Higher Education

Case Study: Experiential Social Media for Columbia College Chicago

Experiential social media case study for Columbia College Chicago shows how interaction-based experiential social media performed against traditional content-focused social media. Quantitative metrics compare results from content-focused social media to interaction-focused social media.


Experiential Social Media Case Study Columbia College Chicago: Deb Maue quoteColumbia College Chicago is a private, nonprofit college offering a distinctive curriculum that blends creative and media arts, liberal arts and business for nearly 7,500 students in more than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Dedicated to academic excellence and long-term career success, Columbia College Chicago creates a dynamic, challenging and collaborative space for students who experience the world through a creative lens.

Business Challenges

“Social media” had been largely dormant at Columbia when management met CSRA in 2016. As a strong communications school, Columbia had many pockets of enthusiasm and early adopters, but these early efforts did not produce any enduring effects. Meanwhile, the practice of using social media within a coordinated marketing and communications strategy was growing, and the Strategic Marketing and Communications team wanted to do it right. They had seen the good, the bad and the ugly within their accounts, and peer colleges’.

Experiential social media appealed to Columbia’s ethos, to empower people to realize their goals and make change in the world.


CSRA served as engagement director working with the Columbia News Office team to develop the experiential social media strategy and pilot. Led the strategy and pilot, and mentored Columbia’s social media team in developing experiential social media skills in interaction, platforms and management.


This engagement unfolded in two phases, Strategy and Pilot.

Strategy Summary

The Strategy was an optimal analysis of Columbia’s select stakeholders and their workstreams that involved the college. CSRA used the Social Network Roadmap’s (SNR) ethnographic research of social media to understand people and their journeys that involved the college. The strategy was comprised of five briefs (interim deliverables):

  • The Stakeholder Analysis involved working with the Columbia team to define their stakeholders’ minimum viable personas. Then CSRA developed complex filters that discretely identified each stakeholder online. Iterating stakeholder filters is like time-lapse photography; each subject gets a clearer focus with each iteration.
  • Conducted Workstream Analysis to define, iterate and validate journeys of each stakeholder that intersected Columbia. Conducted ethnographic research on workstreams to learn how the college affected stakeholder journeys.
  • Completed Venue Analysis by combining stakeholder and workstream filters to evaluate the most relevant social venues for Columbia. Used SNR Analytics(SM). Venue Analysis revealed the best platforms for engaging primary stakeholders and their workstreams.
  • Brand Analysis evaluated Columbia’s websites and social media presences against those of their key competitors and substitutes, from the perspectives of stakeholders. It revealed brands’ strengths and weaknesses in serving stakeholders’ workstreams, adding clarity to the strategy. The analysis leveraged the stakeholder and workstream segmentation created earlier.
  • The Strategy document specified several experiential social media opportunities on various platforms that proposed to engage various stakeholder/workstream combinations. The Columbia team chose one for the pilot and acted on several others on their own.

“The experiential model we adopted was applied to our recruitment and marketing efforts, and adjusted accordingly to our academic program engagement. Chris worked with our need to be flexible and nimble, and helped us identify the key areas that could be augmented for the most impact with our audiences.” – Cara Birch, Director

Pilot Summary

The Pilot selected by Columbia’s team was “Experiential Help on Twitter & Facebook,” and we used SNR’s pilot set-up process to enable them to scale results to several other college departments. We built fundamental social media infrastructure. The pilot was championed by the undergraduate Admissions Office, which wanted to create vibrant social media destinations in which they could support prospective students and their families. Experiential teams share third party resources that support stakeholders in their workstreams. They offer their encouragement and advice without promoting Columbia.

