Sarah Barnes has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for print and digital communications. At Harvey Mudd College, she is part of a small but mighty communications team that produces everything from web content to alumni magazines to academic department newsletters to social media and more. Check out our interview with her in anticipation of the upcoming Social Media Strategies Summit for Higher Education.
Please briefly describe the structure of your team. How many people are on your team, and where does it sit within the university?
The Office of Communications and Marketing at Harvey Mudd College sits under the advancement umbrella but operates as its own entity. Our VP of communications and chief comms officer heads our team, which comprises the senior director and associate director (me), art director and graphic designer, director of public relations, a web designer, and a communications specialist.
What will you be speaking about at SMSsummit Higher Ed?
I’m sitting on a panel about how to leverage students to support social media initiatives. I’ll be sharing my experience hiring a team of student photographers to improve our visual content across all platforms (social media, web, and print).
Give us an overview of your role and what it entails daily.
As the associate director of communications and marketing, I write, edit, and copyedit everything from articles for our alumni magazine to our social media posts. I produce a monthly e-newsletter for parents and alumni, yearly department newsletters for our academic departments and other large projects, and daily news writing for our website. I split social media duties with a colleague.
What do you love about your job?
I love that I get to be creative. Brainstorming ideas for articles or coming up with new approaches to old projects is fun — it’s where I’m at my best! I have an incredible team and supervisors. The supervisor sets the tone, and I am grateful to work with people who understand how to lead.
Specific to Harvey Mudd, I work with an amazing group of faculty and students. In any given week, I could be writing about dark matter physics, cloud chemistry, or engineering nanomaterials, doing my best to translate sometimes complicated science into accessible articles. The students and faculty are incredibly generous with their time and explanations, and their passion for their work is inspiring.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Hm. “Hard” is relative. Compared to seasonal firefighting in my early 20s, copyediting terrible writing about motorsports sponsorship in my late-20s–30s, or being a mom, NOTHING in my current job is hard! 😉
Regarding social media, the most challenging thing is not having someone on our team whose sole job is social media. We’d be able to do a lot more if we had a person who could focus entirely on social media. The hardest part of any job I’ve had is caring about data and analytics. I am not a numbers person at all, so I work best when I can work alongside someone who is. Excel sheets make me sad.
Please describe one of your institution or organization’s social media campaigns that makes you proud.
I’m most proud of the improvement we’ve made in the quality of our social media, thanks to our student photographers. As I write this, we’re still in the early stage of this project. Still, we’ve already seen an approximately 2% increase in IG post engagement compared to the same period from the previous year (pre-student photographers). Presenting a virtual version of the HMC community for alumni, students, prospective students, and parents is the whole point, and no one captures that better than our current students. It’s a great way to show the world how amazing HMC is.
Which social media channel is your favorite and why?
Of our HMC accounts (IG, Twitter, FB, LinkedIn), it’s Instagram. I love the visual aspect, and I like that it lends itself to posting to build a sense of community. I love it when students of alumni react joyfully to a post that reminds them of good times they had at HMC or when we’re able to share our students’ and faculty members’ impressive research with a broader audience.
For personal use, I love Twitter and TikTok. Twitter because I can learn from a huge variety of people I’d never meet in real life (writers, journalists, regular folks doing amazing things, scientists, people from all over the world, etc.). I love TikTok because OMG, so many laughing babies, and the one guy who records things that happen “only in Florida, good thing I have my flip phone.” Hilarious.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a professional interested in starting a social media marketing career?
Know your audience. It’s important to know why you’re posting, who you want to reach, and what you hope to gain by doing it. Understanding the culture of the audience you’re trying to reach is paramount.
What’s one other higher ed institution that inspires you on social media, and why?
Just one?! It would have to be one of the other colleges in The Claremont Colleges Consortium on Instagram and Facebook (of which HMC is a part). Pomona College on IG is a good one. Beautiful photography and subtle branding. They also post A LOT, which makes me jealous.
What are some of your favorite tools you use to do your job more effectively?
Time management! We use social media aggregation software to compose, schedule, and publish posts. Also, delegation. One person can’t be everywhere all the time, so it helps to have other people on the ground taking photos for use on social media.
Looking forward to 2023 and beyond, what opportunities excite you most about higher ed social media?
I’m excited about finding ways to engage our audience more meaningfully. I’m also looking forward to more events like the SMSsummit—in-person and virtual—to meet my counterparts and learn from them.