Social Media and South African Universities

Yes after over a year of some really interesting experiences I decided to put this down. What am I putting down, well its a little comment on how social media and the Universities in South Africa have danced so far. Just to kick it off, in late 2008 I was asked to shed some light to the Wits Alumni Affairs office about "Facebook". What I guess I did not know at the time how fascinating this little assignment would be. 1.5 years later I would like to jot down some of things I have noticed in the time were I volunteered as a consultant for the university alumni affairs office and some of the challenges that I think will face institutions going into the future. I am not a media student, I am for all intents an purposes a scientist and thus if you have futher ideas on this catch me on twitter (, send me a message on facebook ( or just go to the contact page on this website. Any constructive comments welcome :). Alright lets get into it

Where do we start? The Beginning...

Olde Book Face 🙂

Social media is a tricky beast. When asked to look into how we could reach alumni and current students through the available social services, one wonders, if the service is free how do others do it better than others? Email campaigns with the regular newsletter are great for those like me who want to just sit back once in a while and have some proper reading. But in this new age of information being readily and quickly digested what you need is something more dynamic, enter my subject for today Facebook. Yest the dreaded BookFace[Reference]. A lot of time was spent looking at Facebooks services and how they worked and how we could then enter into providing services to alumni and students through it. This is a timely process, requires patience and a lot of care. You do not just create the page or the group and hope they will come. You create a campaign, you get interested stakeholders together, you provide content and you encourage user generated content. Thus just like a marketing campaign, a facebook campaign for whatever you want to sell or present needs work. An interesting part I would want to point out is negotiations we had early on with other students or alumni who "owned" groups that had been created before we came in. They had large numbers, over 1000 members. What we did was look at the groups that were large, the ones that were then active and then narrowed it down to one that we wanted to work with. Why not start from scratch? Sometimes, most times, someone has already started a group and it has a lot of people you might end up spending more resources starting from scratch instead of just asking for access. This has happened many times for me and it always comes with negotiation of terms with the "owner". From then taking over the group then its running it.

Facebook is always adding services so as part of the work, like any other job you have to keep up with changes and also anticipate the future. I use Mashable as my weekly staple of social network news. Facebook Pages have changed a lot, and through this we spotted the potential of a more dynamic way to engage members instead of sending out group messages (spamming as its called if it becomes a nuisance). Thus we went from group (which is still there) to Facebook page that has regular news that a lot of the fans comment on. The group at writing had around 6000 members and the page has about 3300 fans (competing with UCT now, more about that later). The numbers are slowly growing and thats a good thing. The last thing you then need to do is keep close attention to your numbers and reputation. A big part of the social networking game is reputation management. We gauge the fans and group members reaction to most content and adjust accordingly. Thus you need staff that constantly are checking comments and posts by others for user sentiment. A lesson is that you have to respond or point negative commenter's to sources of information to help them resolve the problem they have. This then gives the institution an image that they actually care. Well I hope that is a short introduction about what I have dealt with, if you want to talk more about this, just by me a good decaf coffee and lets sit down.

The Current State

Here I give short analysis of the big universities Facebook campaings.

University of Cape Town

Numbers: Page- ~3500 fans

University of Cape Town has a fast growing fan base. The Page, started only this year and populated by the marketing department. To that end the default landing is content from the University without fan content. Upon further investigation the policy taken is not to allow users to contribute content (so no posts allowed) only comments to the posts put by the university. Guessing this is to protect the page from comments that might not be to the universities liking and also to reduce the departments workload in terms of having to sensor. This personally is not my cup of tea as the admins will put up the discussion board as the place to discuss anything but that is two many clicks away IMHO. The information on the page itself is great and tied in well with the main university website.

University of Pretoria

Number: Unofficial Group- ~ 7000 members

This was peculiar one. To get a page took a bit of looking. Ended up having to use google to find. It does not look like there is any official Page. The only thing I found was an unofficial group (not maintained or created by the university). Its default landing page is the information for the group. It has an active community but suffers from community spam (most posts are adverts).

University of South Africa (UNISA)

Numbers: Page ~ 11900

UNISA's page is awesome to say the least. Why? Engagement. UNISA does not allow users to create their own wall posts but encourages discussion very well. They also moderate the page very well. The amount of people actually commenting on posts is amazing and very encouraging. The university announces a lot of things via the Facebook page and I believe is a good example for the other universities.  They have a professional team on this one I bet.

University of Stellenbosch

Numbers: Page- ~7000 Un-Official Group- ~9000 members

Stellenbosch has an official page and an unofficial group that has a bustling user run community. The group suffers from a little wall spam but in general the group members have been populating the group with relevant information and posts. The page is well maintained the news are up to date, the integration with the website is excellent (Best of SA?) and it shows with solid numbers.

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Numbers: Page- ~3300 fans Official Group- ~6000 members

Well as I said Wits University has about 3300 fans on its page. It updates its news regularly but not daily. Big news stories are highlighted and fans also generate content. To that end the default landing page of the Fan Page is for all content and not content just from the university.

The End, but the start of great things

The normal problem with social networks and institutions is how they take them seriously. Having the marketing department taking care of your page or twitter stream is important. Having all of your other web services have links to your Facebook page is important. The social networking systems are taken as more dynamic and a better way to deliver information. Without a strategy on how to engage your user base then the numbers will stay low and will likely not contribute to your content. Letting go of tight control over user contribution is also something that still has to be learnt. A little bit of moderating posts is good, totally not allowing user content means that users feel that they can only consume but not be part of the news. They cannot put up news or also express their views.

All in all Social Media has changed and is changing the way we connect. An opportunity to interact with an audience is presented that needs as much work as normal marketing and engagement. The norm of cold calling or sending out letters to alumni in order to get a response from them is slowly fading. The social networks allow for engagement without borders and can then be used to mobilise people on the ground. Thus the old reunions take on a new dimension as the alumni can be more involved with how they are structured and they can be virtually advertised. The way forward? Well research research research your audience. How? By actually creating your page and designing a campaign around it. When it works its beautiful. When it doesn't its painful. But the only way to learn in this field is to actually make those mistakes as early as you can and then keep on learning about your audience as time goes on. Well thats the end of another post. This one is a new record. >1600 words. I need to go back to my research. It took 3 weeks to put this together. Too much time but I wrote small bits at a time.

Posted in General, Technical Hacks, Wits Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *