Outside Inspiration: Placemaking

Outside Inspiration: Placemaking

Hi everyone! This is a new blog feature I’m hoping to make a regular one - a bi-weekly (more likely, monthly!) longer essay that explores ideas and concepts from outside the strict confines of higher ed social media.

I hope you enjoy, and of course I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic and any great examples you might have - in the comments, via Twitter, on the Facebook page... anywhere!


The Third Circle
Social media managers know that viral is practically a dirty word. It’s what higher-ups who have no idea what goes into social media say they want. “Let’s make a viral video!” Shoot me now.

But working in a field where – fairly or unfairly – success can be measured on publicly visible metrics, it is important to consider potential audiences when creating content. My favorite approach to “viral” content is what Scott Stratten calls “the third circle.” (I highly recommend that whole article, but quick summary: your followers are the first circle. If your followers share a post, you have reached the second circle – their friends. If the friends of your followers share a post, you have reached the third circle – the friends of the friends of your followers.) 

Working at a college, a lot of the stuff we are forced to post about is for limited audiences: poetry readings and financial aid nights aren’t for everyone. Even so, with legions of dedicated students, alumni, and parents it’s pretty easy to reach the second circle. It’s that pesky third circle that can be really challenging, especially since so much of the stuff we post about is niche and insular.

But we all know the real social media magic happens when you get to that third circle, and if you aren’t trying at least a few times a year to make content that is good and interesting enough to get shares from someone who has no connection whatsoever to your college, well… you’re missing out.

Which brings me to placemaking.

Pop Up Power
One of the thing that motivates me the most when working in higher ed social media is that when we are at our best, the work we do makes memories. Some of the biggest milestones in people’s lives happen in college, and we are right there with them as they happen – dutifully tweeting away.

But covering things like freshmen move-in and graduation only scratches the surface of the power we have as higher ed social media managers. When it comes to making memories - especially memories that just so happen to also contain "third circle" potential - we need to think outside the big event to really shine. Why? Because while such events are important for our school, are they interesting to someone who has no connection to us? Maybe. But usually not.

So how do we make memories as social media managers? Glad you asked! I have long been a fan of interactive/participatory public art projects – projects that, to borrow from urban-planning lingo, fit nicely into the concept of placemaking. 

From an assuredly reliable Wikipedia definition, placemaking capitalizes on a local community's assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people's health, happiness, and well being. There are many types of placemaking projects – which typically involve revitalizing underused space in a city – but what I’m focusing on here is “pop up” placemaking, where artists and event planners create a fun, memorable, and unexpected experience for people. And while I love the particpation-based projects, fun and unexpected "street art"-style projects are awesome too.

To give you some ideas, here are some placemaking projects I did while working at University of Portland - many of which I blatantly stole from other colleges and organizations: disposable camera project; Valentine's Day megaphone; Instagram wall calendarlife-sized letters; envelope wall for grads; a best thing board; finals week popsicle deliveryslow motion video booth.

And here are few fun ones I came across just in the past day or two:

To Do post-it wall in NYC.

To Do post-it wall in NYC.

A physical photo-frame in Cape Town.

A physical photo-frame in Cape Town.

Breakfast is served at the W Doha Hotel with this wall of doughnuts.

Breakfast is served at the W Doha Hotel with this wall of doughnuts.

Super fun, right?

A quick Google search will reveal LOTS of amazing examples from all over the world, and there are also a few great Pinterest boards here and here and here

The Memory Making Feedback Loop
Good news for social media managers – these types of placemaking projects tend to be extremely popular on social media and always have third-circle potential. Best of all, they usually don't require a lot of encouragement to get people to post about them either... when something is cool enough, people figure that out on their own.

But there’s a lot more to it than clicks and views. 

Maybe I’m too starry-eyed when it comes to this subject, but placemaking projects *matter*. These are the types of things students go home and talk to their friends about. These are the types of things prospective students see and say to themselves, “Wow, cool stuff happens on that campus!” These are the types of things that, alumni getting together with their friends and reminisce about, “Hey, remember that one time when…”

And never overlook the power of creating things that people post about independently - you'll never be able to accurately track the numbers, but just think of the power of having hundreds of people sharing their own photos and videos of the project you created. Genuine peer-to-peer marketing is the most trusted and most valuable, but it's also the most difficult to achieve because you can't force  it - either something is good enough to merit it, or it isn't. So why don't we spend more time trying to make things that are good enough?

When done right, placemaking projects can help establish a wonderful positive-feedback loop – lots of fun and fond memories as a student make for lots of things for alumni to feel nostalgic about, which makes for (hopefully) generous alumni giving to help ensure future students also have fun and fond memories while in college.

And really, isn’t that our ultimate goal as higher ed social media marketers? Not chasing likes and promoting events, but changing the hearts and minds of our community and making them feel better about their college, more proud to be affiliated with it, and more likely to stay connected throughout their lives.

College is a special time no matter what, but by doing placemaking projects, you can help nudge things along and make even more lifelong memories for you community. So what are you waiting for? Do it!

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