The Chicken-or-the-Egg Dilemma of Social Media

If you work in higher education marketing and you’re in a place where it snows, you’ve doubtless dealt with the onslaught of social media commentary that comes with severe winter weather. If you are a part of the University of Michigan-Flint community, you’ve likely witnessed or taken part in the online back-and-forth that begins with each threat of a winter storm. During the Winter 2010 semester, the  potential for weather-related class cancellation resulted in UM-Flint’s highest levels of social media activity. The snapshot below shows the semester activity on the UM-Flint Facebook Page. Each spike corresponds to a day that cancellation decisions were discussed.


So what is this “activity” exactly? Initially, as a storm approaches, students, parents, and others: a) ask whether classes will be cancelled; b) suggest that classes be (or not be) cancelled; or c) ask when a cancellation decision will be made. Information about decisions is shared as it becomes available. Then, when a decision is made and posted to social networks, reaction begins. Some users agree with the decision, some disagree, and some ask how the conclusion was reached. Regardless of the conversations’ content, however, the result is the same–uncharacteristically high Facebook and Twitter interaction.

As the person in University Relations who monitors UM-Flint’s social media, I’m often asked about these spikes in activity, why users behave in this way, and why we respond as we do. Some wonder if we’re creating a sort of chicken-or-the-egg cycle; perhaps our response fuels the activity which elicits our response. None of these is a simple question, and none has just one answer. So why do we do what we do?

“Why are people so vocal these days?”

Is it that people are more vocal, or that they have more channels through which to voice their opinions? Facebook prompts its users, “What’s on your mind?” Twitter asks, “What’s happening?” Location-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla encourage users to tell others where they are and what they’re doing. People have always had things to say, but now they’re able to say them publicly.

Moreover, people will talk when they know someone is listening. The fact that our audience looks to Facebook or Twitter for information tells me that we’ve had some success in building a social community. I am even encouraged by negative comments. People know we’re paying attention.

“Should we respond to negativity?”

More than ever before, the average online consumer has an incredibly broad social influence. Individuals today have an audience, and they know it. As institutions, we know it, too. Today’s word of mouth travels by way of the internet. People have always been talking, and social media affords us an invaluable opportunity to take part in that conversation. Once upon a time, a customer with a bad experience would tell two or three friends. Today, that customer might tell hundreds, who will tell hundreds more.

But like never before, we can intercept that negativity. We can apologize. We can clarify misinformation. We can offer solutions. Why would we ever want to throw that chance away?

“Are we over-communicating?”

In December 2010, there was some confusion about the university’s open/closed status following a winter storm. Since then, it has been our policy to communicate UM-Flint’s status, open or closed, via social networks.

This is not a common practice. Because a university’s usual status is “open,” most feel that only a closure warrants notification. This is logical, and was our viewpoint early in the semester. We’ve determined, though, that unanswered questions lead to confusion. The precedent has been set; users expect UM-Flint to be responsive. So far, without fail, every winter weather advisory has resulted in “Will classes be cancelled tomorrow?” And so we respond.

So here’s where we call into question which came first–the chicken or the egg. Is the level of responsiveness on the UM-Flint Facebook Page causing more comments and questions? Or are the number of comments and questions increasing as the community grows, requiring a higher level of responsiveness?

My answer is that it doesn’t matter.

Social media is not a place for one-way communication. That word “social” implies a sort of relationship between users, be they brands, companies, groups, or individuals. By entering the social arena, an institution is implying that this is understood. When UM-Flint established a presence on Facebook or on Twitter, it essentially said to the social world, “Let’s talk.” And so when someone says something negative, we cannot simply delete the comment. When a question is asked, we cannot simply ignore it. If we hope to establish a strong social community for the University of Michigan-Flint, we have to be an active participant.