Students Influence Business School Brands

This post originally appeared on the U.S. News — Strictly Business blog.

What brand image comes to mind when you think of Harvard Business School? Is it the same image for the Haas School of Business at the University of California””Berkeley, or the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business? Every elite management program has its own distinct brand, which has relatively little to do with rankings or test scores and everything to do with the school’s culture and mindset.

Then along came social media, a seismic disturbance to the status quo. In today’s über-networked world, business schools no longer have any ability to control their brand image in cyberspace.

The latest issue of Graduate Management News takes a look at this intersection of students, social media, school branding, and admissions. At the Graduate Management Admission Council‘s annual conference last month in Boston, panel moderator Rich D’Amato, GMAC’s vice president of global communications, confirmed what business schools have long feared: The school is no longer the sole source of news, and the story is in the hands of students and faculty in ways it hasn’t been before. To address that new reality, the conference hosted three distinct sessions related to using the latest social media tools.

A session titled “Lose Control, Get Attention: The Art of Getting Noticed in a Socially Networked News Cycle” covered the overlapping worlds of mainstream and social media, as well as the importance of authentic student voices in social media. D’Amato told admissions and other business school professionals that schools need to “engage the social media space directly, consistently, openly, and happily”¦otherwise, the school’s story, news, and brand will wind up under someone else’s control.”

Panelist Omar Wasaw, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate and internet pioneer, urged attendees to recast their thinking of the issue, saying: “It’s not so much losing control””it’s that your role is changing from facilitator to director”¦The trick is, how do you create the infrastructure and get out of the way?”

Tom Rose, a recent graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management who spoke on the panel with classmate Miro Kazakoff, called student voices in social media “unmined gold” for business schools. Both said endorsements from MIT alumni found through social media were a major factor in their decisions to enroll. The duo started the irreverent video blog The M.B.A. Show while at Sloan, and as Kazakoff acknowledged, “Despite our silliness, we realize we are yoked to our school.”

Whether the content comes from school-hosted student blogs, independent M.B.A. student bloggers, YouTube videos, Twitter, or on Facebook, business schools must accept that the fastest way to update their brand is to relinquish control of it. At last year’s Social Integration Conference in New York, HBS’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Brian Kenny noted that the benefits of using these platforms to promote faculty work and outreach to prospective students outweigh the occasional run-ins with inappropriate””or downright embarrassing””content.

Panelist Ken White, executive director of marketing communications at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business, thinks schools shouldn’t worry too much about what students may say or do via social media channels. Business students have made a considerable investment in order to benefit from a certain school brand and culture. They recognize that their personal brands and the school’s brand are intertwined””and the stronger the school’s brand, the stronger their own, White said.

Making that connection between the school’s and the students’ brands is vital, because the truth is, the school is its customers (i.e., the students). The top M.B.A. programs wouldn’t be positioned as they are if not for the graduates who have gone on to do great things. As Wasaw noted at the conference, current students have a stake in the quality of future students. Therefore, they do own and should influence the brand.

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