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Social media panel 2018: Barney Brown, University of Cambridge

Estimated read time: 10 minutes

With a picture-perfect Instagram feed and huge audiences across their different channels, the University of Cambridge certainly knows what it’s doing when it comes to social media. With that in mind, it’s our pleasure and privilege to have Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications at the University, to part of our 2018 social media panel.

What social media channels worked best for you in 2017?

Instagram and Facebook continue to be the friendliest places for our audiences to find out what it’s like to study, work and play here whilst Twitter continues to be an ideal place to share and engage with those interested in our research, and vast pool of academic voices. In all three cases we’ve seen a rise in the level of engagement, and in turn we’ve been putting more effort into the practical management side of them.

Though not principally our own channel, the success of our students’ personal YouTube channels in inspiring potential applicants has been really inspiring. Nobody could represent their experiences of studying here better, and their dedication to answering questions and being (sometimes) brutally honest is to be commended.

And which channels flopped for you last year?

That’s a bit harsh. The channel which never really lit our fire (as we found it too convoluted to get meaningful statistics out of) was Snapchat. We gave it a go, but in all honesty we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin and at present we’re happy with the levels of engagement we’re getting from the three channels I’ve already mentioned. If interest in any of them significantly wanes, then we’ll rethink, but for now, we think we’re getting the best measurable bang for our buck.

What was the biggest challenge for your organisation’s social media channels in 2017?

Supporting staff and students that have been attacked online. This work has been motivated principally by a duty of care to them, but when people in your community are harassed it’s really important you do everything you can to keep them safe.

Do you expect that challenge to persist this year? Or do you think it will be something different?

It’s going to persist, and it’s something we really can’t ignore. I personally think we should always put the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students ahead of any potential social media marketing opportunities.

Thinking specifically about paid social media, how much of this to you expect do in 2018? Will this be more, less or the same as in recent years?

In 2017 we paid for one Snapchat geofilter for two days. That was the extent of our paid social media activity, so on that basis, spending in 2018 will almost certainly go up. We’re as twitchy about Facebook’s rumoured changes to how content is going to show up in people’s feeds so will be experimenting with paid promotions. However, we’re wary of throwing money at anything that hasn’t been really carefully planned, and isn’t going to help us reach new audiences.

As ever, there has plenty of talk recently about Facebook being dead – how important is Facebook for your organisation? Is it dead among your audiences?

We’re still getting really healthy engagement with our posts, and are having more and more successes with Live video (more on that later). We also continually see good referrals to our website from Facebook users, so as a feeder for our main website, as well as a place to engage with new audiences, it’s still very much alive for us. We’ve seen a shift in the demographics somewhat with younger audiences more likely to now connect with us on YouTube (via our students) or Instagram.

What about Snapchat? For you, is it a growth channel or has its impact lessened since Instagram copied all of its key features?

As with all of our social media channels, we tend to start our presence on them in a quiet state without too much fanfare. This is to let us settle into the rhythm of the channel and ascertain how much effort is required to keep it running. If it feels like we’ve got the time to keep a channel running, and the metrics coming out of it show its worth it, we kick things up a notch. With Snapchat, we never got beyond the quiet stage. That said we love Instagram Stories, and are happy with the engagements we’re getting through them.

We’ve also seen a huge growth in Stories and Live video over the last 18 months or so – how much do you use these tools and what sort of impact have they had for you?

We’ve been using Facebook Live a lot over the last year, typically to give our audiences tours of Cambridge, but also through the departments to host live Q+As with specialists around the University. The engagement rates seem to be higher than pre-recorded video but delivering them well requires a bit more patience and preparation. Stories are now a regular part of our Instagram offering and are where we’re focussing the creative efforts we learnt through our Snapchat experimentation.

Is podcasting on your agenda at all for 2018? If so, what sort of show are you planning? If not, is there any reason why?

That’s a sore point for me. Podcasting has been on my personal agenda for years now (I’m a long time listener outside of work and sometime creator). We’ve got a lot of plans for podcasting in 2018 but are lacking a few crucial ingredients, namely people and money. That said, if there’s a way we can pilot an approach using existing resources (by doing less of something else) I would still be up for trying. At a departmental level there is some great activity out there (Talking Politics), but it requires external funding to run. I’d like to see us in a position where we can make University wide podcasts in-house and sustainable (like our film making).

Which social channel do you think will be the most valuable for you in 2018?

YouTube, mainly because we are still yet to unlock the full potential in it. It really needs to be considered as a principal social media channel more by institutions. The discussions around our content are as rich and varied as on our other channels (though perhaps a little bit more … edgy). So it’s going to be valuable for us as our video output is going to increase and whilst Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are great outlets for it, there’s a lot more we could do through YouTube. We’re interested in formalising a more programmed and series based approach to releasing video.

Are there any channels you use now that you think you won’t be using in 12 months’ time?

In case it hasn’t come across already … Snapchat.

And finally, can you pick one word or phrase that you think will define how your organisation uses social media in 2018?

Pockets of greatness coerced into a more focussed and beneficial medium for us and our audiences. It’s not really a phrase, but I need to go and grab another coffee.

You can follow Barney on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn

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