Blame Travis over at EMG for this article – he pulled me into this question on Facebook about what higher ed should be doing about Pinterest. It was something that shouldn’t have riled me up, and yet it did. It doesn’t help that many of you may have also caught the article over on the CASE blog about Pinterest as well, and are now wondering: “Is that for us?” It was written to showcase the work Oberlin is putting in to their Pinterest account – which I applaud their effort, if not their methods. Warning: This is a rant. You can jump to the end if you’d like to read the Storify I put together to summarize the discussion several of us had this morning on this topic.
Back around 2008 or so, I made fun of Twitter. Why the hell would people want to “microblog,” I asked. But, the idea of Twitter was pretty new and I’m nothing if not even handed (usually), so I set up an account to at least try it out before writing it off. Nearly 28,000 tweets later, I think the results of that are clear. I’m doing the same thing to Pinterest now (in criticizing its purpose and usefulness), and yes, I recognize the hypocracy in that. Pinterest is novel, sure. But I definitely think that higher ed should not be himming and hawing about whether or not to use it (to be specific, I’m talking about usage institution-wide, as a marketing and community engagement tool – as a classroom tool, that’s another discussion). Pinterest has been compared as a more visual alternative to Tumblr by some. I think for current examples, that’s a relatively fair comparison. In that light, consider this:
Remember Plurk? Do you recall how it was going to revolutionize the Twitter audience and experience, and instead mostly faded into obscurity and instead became the MySpace of microblogging? And in their defense, I do feel like Plurk was ultimately a better tool than Twitter – sometimes it’s just hard to fight the power of first-to-market. Imagine then if we’d all ran out and set up our walled gardens in Plurk, how much could have been wasted. And imagine if you’d invested time and effort into Plurk without doing the same for Twitter. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try new things. As Dylan Wilbanks pointed out:
@fienen I agree it's not worth the time to just jump on this week's trend, but someone has to pioneer.
— Dylan Wilbanks, Human Grumpy Cat (@dylanw) January 12, 2012
But also feel that there is a fundamental difference between the mentality of “We should do this because we think we can do something new and awesome” and “I wonder if we should do this new thing because it seems cool and trendy and might be popular later.” Much of higher ed falls in to the latter group, in my experience. Being a pioneer is hard. I like hard, but it’s a rare place that can always innovate, and always try new things, and be successful enough at it to keep it up (*cough*Google*cough*). The other thing to consider is that we’re just now really settling in to our social media properties. For most institutions this is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with a few branching out into LinkedIn, Google+ and Tumblr as well. In the case of Plurk/Twitter above, how wise do you think it would be to invest effort into Pinterest without first having gotten the hang of Tumblr? I know that’s a fragile discussion, as first-to-market is no guarantee (just ask Friendster and MySpace), but it’s certainly a good place to start and ride it out until the community at large tires of it in some cases.
And that brings me to the core issue.
Do less better.
If you can’t sit there and tell me that you’re at all the “common” spots, and that you’re doing great at them, then why would you consider branching out even farther? I won’t fault you for name reserving an account just in case, but if you are investing time and effort into setting up a presence there, are you prepared to break down what that investment is worth? In the case of Pinterest, the largest part of the audience is currently women between the ages of 25 and 34. Is that your target audience? Is that time more valuable than other methods of sharing user generated content through existing networks and tools? If you are established on Facebook and Twitter, we now have the resources to really dig in to the value and opportunity in those channels. That gives you the luxury of being able to wait a bit on Pinterest and see just where it is six to twelve months from now. That’s not being overly cautious or lazy, that’s being strategic. That’s showing that you know you have limited resources for community engagement, and that you’d much rather put them to use where it’s worth the most. As Krisna put it:
@fienen I'd rather have stronger interactions with what we're involved in now than to have everything & do a mediocre job across the board.
— Krisna Poznik (@krisnap) January 12, 2012
Think about your core questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. In the long run, some brands will likely find successful ways of using it. But you must remember that the more specific your audience and community is, the more specific your strategy for them should be. For us, consider:
- WHO do you plan to reach on the site? WHO will be your voice on the site?
- WHAT do you expect to share, produce, or facilitate? WHAT does the audience expect to get?
- WHEN are you going to plug it into your workflow/editorial cycles?
- WHERE are you going to get or find content at? WHERE will this fit into other existing strategies.
- WHY are you investing the time here, instead of at X, Y, or Z?
- HOW will you promote and create value in your new property? HOW will you add value to the channel?
One of the best uses I could see for Pinterest would be at a school that has highly visual arts or similar programs. Pinterest is a visual medium, and certain programs on an individual basis could find promotional success there. If you want to jump in, that’s where to start. Be strategic about your use, and pioneer creative marketing techniques tailored to the items you’re selling. Institution wide? No. Have a plan, have KPIs (key performance indicators), define how it fits your marketing and customer service strategy. Yes, you can curate and share other user generated content about the school too, but Pinterest is hardly unique in enabling that kind of functionality. How do you plan on adding value to the channel? Bottom line, if you feel like you must do it, be smart about it. It’s hard to learn from a failure when you didn’t have a plan to begin with. If you at least go in with some kind of strategy, come success or failure you can learn from the situation and do better next time.
It’s almost like higher ed is developing ADHD. So many were slow or late to the social media game, that there is now a panic that we’ll miss a boat (hint: you will miss boats. It’s going to happen. It’s not the end of the world). It’s like our immune system responded to Web 2.0 by overreacting. It’s okay to pace yourself and move slowly, as long as you’re also smart about it, and not putting it off just because you want to wait for waiting’s sake. In the end, if you’re asking “Should I be on service X,” then the answer is likely no, because it means that you already don’t have any idea what you’d do there (in the case of Pinterest, you’re going to mainly be sharing and promoting community generated content. Why do you need Pinterest to do that?). Instead, focus your efforts on being successful with The Big Three (FB, Twitter, YT), and wait until you’re comfortable enough to be smart and agile within the bigger sandbox.
I know this sounds like the “Twitter? Why Would I Want That?” conversation all over again. But I personally believe it’s much closer to the lessons learned from services like Plurk. We need to get used to the fact that new services will quickly become a dime a dozen, and it will be much more important to be smart about our resource investments rather than putting a hand into every single basket that comes up. Several of these points and a lot more are discussed in the Storify below. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.