  • Social Media Governance provided social media guidelines and user guide for several types of users, including sponsor/champions, managers, official social media administrators and volunteers for social media projects across the college. Each role had practical guidance for its responsibilities and privileges.
  • Venue/Platform Setup/Enhancement “experientialized the Twitter and Facebook accounts we used for the pilot. In this case, we created new Twitter and Facebook accounts specifically for the Admissions Office, and we baked experiential ethos into each account’s descriptions.
  • The Pilot Charter outlined the pilot’s goals, project plan, interaction/content strategy, resource requirements, roles, and measurements. Templates specified several discrete roles that we staffed with CSRA and Columbia team members to maximize mentoring. Each template contained several advanced filters that enabled its contributor to locate dozens of specific conversations to enter, at a click. CSRA uses mentoring because experiential social media is best learned experientially ;^). Each template focused on a stakeholder/workstream combination, which knitted the pilot together into a cohesive whole while enabling each team member to focus.
  • Experiential metrics measured results in terms of changing trust. CSRA created a hierarchy of social actions that enabled the team to gauge its effectiveness over time, in each platform.
  • Mentoring took place over two months. We had planned a three-month pilot, but the Columbia team wanted to accelerate learning, so CSRA converted the pilot into a two month project that was more intensive.
  • We used SNR’s Collaborative workspace template on Google+ along with Google Hangouts to develop the team, enable real-time collaboration and maximize learning with minimal disruption to all team members’ other activities. CSRA designs pilots according to agile principles. The workspace enabled all team members and sponsors to tap into the good practices we developed, real-time.
  • We used Pinboard for team Social Bookmarking. Each team member found and bookmarked dozens of helpful resources each week. CSRA set up RSS feeds which were ingested by Columbia’s social media interaction platform, Meltwater/Engage, making them available for easy sharing.

“With the infrastructure Chris built, our team was able to implement the pilot quickly and efficiently, with a clear process and workflow. The custom-built templates Chris generated for each phase of the application process allowed each team member to operate in their own sphere, while the shared team bookmarks page and collaborative space allowed us to touch base and share successes/difficulties we were facing and problem-solve together. Everybody had clearly-defined responsibilities and processes, with a robust support network to fall back on when issues popped up. Even after the conclusion of the pilot, our team (which has since grown) continues to use the infrastructure and templates Chris built.” – Dan Camponovo, Social Media Manager, News Office


How Experiential Performed Against Traditional Social Media Marketing

We benchmarked the experiential pilot against the college’s most active Twitter account, @columbiachi (“Chi”), in August. The Admissions Twitter account, @columadmit (“Adm”), went live in July and produced partial data for that month.

Experiential Social Media Case Study Columbia College Chicago: Key ResultsIn order to make the new and established accounts more comparable, we indexed social actions by dividing them by the number of followers of each account. This also made the July and August results from @columadmit more comparable.

  • @columadmit generated 32.33 social actions per follower in July.
  • @columadmit had 100.38 social actions per follower in August.
  • @columbiachi had 0.18 social actions per follower in August.

In July, the @columadmit experiential team focused on sharing links that explained how to overcome various challenges faced by students engaged in the “college process” (a content-focused approach). These links mapped tightly to Stakeholders’ outcomes for college. The rationale was that @columadmit needed a representative presence before inviting people there. In August the team shifted to offering support directly to stakeholders.

  • Within @columadmit, August social actions were up 311% over July. This shows that direct interaction produces more social actions than even highly relevant content sharing, very quickly.
  • In August, @columadmit’s social actions were 558% more than @columbiachi’s. @columbiachi uses a content-centric sharing approach, so it is a useful proxy for traditional social media.

By August 28, @columadmit had 16 followers, and @columbiachi 20,900. Can you imagine how visible Columbia would be when @columbadmit had even 1,000 followers? This is how experiential magnifies the impact of interaction, very quickly.

The general pattern also held true for individual social actions across the social action value curve. The least valuable social actions are at left, and they progress to more valuable. @columbiachi barely registers, and @columadmit in August (interaction) significantly outperformed July (content) in every social action. Only Retweets/followers and Replies/followers were even close.

