By Rachel Hanley, former director of online communications, Williston Northampton School (MA)
How do you take a private boarding school from a place where there are no online student voices to one in which students are the school's driving force on social media?
The Williston Northampton School may have a one-to-one computer policy (every student gets a tablet), but at heart, it's as conservative about its social media policies as any other school; faculty and administrators here have the same concerns about privacy, security, and propriety that they do anywhere else.
Yet, in the past four years, I've built and worked with a team of students to develop and nurture their own, self-directed presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WordPress. The students named their club "iWilliston," and iWilliston channels are now incredibly popular among both internal and external audiences. We have great buy-in from adults too--our faculty tweet to iWilliston, as do coaches, parents, alumni, even a congressman. Our biggest fan? The head of school.
To get from one end of this social media spectrum to the other, I followed the five steps below, which I believe could work at any school and in any culture.
1. Identify strong student leaders.
To convince the administration to take the leap of faith required to give students an all-access pass to our social media, I had to start with a tiny experiment. His name was Brendan. He took part in student government, was an editor of the school newspaper, was active across campus, and made the honor roll. I offered him a school blog that, over the course of a few months, he populated with stories about Judo, Scrabble in the library, the college essay process, and the school mascot. By working with Brendan initially, I established a concrete example of how students could be interesting and exciting--while also being appropriate and responsible online. Brendan helped me make a case to administrators for having more students in the social world. By starting small, I could then go big.
2. Establish expectations.
I then proposed "Willy Pride," a part-club, part-internship for students to discuss social media and plan school-wide campaigns. To apply, students had to submit their name, year, any social media handles they used, and an idea for a campaign. They also had to answer the question, "Why would you like to be part of Willy Pride?" Student responses to the the idea, which was presented during an all-school assembly, showed that they understood five core things about the club: it was about creating connections, it offered opportunities for them to build their resumes (for both college and their professional lives), it would help them hone their social media skills, it was a good way to reach out to prospective students, and it let them display their strong sense of school pride.
3. Vet, vet, vet.
To make this work, I had to make sure that content could go out in a timely way, that the process was manageable (for me and for the students), and that the messages authentically represented the student experience. Since no social media monitoring tool seemed to fit all those criteria, I took a leap and decided to provide the students with full and direct control over Twitter, Facebook, Vine, and Instagram accounts. These had to be the right students, however. Applicants' social media profiles were vetted extremely carefully (ruling out several who showed poor judgment online), and I asked deans and faculty about their reputations, their histories, and their personalities. Thankfully, the vast majority of applicants were (and continue to be) appropriate, responsible, and self-aware. Most importantly, through their posts on their personal social media, they showed that they were conscious of the power such platforms gave them. Once students were accepted to the club, they agreed to sign their initials to every post they created. Such a step makes them responsible for each piece of content over the long term and ensures a sense of team collaboration, while also allaying fears on campus about errant messages.
4. Turn over the reins.
Once I had gathered my initial team, I let them take control of the name, which they changed from Willy Pride to iWilliston. I also gave the team control over a small budget for iWilliston-related merchandise. Decisions on campaigns and other initiatives must be approved by team consensus during our meetings. Students on the team are equally as quick to admit any mistakes (and correct them) as they are to offer creative ideas. The team has held live polls during assemblies, and regularly comes up with popular campaigns such as #WillistonHalloween.
5. Create accountability and reward good work.
Each year, by team consensus, iWilliston commits to posting five times per person across channels. At the end of each week, I count each student's posts and award a $5 gift card to a team member who's been exceptionally creative or prolific, or has had a particularly amazing post that week. Then, during team meetings, we discuss what's worked, what hasn't, and how to improve. This is reinforced by monthly visits by alumni, who talk to iWilliston about their work in social media and how they stay ahead of trends in their fields.
6. Create a showcase.
iWilliston often posts breaking news about athletic wins and other excitement around campus, which means that I've been able to re-post their entries to the school's main social media channels, in the daily campus email, and include them in newsletters to alumni and parents. We've also featured iWilliston repeatedly in the alumni magazine, The Bulletin, which not only helps give their platforms a boost, but also reinforces and encourages the good work the students are doing. As a result of their efforts, iWilliston has been able to grow their audiences to 436 followers on Twitter, 381 likes on Facebook, and 417 followers on Instagram--numbers that improve each week. to Your Students by Rachael Hanley, former director of online communications, Williston Northampton School (MA)
The final takeaways:
As you think about how to create your own student-led social media program, be flexible about how it could work. Is an internship or a club the best format? How often should the group meet? What platforms should the students start with and how often should they post? The answer to those questions will lie within your particular school culture and the path that your students are interested in pursuing. Be open to unexpected innovations--and what will follow will be nothing less than magical.