a hashtag drawn in sand

Social Media Feeds: Do They Belong on Your Higher Ed Site?

Social feeds can add authenticity and authority to your site, but they also introduce a new set of potential issues and challenges to overcome. Here's how to determine whether they're a good fit for your college or university website.

“We should put our social media accounts on our website!”

That phrase — or some version of it — has been uttered by someone at nearly every college or university at one point or another. But is it always the right move?

At face value, it seems like a great idea. If you’re spending the time and effort to maintain a robust social media presence, why wouldn’t you want to feature that content on your site? When you dig a little deeper, however, there’s a lot to consider.

Determine Why (and if) Social Feeds Fit

There are certainly benefits to featuring social content on your site. When it’s done well, it can add authenticity and authority to existing site content, and elevate voices that aren’t otherwise featured on your site. But it can also create a host of issues ranging from old and outdated content, posts that run counter to your messaging, and redundant content. It is not a decision to be taken lightly, and you’ll want to make sure it’s the right solution to the problems you’re looking to solve before you pull the trigger.

Here are some important questions to answer with your team:

  • Does the strategy and audience of your social media posts align with your site’s overarching content strategy and audience?
  • What problems (if any) with your existing site content might be solved by pulling in content from social media? Can we solve them without introducing social content?
  • What new issues might social media content introduce?
  • ​Do we have the resources and ability to implement a sustainable governance plan for managing social media content on our school’s site?

Once you’ve taken a step back, you may find that there absolutely is a place for social on your site. Or you may decide there are other paths to take. Neither outcome is fundamentally right or wrong. What’s important is that you understand the “why” before you start thinking about the “how”.

Who Owns Social at Your School?

Based on our recent State of Higher Education Web Teams report, less than half of all web teams have a dedicated social media manager on staff. For many colleges and universities, social media falls firmly in the “other duties as assigned” category. Your own social media efforts could be managed by several different people across different departments and schools.

Before you make the decision to integrate your social accounts with your website, it’s important to pin down who is responsible for maintaining those accounts and make sure everyone is aware of how their responsibilities might be impacted. You’ll want to make sure that the social media owners and web staff are in constant dialogue with one another to maintain strategic alignment. A communication breakdown can lead to the sharing of redundant information — such as news or events — as well as other unforeseen consequences for your site.

If you can’t get everyone aligned, then social media integration on your site will almost certainly cause more problems than it solves.

What is the Social Media Strategy for Your Site?

Now that you’ve defined who owns the integration between your site and your various social accounts, it’s time to pin down how that relationship will unfold in practice.

Start by evaluating the content shared on each of your social channels and determine which channels and content will add value to your site — and which are best left siloed. As you go through this process, look out for:

  • Storytelling Opportunities - Social integrations generally work best when they provide genuine, heartfelt stories from the community that might be difficult to achieve with traditional site content. Unearthing these stories, and determining the best way to highlight them on your site, should be your top priority.
  • Cross-posted Content - If content is being cross-posted across multiple channels, you want to avoid highlighting the same content multiple times on your site.
  • Redundant Content - Be mindful of content that might overlap with information you already have on your site.
  • ​Uncurated Content - Depending on the channel, and how you integrate it with your site, you may not have complete control over what social content appears on your site. You’ll want to put safeguards in place to ensure nothing questionable gets pulled in.

Once you’ve evaluated your channels, it’s critically important to make sure your team is discussing the type of content that’s being posted and optimize it for your site. For example, if someone asks that a poster for an upcoming event be featured on Instagram, consider how will that look if it’s displayed on the site? Is that information already available in the form of a calendar feed, and will it be legible within the embed area?

You’ll also want to consider what, if anything, will be lost in translation when social content is presented on your site. Do they make sense without other context? Does the space we’ve allocated accommodate different types of content (image galleries, videos, both short and long posts)?

Where (and How) to Feature Social Content on Your Site

There are areas of your site where social media content might significantly improve the experience for your users, and others where it would actually serve as a detriment. Finding the right balance is crucial, and what works (and doesn’t) is different for every site.

For example, Dartmouth College has a dedicated section of their admissions site where users can view their social media content across multiple channels. This provides prospective students with valuable insight into how current students and alumni are engaging with Dartmouth College on social media — which may help them in their decision to visit campus, request information, or apply.

While Princeton University also has a dedicated social media section of their site, they use it as a directory — instead of a living, breathing feed — containing social accounts for more than 50 offices and organizations on campus. It’s a great way to point users in the direction of social content, without directly porting that content onto the site.

Texas A&M University takes the bold approach of featuring a “What’s Happening” feed right on the homepage, which pulls in references to the school from Twitter and Instagram. The “unfiltered” view into campus life may be refreshing for prospective students, but it can also be a bit jarring and disjointed — depending on the content that’s featured at any given time.

Whether you decide to take the leap of faith and directly pull social posts onto your homepage like Texas A&M, or keep your site content and social content more siloed like Princeton depends entirely on your own needs, resources, and site infrastructure. What’s most important is that you fully understand your chosen approach before you open the floodgates.

Social Feeds are Not “Set it and Forget it” Solutions

Unless you plan to create your own social media platform as part of this project (shudder), you’re going to be integrating with third-party services in order to pull content onto your site. Social media platforms routinely make changes that could alter — or completely break — the link you worked so hard to create. You’ll need to constantly monitor your integrations to ensure they’re behaving as expected, and create contingencies for when (not if) they break.

It’s also important to remember that no social media platform is going to be around forever. Whatever your chosen strategy, make sure you can quickly and easily adapt if necessary. Big names like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram certainly don’t seem like they’re going anywhere anytime soon, but if your site featured a Vine feed in 2014 you had quite a mess on your hands when the service was discontinued just a few years later.