Great Social Media Idea: Grads Giving Thanks

My week of guilt and shame (for not running these wonderful suggestions in a more timely fashion) continues, this time with an incredible, full-fledged article from Rachel Hobson of University of Houston-Clear Lake that is better than anything I could ever write.

In a quick nutshell, Rachel set up several photo booths around campus in the weeks prior to commencement, and took pictures of soon-to-be-grads with a thank you note written on a white board. Those photos were then put into a video slideshow, which was shown at graduation:

To me, this article embodies what I love most about working in social media in higher ed and it feels so familiar to projects I've done in the past - it's scrappy, shows some real hustle, it's not easy, it's authentic, and - in the end - it makes a wide range of people (students, parents, alums) really feel something. We really are lucky to do the work we do.

Take it away, Rachel!

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I thought I’d share something that was thrown together pretty last-minute for Commencement, but ended up being very successful. We’re a small university (around 8,000 students) that is currently upper level only (junior/senior/graduate classes). We are largely a commuter school, without true on-campus living and no official sports teams. This presents some unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to engaging students in activities around campus and through social media.

As I approached my first Commencement, I was trying to come up with something that would be fun, meaningful and manageable to do to celebrate this highlight of the year. Back in April, I attended my first CASE conference here in Houston, and several folks talked about videos they made at Commencement with students talking about who they would like to thank for supporting them. I took that seed of an idea and tweaked it to fit our resources and schedule. Gratitude is a very powerful thing, and I knew there could be a special way for students to express their thanks to their friends and family members that we could put together *before* Commencement so we weren’t adding a huge project to the already-sure-to-be-chaotic Commencement day itself.

Three weeks before Commencement, I pitched the idea of doing photo booths on campus where grads could write thank you messages on white boards and have their picture taken. I would then take those pictures and work them into a movie that would be played on the big screens in the arena for friends and family members before Commencement began. It was kind of nuts. Students were finishing finals the following week, and wouldn’t be on campus. Throwing together a schedule of photo booths on campus, backdrops and getting supplies had to come together on a whim. A social media plan had to be roughed out on the fly. And yet it all came together and was great.

Over the course of a week and a half, we held seven photo booths around campus at various times. I created a short video through Animoto to explain what we were doing, and boosted that Facebook post. We promoted the photo booths with very simple posts (gah! My horrible handwriting!), and invited students who couldn’t make one of the photo booths to send in their own pictures. None of this was slick or overly strategized. I kept singing, “Lowered Expectations” to myself, and said I was just doing it on a whim to see if something like this might get any traction. I thought if we ended up with 10-15 students participating (really!) that I’d be thrilled. During our first two photo booths, we only had three people show up.

As we continued through the week, though, we had a spike in participation. Our evening photo booth in front of our school letters was a huge hit, and before we knew it, dozens of people were sending pictures in. In all, we ended up with almost 80 students participating in the “Grads Giving Thanks” video. For larger schools with lots of student engagement, that might not seem like much, but for us – and on such short planning notice – it was astounding.

Better than the numbers, though, was seeing the graduates get so excited about the opportunity to thank their family, friends and even professors. It was great to see folks arrive at the photo booths dressed up or ready with a message to write. As I took each picture and read each sign, I was overwhelmed by the sentiment. Coworkers had told me how great Commencement is, but this outpouring of gratitude and accomplishment just made my heart explode.

Despite some technical difficulties, the video played a handful of times before each of our Commencement ceremonies. It didn’t play as many times as we’d hoped it would, and one student complained on FB that her family didn’t get to see the whole thing, but overall it was a hit. We posted the video online on the morning after Commencement (we’d wanted it to be a surprise), and posted an album on FB with each of the students’ pictures that were included so they could share them with family and friends.

We’re already planning how we can do this better for the winter Commencement, and there were several students who were accompanying friends at the photo booth and are graduating in December who said, “You’ll do this at the next Commencement, right!?” Even though it might get a little overwhelming, we can plan for it. And it’s worth it. So very worth it.

So there’s my idea! I don’t pretend that it’s something not ever heard of, or that it’s super flashy with the newest channels, but I think its simplicity is what helped its success. It may not work for giant schools, but variations could work: posting their own pics to Instagram and tagging them, and then pulling those into a tag board; having those pictures show up on the big screens via a tag board, etc.

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