Guest Interview with Heidi Cool: How a University Experiments with Social Media

January 13, 2009
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My introduction to Heidi Cool, the senior web designer and webmaster at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, was when she claimed a social media addiction rate of 57 percent in a blog comment to my 46.
After a series of back-and-forth emails and tweets, I thought she would offer a unique perspective to my […]

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Heidi CoolMy introduction to Heidi Cool, the senior web designer and webmaster at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, was when she claimed a social media addiction rate of 57 percent in a blog comment to my 46.

After a series of back-and-forth emails and tweets, I thought she would offer a unique perspective to my ongoing series of best practices in social media.

With a background in direct marketing and an academic degree in philosophy, Heidi works in the university’s marketing and communications department, where she builds and maintains websites and advises other departments on best practices to serve their specific goals.

What is your process to advising departments to go online?

I take a somewhat holistic approach to web development. I developed a process, outlined in Planning Your Web Site Tutorial, in which I focus on the goal of a site and its target audience in order to develop the content and organizational structure. This then guides navigation, design (within university guidelines) and other specifications necessary to reaching the goal.

How is Case unique to advances in technology?

The university has been known for technology ever since Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted their experiment, On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether which led to Michelson becoming the first American to win a Nobel prize in science.

More relevant to our discussion is the university’s long involvement with the Internet. Case Western Reserve was added to the ARPANET in 1971, making it one of the earliest universities to join what later developed into the Internet.

  • In 1986, we launched the Cleveland Freenet, the first free online public community system in the world.
  • In 1989, we built the nation’s first all-fiber-optic campus computer network.
  • By 2002, this evolved into gigabit Ethernet and wireless access across campus and neighboring cultural and educational institutions.

Those of us who work or study here are well connected, no matter where we go on campus. The university also offers a wiki and provides a blogging system and web space to all members of the campus community for either academic or personal use.

Under the leadership of Lev Gonick, the chief information officer, the university also played a pivotal role in the creation of OneCommunity, which connects public and nonprofit institutions in northeast Ohio to an ultra-broadband fiber optic network, giving them the same level of performance we experience on campus.

How do you define social media?

Social media is about people interacting and sharing ideas online.

The phrase has become linked to Web 2.0, but people have been making these online connections since the first Freenets, BBS’s and Usenet. Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have made it easier for more people to become involved, but I think any online technology that allows one person to publicly put forth an idea and have another respond can be considered social media.

And at Case? How is the university using it?

We’re still experimenting with these tools. Our students are on Facebook, and more and more faculty and staff have joined. We have pages and groups for alumni, news, and a variety of student organizations. I’ve had some success promoting events on Facebook, but overall we’re still just scratching the surface.

CaseNews on TwitterOn Twitter, we’re publishing news headlines, admissions updates and tips, university facts and network status updates; and many departments are exploring this option.

Publishing things on Twitter is easy, but building up and interacting with followers takes time. For the Case News account, I’ve been trying to follow everyone who follows us and am working on following other campus users as I find them. When appropriate, I’ll reply to their tweets but I only have time to check these sporadically.

I also subscribe to an RSS feed of a Twitter search for mentions of the university and tweet replies there when appropriate, as well. Alas, the nature of our long name makes this system a bit imperfect. If users refer to us as just “Case,” I’ll miss them because that word is too commonly used.

Our alumni office is very proactive with social media. It recently launched it’s own network, Alumnet, which pulls in some of our Twitter feeds, and has also created some related groups on LinkedIn. But overall, we’re just getting started. It will be interesting to see where we are in another year.

Are any websites blocked on campus?

No. As an independent institution that encourages academic freedom, the university doesn’t censor access to online resources. While the university has an acceptable use policy, it is in place to ensure that users know their legal responsibilities and that system resources are used for their intended purposes. As the policy states:

“It is the policy of Case to maintain access for its community to local, national and international sources of electronic information sources in order to provide an atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of ideas and sharing of information.”

While some businesses block social networks in an effort to keep workers on track and productive, employees at many businesses have started using such tools specifically to enhance productivity. Services such as Google Docs and Ning networks can offer enhanced collaboration capabilities for businesses that might not have comparable tools available internally.

Given the disparate needs of academic users, I think it makes sense to take advantage of any services that may further our goals.

May students access indecent websites?

Assuming they are otherwise legal, such sites involve questions of morality. Personally, I think society is better served when we promote critical thinking, encourage the study of ethics, and provide resources such as the Task Force on Sexual Conduct that give students the tools to make responsible decisions for themselves, both now and after they graduate.

How large is the IT department at Case? And would you agree with notions that IT and marketing be merged into business technology?

There are 103 people in the central ITS department plus many more throughout the schools. I’m on the marketing side, but I meet regularly with the Web team in ITS.

While there are certainly intersecting issues between IT and marketing, I’m not sure if combining them is the optimal solution. I think it really depends on the organization. What may make sense however is to have interdisciplinary teams that work together on related projects. This way, we can come up with goals and solutions together, and both sides understand what is involved and why.

The more we can communicate our respective needs to one another, and trust in each other’s expertise, the more productive we’ll all be.

What is Case’s population? What of your web metrics?

Allen Memorial Medical Library at CWRUCase Western Reserve University has 9,814 students, 2,646 faculty, 3,111 staff, and about 100,000 living alumni. We currently have 357,000 publicly available web pages indexed by Google. Our main server draws in almost 1 million visitors per month for the 61,000 pages it hosts. Many of our sites, including undergraduate admission, student affairs, and several of our schools are hosted on different servers so overall traffic is probably much greater.

