Now that the fall semester is in full swing and some of us have had a chance to come up for air, we’re back with the blog once again, and who better to start with than Andrew Cassel of Middlebury College! Andrew is currently the social strategist and content producer for Middlebury and he’s presented at many Higher Ed conferences. Andrew is also a published author who knows a thing or two about TikTok and reaching the appropriate audience. We spoke to him about how Middlebury has handled COVID communications, TikTok strategy, Instagram Stories, and what content and platforms work well for engaging stakeholders at one of the best national liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News.

How has Middlebury College handled the COVID-19 pandemic, from the beginning and currently? Did you use social media to help strengthen messaging? Any campaigns?

Andrew Cassel: There was a crisis communications team up and running for a different issue in early March 2020. We quickly pivoted the routines and rhythm we had developed to this new crisis. A crisis that has now lasted through three school years. Announcements are posted as text with shortened links to resources on Facebook, important updates were shared as Instagram Stories, newly added links to the online COVID-19 information site were posted on Twitter. The big three were turned into threads: everyone’s going home, there’s no Commencement, fall 2020 hybrid and testing plan.

We rely on messages posted to our most popular platforms to support all crisis communication. Successful COVID-19 social communications strategy is good crisis communications strategy: be transparent and truthful, provide information when it’s correct and available, and listen listen listen to what people are saying. Report what you hear no matter if you really understand it or not. In an ongoing crisis people above you in the chain have much more info and can ensure you don’t share something that will exacerbate a situation.

Our two primary COVID-19 social campaigns were shared on Facebook and Instagram. On Facebook links to the massive COVID-19 collection of web pages were pulled apart into individual links and shared each morning at 7:30. These posts included links to the full campus update suite of pages each time. Over the months of summer into fall 2020 these links were clicked on thousands of times. On Instagram we shared into the Story each morning at 7:30 reminder for students to log into the health-monitoring app that students used throughout the fall and spring semester. These reminders were straightforward. They even had the words “daily reminder” and the date they were posted on each one. Data shows that at least one person clicked on these daily reminder links every day of the 6 month campaign.

All of our messaging campaigns about fall 2020 and student health were straightforward, link heavy, with a focus on the facts.

When working with admissions, what do you consider to be the most engaging social media platforms to reach a high school audience or future Panthers?

Andrew Cassel: Instagram Stories and TikTok.

Do you employ student workers to assist with social media? If so, how much access to Middlebury’s social media accounts do they have?

Andrew Cassel: Communications and marketing does not employ student workers to assist with social media. Social media listening often connects us with students who are sharing great content and we frequently connect with them, have them send us a collection of images, and run a series of their work on the college Instagram account.

I know Middlebury is using Tik Tok, but what about Reels? What’s your strategy on these platforms and would you say it’s successful? Who is the main audience?

Andrew Cassel: Excuse my language but, **** Reels.

But in all seriousness, diversity is helpful in every area of our work. From the people on our teams, to the students on our campuses, to the platforms we use to connect with them and build community. There’s always a choice when it comes to adding a new platform tool to the toolbox we use. Instagram has taken over so many aspects of our social media communications that I feel it’s important to purposefully choose not to use Instagram Reels in this case. Short form, vertical videos are posted to TikTok. Instagram Guides, IGTV, Stories, Feed, etc get plenty of attention. At this time it’s not feasible to divest our social comms from Facebook tools like Instagram, but pushing back on Reels is a level of resistance that doesn’t impact my work.

Our TikTok strategy is to repurpose content – interviews with students and faculty – to provide insight into what awaits students who choose Middlebury. We also share on TikTok from events, happening on campus. Our strategy is based around providing information to the audiences there. Campus tours, tour guide questions, sense of place aerial videos. We’re not on TikTok to be a part of a trend, we’re there to provide good information to high school students who may be considering one of the best liberal arts colleges in the USA.

What advice do you have for Higher Education social media producers who are about to launch Tik Tok at their institution?

Andrew Cassel: There’s more to TikTok than dancing and sketch comedy. Get that out of your system quickly. Connect with faculty for 60 second lessons, do live tours, takeovers are risky and have a lot of workflow questions to answer (how will you approve the content, password sharing) but that could be useful. TikTok is ANYTHING. Embrace the variety of content that you can share there.

The big question: What are you going to give up to ensure your TikTok is successful? You can not just add TikTok – it’s very labor and time intensive. Know what you’re sacrificing before you start.

What social media trends are popular at Middlebury?

Andrew Cassel: Instagram Stories – if that’s a trend there is no doubt that that’s popular at Middlebury. Every student group posts into their Story to raise awareness about upcoming events and to highlight their members. There’s a strong case to be made that the only platforms we need in 2021/2022 are Instagram, TikTok, and Discord.

As we begin the new academic year, what, if any, social media campaigns have you created to engage students, or get them more involved and aware of what’s going on around campus?

Andrew Cassel: One of our focuses this fall is student involvement ,and to that end have worked closely with student activities to boost the use of a tool called Presence. All student orgs use Presence as an admin tool, and it has a personal calendar tool included in there. When working with and re-sharing student activities content into the Instagram Story we’re including the Presence link to help reinforce that tool of choice. So far, it’s been working! Presence use has increased, and clubs have expressed gratitude that we’re sharing that information with the student community.

About Andrew Cassel:

Andrew Cassel has been creating and curating social media content for higher ed since 2011. Cassel speaks regularly about social media content including appearances at ContentEd 2021, 2018-2020 HigherEd Experts Higher Ed Content conferences, eduWeb Digital Summit in 2019 and 2020, the American Geophysical Union 2018 annual fall meeting, as well as full sessions at the 2017-2020 Higher Ed Web annual conferences. Cassel was awarded a best in track Red Stapler at the 2017 High Ed Web annual conference and is a five-time winner of Aurora Awards of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America – Alaska including the 2018 Grand Award of Excellence. In 2019 he was a host for Higher Ed Live – Marketing Live. His most recently published work is in the Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing Vol. 5, No. 4. “Twitch for higher education marketing and communications: Creating a presence in the gaming world.” Cassel is currently the Social Strategist and Content Producer at Middlebury College.

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