academic staff enthusiastic about the Workshed site. Later this month we are holding a free Workshed Developer conference, the primary aim of which is to say thank you for all their enthusiasm and support.
We are also trying to make it as easy as possible for enthusiasts to champion the site. We have started making promotional material freely available through the blog. In our mailing list, we will suggest easy ways that people can help spread the word – they may not be aware of the things that they can easily do to help spread the word. For example, they may not be aware that it is immensely helpful to get other people to post things to your Facebook page – something anyone can easily do.
If we can encourage other people to generate high-quality content for the site, then I think we will have created a sustainable entity. Social media offers a double whammy here: it can help facilitate people helping each other developing content; and it can people get recognition for the work that they have done, thus potentially motivating them to develop more content. However, this process is not automatic. An important part of our social media strategy is therefore to keep pointing out ways they can use social media when developing their own content for Workshed.
This post is already much longer than I expected, and risks becoming un-useful if it gets much longer. There’s lots more I could add about what sorts of things we are posting to Facebook or Twitter, or how we are planning on using YouTube or LinkedIn. But perhaps I’ll save that for another post when we have a couple of months of operations under our belt.