Social Media Monitoring: Good Marketing or Privacy Issue?

I was recently interviewed by the CBS Boston news team regarding my college’s social media monitoring practices in regards to student safety. It was a great interview and garnered some excellent public relations exposure for our marketing and communications division. In the roughly 30-minute taping, we discussed my daily responsibilities and the scope of my role, and then the reporter honed in on one particular slice of what I do: social media monitoring. He repeatedly formulated questions that were looking to unearth a sound bite about threatening or violent incidences that we, as a college, have been alerted to through social media. Fortunately, Mount Wachusett Community College has never had such an incident, and I was able to speak to that end.

The interview was cut down to about two minutes of content and included the headline, “College Hires Specialist to Monitor Students’ Social Media Accounts,” which is misleading at best and “big brother” at worst.  I, in fact, do not monitor students’ accounts at all. I monitor, track and report on the college’s accounts and the public dialogue that occurs there.  What was not reported was the other 90 percent of my job, from online campaign management, building social platforms, writing content and SEO work to guiding policy, strategic planning, researching trends and measuring key performance indicators like engagement, conversions and reach. But that’s another blog post for another day.

The broadcast of this simple news story made me revisit past conversations and perspectives regarding our students and their privacy, digital citizenship, and the role of personal data in new media marketing (or any good marketing for that matter).

In my role as the new media thought leader for my institution, I spend a certain amount of my time speaking to our internal audiences in trainings and seminars and to public audiences in business luncheons, noncredit courses or guest-speaking engagements. One of the primary points I always try to weave into my content is the concept of information as currency and online privacy. My favorite line goes something like this, “If you wouldn’t want your mother/coach/professor/boss to see it, it’s not fit for social media.”

To answer the question I posed in the title of this blog, social media monitoring is both good marketing and a potential privacy issue. Monitoring and leveraging the vast amount of data – aggregate and specific – that’s available online and through the smart use of new media tools and strategies is not a monolithic good or bad scenario.

Just like you wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to introduce yourself to an important industry leader at a morning networking meeting, a smart marketer doesn’t pass up the opportunity to use qualitative data to build online marketing personas or web cookies to serve up targeted remarketing ads to online surfers.

On the flip side of that, however, is the digital citizenship piece. Anyone (and I mean anyone) who goes online and interacts there needs to be aware of and practice good citizenship. You wouldn’t purposely leave your house key and street address on the metro bus, and the same precautions exist in the virtual world. You need to protect your personal information and understand that what you choose to share online can and will be used in a commercial endeavor. Your information is the currency that fuels the online world.

Bottom line? As an individual, be selective and deliberate in what you share. Treat your personal information, preferences and habits like the precious currency they are. As an institution, be transparent and clear about what you do and what you don’t do. Have a social media policy and a Web privacy policy that outline how you use any data collected, and make them publicly available.

This way, both privacy advocates and marketers alike can be happy!

This content also appeared as blog post on the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations website.