By: Diane Stirling

Most businesses are lucky to have one social media strategist or community manager on staff.

This season, two major Syracuse attractions are especially fortunate in that they will have legions of social media practitioners at work for them. That is because both Destiny USA and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo have signed on as clients of the spring semester School of Information Studies (iSchool) class, “Social Media in the Enterprise.”

That connection provides them access to some 80 undergraduate students, plus their iSchool professors and assistants, all of whom are engaged in social media strategy full throttle.

Creating strategic plans and determining specific implementation tactics for social media avenues – to promote the attractions, to boost recognition and to generate attendance from audiences both region-wide and the world over – is their semester’s focus. In turn, Destiny USA and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo are providing living laboratories for student engagement, permitting them to see the outcomes of their thinking and actions in ways that textbook learning alone cannot, since what they do will play out with both immediate and long-term impacts. 

The students are assigned to one client or the other, then the class is broken into focus groups covering several distinct areas. They topics are:  Social Networks (the forums for community management, and which networks are best);  Content Management and Blogging (location-based social networks); Metrics (the ability to measure the effectiveness of social media applications undertaken); Policy (rules for employees and the community; Staffing (whether students will train and teach the business partner’s staff members to manage the social media forums once they are created, plus recommendations about how to assign community management duties; and Emerging Media (an assessment of new social media tools that may have a place in the business).

What is unique about the class, often referred to by its Twitter hashtag, #rotoloclass, is that it is “part consulting, part teaching, plus strategizing,” notes iSchool Associate Professor of Practice Anthony Rotolo. “It’s different in that, in many cases, when students work with corporate partners, they learn from the business they work with. But when #rotoloclass works with a business partner, the partner is learning from the class, in addition,” he says.

Class clients are looking for expertise they know they may not possess in-house, Rotolo notes. While companies may have an awareness of and an interest in social media, many just don’t have the bandwidth of staff or time resources to be able to explore it, he adds.  “That’s where we fill in the gaps.”

Both Destiny USA and the Zoo became clients due to relationships that Rotolo and iSchool Social Media Strategist and Community Manager Kelly Lux have built on Twitter, Rotolo says. Destiny USA’s Sara Wallace and Rotolo were introduced on Twitter. The Zoo’s Lorrell Walter was in Rotolo’s business network. When Rotolo suggested that Destiny and the Zoo would both be great clients for the class, both jumped at the opportunity, he recalls. Last semester, client CNY Central also resulted from existing social media relationships between Rotolo and CNY Central’s Matt Mulcahy.

In developing social media strategy, students “spend a lot of time talking about all the possibilities – all the things that can happen now because of social media,” says Rotolo. “The truth is, in practice, it’s a whole new world to make these possibilities a reality”” Having clients with actual social media needs allows the students to immerse themselves in a real enterprise situation, so students see “that great ideas take collaboration. You can dream big and achieve big, but it also takes collaboration around a big idea to make those ideas a reality,” he suggests.

The process also lets students see “how what we’re learning applies on a practical level to various on-the-ground situations,” according to Rotolo. For instance, Destiny is providing students with pre-opening tours of its building, and students will have access to information crucial to strategy development that is not yet public knowledge.  Students will tour the Zoo to get a feel for what those audiences especially appreciate about the experience. That will help them develop social media tools and techniques that hit the mark with those audiences, Rotolo explains. As Destiny moves towards its spring opening, and the Zoo moves into peak season, students will be working hands-on as part of the real-world enterprise preparations. Likewise, Rotolo expects students to play a role in actual promotional activity when Destiny opens its doors to the public and the Zoo hosts special events.

What business or attraction is on tap for next semester’s class?

“Right now, I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see,” Rotolo says, explaining that he prefers to let the class client process unfold organically, taking the natural course that the affinities and relationships central to social media networking create.