Experiential Social Media Case Study Columbia College Chicago: Social Action Value Curve

  • In August, @columadmit earned 8.5 likes/follower, 1.25 retweets/follower, 29 user profile clicks/follower, and 1.9 replies/follower. This is a highly engaged following.
  • Social media followings grow by exponential curves; if Columbia continues experiential interaction, the college can expect rapid growth of followers—in quantity and quality.
  • Comparing @columadmit to @columbiachi begs the age-old social media question, “What good are followers if they don’t participate?”

Experiential can be surprising at first; for example, it calls for mentioning and even recommending competitors when they have a better offer that pertains to the interaction at hand. But it makes sense.. what better way to establish your credibility than recommending a school with a great program, especially when it’s not you? ?– Deborah Maue, [former] VP Marketing Communications

Empowering Management

  • The strategy’s deliverables enabled Columbia’s leaders to understand their stakeholders experientially, through the analysis and the core social data. Standard marketing research is synthesized, but our experiential social data enabled access to the core data at a click. Overall, this gave the team confidence.
  • The strategy’s brand analysis highlighted weaknesses in peer schools, most of which use brand-focused approaches to social media. Columbia can now capitalize on their weaknesses by showing empathy and relevance very efficiently.
  • The Social Media Strategy grounded management in real data, analytics and good practices, which enabled them to lead with authority.
  • The pilot validated Twitter’s value as an experiential platform for engaging students and prospective students by supporting their workstreams. We earned tremendous reactions from our interactions with them.
  • Interaction earned 46% more high-trust interactions than content sharing.
  • CSRA’s agile processes were able to accommodate several changes in stakeholders, workstreams and schedules—several times during the strategy and pilot.

Our main account is where we really tell the story of Columbia College Chicago, so while we are happy utilizing the “traditional” content-centered social media approach there, we knew we needed a better way to engage with prospective students on our Admissions channels. After utilizing the experiential principles we worked on in Chris’s pilot, we continue to see impressive engagement on our Admissions accounts, and what’s more, our followers are beginning to understand the Admissions accounts as spaces where they can go to work through their questions and problems with a real person — I’m funneling many fewer users in need of assistance to our Admissions accounts, and instead they’re going there first. In addition to these “intangible” results, we’re pleased with the traditional metrics, too: with an experiential approach, our Admissions channels consistently generate high URL clicks, detail expands, and profile views per tweet, all of which help drive prospective students to our Application page. – Dan Camponovo, Social Media Manager, News Office

Building Columbia’s Social Media Competency

  • Workstream models and filters enabled the blended experiential team to empathize with stakeholders quickly, and this was born out by the numerous expressions of gratitude we earned from prospective students.
  • Automation of mechanical processes enabled each team member to interact more; we automated content sharing externally and internally.
  • Social Media Governance gave Columbia the confidence and tools to prepare to scale experiential using an experiential ethos.
  • The Pilot Charter and Team Templates took the mystery out of how to manage the pilot by making goals and actions explicit. They gave the team direction, confidence and the tools to measure and manage expansion. They also enable Columbia to onboard and roll off team members easily.
  • The pilot demonstrated how experiential works in terms of sociality and tools. The team saw the power of trusting people by being transparent and not trying to promote Columbia.
  • The strategy and pilot produced hundreds of curated reusable links that support workstreams of all stakeholders.
  • Results demonstrated how experiential teams work very efficiently (small teams, several members, discrete roles) to outperform competitors’ traditional social media. Traditional social media management interacts very inefficiently and diffusely, and poor results bias them toward content sharing, which produces far less valuable results. This structural truth gives experiential practitioners a durable advantage.

“The experiential approach allowed Columbia College Chicago to make our culture of service visible to prospective students. It’s one thing to say that our purpose is to help all students and families through a complex and stressful process, but it’s quite another to be able to show our commitment to helping students find the right college for them—even if that college turns out not to be Columbia.” – Andrew Whatley, Senior Director of New Student Enrollment Services

See also: tbd

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