Reaching out: University lessons-learned from student blogging

In the quest to perfect our study abroad blog pilot - which seems to be going very well these days - I’ve been reaching out to several universities that are doing a fantastic job with their student blogging projects. Most all of these blogs would be classified as “admissions blogs” and give the reader an insider perspective about what it’s like to be a student on their university programs - whether it’s a student attending math classes on home campus, or spending a semester studying in Spain. The content is engaging, the design fantastic, and it’s clear that these universities have a strong handle on producing strong, reliable, and authentic content.

Giving up some of the university’s control of content and decentralizing it to students is an intimidating prospect for most organizations, yet the content created in these venues can be the most compelling for perspective students. As I’ve said before, it’s a fine line to walk between being too controlling and encouraging bloggers to user their own voice. Here are some of the tips in my running list of good techniques to employ when setting up a student blog:

Pick your bloggers carefully

These students are the voice of your organization - oftentimes their peers will respect what they have to say over the bulk of the content you have posted to your website.

  • Find students who love what you’re about and can be your ambassadors. It especially helps if they are very involved with activities on campus and will have lots of interesting experiences to share.
  • Create a list of guidelines for blogging and ask that they sign off on it - not only to ensure that they write appropriate content for your blog, but also so you have permission to re-use their posts and photographs in other media.
  • Do a test run. Set up a practice blog and see what students have to say about their experiences beforehand. If you don’t have the resources to do this, require some sample blog posts when you ask for writing samples.
  • Edit/censor when necessary. Most organizations (like ours) try their best to let students say what they want, in their own style. However, inappropriate language or material might be more of a distraction to your audience, keeping them from grasping the real texture and feeling of the student experience (or could potentially be downright offensive).

Cultivate good content

  • Provide your bloggers with good examples of blog entries.
  • Set up a weekly/monthly minimum for postings. Some students don’t intentionally forget about the blog, but if there isn’t a hard-fast requirement, posting could drift to the back-burner.
  • Be upfront with your student about the intended use of the blog. If your plan is to use content to promote your programs to future students, make that clear. Use this to your advantage by inviting students to write about the things they might have had questions about when they applied, but couldn’t be found in any brochures.
  • Use specific guidelines: no profanity, no party pictures, nothing negative about the university/program, and don’t include anything you wouldn’t share with your parents, your professors and your future employers.
  • Encourage them to write about things that they’re passionate about.
  • Schedule regular meetings (emails/chats/etc.) to follow-up on how the project is progressing, providing and asking for feedback.

To moderate posts or not?

Universities tend to be split on this one. The trick is having strong policies, good monitoring, and great students from the outset. There’s always a bit of a risk involved, you have to base your decision on experience rather than fear.

In our case, we started out having unmoderated posts with review once they go live. In the future we’ll likely go to full moderation - not because we’ve had back luck with students. On the contrary, they’ve been awesome. It actually makes more sense with everyone’s workload for a post to sit before going live so that we can manage our time better. For example, instead of refreshing the page (or checking my RSS feed at all times of day), I can visit the page at scheduled times of day on my terms, re-format if necessary (e.g. add categories, split the post into smaller segments, etc.) , and authorize the postings then.

Non-moderation doesn’t work for us because there are sensitive issues our students tend to blog about periodically, such as their homestay experience and in-country politics. However, most places I spoke with don’t do moderation at all. They have an understanding with the students and through that trust only periodic review of the pages are necessary.

Moderating comments?

Oh yes. This is one area where everyone agrees. Comments should be moderated - and not just to avoid spamming, but because parents are sometimes the most frustrating culprits on blogs. Most often nothing inappropriate gets posted, but it just takes that one time, and the spillover can be huge. It’s also useful to moderate comments to keep an eye on who is posting what, and so that potential questions about admissions or enrollment can be answered in a timely fashion.

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