Community management has become an essential part of student affairs professionals roles in order to build strong relationships with students.
Students want to feel they belong to something bigger than themselves. They want a why. They want a connection. Simply being a part of community, living or working, is not enough to feel a strong sense of belonging. We need leaders in community management roles to listen to the conversations happening on our campus communities and understand how to translate these experiences into stories to portray to campus constituents.
When working at an institution, you work with or on behalf of students which makes every day like no other. It’s awesome to create a strong community beyond the laptop screen: tangible, real relationships that come to fruition in-person is what truly makes students feel a part of a community.
I’ve had the chance to create both in-person and online communities over the past few years in student affairs roles and my current role as a Community Engagement Manager at Presence– and I’m excited to share my best advice with you.
Dig Up Community Roots
Do your homework first!
Did you help create the community?
Did the students opt-in to being part of the community?
It’s important to understand the foundation of what brought the community together in the first place.
Then it’s time to do the research on the students who belong to your community. Learn what makes them who they are, what they do, and how they think. Part of doing this is doing some work on college student psychology and bringing in student development theory into your community management work.
Many institutions aim to understand groups of students based on demographic and generational characteristics in order to understand and learn their stories.
Today a large amount of college students are grouped into the category called ‘Gen C’, also called the ‘instant gratification’ generation. Gen C is unlike any other generation because the generation is not really a generation at all: it’s a community of people who can be any age at all focused on four areas: Connection, Community, Creation, and Curation.
To truly understand them you must get to know them, their characteristics and the kind of world they grew up in. Hootsuite covers the transition from the milennial mindset and how to connect with Gen C.
Become a Connector
I noticed something that has made me successful in building strong communities all of my higher education roles: I’m a connector.
What do I mean by connector exactly?
Malcolm Gladwell author of The Tipping Point defines connectors in a specific way. I summarize Gladwell’s definition here:
Connectors know a lot of people and like to connect others together. They also like to know everyone on a personal level – and really get to know them.
Gladwell points out that it’s very easy to pick these people out of our lives. They are sure-fire people lovers.
Imagine you’re with a connector venturing across campus and you can’t seem to get a word in because they’re saying ‘hello’ to everyone along the way. I’m not saying everyone wants or needs to be a connector, but there’s a lot we can learn from these people who excel at community management.
Beyond Gladwell’s definition, many connectors love their student affairs roles because they have the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with staff and students who share a common goal.
What are characteristics of connectors?
They listen well to others and understand what makes them tick.
The stories they tell always focus on people, not the latest news or drama.
The keep in touch with many people. When they say they’re going to follow up, they will.
They create and maintain long-lasting relationships. They often ‘pick up where they left off.’
For these reasons, they’re great at building relationships with people in online communities and translating them to in-person realities.
Engage In-Person & Online with Your Community
Being an expert at community management means interacting with people online and making connections face-to-face. Inviting engaged students online to community events gives you the opportunity to introduce students to one another and help form peer-to-peer relationships.
The first step is knowing where students are engaging online organically. You want to be where they are. If students in your community primarily use Twitter and Instagram, a Facebook group that you create isn’t going to get you anywhere.
Student affairs professionals seem to struggle with connecting the online world with the in-person world without ‘feeling creepy’ to college students and imposing on their online lives. When I worked in residence life, I invited students to events based on their interests or if they needed help with something. I’d also reach out to them if they voiced specific complaints. For example, I utilized our residence hall hashtag to reach out to students online who tweeted that they were looking for help with their resume. I was able to meet with them in-person and recommend other professionals on campus who were experts.
My best advice would not to come off too formal. Often times I see professionals try too hard to connect on social media. Instead, think of what you might say or do in real life (IRL). Find common ground or where you may be able to offer insight or help, make the connection, and continue the conversation in-person.
I personally recommend setting up coffee, tea, or lunch meetings with students after interacting with them online. Reach out via e-mail or social media platform and invite them to continue the conversation to show you’re truly interested in helping them.
Utilize Community Engagement Tools
New online technologies have opened the door to engagement with college students like Snapchat, Instagram, and even podcasting. Community platforms, for example Presence, is another important important pillar in online community management work. Student engagement platforms allow student affairs professionals to reach and engage with students that wouldn’t interact with otherwise.
What’s so great about using online engagement tools? You can use their real-time feedback and immediately tie it back to ROI. Upper administrative management can finally understand the value of community management and it’s impact on retention with data analytics.
Student affairs professionals who are dedicated to building and understanding communities on their campuses get comfortable with analyzing data and creating hypotheses around engagement.
At the end of the day, the greatest tool you can utilize, develop, and sharpen are your own personal community management skills.
My Community Engagement Advice
- Know your role and keep an open mind. Don’t make split judgments when you engage with people online. Get to know a wide range of people in your community. Just because people don’t engage as much online or don’t have a large following, doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage in person.
- Go back to why you’re in your position. Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why is a great resource to understand why you’re doing this community management work. Being in a student affairs role where you utilize many community engagement skills is a fun and creative job. You need to look at the overall mission and building programming and conversations around that. When you start thinking big picture and incorporate the why, your ideas and programs offered become more creative.
- Be data focused. Keep all your engagement data in one area and explore a community engagement platform that will help you analyze data. Predict what your community needs on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis and what students you’re leaving out of the online and in-person conversation. Numbers help you contextualize to higher administration and colleagues what conversations and campus life events make an impact.
Show Community Love
There are no shortcuts to building relationships. Swag, tweets, and incentives only work to get people in the door at an event or engaging online. You have to plan out ways to sustain relationships for the long-term.
Send a thoughtful tweet or email. Leave inspirational or thank you cards around your community for students. Do specific and intentional outreach. If you reach out first, instead of expecting students to come to you – you’re more likely to make strong connections and will help you get to the next level of community management you’re looking for.
What are some ways you excel in community management?
What are some community resources you’d recommend to SA pro’s?
I’d love to hear from you.