A hands-on approach to teaching social media courses: Implementing social media strategy for a content publishing site

By implementing a well-thought-out social media strategy, a student-run content publishing site can bring free publicity to the sponsoring program and give students working knowledge of social media marketing.

This post discusses four issues regarding a hands-on teaching approach for social media courses: inadequacy of existing teaching approach, how to develop a social media strategy for a college- or department-sponsored site, how to implement such a strategy, and what a content publishing site looks like.

Lack of hands-on training in social media courses

Upon a survey of about 20 social media course syllabi, it seems that many social media courses do not have components for students to actually try out social media tactics discussed in class.

The 20 syllabi were collected mostly from a Google search for “social media syllabus” – there must be a reason for their high rankings in the search results; some of my Twitter connections, who teach social media courses, also graciously shared their syllabi.

When I examine the type of major assignments or final projects in these social media courses, the two common activities appear to be (a) analyze social media operation of major brands and (b) research, develop and present a social media proposal.

A problem with this teaching approach is that students do not receive essential practical training in social media. If we consider social media marketing as a “production” course, then we should teach in ways similar to how we teach broadcast journalism, focusing on hands-on production and coaching.

It has been a common practice to structure a broadcast journalism class around a real television show, where students produce the actual stories and work to produce a show, which is then posted on the web or even aired on local TV.

One problem with such a hands-on approach for social media courses is the lack of a real-world platform for students to work with. It’s above and beyond the duty of an instructor to start and maintain a full-fledged site just for the teaching of one or two courses.

One solution is a department- or college-sponsored content publishing site with a tailored social media strategy. The site and strategy first and foremost serve the interests of the sponsoring program and, in the mean time, provide training opportunities for students taking social media courses.

How to develop a social media strategy for college- or department-sponsored content publishing sites

A college- or department-sponsored site serves the marketing and publicity needs of the college or department; this requires a well-developed social media strategy and, more importantly, the implementation of such a strategy.

In developing such a social media strategy, the sponsoring college or program needs to plan and address the following questions:

  • What is the objective?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • What contents to share?
  • Who will implement it?

Answers to these questions will form the framework of a social media strategy. For instance, if a communication department plans to start a site, then the answers could be:

  • The objectives: attract potential students to the program; establish the program as an authority in digital communication research and education.
  • Target audiences: high school students who have an interest in communication majors; current student, recent graduates and mid-career professionals who want to keep pace with industry trends and new practices.
  • Contents to share: Original and curated contents/resources regarding communication education, job market, industry trends, new technologies and best practices.
  • Who will implement it: communication students, in the form of a social media class put to manage the site on a semester basis.

In a similar vein, other departments can also start a content site. For instance, if the college has a strong program in nursing, then consider starting a site and develop a social media strategy that appeals to people interested in nursing-related topics.

How to implement the social media strategy

Students in a social media class can rotate through various job roles when implementing the social media strategy; this provides for great opportunities to test and try out the social media skills students have learned in classes.

The daily workflow of the social media marketing will entail the following jobs:

Creating contents: this is the most important and also most time-consuming part, and requires knowledge of conventional and digital production skills. Different categories of content will be developed, with each category targeting a particular group of the targeted audience. For audiences of a communication content site, the mid-career professionals may be interested in reviews and tutorials of new digital tools, whereas prospective and current students may be interested in the changing job market for communication majors.

Curating contents: it can be contents from third-party experts or authoritative sites, or contents from the community (fans). For instance, the staff need to follow trade websites such as socialmediatoday.com and share/discuss relevant articles with audiences.

Sharing contents: this requires a thorough knowledge of popular social media platforms, so as to tailor the contents to fit each platform for optimal sharing. Different platforms have different characteristics and user groups, and thus should be treated differently.

Engagement: this includes proactively spread words and news about our own site or react to people who reach out to us; it also involves relationship building – developing a positive relationship with audiences via conversation, or by reaching out to influencers in our field.

Experimenting: social media marketing is a never-ending experiment; there are always new tools and practices coming out almost on a daily basis. An ongoing job for the student staff thus involves testing new platforms, trying new tactics and creating new contents.

Reviewing and adjusting: on an ongoing basis, the staff needs to monitor key performance indicators and make changes accordingly. This requires knowledge of web analytics and audience research.

What is a content publishing site?

A content publishing site is one that features contents that appeal to the site’s target audiences. The typical home site of a college or department is not a content publishing site: the contents, such as faculty list, degree requirements or program overview, are what the program wants visitors to know and function in a one-way communication fashion.

A good example of content publishing would be CMO.com, a website operated by Adobe, as seen in the screenshot below; pay attention to the link tabs in the navigation bar – they are the categories of content this site offers.

teaching social media courses

With content marketing officers as its target audience, here is how CMO.com describes what they do:

CMO.com by Adobe delivers marketing insights, expertise, and inspiration for and by marketing leaders—all aimed at helping CMOs and senior marketers lead their brands in this new digital world. To help marketers stay informed and save time, CMO.com features curated content from more than 150 leading sources. We offer daily exclusive content—thought leadership, interviews with industry leaders, insight, features, news, and slide shows—from across the industry. . .content you won’t find anywhere else.

With about 37,000 followers, CMO.com (@CMO_com) has an active presence on Twitter. When we examine its tweets, it is clear how this content publishing site tries to engage with followers: among other things, it tweets about its original articles, it tweets about selected third-party contents, it engages with the community by conversing with and responding to followers.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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