Team Social: From left, Kimberly Stern, Jen Smith, Chase Baker and Ashley Manweiler
Yes, being on CSU’s social media team is as fun as it looks.
But it’s also serious business being part of a group that has been recognized globally for its creative, engaging and impactful work.
The four members of “Team Social,” as they are called in CSU’s Division of External Relations, typically roam campus as a gaggle and are often accompanied by one of the CAM mascots, cuddly animals, or superstar alumni.
They are the ones who brought you the April Fool’s spoof of Jimmy Fallon wearing a CSU shirt, the live Facebook chat with astronaut alum Kjell Lindgren, the irresistible “Puppies on the Oval” and the Snapchat takeover by alumnus Chase McNary of ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”
Oh, and they won a Webby Award in 2015 for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with CSU Animal Sciences Professor Temple Grandin, which was the most popular science AMA ever. (The New York Times has called the Webbys the leading international recognition of excellence on the Internet, attracting more than 13,000 entries from all 50 states and more than 60 countries.)
When asked about the keys to their success and the dynamics of their favorite projects of the past year, the members of Team Social are quick to credit each other and their relationships with colleagues on campus.
“Our philosophy is to listen deeply, share meaningfully, and build community,” says the team’s leader, Director of Social and Digital Media Kimberly Stern. “I’m proud that, on a day-to-day basis, we put out content that our fans can identify and engage with. We simply let creativity and experimentation dominate in our workspace. And when we all work together, that’s when the magic happens.”
“I think a lot of it is the environment that Kimberly has created for our team,” adds Chase Baker, social and digital media coordinator. “If you have an idea, she encourages us to put it out there.”
An example of that occurred just a couple of weeks before spring commencement, when Baker suggested asking parents of outstanding graduates to pen handwritten letters to their children, then having the graduates read them for the first time, out loud, on camera. Team Social pulled it off — even finding a schoolhouse desk for the graduates to read from — and the resulting video of the students’ emotional response to the personal letters was powerful.
“There’s something about a handwritten letter that connects with people,” Baker says. “The best part of it was how surprised the students were by what their parents said.”
Baker took the lead on that project, since it was his idea, and Stern says spreading around the leadership role is key. So is planning ahead: Each team member is assigned a specific role for every project. And each tweet and post is carefully crafted, often as a group.
“A misperception of social media is that it’s easy and quick,” says Jen Smith, assistant director of social and digital media.
“We have to be thoughtful,” Stern adds. “We don’t shout our messages. And you need to know your audiences. For example, the majority of our Facebook followers are not in Fort Collins, so hyper-local content doesn’t do as well.”
Even though they go into each project with a plan, the group must also stay flexible, especially when working with live animals.
“You have an idea of what you want to do, but ultimately the animals are in charge,” says Social and Digital Media Coordinator Ashley Manweiler, who has a dual role handling social media for the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
For example, when the four-legged CAM doesn’t want to wear a green birthday hat for very long on the 62nd anniversary of serving as CSU’s mascot, you have to be ready to take your photos and video quickly.
One of Smith’s favorite — and most popular — projects involved shooting a video of four-legged CAM missing the student body during winter break last year. Smith rewrote the lyrics to Adele’s hit song “Hello” and had a jazz-singer friend perform the remixed version. In the video, CAM wanders the empty campus singing lines like, “Hello, it’s me, I was wondering when all my Rams are coming back to me,” and “Hello from the LSC, I wish my Rams were here with me.”
Hugs and high-fives
Manweiler’s favorite project of the year? The annual “Hugs and High Fives” during finals week. In this one, the costumed human version of CAM walks around Morgan Library and other campus buildings, asking students if they would like a hug or a high-five as a study break. As with many of their projects, Baker and Smith wield the cameras while Stern and Manweiler “run interference” and get students’ permission to use the footage after their reactions are captured.
“Any time we can interact with students and make them smile is the most rewarding thing,” Manweiler says.
While there is no “typical day” in the world of Team Social, the members prepare a daily lineup of what’s going out on each platform. They meet every Monday to plan the week and brainstorm ideas about upcoming events or pop culture trends they can capitalize on.
“Social media is often about harnessing what’s happening in the world and aligning it with your brand,” Smith says, adding that the university’s popularity in the community helps. “People want to participate and contribute because everyone loves CSU. And what’s nice about our team is that we all bring different talents. Ashley and Chase are the youth of the group, so they help us have an authentic voice with the students.”
When asked how the team deals with the occasional negative response to a post, chief tweeter Baker says he consults with Stern if there is a particularly delicate situation, but primarily she relies on his judgment.
“I usually trust my gut,” he says. “Sometimes people want you to bite and then will use it against you. Other times they just need to vent and we can acknowledge their concerns.”
“Customer service is a big part of it, interacting with individuals,” Stern adds. “When people get angry at brands they go to social media, especially Twitter, because it’s easy — they don’t have to look up an email address or make a phone call.”
“You can’t take things personally,” Manweiler says, “but it can be hard to have thick skin.”
“Sometimes your audience forgets that there are real people behind these accounts, people who have real feelings,” Baker explains.
It’s come a long way
Stern marvels at how much social media has grown since she was hired as a new media specialist in 2006, when Facebook was only two years old. CSU was one of the first universities in the nation to develop a social media policy, in 2009, and it quickly became clear that Stern would require additional resources to handle the burgeoning social media landscape. She says CSU Vice President for External Relations Tom Milligan recognized the need and opportunity as well, and in 2013 Stern hired her first two staffers, including Manweiler.
“Now, to have four full-time professionals to run social media is pretty extraordinary,” Stern says. “Most universities have one or two people plus interns.”
Even with four people, it’s a challenge to keep up with the quickly changing field.
“You can be good, but you’re never an expert because it all moves so fast,” Baker says.
“And social media is one of the only jobs in the world where you are immediately judged,” Smith adds. “You know in the first five minutes whether it’s a success or a failure.”
The formula seems to be working, given the incredible response that many of the team’s efforts have gotten.
“Our team has created a voice for CSU,” Smith says. “Other universities may have more followers, but our level of our engagement is one of the best because we make it a personal experience. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Manweiler concludes: “It is the best job in the world.”
Keep up with CSU’s Social and Digital Media team through its blog, Social.