As universities and colleges go, Case has a relatively large website. MIT has one of the largest sites, with 5,410,000 pages; Amherst with only 1,600 students has 86,800 pages; and even the tiniest of colleges will often have sites of 10,000 or more pages, a number that is far from insignificant.

Academic websites are often (though not always) larger than corporate sites because of the breadth of material and topics they cover. Ford Motor Company, although enormous, has only 29,200 pages on Ford.com.

Our campus blogs account for about 4.8% of our overall content, and bring in over 150,000 monthly visitors. Since the blog system was launched in 2004, 2,210 authors have contributed to 1,575 blogs and produced 17,300 entries–though less than 50 authors could be considered active. Thus, the bulk of the content, and the traffic it brings, is generated by a relatively small group of people.

From an economic perspective, what is the relationship between funding and new media offerings?

Financially, we had a good year and our investments didn’t suffer the way other schools did. But given the ongoing state of the economy, we all have to balance our priorities. This doesn’t mean that new media suffers, but I think it means we approach it more selectively. Social media marketing, done properly, can take a lot of time, so we’ll have to focus our efforts on the things that take the least time but bring the most results.

For example, we used to host a variety of videos on our own servers. Now, we also post them on the Case Western Reserve YouTube channel. This lets us draw additional traffic from YouTube while also making it easier to embed videos on sites such as The Year of Darwin or Think. This provides a very visible impact with little extra effort. We can take similar advantage of the blog system to produce podcasts and RSS feeds and focus our Facebook and Twitter time on the projects that will benefit most.

Another issue to consider is the state of new media itself. With sites like Pownce shutting down in 2008, which will remain viable and which will close in 2009? New services are launched constantly, but I think for now we, and other schools, will focus on the services that are well-established so that we don’t invest time in something that may be gone in six months.

Switching gears, I met you on my blog and you also blog. What are your favorite topics to write about and what are your favorite sites to read?

I blog about anything vaguely related to web development, but I think I most enjoy writing about marketing and content development. While I’ve written many how-to articles on everything from resizing photos to using WebDav, I particularly like to focus on “why” articles–those that explain the reasoning behind a practice or strategy.

For instance, a colleague recently asked me to review a page she’d done. It included the dreaded “click here” phrase, so I suggested some language revisions and sent her to my article, Don’t say “click here.” Include your links in context. She wrote back and said that after reading it she never wants to use “click here” again. It’s gratifying to know that someone learned something useful from reading my blog.

I’m forever behind in my blog reading. Google Reader says I have 1000+ unread entries right now. I read many web-related blogs/zines such as A List Apart, 456 Berea Street, BoagWorld and ReadWriteWeb; as well as BlogHighEd, an aggregation of blogs related to higher education (including mine).

Among social media blogs, I recently discovered your blog, of course, and also like reading Brian Solis’s blogs (bub.blicio.us and PR 2.0) and my friend Wayne Smallman’s Blah, Blah! Technology.

Branching out, Arts & Letters Daily offers great insights into a variety of topics, but the blog I read most regularly is Mano Singham’s. Mano is a professor here at Case Western Reserve who writes about science, philosophy, politics, and religion.

When I find the time, I use Google Reader to share recommendations on my blog. I also have a podcast addiction which runs the gamut from This American Life to This Week in Tech.

If I didn’t have to sleep, I might be able to keep up with a fraction of what is out there!

As the world prepares for President-elect Barack Obama to assume office, do you have any thoughts on his technology roadmap?

CWRU trackI think maintaining Net neutrality is important to keep a level playing field on the Internet. Similarly, more transparency from Capitol Hill in the form of blogging Congress members, Facebook pages, etc. is welcome–so long as it’s not just smoke and mirrors. I also wish Obama had kept twittering after Nov. 5th. I think doing so would have helped set the stage for what he proposes.

We used to rely on the media to be the watchdogs keeping an eye on the government. But in the past decade, they’ve lost their bark, leaving important decisions go unchallenged.

Citizens have to read between the lines and get access to first-hand information to sort things out for themselves. More information is better, but as it becomes available, we also need tools to sort through it all.

Perhaps we’ll see a new generation of media analysts who sort through the facts more objectively than our current generation of political pundits. Perhaps we’ll see new media sites develop on the Digg/StumbleUpon model, but with a government focus. As newspapers fail or remold themselves and more members of the reading audience take on the roles of writers and publishers themselves, it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think the key to online life is to continue learning and experimenting. I spend my days building sites, but spend many an evening reading blogs or comparing notes with friends and peers on Twitter, FriendFeed, etc.

But it’s not enough to merely absorb the information. One has to play with it and put it to practice. I’ve done that by using my blog as a guinea pig for my social media and web marketing experiments. Thus, I’ve been able to learn new strategies and increase readership all in the same process.

When it comes to social media, you have dive right in and see what happens.

If you would like to contact Heidi Cool, she can be reached by email at cool@case.edu, by twitter @hacool, or through her official Case blog.

If you have any questions or feedback for me or Heidi, would like to share thoughts from your own academic institutions, or thoughts on social media in higher education, please add a comment below.

Also, if you would like to be interviewed for a future column in this series and/or contribute a guest post on your best practices in social media, please contact me.

Photo credits: Heidi Cool, Andrew Bain, and Virtual Farm Boy

Thank you for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, please consider receiving more strategies and tips by feed reader or email. If you use Twitter, I am at @ariherzog.


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