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Beyond Engagement: Educational Influence - A Study in Advocacy

“Learn as if you were to live forever.” - Mahatma Gandhi

There is no question that Mahatma Gandhi, “the Father of Modern India,” understood the value of education. Like him, millions of people around the world see learning as a life-long process; for anyone fortunate enough to enjoy a formal education, choosing a particular school, college or university can shape life permanently, often influencing a person’s choice of career, lifestyle, politics and more.

Influencing … we’re all influencers, whether we realize it or not.

So what drives someone to make that choice? What influences a person to choose one establishment over another? Until the turn of the century, it was most likely the counsel of parents and teachers, reinforced by marketing programs of the colleges and universities themselves. While those remain valuable sources of advice, the advent of social media has opened the door to a far larger pool of influencers.

I’m indebted to Scott Golas, founder and CEO of Xmplifi, whose recent article on advocacy in education prompted me to interview Professor Patrick Tissington, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. I first met Pat in 2013 shortly after he moved to London; it was soon evident that he embraces advocacy wholeheartedly – although, like many, he doesn’t call it that. I asked him to tell me more.

“We use social media to bring people to Birkbeck.” The power behind his initiative? Students past and present …

“Alumni – the Most Important Stakeholder Group Outside the University Itself”

Pat has good reason for holding the university’s former students in such high regard. “Our largest source of students is recommendations from alumni,” he says. “It’s a critical part of our marketing activity, and one of our primary objectives is to activate the [alumni] network.”

Although Birkbeck is unusual among the colleges of the University of London in offering largely part-time courses for mature students with full-time or part-time jobs, Pat’s prior experience at Aston Business School in Birmingham, England – one of the leading business schools in the U.K. – leaves him in no doubt when evaluating the impact of advocacy.

Using social media to engage with the university’s network of connections, he faces the challenge of maintaining a flow of relevant but low-key messages that recipients are likely to share with their own networks. “If every post and tweet simply trumpeted Birkbeck’s most recent achievement or promoted its newest course,” he says, “it would be a massive turn-off.”

The success of the initiative led the Birkbeck team to identify three significant use-cases for advocacy in education:

  • Student recruitment
  • Developing relationships with business
  • Identifying internship opportunities

It’s not difficult to see the benefits in action:

Students Want to Hear It Like It Is

Would-be students, mature or not, are highly receptive to authentic feedback and first-hand opinion from their peers. As the Xmplifi article says, “nothing is going to convey the experience of being a student at a school better than an actual student at a school can.” The result of Birkbeck’s program is a ringing endorsement of this thinking.

Advocacy doesn’t just extend to long-term student recruitment. A recent one-day seminar at Birkbeck, promoted exclusively via LinkedIn, attracted more than 100 attendees; promotion costs were minimal. It’s the academic equivalent of maintaining and developing relationships with existing customers, where the cost of attracting new business is considerably higher.

Well-Placed Alumni Open All the Right Doors

As Alan Rosenblatt pointed out in a recent article on this site, “the key to getting value out of your colleagues on social media is to treat them like a VIP community.” So it is with alumni; continuing the social-media conversation – “because that’s what it is,” says Pat – long after they graduate maintains their ties with the university establishment.

“When we’re identifying research partners for specific projects or seeking to develop longer-term ties with companies for commercial collaboration,” says Pat, “our alumni base is a rich source of opportunities, and using social media expands the reach massively.” Birkbeck’s network of former students has also proven to be valuable for job-hunters, with graduates hoping to find work with companies that already benefit from the contribution of their predecessors.

Internships: Let’s Talk About What You Did Last Summer

Most of the undergraduate courses at Aston Business School require students to secure a year-long internship, and the competition for places is fierce. “Undergraduate students,” says Pat, “talk incessantly about their internships and placements on social media, particularly Facebook. It’s gold dust, both for other students and for companies that want to attract the best students.”

Following social-media trends simplifies the process, with students able to focus their attention on companies highly rated by their peers, and recruiters able to select candidates already known to former interns. It’s a clear example of advocacy delivering a win-win outcome, thanks to the power of social-media.

The Future – Staying Connected

What next? Pat’s response was unequivocal: “Staying connected. We need to keep existing students, alumni and our business connections engaged with every member of the Birkbeck community. Social media gives us the capability to do just that.”

In keeping with the two-way nature of the conversation, Pat also sees social media as a sounding board, allowing him and his colleagues to share new thinking. “Part of my job,” he says, “is to be controversial, at least occasionally, and social media is the perfect channel for provoking a response from our network.”

Watch this space

What Have You Learned From Advocacy?

Has advocacy influenced you when considering life-changing choices, whether in education or elsewhere?  Have you ever advocated on behalf of your Alma Mater? We’re hoping to highlight examples of the power of alumni networks around the world so that others can benefit in future. We invite you to tell us about your experience.

Beyond Engagement is an exclusive Social Media Today column published every other Thursday.

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Column logo by Marie Otsuka

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