Social media engagement for education and nonprofits, a case study

Social media engagement remains one of the most challenging and time-consuming efforts for communication staff working in education and the non-profit world. In my work I am responsible for all the audience facing communications from strategy to writing articles, designing posters, managing our current website and planning the next one, and managing social media. We have 10 different programs, many with multiple events and communications needs throughout the semester, so I know a thing or two about having limited time! In this post, I will share with you what I learned about engagement through the #MITservice social media campaign.


Take advantage of critical mass

Part of an Institute-wide celebration of MIT’s 100 years in Cambridge, MA, the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center planned to engage 500 MIT volunteers with local community organizations in an event called CityDays: MIT2016. We partnered with departments across the school and with about 30 local nonprofits where staff and students from MIT would volunteer.

The size of this event, larger than any we had organized until that point, gave us the opportunity to engage many volunteers at once across various social channels. Previous events had been much smaller in scale, usually a small number of volunteers would post about their experience or they would send us photos. And while we had posted about the community organizations leading up the event, this was also a good time to post and engage with them in real time.

On April 19, groups of volunteers arrived on campus throughout the day to pick up their bags and meet their team leaders before heading off to their volunteer placement. A staff coordinator met each group to ask if any of them wanted to post on social media or take photos during their shift. The coordinator then explained our guidelines to those who raised their hands, most notably which hashtags to use, how to be mindful of nonprofits’ clients, and where to send photos.


The #MITservice campaign had 195 hashtag hits, 29 Retweets, and 28 mentions for the PGK Center, and over 100 posts across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter by volunteers and community partners. These numbers are well beyond our baseline metrics. Just to compare, we usually get about 17 mentions in an entire month on Twitter and about 1 0r 2 retweets per day. While we were only present on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; another department, MIT Student Life, covered the event on Snapchat and Periscope. Their snaps had over 900 views each, and there were 36 Periscope views for their live coverage.

Our #MITservice Flickr album.

More importantly though, we engaged a community of volunteers and community organizations, and we produced media that shows the value and fun (yes fun) of community service!


Collaborate, collaborate, and delegate

A campaign of this scale cannot be achieved on one’s own, especially if you’re the kind of communications professional that’s dealing with numerous projects at one time (who isn’t!?). I am most grateful for the support and brilliant ideas of our program coordinator Sarah Bouchard and our student assistants. Community engagement in the digital sphere needs to be encouraged and backed by the programmatic side to be successful.

Delegation diagram.

Our goal was to delegate social media ambassadors at every volunteer location where photos were permitted. Our program staff appointed volunteer staff to help train participants on our social media guidelines. Each site or volunteer group had a team leader who knew how to designate a social media ambassador and go over our guidelines with them. The photo releases were built into the online registration form, which meant we didn’t have to collect them during the event.

We also collaborated with a number social media and communications staff at MIT, and my colleague Kellen Manning covered our event on MIT Student Life Snapchat and Periscope.

For our original social media posts, I worked with two students who sent me photos throughout the day from campus and from a number organizations where we placed volunteers. Volunteers also had the option to send me photos directly if they didn’t want to share them on social on their own. We got quite a few great ones this way!

I no longer needed to be everywhere and do everything on my own (if you’re a one person communications office, you will know what I mean).


User-centered guidelines

Reading (and following) instructions is quite possibly the most boring thing you can ever ask a person to do. A user-centered mind frame can help ease some of that boredom, and can make the difference between the audience ignoring it or reading it and remembering what to do. That’s why usability and design principles (including aesthetics) are so important.

I allocated a good amount of time to create the guideline handout below. It had to be on brand and visually link to other promotional materials we had designed, it had to be easy to scan and grasp, and be memorable. In addition to the hashtags and accounts to include, you’ll notice that being respectful of people who did not want to be photographed was a critical part of the document. We wanted to be especially careful about any clients present at the nonprofits and issues of privacy.

For our community partners, we put together an email with our social media channels and hashtags, which we sent out a few days ahead of the event. We also checked with them if it would be ok to take photos and share them — most nonprofits were thrilled about this! Many had posted their own photos and thanked us for the event, which we loved sharing with our stakeholders.

Through collaboration and delegation, we engaged all of our core audiences, participants, and community partners in a meaningful event online and offline.


The cherry on the top

  • With an IFTTT recipe, all Twitter users who posted with our hashtag were automatically added to a Twitter list we follow and engage with.
  • This campaign resulted in lots of great photos for Instagram and future promo.
  • The Storify and the Twitter list are full of participants that we now follow and can reach out to in the future.

CityDays: MIT2016 was hosted by the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center as part of MIT’s Together In Service initiative. Read more about the initiative on MIT News.


How do you create social media engagement for your organization? I’d love to hear from you, so leave a comment :-)