Social Media and the SSAO

Social Media and the Senior Student Affairs Officer (SSAO)
Educate, Engage, and Energize Students

With the rapid growth of social media and accompanying surge in online activity, particularly among university and college students, student affairs staff are using the latest technologies to engage students and forge stronger ties to programs, services, and events. Increasingly, senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) are building their own communities and initiating important conversations through a variety of social media sites. This article provides an overview of social media and how it can help student affairs make and keep vital connections.

Facebook, with more than 500 million users, is the most-used social media site. Twitter, the 140-character microblogging site, has become an important communications tool within higher education. Other widely used social media sites and tools include: wikis, LinkedIn, Flickr, Delicious, and YouTube. This article focuses on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, which currently hold the greatest value for SSAOs who are diving into the social media sphere. Successful navigation of social media can take time, patience, and an understanding that in most cases you must “use it” to “get it.”

Strategic Thinking
With limited time and resources, it is important for SSAOs to create a social media strategy. Incorporating social media into a comprehensive communication plan allows for outcomes-based assessment and an answer to the often-asked question: “Why are we doing this?” Social media strategies may take time to develop and evolve, but a clearly defined rationale for social media use can contribute to the overall sustainability of social media endeavors.

It is perfectly acceptable to have a team of student affairs social media content creators. However, delegating is not engaging. As a leader, the impact of your personal tweet, blog post, or Facebook update is important to consider.

It may take up to a year of listening, lurking, and learning before an SSAO realizes that Twitter holds amazing potential. Twitter can be described as the social media Swiss Army knife. Like most communications tools, Twitter is multifaceted with its own strategies, protocols,and etiquette. Create a highly defined strategy that limits your initial uses of Twitter. Focus on doing one thing really well before trying everything that Twitter can do.

The most successful SSAOs on Twitter use a variety of methods to frequently update their tweetstreams. SSAOs may consider installing a Twitter application (app) on their smart- phones. It is much easier to create one or two updates per day while on the go if you can tweet from your phone. Apps like UberTwitter (Blackberry, iPhone) and TweetDeck (iPhone, Android, iPad, and desktop) are free to use and easily installed.

Refer to this small but powerful list of tweeting SSAOs. A free guide to understanding the basics of Twitter can be found at:


Facebook is a revolutionary site for making professional and personal connections. You can ask a colleague about a higher education issue in one instance and chat with a friend moments later. While a large number of SSAOs are already on Facebook for social networking, using Facebook as an element in a social media strategy may require sacrificing a certain amount of privacy. Unlike Twitter, which only has a public or private option, Facebook has multiple levels of privacy settings. Experimentation is required as students cannot connect with you on Facebook if you are “hidden” from them.

Blogs have appeared on the Internet for some time. The primary difference between a regular website and a blog is the frequency of content updates and the ability to allow commentary. A blog can serve as the hub for a social media strategy. Blogs can be used to communicate on a variety of topics to students. Facebook widgets and embeddable Twitter feeds mean that all social media channels can be readily available in one place. By allowing students to engage with social media content in a variety of locations, you increase the likelihood that connections will be made and that information will be exchanged.

The website of Dean of Students Kenn Elmore at Boston University (BU) is a stellar example of an effective SSAO blog. Elmore’s enthusiastic embrace of social media is a terrific display of how an SSAO can use a variety of social media channels to engage with students. He frequently updates his blog and is one of the more active SSAOs on Twitter. His tweets are embedded on BU’s Dean of Students website so students can jump into the conversation through numerous entry points.

Leading Change
Being a leader IRL (in real life) requires courage, authenticity, wisdom, and the ability to listen. Social media tools create ample opportunities for SSAOs to model effective leadership through a variety of engagement styles. While Facebook and blogs have the potential to showcase these styles, Twitter is the quickest, most direct social media site for SSAOs to quickly connect with their communities.

The Engager
Dean Elmore, with thousands of followers on Twitter, has created a unique voice in the SSAO social media world. His tweets are peppered with questions, contests, and riddles that grab your attention. Seemingly in attendance at every BU event, Elmore tweets via his iPhone for on-the-go interaction.

