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All in the Hamily
All in the Hamily

The true story of what happens when a college stops being polite and protective of its campus’s quirks and starts getting real on social media: The Scroll

By Jessica Krywosa


Out to launch: Hamilton College scattered traditional paper scrolls across campus in February 2013 to spark curiosity and spread the word about the debut of The Scroll, the New York college’s moderated social platform. (Photo courtesy of Hamilton College)

To share or not to share? I studied the Tumblr post for about five minutes. The animated GIF was hilarious—Lucille Bluth, matriarch on the TV show Arrested Development, rolling her eyes while sipping what's probably her third martini—but it was the accompanying text that had me transfixed. It was a bawdy response from Hamilton College students after a rival university's student newspaper talked, let's say, "smack" about them in April. The sentiment was real—uncensored, timely, and relevant. In the spirit of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, I clicked post and it instantly appeared on The Scroll, the moderated social media platform Hamilton launched in February 2013.

Since the debut of our custom-made web platform, which resembles a constantly changing Pinterest board, decisions like that are now a regular part of my day as director of interactive content strategy. Students, alumni, prospective students, and other community members vie to have their tweets, posts, and pictures appear on The Scroll, part of a friendly competition that ensures a steady stream of content through hashtags like #GetScrolled and @HamiltonCollege mentions. When I came to the New York college in June 2012, I hoped for this kind of vibrant social media engagement, but I wouldn't have guessed we would realize that goal in less than a year.

Show off your audience

Soon after arriving at Hamilton, I was told that alumni and students feel an exceptionally strong connection to the college. A born cynic, I thought: "Sure, that's what every institution says about its community." But once I began studying social media sentiment about Hamilton, I discovered people really do love this place. The attitude among alumni on social networks was overwhelmingly positive. Student voices, however, were nearly nonexistent. After meeting with students and alumni to discuss possible reasons for the disconnect, I learned that many felt Hamilton either wasn't trying to actively engage its audiences through social media or, even worse, the college didn't want to hear from them. We needed to change that perception.

We wanted a vehicle that would highlight the voices and passion of our audiences: alumni tweeting about their professional accomplishments, students blogging while doing research in Antarctica, prospective students posting pictures of their campus visits, and everything in between. We didn't want to just distribute Hamilton-created content. We wanted to show the interaction among our audience members; feature the valuable content they're creating and sharing about us; and better yet, give them a place to do it that would generate genuine Hamilton buzz, increase our mentions, stimulate authentic conversations, and attract more people to join the party.

Prior to launching The Scroll, I noticed many institutions were building social media hubs that aggregated their own feeds, but they weren't including or asking for audience-generated content. Many colleges were also using Storify to curate content from Twitter chats and event-based social media activity. Housing this valuable content on a third-party site seemed like a missed opportunity. That's when it dawned on us: Instead of relying on constantly evolving social media platforms, we would become agnostic and create our own. We wanted people to share and talk about Hamilton on the college's website. And we were fortunate enough to have the internal talent to develop such a tool.

Platform wanted: Fast, flexible, and user-friendly

At first glance, The Scroll may seem like just another social media mashup that collects an institution's social media feeds in one place to highlight real-time activity, but its inner workings are much more complex. The site, which was developed by Hamilton's communications and web services offices, displays hand-selected content from multiple social networks, including Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram. Thanks to the talents of a dedicated on-site developer, our platform's flexible back-end design allows us to specify and select content sources by keywords, mentions of the @HamiltonCollege handle, hashtags, and even particular users. Since we can call on internal resources, we can make upgrades and changes at a moment's notice.

By not relying on specific social channels, we've created a customized stream of social media content without cannibalizing our audiences on existing social networks. The Scroll can pull content from virtually any social channel through the use of hashtags, which means users don't have to think about choosing a certain channel for their content. (And we can add new ones to The Scroll's functionality if they gain traction among our audiences.) Users also can easily find the information and conversations that are most relevant to them because we tag and package content, then share it through a handful of named tabs aimed at certain audiences. Head for the Hill, for example, is geared toward prospective students and families while Buff & Blue features athletics-focused conversations. We can instantly change content tags and direct posts to the appropriate area. When a topic or a hashtag gets hot, such as admissions, we dedicate space to it and make it a featured tab. With the added functionality of linking to a specific tab or to an expired trending tab, we can also archive social media content by topic.

A Scroll is born

While Hamilton's web services team was developing and building the platform, our marketing and design teams worked on The Scroll's branding and visual identity, starting with its name. The idea combines Hamilton's 200-plus year history with the notion of a scroll as a communications tool and the digital scrolling people now do every day. After coming up with dozens of options—for both the platform and its audience-specific tabs—we presented the ideas to our newly created student social media advisory group for a vote. The winners were clear, even if a few voted against some of the staff's personal favorites.

The most crucial step in this process was achieving buy-in at all levels across campus. With The Scroll as the centerpiece, we held meeting after meeting to discuss our Share and Engage strategy, speaking with everyone from the college's senior officers to alumni volunteers. To encourage more campus account users, we held multiple workshops and one-on-one meetings where we discussed social media strategy and best practices. We explained why we were creating The Scroll and how campus users could create accounts, get involved, and engage in conversations that would benefit their departments. We involved as many stakeholders as possible, listened to their views, and invited them to participate in the hopes that they would create content to help keep The Scroll alive and relevant.

After months of development, meetings, and feedback, The Scroll went live. To light a viral flame on campus, we created faux parchment paper scrolls and placed them in high-traffic areas. Each one featured The Scroll logo, its web address, and the hashtag #GetScrolled. Student leaders who had a preview of the platform started using the hashtag, which piqued their classmates' interest.

