Although academia is often accused of being slow to change and a little too fond of well-worn traditions, colleges and universities are the clear "early adopters" in using social media to reach out to their "customers." In one of the first statistically significant, longitudinal studies on the use of social media by college admissions offices, the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found 85 percent of college admissions offices use at least one form of social media, most often social networking, video blogging and blogging.In fact, 41 percent of colleges and universities had a public blog in 2008, as compared to only 13 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
Although, like many chiropractic college presidents and state and national association leaders, I remember a time when the personal computer didn't even exist, the vast majority of our prospective and current students don't. Those graduating from high school today have been exposed to the Internet since childhood and most millennials (individuals now ages 15 to 27) live in a constant state of connectivity to digital music, cell phones, the Internet, instant messaging and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. They also increasingly stay connected on the go.
The implications for how we recruit, communicate with and educate our students and connect with alumni are daunting. These are the folks responsible for the lion's share of the 1 billion text messages sent every day in the United States. Capturing the attention of a generation raised on instant movie downloads (Anyone remember the days of three TV channels in black and white?) and providing them with meaningful, two-way communication with their alma mater and professional organizations is critical.
A Chiropractic Opportunity
For decades, chiropractic has struggled to spread its message of health and wellness despite competing with the huge advertising and marketing budgets of drug companies, medical equipment providers and hospital systems. We've never even gotten as close as David and Goliath. But the explosion of social media, with nearly nonexistent barriers to entry, is leveling the playing field, giving organizations of all sizes and pocketbooks the ability to communicate and listen.
Our colleges and associations need to capitalize on the social media revolution to share the chiropractic message broadly and creatively, while enhancing our understanding of public perceptions toward health. Although, of course, the pluralistic nature of social media also makes it more challenging to control the message; blogs written by students and faculty, chat rooms that engage prospective students with current students, and postings on a Facebook wall aren't exactly run by the public relations office. And, just as it's easier for us to reach out to stakeholders, it's also easier for them to circumvent our organizations and connect on their own.
Free Access, Tricky Management
A recent "Nonprofit Social Media Survey" by Weber Shandwick Social Impact, a global agency that works with nonprofits and foundations on branding, issue advocacy and public education, found the majority of nonprofits (52 percent) don't currently have the infrastructure, staff and expertise to take full advantage of the potential of social media. My guess is many chiropractic colleges fall into that segment.
Many of us are struggling to keep pace with the changing demands of social media. Six in 10 nonprofits surveyed admitted they do not have policies in place outlining how employees and board members can post information on social media sites. Of course, managing this function requires an entirely new set of skills that we're all learning on the job. Keeping your institution's online presence timely, accurate, meaningful and stimulating while managing real-time, two-way conversation with virtual audiences requires communications expertise and real-world staff time.
An article in a 2009 issue of Philanthropy Journal quotes Beth Kanter, a scholar-in-residence for nonprofits and social media at the Packard Foundation, who recommends building a social media presence by first listening to see where people are congregating on line and what they are already saying about you. When your organization does wade in with its own messages, she cautions not to preach. The best scenario is when supporters generate content about the organization on their own.
A Moving Target
Social media trend spotters (quoted in online and print publications as diverse as Harvard Business Review and SpinSucks.com) admit the future of social media is a moving target, but do share some consensus about what we can expect in the short term. Some trends that seem particularly applicable to our chiropractic organizations include the following:
- A growing focus on two-way conversations that truly engage users and enable organizations to listen to their responses;
- Winnowing of broad networks into niche networks in which users share substantial interests and can filter out hyperactive updaters;
- Formalization of policies within organizations to help guide social media behavior and overlapping efforts (a bit, anyway);
- Significant connectivity on the move via smartphones and similar devices;
- Sharing (articles, documents, term papers) with "friends" through new platforms on existing networks like Facebook and Twitter rather than via personal e-mail;
- Continued importance of valuable (not sales-oriented) content that stimulates users to seek you out; and
- More personal decision-making based on advice from "virtual friends" you've never met - imagine the impact on the college decision-making process.
It's all here and more is coming - vitalistic chiropractors with huge Twitter followings, patients vying to be "mayors" of their chiropractor's office on the Foursquare phone app, students choosing colleges with input from "strangers" on sites like JustAnswer.com, and more. Chiropractic has long yearned for access to major media outlets to make its voice heard. Finally, we've been handed a huge megaphone. Let's make the most of it.
Dr. Guy F. Riekeman, current president of Life University in Marietta, Ga., has held leadership positions in chiropractic education essentially since his graduation from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1972. He was appointed vice president of Sherman College in 1975 and has served as president of all three Palmer campuses and as chancellor of the Palmer Chiropractic University System. In 2006, he was elected to the board of directors of the Council on Chiropractic Education.