Appropriate mediums for appropriate conversations

The administration of Whitman College, the school I went to for my freshman year, has decided to cut funding to its Varsity Alpine and Nordic ski teams. The community is in uproar about this decision; if you aren’t on one of the teams, then you have a friend who is. Andrew Spittle, the Web Manager at the Whitman Pioneer, saw the controversy as an excellent time to experiment with their new website. In a post published on the CoPress Blog today, he goes into detail about the different tools they used to get the word out (Twitter, list serv, Facebook, and banner ads), and reveals how effective each medium was for driving traffic to their stories.

Twitter wasn’t effective at all, as it only sent less than 1% of their overall numbers. In the comments, I mention that his assessment is almost there. Twitter is a really valuable tool, but that value only applies if you can reach your community on it. The Whitman campus isn’t there yet in terms of adoption, and might never be, but there is the possibility that it will become more effective for discussion in the near future. The Pioneer leading the charge, pardon the pun, by actively advertising discussion like this might be one way to increase the number of users, or that number might grow once the campus learns the value of Twitter via SMS for finding the best parties on Friday night. I wouldn’t discount entirely, it’s just a matter of engaging in conversation where your community is.

At Whitman, the email list servs and Facebook are the best method of reaching the rest of the student body. Andrew’s emails drove 10% of the traffic, and Facebook organically drove 2%. Considering the amount of time most college students spend on Facebook, there is a lot of room for growth in this medium. Facebook recently released an update to their Pages application, giving brands and organizations a presence that looks and works more like a normal Facebook profile. One critical component to this announcement is the fact that updates you post to your Page will now show up in the News Feed of your Fans. This wasn’t possible before, and it now lends an excellent opportunity for your content to spread “virally.” I, for instance, watched a video from the NY Times about the recession the other day simply because the News Feed is how it came to my attention.

When they land on the site, I also think there is room for improvement on how the discussion is fostered by using a forum and a wiki. As I mentioned in my comment, blog posts are a great way to synthesize and distribute content. I wouldn’t necessarily try to have all of the conversation in the comments, however. For a controversial topic like this, II might post several of the broad questions raised in the administration’s decision to cut funding to the team with the intent of having them either write or video record a response. This would offer a venue for people to weigh in with that they think the answer should be. The daily blog posts would then be useful for synthesizing the discussion had in the forum, as well as bringing in the additional facts and context your reporters are finding. A wiki dedicated specifically to this topic, much like the topical wiki I’ve described before, could provide the background information necessary to bring people up to speed, including how many people are on the ski team, what percentage of the overall athletic budget the administration is talking about, and how this decision fits into the greater scheme of things.

With these critiques being said, I think the Pioneer team did a stellar job breaking out of a weekly print mindset and adopting web tools to enhance conversation.


Jon Stahl March 19, 2009 Reply

It’s interesting to see that even among college students, who are supposedly the most avid adopters of “social media”, that email is still the best way to get the word out. Runs counter to a lot of the “wisdom” we are receiving from the digerati these days. 🙂

Andrew March 19, 2009 Reply

Nice post Daniel and thanks for the great picture you paint of the Pioneer’s coverage. We’re new (at least as a paper, maybe not as individuals) to a lot of how things work on the web and are always trying to improve.

I’m in the midst of creating a Facebook page for the Pio as well as forums and a couple other things more long term. As far as Facebook goes do you know of any examples of college papers that have created good/great FB presences? I’d love to see what they’ve done.

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