We hear much about the generation in college now being digital natives, readily and easily negotiating the Web world. But in an earlier freshman focus group, I learned students think of Facebook as a method to connect more than a information tool. Taking this one step further, I decided to research how student organizations at SUNY Oswego use Facebook as a method of communication. While 64.4% percent of our registered organizations (94 of 146) had an official Facebook presence of some type, the vast majority:
– Don’t use it often.
– Don’t use it to engage.
The 94 organizations had a total of 101 presences I counted as official, some with both pages and groups, three posing as a personal account in addition to groups and/pages. The 101 also included 89 groups and nine pages. I used the term connections as a cross-type term to define either a) members of a group, b) fans of a page or c) friends of a personal account.
Using that rubric, I found the average connections for each presence to be 98.7. But this is slightly misleading, modified way up by one personal account, a media outlet posing as a person with a whopping 1,034 connections (by comparison, the second-highest was Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, with 551 members in its group). Take away that anomaly, and the average Facebook presence had 89.35 connections. Highest connections were among Greek organizations (which have more formalized and selective membership) and media outlets, for which communication is an inherent imperative. The majority of presences (70) had 100 or less connections, while only 11 had 200 or more connections.
Most striking was the lack of engagement among the groups and pages (the personal accounts were very engaged, although Facebook frowns upon fictional individuals). Discarding the 11 private groups (mostly Greek organizations), out of the 90 public presences of our registered student organizations, 27 of them — 30 percent — made 1 or less Wall or other updates in the past year (since 12/1/08).
Nine of them (10 percent) never made an update of any kind — ever — while 14 had made one update total, eight made just two updates during their existence. Thus more than one-third (31) made two or less communications during their complete existence. Of the 90 public, only 37 had done at least one update within the past month, 55 within the past semester, 68 within the past 12 months. Students obviously lead busy lives, and this is not an indictment of their habits as much as pointing out a missed opportunity.
The level of organization-to-user engagement appeared almost universally low. I only found one (Rainbow Alliance) with recent evidence of answering Wall questions on a timely basis. Some other Walls consisted entirely of questions from members with absolutely no responses. None! Most common were groups using their Wall chiefly as a one-way communication tool: announcing special events, results of board elections, upcoming meetings. Often orgs began the academic year with the best of intentions, but updates soon abated. Only around 10 percent of organizations opted to create Facebook events or post photo galleries — among the best ways of creating engagement among connections.
Conclusions: While this only provides quantitative data (summarized and contextualized in this document), and qualitative information in the form of student interviews would shed more light, I draw three preliminary conclusions:
1. Abandonment runs rampant. This study followed a Twitter conversation on data rot on institutional Web pages as some entities, including student groups, moved their presence to Facebook. Yet stale pages and outdated information run rampant on Facebook as well. In amassing data, I chose to discard older versions of organizations’ official groups in favor of more current ones. I decided doing so was most fair to engagement measures and membership totals (which could wane toward a more current group). Not an ideal solution, but it indicates abandonment rates even higher than stated measures.
2. Interface is underutilized. One of Facebook’s greatest advantages remains media-rich engagement tools like events, photos, videos and discussion forums. It proved very rare to find organizations posting even the most rudimentary group photos or creating Facebook events, let alone uploading videos or inviting conversations on Walls or in forums. The vast majority used the Facebook Wall mainly for simple announcements.
3. A learning curve remains from connecting to engaging. Our students have mastered the art of using Facebook on a personal level to make connections and carry out conversations. So why are student organization presences so rarely updated and engaging? I think partly it comes back to my initial finding with freshmen that they think of social media as first and foremost a connector, and less so a tool. I’m one of the few people I know who regularly speaks to student groups about using social media as a promotional/marketing avenue, and reactions indicate this idea represents a bit of a paradigm shift. Perhaps most student organizations are still feeling out the process of changing hats to using it for more official communication. In fairness to the students, their results are not atypical of global use: Most businesses, non-profits and other entities are nowhere near mastering the use of social media for engagement.