Authenticity is an important aspect of Elmore’s social media voice. His tweets represent his personality: vibrant, inquisitive, and packed with leading-edge thinking. He engages with BU students by tweeting @t them. It is fascinating to watch as Elmore tweets a riddle in the form of a haiku about an upcoming “tweetup” for the BU community. Tweets that simultaneously develop inquiry and conversation are tremendously engaging.

The Broadcaster
Luoluo Hong, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Hawaii, is a student affairs techie who has embraced the use of Twitter as a communication tool. Tweeting as @UH_Hilo_vCSA, Hong uses Twitter to broadcast a variety of messages. Twitter played an important role in the dissemination of information in February during the threat of a catastrophic tsunami in Hawaii. Twitter was one way that Hong was able to share critical information with the university community. Providing real-time information to those who need it most during emergencies is one of the true benefits of social media sites. Developing connections through followers adds an extra layer of value when you need to share critical information with the campus community.

The Connector
Levester Johnson, vice president for student affairs at Butler University, actively uses Twitter to forward a variety of interesting tweets. From posts that mention his family to Butler University sports to contest promotions, Johnson creates a holistic blend of engaging tweets. Johnson’s use of Twitter resonates because there is something for everyone. His tweets represent a terrific depiction of a day in the life of an SSAO. His social media presence is approachable, authentic, and engaging. Social media works best as a comfortable conversation.

Applying Strengths
It is important to note that what works for one SSAO will not necessarily work for another. It is essential to develop your own social media style. Individual strengths should be reflected in the social media engagement of student affairs professionals. Read an SSAO blog, peruse the tweetstream, or read through comments on a Facebook profile, and you will better define your own online strengths. Focus on what you do best IRL, and your social media presence will be more creative, deliberative, and engaging. Everyone has a story to tell. All stories can be told differently, and this variety should be celebrated.

Identifying and Understanding Trends
Social media is not a trend. It cannot be ignored. In today’s landscape of web-based communication technologies, social media is the primary mode of connection-making and information dissemination.

Social media tools and sites like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter are perfect vehicles for listening and learning. New and emerging technologies are often revealed through social media connections. These tools will continue to evolve as technology changes and new ways to communicate appear.

Social media represents a shift in how we think about learning. A question posted on Twitter or Facebook can generate insightful responses in a matter of minutes. A blog post on a particular student affairs topic can elicit commentary from professionals in multiple functional areas. A broad network can help you keep up with trends. If you don’t understand an application, the digital community can provide clarity and wisdom.

Social media can be a wonderful way to keep track of the “pulse” of a campus despite the hectic schedule of the SSAO. Listening and lurking can be powerful ways to identify trends and opportunities. Note that “lurking” is an acceptable social media practice. You can’t always be responding, engaging, and posting. Sit back and watch the stream. It just might surprise you.

Life Balance
Social media is a personal learning network. In addition to using social media to enhance your ability to stay abreast of trends, its most important personal and professional benefit is the network and community. Social media enables you to maintain professional connections with colleagues around the world on a year-round basis, building on the connections made at annual meetings and conferences. Support, guidance, and advice are readily available via Twitter and Facebook. The community of student affairs professionals in social media is robust, genuine, and nurturing.

The Twitter-based #SAchat peer-to-peer learning network is a favorite student affairs social media community. Student affairs professionals from all levels engage with each other in a weekly, moderated Twitter conversation. Undergraduate students who are interested in careers in the field, current graduate students, new professionals, mid-level practitioners, and SSAOs engage in learning opportunities via the #SAchat. The community frequently rallies support for members who need project assistance, research ideas, and mentoring. The success of the #SAchat demonstrates the power and versatility of social media. For more information about the #SAchat, visit:

Tweet, Post, and Update
Social media success will not happen overnight. As all SSAOs know, connections must be nurtured and grown. Start tweeting, updating, and posting. Reach out to those staff members who are already engaging with social media. You will not have to look far to find on-campus social media superstars. Learn from them. Ask questions. Social media is an adventure: #TweetOn.

Originally published (and re-posted with permission) in the Spring 2011 edition of the NASPA Leadership Exchange.

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