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Students, Social Media, School Branding, and Admissions

Though it may be scary to think of ceding control of your branding, business schools have to realize that any ability to control your brand has already been lost in a socially networked world, media and social media practitioners told admissions and other business school professionals at GMAC’s recent Annual Conference in Boston.

Ken White, left, Omar Wasaw, and Tom Rose discuss news in a socially networked world at the GMAC Annual Conference in Boston.

The school is no longer the sole source of news, and the story is in the hands of students and faculty in ways that it hasn’t been before, said panel moderator Rich D’Amato, GMAC vice president, Global Communications.  Schools must engage the social media space directly, consistently, openly and happily, he noted─otherwise, the school’s story, news, and brand will wind up under someone else’s control.

And it may be a mistake to think of social media, with its open-sourced plurality of voices, in terms of control at all. “It’s barn-raising,” said panelist Omar Wasaw, a Harvard PhD candidate and internet pioneer who founded Black Planet.  “It’s not so much losing control – it’s that your role is changing to facilitator from director,” he said.  “The trick is, how do you create the infrastructure and get out of the way?”

The conference session, titled “Lose Control, Get Attention: The Art of Getting Noticed in a Socially Networked World,” covered the overlapping worlds of mainstream and social media, how coverage of a school’s brand is flowing from mainstream to social media and vice-versa, and how important authentic student voices are in social media.

Although traditional media are thought to be more accurate, social media have a world of readers asking, “Is this true?” and thus provide transparency and accountability, albeit with collapsing context, Wasaw said. Social media’s online archive provides a sort of permanent record – a self-policing mechanism that encourages you to behave and respond in a “Golden Rulish kind of way,” he said.

For business schools, student voices in social media are “unmined gold,” said Tom Rose, a recent MIT Sloan graduate who spoke on the panel with classmate Miro Kazakoff. While at Sloan, the duo launched “The MBA Show, a comedy video blog that gets thousands of viewers each week from around the world.

In creating their irreverent online video clips each week, Rose and Kazakoff aim to don’t have a lot of rules, “which is to say, none,” Kazakoff said.  Although they freely lampoon business schools and MBAs, “despite our silliness, we realize we are yoked to our school,” Kazakoff said.

And that’s a key point. Although schools can’t control what their students do and say in social media, business students recognize that their personal brands and the school’s brand are intertwined─and the stronger the school’s brand, the stronger their own, said panelist Ken White, executive director of marketing communications at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business. When he came to the Smith school last year, the first thing White did was to meet with students to talk about branding and tell them, “It’s your brand, not mine.”

For admissions professionals, making that connection between the school’s and the students’ brands is vital.

“Current students have a stake in the quality of future students,” Wasaw noted. Social media are particularly important to those in admissions because everyone looking at schools is doing research online, he added.

Indeed, both Rose and Kazakoff said endorsements from MIT alumni found through social media were a major factor in why they both decided to enroll. Rose noted his acceptance online and started hearing from MIT alumni; Kazakoff went to LinkedIn and only had to go two degrees – connections of connections – to find Sloan alumni to reach out to.

“How do you harness current cohorts to reach future cohorts?” Wasaw asked.  “It could be as simple as giving applicants or admitted students a check box that says, ‘Allow current students to reach out to me.’ ”

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