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“It’s OK to be imperfect”: One school’s quest for social-marketing success

This post is by Kaukab Jhumra Smith, a contributing editor at SmartBrief.

Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., launched an ambitious effort last year to shake off a dated, rural image and rebrand itself as an innovative, socially conscious campus working toward global solutions. In the process, it created what public relations consultant Michael Stoner calls “the most comprehensive university social-marketing campaign that we’ve seen to date.”

Since the campaign’s launch last spring, school enrollment has soared (though the economy could have a lot to do with that), first-time donations by alumni are up and visits to the OSU website have grown exponentially.

The campaign, tagged “Powered By Orange” to reflect OSU pride, provides a case study for how an organization can market itself by embracing the “chaos” that comes from empowering community members to promote its message.

When OSU put out a call for videos showcasing how students contribute to their community, for example, the response snowballed.

“We saw something starting to happen on its own,” said Luanne Lawrence, OSU’s vice president of university advancement, speaking at a conference for higher-education officials organized by the Public Relations Society of America in Washington.

“All these videos started to come in from students. Then they started coming in from alumni, and we got goosebumps. We said, ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong. This is working!’”

It’s scary to relinquish control of your message, Lawrence said. But when you build a loyal community, it does your work for you.

“Within our division, we convinced ourselves to be disciplined and let social media drive our decision-making,” Lawrence said. “We stripped our budget and rebuilt it. It was the hardest thing we had to do.”

Among other things, the university:

  • Recruited bloggers from the OSU community to serve as opinion leaders across a variety of disciplines.
  • Trained staff, students and faculty to use their own social media platforms to talk about their research.
  • Hired or trained a cross-platform group of videographers, designers and writers.
  • Emphasized in-person contact by organizing meetups, events and contests through Twitter and Facebook.
  • Created viral marketing materials, such as “Powered By Orange” posters, that students can populate with their own photos and post in their dorms.
  • Developed alumni support by creating an online directory of their businesses and distributing “Powered by Orange” decals for display in their store windows.

Since the campaign, OSU’s approach to public relations has totally changed, Lawrence said. It now:

  • Invests only “nominally” in print advertising.
  • Does not invest in broadcast advertising. “We just put all of our media spots on YouTube,” Lawrence said.
  • Includes an interactive component with every news release.
  • Uses Facebook ads to target very specific demographics.
  • Builds interactivity into every element of its website.
  • Promotes its website in all paid marketing.
  • Aims for viral media growth.

“It’s really kind of fun to make mistakes in social media because you can learn and recover very quickly,” Lawrence said. On the other hand, she points out, it takes determination to plow through skepticism and resistance from peers who just don’t understand why or how these changes will work.

“Fifteen- to 25-year-olds are rebuilding every aspect of the industry, and I’m listening to them,” Lawrence said.

For more on how OSU did it, check out Stoner’s analysis from last summer.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA1Y-ts6FiI[/embed]