Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #26

About Your Branded Hashtags...

A basketball almost falls into a net, but stops just short, and there's white text that says #NotToday.

Why they’ll never use your damn hashtag

Great word-of-mouth is in the upper echelon of success in meeting your marketing goals. Word-of-mouth is often how prospective students, staff, and faculty hear about your University and its programs for the first time. And, if your current students, staff, and faculty are reaping the rewards for being a part of your community, you can bet they will say nice things about you to their friends and family.

Great word-of-mouth engenders social trust. Word-of-mouth can confirm the very messages you market, validate the quality of your programs and services, and even speak to the more intangible facets of your brand personality.

Enter social media

Data from Kepios, a digital technology advisory firm, shows there are 4.76 billion social media users worldwide (roughly half the world’s population). And, according to GWI, a market research company, on average, each social media user engages with 7.2 social platforms per month.

Social media is the primary vehicle for individuals to exchange their word-of-mouth content. We learn about what’s trendy, what’s classic, what’s premium, and what’s disappointing via posts throughout each of our social media encounters.

Naturally, any brand wants to encourage these exchanges. They want a sophisticated and clever social media manager to create viral content that will boost their brand in the minds of their target market.

So, social media managers leverage trends, generate content and memes, create content schedules and calendars, and meticulously manage performance… but nothing seems to happen. Engagement trickles in. But you were hoping for an avalanche of likes, retweets, and reposts. What happened?

In “Strategic Brand Management,” marketing researcher, Kevin Lane Keller introduces the Customer-based Brand Equity Model.

A purple/pink gradient version of Kevin Lane Keller's Customer-based Brand Equity Model. This model starts from the bottom with salience, or ‘does your target know who you are?’ It’s the base of the pyramid. If your target doesn’t know you exist, they can’t move to other portions of the pyramid.

Moving up to the next level, performance and imagery, begs the question, ‘what do they know about you?’ Performance and imagery are the raw facts of your offering. What features and benefits does your offering have? What is the quality? Does your offering show promise of meeting your target’s needs and desires?

The third level, judgments and feelings, asks, ‘what should your market think and feel about you based on your performance and imagery?’ In other words, how does your target put your brand in the context of other brands? What’s your positioning?

And, the last level, resonance, asks the question, ‘how does your brand contribute to how your target feels about herself?’ In the way that anything from Apple devices to Applebees conveys something about their consumers, people ask themselves regularly, ‘do I want to be associated with this brand?’ and ‘what will people think of me and what I stand for when they see me with this brand’s offerings?’

Here’s the bitter truth about social media and the Customer-Based Brand Equity model: Only targets who positively resonate with your brand will use your branded hashtags.

It is only after a target:

  1. knows about you,
  2. knows about your performance and image,
  3. understands how she feels about you when she compares you to other brands, and
  4. knows she wants others to see her as a person affiliated with your brand

that she will want to use your branded hashtags. Why would you use a brand’s hashtag at any other level of the equity pyramid?

Let me reverse-engineer my reasoning for you. You would only use the brand’s hashtag if you were willing to be a spokesperson and associate your identity with that brand because that’s what you do when you generate content for a brand.

So, that means, in return, that brand has to offer you something that benefits you socially. It has to build your reputation meaningfully with the people whose opinions you care about. And the only way you can determine if the brand will have that effect is by knowing it well enough in its competitive landscape.

The only way you can determine that is to know enough about its performance, imagery, and so on. That’s how the Customer-Based Brand Equity pyramid works.

You may argue with me here. Sometimes content goes viral, and people wildly retweet, repost, and link to that really engaging content. Hashtags are then along for the ride, and the brand might even get a boost from it (e.g., Steak-umms).

But planning for that to happen and crossing your fingers is not really a strategy. And when those moments occur, the brand is often wholly unprepared to capitalize on the business (e.g., Steak-umms).

Additionally, the viral content might create a flash of success, but not sustainable, ongoing brand loyalty (e.g., …) Wait. What am I doing? Let’s break Steak-umms out of their parentheticals and talk about it.

Around 2018, the brand Steak-umms - yes, the brand of frozen, sliced meat that you use to make steak and cheeses at home - started tweeting long, rational threads about misinformation and disinformation and how one can trust science.

It was an astonishing social media success story. People were delighted by their reasonable social commentary and friendly explanatory approach to current media trends. It had nothing to do with their product, but people wanted to express support for their identity anyway. Grocery stores couldn’t keep Steak-umms stocked.

Here are a few of their famous tweets:

Example Steak-umm's tweet #1

Example Steak-umm's tweet #2, also with high engagement.Do you see that engagement? 67.6K and 49.7K likes, respectively? Those aren’t Beyonce’s numbers or anything, but they are significant.

Now, here’s where they are today.

Example Steak-umm's tweet #3, present day with much lower engagement.In fact, the average number of likes of their last ten tweets was 333.6. From 67K to the 300s is a big change. That’s because the social media users didn’t affiliate with the Steak-umms brand in a sustainable way that produces brand loyalty behavior; they affiliated with the ideas Steak-umms was sharing and the surprise of the unconventional brand-content match.

Back to Kevin Lane Keller and Customer-Based Brand Equity.

Generally, higher education institutions have to work at the pyramid’s base layers. They have to make sure that their targets know the brand’s existence and know what offerings, features, and benefits the brand has. I mean, how many conversations does this industry entertain related to brand differentiation? If you can’t determine how your brand is truly differentiated from your competitors, you can’t move past the judgments and feelings level to resonance.

So, this is to say that if building your higher ed brand on social content with a bunch of hashtags is part of your strategy, you’re misunderstanding a person’s motivation for trading their word-of-mouth to you.

Special Note: The mind behind those great Steak-umms tweets, Nathan Allebach, left the company and has his own creative studio now. Check him out for takes on political polarization, internet culture, and urbanism and walkable cities.

Special, Special Note: Reading more about Nathan makes him seem like an interest-twin of mine and a long-lost bestie. I see you, friend! Rock on.

- Kristin Van Dorn

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Institutional websites need responsible stewardship

Episode artwork for Appendix B #6, a short-form podcast about higher ed. This episode is called, "Responsible Website Stewardship."

It’s as simple as that.

If you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your college or university’s website, you better understand if it’s paying dividends, and, most importantly, if it’s aiding in the student experience.

The key is to stay on top of web and digital trends, run tests continuously, and always be learning.

Find out more in this 10-minute conversation.

- Carl Gratiot