#Hashtag University

Carnegie Higher Ed Jul 09, 2013 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

The action of pushing Shift+3 on our keyboards has become part of our everyday lives in the past few years—and it’s all thanks to social media powerhouse Twitter. Having permeated almost all other social outlets (including Instagram, Vine, Google+, and in the past few weeks, Facebook), there is nowhere anyone can turn these days without seeing a hashtag. Whether it is on a social media site, on television, in e-mails, or even in regular conversation, this character we once knew as the number or pound sign (or octothorpe, if you’re really snazzy) has become more influential to the marketing industry than ever imagined (#youknowitstrue). And thanks to the addition of Facebook to the hashtag club, the net has been cast even wider for more interaction, conversation, and leads for schools.

With the cultural phenomenon of this “social talk,” finding the perfect way to market your school and athletic teams has become paramount, so it’s no surprise that those in higher education marketing have jumped on the bandwagon, realizing the importance of using the hashtag in their overall Twitter presence, whether online, in print, or on television. With one well-placed hashtag, thousands of people can be impacted and influenced. And there is no crowd more tuned into social media than today’s prospective students and athletes—which is what higher education marketers bank on.

Whether your school is large or small, with a big or tiny marketing budget, the hashtag does not judge; it just seems to be relative to the situation. For example, when using targeted hashtags during television shows (e.g., Survivor, Big Brother, American Idol, The Amazing Race, etc.), brands have had tons of success starting up real-time conversations and interactions. Then there’s the fast and furious engagement during a Final Four playoff game or season opener.

In particular, Mississippi State University pushed the envelope by painting #HailState on their football end line instead of the traditional school name. With the publicity/following that MSU had on the second screen already, it was only seconds before their hashtag went viral, connecting millions of people practically instantly. However, with a new NCAA ban on such promotion, lumping it under on-field advertising, the paint wasn’t even dry on the grass before it had to be replaced.

The data between Twitter, television, and engagement is astounding. According to Joel Lunenfield, Vice President of Global Brand Strategy at Twitter, “Sixty-six percent of mobile users are active on the social network in front of their televisions, and 33% Tweet about the shows they’re watching. In fact, 95% of all public conversation about TV happens on Twitter.” It’s unfortunate the NCAA doesn’t see the value in using the hashtag on fields. While yes, it is an advertising technique, it really has little to do with athletic recruitment. What they fail to appreciate is how the hashtag is also simply a conversation starter, connecting fans and potential applicants to school social media sites.

On the flip side, the Athletics Department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, a school without TV rights deals, has decided to use the hashtag in a different way. By incorporating their #CodeBlue tagline on their video scoreboard throughout games, they ensure there is a social media presence even without the second screen available, according to Scott Donnelly, their Director of Athletic Marketing. While sharing hashtags on Twitter might be slower than the immediate impact of television, Donnelly adds that the branding aspect is definitely still worthwhile.

We have to face facts: prospective students and athletes are more technologically advanced than ever, with close to 100% of all teens online and smartphones in two out of every five of their pockets—and that number growing all the time. There is never an opportunity to not be engaging with friends, brands, schools, and athletic teams. Most teenagers seem to be programed to jump onto a social network at the sight of a hashtag and chance for a conversation or to pledge their love for something they care about. That being said, what MSU and UMass Lowell both did, on different scales, was put their hashtags in places where all the prospective eyes were. Then they just let their fans take their hashtag social.

In light of a recent move to Division I and a Frozen Four run this past year, UMass Lowell’s Donnelly made it clear that no matter what the hashtag, the fans are what keep any social campaign afloat. Specifically, UMass Lowell’s social efforts “increased about 35% this year as they used Facebook and Twitter to spread information on short notice, and as a result allowed fans to do most of the work after that.”

While the Twitter/television marketing duo has a plug in it at the moment, engagement between brands and fans can’t and won’t be slowing anytime soon. The key to success is the proliferation of the right hashtags with the right people who will spread your message to anyone they are connected with.

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