November 4

Small University Presidents: Build Your Social Media Presence


by | Nov 4, 2021 | social media, Featured, Podcast

University executives can be powerful advocates for their schools through social media. Here’s how Walter Kimbrough built his successful social media presence and how that’s helping Dillard University.

Traditionally, marketing budgets had to be larger than life to get your brand in front of prospective students and families.

Big universities have the luxury of spending $1M per year only on advertising.

Yet for smaller universities, that can be close to a tenth of their entire operating budget (or more!).

Social media has changed all of this.

All universities have the same access to social media platforms.

So when a university president starts amplifying stories about the institution, think of it as free advertising that works.

Dr. Kimbrough of Dillard University walks us through how he built a successful social media presence. That’s exactly what Dillard University President Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough did.

Dr. Kimbrough walks us through how he created a personal social media presence to promote his university in this interview with me and my co-host, Troy Singer.

I want to share some highlights of his story with you so that we can learn together from this incredibly successful higher ed social media marketer.

Getting Involved in Social Media

Today, it’s easy to see how social media can be used to promote smaller colleges and universities.

But that wasn’t always so clear in the early 2000s.

When I became president of Philander Smith College in 2004, that’s the year Facebook launched. As my presidency evolved, [people started using] social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – all those started to develop around that time. I’m at this school that most people don’t know anything about in Arkansas, a state people don’t know a lot about either.

[Every time I went to the gym] there were these ads from the University of Central Arkansas. I read in the paper that they were spending a million dollars a year in advertising. We can’t compete with that; we don’t have that kind of budget!

So for me, it was logical. Social media was a free way to start getting out our message and amplify other things that we could do.

Dr. Kimbrough started with a social media tool that made the most sense to him.

He started to blog, and would think of himself as a reporter writing about “the things happening on our campus.”

I started with a blog. That was the best way I could really add some kind of narrative to what was happening. Then, I moved to Facebook [because] we had a great photographer on campus [which became] a way for me to amplify events.

When starting on social media, go with what feels right.

This evolution into social media marketing is something I recommend for all institutions, and specifically in this post, for college or university presidents and executives.

As the leader of an institution, I understand I’m asking you to throw yet another ball in the air and keep juggling.

That’s why you should start with what you know.

Begin with a social media tool that makes sense to you.

For Dr. Kimbrough, that meant blogging.

At the time, he didn’t quite understand Facebook, and then later he hesitated to get involved with Twitter.

But blogging became ground zero for his journey into social media marketing.

And it worked!

Start with what feels right and allow yourself time to go onto other platforms when it feels right.

Dillard University's president built his own personal social media presence that has helped the university grow their enrollment numbers.


Different Strategies for Different Platforms

As Dr. Kimbrough got into social media, he discovered that different platforms reach different kinds of audiences.

For more on this concept, read here.

Of course, that means you can’t use the same approach on each platform.

I look at the platforms differently because I find that different constituencies will reach you in certain places. [People looking for support] get a lot of information off Twitter. Some of the airlines are good [at customer support on Twitter]. If somebody has a problem with their luggage, they have their help person [available] on Twitter all the time. 

[Unfortunately] we don’t have that kind of bandwidth. So for me, [Twitter is] a tool that if a particular student reaches out via Twitter, I want them to send me an email so I can get more detail to really address the issue. Sometimes people say, “meet them where they are,” but [Twitter is more of] the starting point for me. It doesn’t give me enough information. 280 characters [can’t] really solve this. 

But for the general population, Twitter [is a] good tool just to share what’s happening on campus. That’s very important. Parents and alumni lean a little bit more toward Facebook. [That’s why we post] pictures of events and stories there. 

Bottom line, you must respect the platform you’re using.

If you respect the kind of audience that’s on each platform as well as the culture of the platform, your posts and comments will go a long way to reaching a bigger and bigger audience.

Denzel Washington Commencement Speech

Of course, I can’t end this post without mentioning the famous YouTube commencement speech by Denzel Washington during Dillard University’s graduation ceremony.

When Dr. Kimbrough began his social media presence, he didn’t have big celebrities like Denzel Washington coming to campus.

But as he learned and grew in his understanding of how to use social media as a marketing tool, he and Dillard University were ready when the opportunity came.

Denzel Washington had only done one commencement speech before at Penn State, so this is the second one he has ever done before. It was short, to the point, like nine minutes. It went viral because it’s been viewed like 30 – 40 million times. We put it on our YouTube channel, but it’s been on so many different platforms since. There was a report recently saying it’s like the second most viewed commencement address ever behind one that I think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates gave. So, it’s just been crazy! 

But that’s how social media has amplified that. Every year, invariably, somebody [searches for a college like ours], and they show that there’s a Denzel Washington speech at Dillard. It’s great branding because you see him and you see the podium with Dillard University. And that’s just going to be there forever.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Dr. Walter Kimbrough to get even more insights into:

  • Techniques that President Kimbrough used to build his online persona
  • How social media attracted Denzel Washington for the nation’s second most-watched commencement address
  • Which audiences different social media platforms are good at reaching
  • Advice for university presidents who might fear social media

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