As our primary content campaign, #GetScrolled has quickly become part of the Hamilton culture. The hashtag appears in emails, web pages, invitations, and programs. The phrase is part of the campus lexicon. Everything from birthdays to feminist philosophies have been tagged and added to The Scroll, which has transcended our notion and limitations of the Hamilton brand.

It's alive—and life is messy

On The Scroll, we use terms that the college would never include in its formal communications channels. For instance, light side and dark side, nicknames that students and alumni use to refer to the two sides of the Hamilton campus, frequently appear on The Scroll. Light side denotes the original Hamilton campus, sometimes known as the "preppy" side; the dark side, also known as the "artsy" side, is the former Kirkland College campus that merged with Hamilton in the late 1970s. We appropriated "Hamily," a hashtag coined by an alumna, and dubbed the site's alumni section tab Our Hamily.

From its inception, The Scroll has been a lesson in campus change, but it's also a vibrant demonstration of the Hamilton brand—one that's perpetuated primarily by students and alumni. To remain credible and authentic, the acceptable content threshold remains extremely high. Most content is Scroll-worthy, with the exception of posts that threaten general safety, are violent in nature, attack a specific individual, or are libelous. This level of permissibility comes with some discomfort. In fact, some submissions lead to long periods of reflection as we decide whether to add or tag certain content (profanity-laced posts and Arrested Development GIFs included). The Scroll challenges Hamilton to not only promote users' positive sentiments but also their negative comments. Part of Hamilton's mission is to cultivate critical thinkers and effective communicators, so the college should be comfortable providing a space for people to freely and authentically express themselves.

Watching these kinds of realistic interactions play out has provoked difficult what-if discussions about how we would handle The Scroll's content during a campus emergency or a scandal. The general consensus is that whatever is on the minds of our community members should be fodder for the platform. Sanitizing our content would deaden its effect. If The Scroll becomes just another institutional voice, it will lose all credibility and the content will disappear.

Let there be content

By creating a platform that showcases user-generated content, we've leveraged the vanity aspect of social media. People want to #GetScrolled. Knowing that users generally post comments and pictures with the intent of being seen, we appeal to their sense of self-promotion and benefit from the content they produce.

Since The Scroll's debut, students' social media exchanges with Hamilton have doubled. They've reported that their friends have either increased their use of social media or, in some cases, joined social networks so that they can interact with others who appear on The Scroll. Alumni also have embraced the platform. They send pictures from regional events, post campus memories and photos, and even proclaim their giving status during annual fund challenges.

Beyond #GetScrolled, all major college events receive hashtags, but promoting those created by community members remains our golden ticket. We work with leaders on and off campus to publicize hashtags; we've even given them trending status so that our community can follow events in real time. During a recent student debate about gun control, students publicized their own hashtag, #hcdebates. Once it became popular, we gave it a trending tab on The Scroll and dragged the social media fire hose for content to add to the section. Students appreciated our approach and spread the word. Now they routinely brainstorm hashtags for other events and look for new ways to promote activities and capture the community's attention on The Scroll.

Hamilton17 was a trending tab throughout this year's admission yield season. When applicants logged in to receive their admission decision, the message included the #Hamilton17 hashtag and an invitation to #GetScrolled. Many used the hashtag in their joyful posts about being accepted, often including photos of themselves wearing Hamilton apparel or posing with a college banner.

During our spring open house for accepted students, visiting prospective students and their families took pictures in front of the statue of Alexander Hamilton, the college's namesake and a rite of passage for campus visitors. Indoors, as accepted students and their families waited for a presentation to begin, a large projection showed The Scroll constantly updating as users tweeted and posted their photos. In addition to entertaining the captive audience, The Scroll gave people another way to interact with Hamilton and each other.

In April, we decided to see if The Scroll's irreverence could generate some fundraising buzz, so we worked with the development office on the Dark Side–Light Side GOLD Challenge, an annual fund contest aimed at raising scholarship money from young alumni that capitalized on the rivalry between the two sides of campus. Using the primary hashtag #hcgold13, although #lightside and #darkside were used as well, recent graduates challenged each other to give. More than 200 alumni participated, propelling the light side to victory with 117 gifts to the dark side's 93 contributions (11 people gave to both sides). A couple years ago, experimenting with these terms for fundraising purposes would have been unthinkable. An environment that embraces and reflects students' and alumni's true campus experiences added to the fun of the good-natured competition.

Keeping up and keeping it real

The Scroll is a living entity that needs to be fed regularly. It is all day, every day. Nights and weekends. Holidays and vacations. There is no way to set it and forget it. I select each piece of content that appears. Curating The Scroll requires human judgment. But how can one person continually and objectively monitor, approve, tag, and promote content?

The Scroll's positive reception and popularity has spurred discussions about allowing other people to manage specific content areas. By spreading the work across campus and involving content managers who know their audiences, the platform can become even more dynamic as it maintains its level of authenticity.

The Scroll can also be integrated even deeper into what we do as communicators. For instance, since we archive The Scroll's posts by topic, we can add social content to news stories, emails, and web pages by linking to specific tabs, such as athletics, or even an expired trending tab.

However The Scroll evolves, the one constant will be change. With an ever growing and passionate community of users, The Scroll will continue to push the boundaries of how Hamilton communicates and reflect the true and varied experiences of campus life. Once you've gone to the dark side (or light side), anything's possible.

About the Author Jessica Krywosa

Jessica Krywosa is the director of interactive content strategy at Hamilton College in New York.




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