College is online and networking

Signs are popping up around the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene that advertise the college’s presence online. The college is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr under the direction of the College Relations Office, which is responsible for marketing and communications. (Kathy Plonka)
Signs are popping up around the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene that advertise the college’s presence online. The college is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr under the direction of the College Relations Office, which is responsible for marketing and communications. (Kathy Plonka)

In the last few years, as social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter began to dominate the digital landscape and Youtube continued to attract tens of millions of viewers, the technologies have allowed people to connect in ways not previously possible.

Until fairly recently, community groups and other institutions hadn’t really learned to utilize such Web-based mediums to connect with their audiences.

Fast forward to 2010 and local groups from the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce to the Kroc Center to high schools and area colleges have established an online social presence in some form. And their uses are as diverse as the groups behind the posts.

Fan sites on Facebook, a YouTube flick of an epic sports moment caught on camera, Twitter feeds on the latest campus news, a Flickr photo of the sunset over Lake Coeur d’Alene; sometimes it’s simply to share a moment, while for others it’s to market a place, product or brand. There are countless reasons to join the social foray, and they are growing with every click of the mouse.

North Idaho College’s online persona started about a year ago with a mascot. Cecil the Cardinal formed a Facebook profile to provide event updates and some college news posts, as well as to test the online waters before the institution dove in outright, according to Chris Pfeiffer of the College Relations Office, which is responsible for marketing and communications.

“We jumped in as soon as we saw there was a legitimate reason to do it,” he said, adding that the mascot’s initial posts provided information blurbs and answered user feedback. “I would say literally within a week we were sure that there was no reason not to do this.”

According to a study by Anderson Analytics, a market research agency, the average user logs into a social network account about four times daily, five days a week, and spends about one hour per day on the network, with more than half of those users saying they have associated their profiles with a brand, company or product. The study went on to show that that the most common age group among Facebook users ranges from 15 to 34, but the fastest growing demographic is the middle-age crowd, with 44 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds and 30 percent of 45- to-54-year-olds saying they have profiles, too.

All that adds up to a burgeoning market waiting to be tapped into, and an ongoing conversation asking for more voices.

Back on the lakeside campus, posters began popping up after the mascot’s digital debut asked, “Are you friends with Cecil yet?” and the fans steadily answered (currently standing at 1,063). Under the direction of the College Relations Office, NIC has over the past year branched out into other online realms to target the different demographics being used by each, including a more community-minded Twitter feed, a wide range of YouTube videos, and an assortment of photo albums that cover campus and campus life on the picture-sharing site Flickr. The office even added a more news-oriented Facebook profile when the Web site’s users began to shift beyond the typical college-age crowd, while letting Cecil provide a more whimsical viewpoint to his followers.

Prospective and current students, employees, alumni and community members all utilize the social Web sites, crossing the gamut in age, occupation and residence, said NIC spokeswoman Stacy Hudson. In addition, college departments maintain their own profiles, such as the Associated Students of NIC and Outdoor Pursuits, and some instructors have mentioned that they might integrate social sites into their curriculum, perhaps by initiating study sessions through Twitter or sending out other useful info.

“Social media is a very viable tool for communication,” Hudson said, adding that the institution follows outside groups and organizations. “A lot of the messaging that we do, we target using these different tools. These are all tools … for reaching the general public.”

The added significance of social networking is it allows groups or individuals to not only provide updated information, but track other users as well.

The Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, which follows NIC and vice versa, began its online social presence by looking to see what other chambers across the country were doing. With ribbon cutting ceremonies and contests drawing in packs of people at other cities, the chamber saw an opportunity to connect with the community, promote local businesses and showcase the area to current and potential visitors.

“When it really started to take off was when we joined Facebook and Twitter,” explained Chris Hollibaugh, the chamber’s online communication coordinator.

Over the next year, Hollibaugh said the chamber will delve deeper into the social aspects of online media sites. One week it might highlight special deals going on in the community, and the next it will focus on tours of the area for sightseers. In addition, chamber members can participate in “web-inars,” which are online-only viewing workshops that focus on different aspects of business and feature local professionals.

Perhaps most importantly, the networking hubs allow the chamber and other groups to market themselves to anyone who click to become a declared fan. In fact, with budget cuts taking a toll across all sectors of the economy, this year it’s dedicating as much funding to develop the social media profiles as is going toward traditional news outlets such as newspaper ads and TV spots.

“We’re going to take a lot more advantage of it,” Hollibaugh said. “It’s gone beyond being a fad and it’s not something that’s going to go away. (Social networking) is such a simple thing and it’s becoming a big part of communities. I think we haven’t tapped into the full capabilities yet.”

The University of Idaho has been carefully crafting and cultivating its online representations over the last year. The college keeps in touch with graduates on Facebook – even streaming for the first time last Christmas a holiday concert to fans – and offers news and events via Twitter.

“It’s just a very immediate way to get news out compared to the traditional media,” offered UI spokeswoman Tania Thompson.

And, added Chris Cooney, UI’s director of Web communications, “It really allows us to join the conversation … The University of Idaho is such a remarkable institution and beautiful campus, and (social networking sites) allow us to really present ourselves more accurately as an institution.”

Even with a team of marketing experts, though, sometimes all it takes is one post. The rest, according to the laws of Internet infamy, is history.

A 75-foot buzzer beater by NIC men’s basketball player Melvin Jones has drawn the most views on YouTube with more than 4,700 viewers, followed by an engine demonstration by a machine technology instructor that has attracted roughly 4,000 visitors. But with every viewer, site visitor or fan, a seed is planted, however inadvertent. As the name or brand grows, the hope is that so will the group, organization or business behind it.

“Hopefully,” offered NIC’s Hudson, “these things will continue to grow in popularity and will continue to reach people with the messages we want to send out.”

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