In an age of pervasive social media and constant connection to the digital world, colleges and universities – and therefore libraries – find themselves questioning how best to reach our students. Naturally, we experiment with a variety of methods, from chat and text reference to Facebook and Twitter accounts and more, resulting in scattered communication channels. The question then becomes: Is it beneficial to send your message out through a wide array of channels, thereby casting the widest net? Or is this actually counter-productive because students then lack a central channel for receiving communications from the university?
Last spring, I surveyed our students about the Law Library’s communication channels – everything from our Twitter feed and Facebook page to our digital sign, our blog, and our more traditional media such as email and paper flyers – to see what their communication preferences were. I assumed students would prefer our Facebook page since they likely spend most of their class time updating their profiles (I’m not so far removed from law school that I don’t remember that coping mechanism for a boring class!). What I found instead was that, by far, students preferred email over any other method of communication. I had one or two who preferred Twitter and Facebook, but around 95% preferred email. Frankly, I was shocked. Having so often heard that students never check their email anymore, this result was certainly unexpected.
To Facebook or Not to Facebook?
In an article for First Monday, Lorcan Dempsey discusses the problems of having multiple communication points in today’s digital world. He notes that multiple communication channels make it difficult for students to choose where to focus their attention. I think this choose-your-own-adventure problem can be true both from the standpoint of the student establishing more than one personal communication channel and the institution choosing communication mechanisms. Plus, it can be a cyclical problem: because students use so many different communication channels in their personal lives, institutions try to communicate through all of these channels in the hopes of grabbing their attention through at least one; but with the message coming from so many different directions, the student is left wondering whether s/he’s getting the whole message.
This leads to the other problem with multiple communication channels. Students often use a variety of communication channels in order to compartmentalize different components of their lives. As Sherry Robinson and Hans Anton Stubberud note in an article for the Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, “[T]he modes of communication most preferred by students for social purposes are not necessarily those they prefer for school/work activities. In fact, once institutions and parents adopt a media popular with students, they often move on to new ways of interacting” (105). True, students have multiple communication channels, but they intend them to be used for distinct aspects of their lives.
Are Multiple Channels a Waste?
Given my own survey results and this body of literature (not to mention my experiences as the manager of our library’s social media, the primary contributor to our digital sign, and a frequent contributor to our blog), this made me wonder: if their preference is email, and our presence in their Facebook newsfeed is akin to being the ‘parent at the party’, is all this effort worth it? (For anyone else in this position, don’t worry – my answer is yes!)
First, most reading I have done on the subject has focused on American students, but we have a significant international population here and a strong international following on our social media accounts. I am interested in researching this further to see whether student communication preferences vary by country or region. As Robinson and Stubberud note, “Because the degree of social presence is based on personal perception, it is a subjective matter that can vary from person to person and situation to situation…” (107).
Second, even knowing that my student respondents vastly prefer email communication, and that, as a general population, American students tend to focus on the “social” in social media, I am constantly reminded of the other patrons we serve through these various communication channels. When we email our students or faculty, the only people receiving that library message are the students and the faculty. But as a law library that is open to the public, we serve attorneys, alumni, faculty and students from other parts of the university, and the general public. We have to have some way to communicate with them as well, and that’s where I see the use of our social media coming into play. As Dempsey states, “An institution cannot necessarily rely on one vehicle – e-mail or texting, for example – to reach everyone in a timely way” (5). In fact, these days we cannot rely on any one vehicle to reach everyone at all; the perk of using multiple communication channels, in my mind, is that you have a better chance of reaching multiple types of patrons you serve. If some of your students prefer to receive information from you only through email, that’s their choice; if others find they prefer our social media channels, great! As long as the message is the same through each channel, no one risks missing the message regardless of their preferred method of communication.
Seek and Ye Shall Find
While my survey did not yield the responses I expected, it was certainly informative. In fact, the best part was likely the open-ended question in which I asked them to suggest any other methods of communication they would like to see. Naturally, many ignored this question; another creative individual recommended a singing telegram or interpretive dance; and yet there were some sincere responses as well. One person suggested a Library Ambassador Program, with volunteer 1Ls, 2Ls, and 3Ls who could spread the word about library announcements to their classmates. Particularly revealing was the response from several respondents that we start including announcements in Indiana Law Annotated, the law school’s weekly email digest of upcoming events at the law school. We’ve used this sparingly in the past, but believe me, since these survey results, we’ve upped our game! As for the interpretive dance? You really don’t want to see me bust a move. I highly encourage you to find out your students’ communication preferences; it was eye-opening for me.
Note: If you perused the poster sessions at this year’s AALL Annual Conference in San Antonio, you might have seen a visual depiction of my survey results there. If you’d like to see these results, you can find them by clicking on the thumbnails below:
Lorcan Dempsey, Always On: Libraries in a World of Permanent Connectivity, 14 First Monday (2008), available at http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2291/2070.
Sherry Robinson & Hans Anton Stubberud, Communication Preferences Among University Students, 16 Academy of Educational Leadership Journal 105 (2012).