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Social Media at MIT: The Alumni Association Reaches Out and Follows
March 26, 2014
Robyn Fizz
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Blackboard drawing and equation
Emily Kathan and Alan Scott

This month’s spotlight on social media at MIT focuses on the Alumni Association, an organization that connects with a diverse group of over 128,000 graduates.

Kate Hoagland, director of digital and multimedia communications, and Jay London, a web, print and multimedia writer, discuss strategies for sharing stories with MIT alumni through social media. Another key aspect of their work is finding and following alumni who are making the news.  

Hoagland and London are part of the Alumni Association’s Communications Department, whose members regularly collaborate on creative communications projects. 

Infinite Connections, Multiple Channels
The Alumni Association uses several social media channels to reach its audience. Favorites include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Instagram. 

The Alumni Association’s Facebook page is the most popular channel for connecting readers with its Slice of MIT blog. Facebook also provides enough space for people to tell their stories and to interact. On the downside, statistics show that Facebook use in general is going down, especially among younger people.

Twitter comes in a close second. Seen as a prime source for information and news, Twitter’s audience has been growing. Even so, it has one key shortcoming. Hoagland notes that “It’s a challenge to find something quick and pithy that gets people’s attention in 140 characters – or even less, more like 120 characters if you want people to retweet it.”

LinkedIn is another channel of choice, especially since all members on the MIT Alumni LinkedIn page have been verified as alumni. The Alumni Association connects regularly with this private group of over 26,000 members, with contributions ranging from Slice of MIT posts to alerts about alumni-specific discounts.

Unlike the Alumni Association’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, the LinkedIn site operates mostly as a self-driving community. Alumni here discuss everything from MIT announcements and job postings to technology news and politics. Joe McGonegal has been working to expand the breadth of alumni discussions on LinkedIn.

London notes that LinkedIn has “bells and whistles we haven’t tapped into yet,” such as its polling functions. “It’s also a very good venue for figuring out who your successful alums are in different fields – a rich pool of potential story ideas.”

In addition to the usual social media channels, the Alumni Association shares content on crowd-sourced curation sites like Reddit, FARK, hackernews, and StumbleUpon. These sites work well for stories about alumni in the news as well as stories that highlight MIT’s unique culture.

Hoagland thinks it’s important to view each venue as its own genre and to write for that genre: for example, on Facebook you may want to post questions to encourage responses, while LinkedIn posts should be geared toward a professional audience.

Telling Stories and Encouraging Conversations
Effective social media tells engaging stories. One way to pull in MIT alumni is to remind them of what they loved about MIT. The Baker House Piano Drop, for example, has been a classic annual hack since 1972.

At the most recent piano drop, Alumni Association staff took photos of the spectacular fall and then used these photos to create a video that shows a backwards trajectory first. They posted this video on various social media channels, along with hashtags like #bakerhouse and #pianodrop.

This project represents teamwork at its best. “During the event,” says Hoagland, “I was on the roof of Baker House taking photos and finding sources for tweets and background for the event’s blog story, while Jay and Joe were capturing photos for the video. We were also tweeting before and after to increase buzz. It’s the kind of story alumni love to share with colleagues and friends.”

The Alumni Association is tuned in to finding these sharable moments. “MIT alums are a very distinctive audience,” observes London. “A lot of our job in the Communications Department is being detectives to figure out what’s going to resonate. These are people who love puzzles, trivia, and math problems.”

One of the Alumni Association’s popular tweets in 2013 was a blackboard image illustrating the equation “122 + 52 = 132” on Pythagoras Day (12/5/13.) A recent Facebook post shows a blackboard full of chalked equations, a drawing, and phrases like “Turing Reductions.” The accompanying caption reads, “Scratch work: name the course?” Over 20 alumni have responded.

The Alumni Association also encourages alumni to remember and share their stories. In January, Hoagland posted a photo on Facebook of someone studying in an MIT Library and asked alumni to recall their favorite library. Responses ranged from “Good libraries at MIT are like good surf spots, you never tell anyone about them.” (Nelson A. Meehan) to “Hayden in one of the comfy chairs facing the river. Especially good for finals week study in the spring when the sailboats are out.” (James Melton)

Says Hoagland, “People appreciate when there’s a face to their Alumni Association. Social media is a great vehicle for having two-way conversations with alumni, which 10 years ago wouldn’t have been possible.” Through these conversations, alumni can help determine what stories get written.

The Art of Following
When Hoagland started working at MIT, she invited point people for social media from different departments, labs, and center (DLCs) to meet with her one-on-one over coffee. She and the rest of the Communications Department regularly collaborate with these colleagues to find creative ways to highlight MIT news around campus on the Alumni Association’s social media channels.

Hoagland also uses Hootsuite to follow MIT’s DLCs (MIT Connect provides a great directory of MIT’s social media channels). When an item seems likely to be of interest to MIT alums, she’ll retweet it, share the post, or add a different spin and then push it out.

She finds Twitter, Facebook and Google+ equally useful as tools for following alumni, seeing what they’re up to, and finding out what resonates with them. She maintains an ever-growing list of alumni on all of these channels.

The Future Is Now
Working with social media can be nerve-wracking, given the number of channels and new tools and the frequent changes to ranking algorithms and user agreements. But Hoagland also finds it exciting in terms of experimentation. There are many ways to connect meaningfully with MIT alumni – with more immediacy than ever before.

What’s next? With Nicole Morell, the new social media community manager, on board, Hoagland hopes to produce more compelling social media campaigns like the one for the Women in Science project held this March. The Alumni Association will keep using its favorite channels to get the word out, while keeping an eye out for new ways to connect.