IASB focuses on digital engagement

By Heath Hendren

Heath Hendren is IASB assistant director/communications. He develops and manages IASB’s social media efforts.

With the continued development of new digital communication tools and nearly three-quarters of American adults using a social media network of some kind (according to the Pew Research Internet Project), IASB is adjusting its communication strategy to increase online engagement.

Because of the potential to reach larger and more diverse audiences, lower production and distribution costs, unlimited archiving capacity, enhanced search methods, significant user preference over print materials, and a steady decline in the “digital divide,” IASB recognized the need for increased digital engagement. Online communication tools are ideal for associations such as IASB to reach like-minded, issue-focused individuals, such as school board members, superintendents, and education leaders.

In recent years, IASB has made it a goal to expand the use of technology-driven communication. From targeted email delivery to online blogging integrated with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, online contact has become a primary component of the Association’s connection with its members and the public.

This article will review the tools that IASB is using, and how much their use has grown.

Illinois School Board News Blog

IASB’s most recent online outreach was the creation of the Illinois School Board News Blog, at blog.iasb.com. The News Blog is a transformation of the Association’s popular monthly newsletter, The Illinois School Board Newsbulletin, which had been in continuous publication and delivered to all members since 1943. In 2011, the Newsbulletin went from a printed and mailed paper newsletter to a digital PDF facsimile that was posted online and emailed to all members. Although the move saved the time and expense to print and mail the newsletter, it did not change the content or frequency of the news, as it remained a monthly publication. The final edition, No. 754, was posted in May 2015. That’s when the Newsbulletin officially became the News Blog. This change was made for several reasons.

While many topics and features of the former newsletter have continued in the new format, the News Blog gives the Association an ability to report on topics of interest and timely information in a format that can be accessed at home, work, or on mobile devices. Updates or corrections can be made instantly; links go to live sources; and information can be shared with other users without leaving the blog site.

Another important feature of the blog is cross-integration to IASB’s social media networks: Facebook, Twitter, and its YouTube video sharing channel. The blog has sections showing the latest IASB tweets, current calendar of events, and news clips from mainstream media on public education and school governance issues.

In its first eight months, the News Blog recorded nearly 300 posts, which generated more than 27,000 “page views.” Popular topics identified in these page views include legislative activities, legal opinions and court cases, standardized testing, local school district issues, as well as Association division news, awards, and events (see the accompanying chart).

IASB compiles monthly reports on use of the blog, via blogger.com, so that editors can see what topics are being followed and adjust coverage accordingly. The potential to reach members and the public with timely and relevant news is why the Illinois School Board News Blog occupies a prominent position on the home page of the IASB website, www.iasb.com.

Social Networking

IASB’s social media networking accounts were launched in September 2014. Judging by their monthly usage reports, both Facebook and Twitter have become popular online portals where Illinois school leaders can find, comment, and share information that matters most to them.

The Association was very deliberate about launching its networking accounts, as it considered the ramifications of content sharing and comments with little supervision or control. “We may have been one of the later arrivals,” said James Russell, IASB associate executive director for communications and production services. “It was important to us and our members that we do this right. These networks offer tremendous opportunities, but they also create significant liabilities if they are not monitored and regularly serviced.”

IASB used both Twitter and Facebook accounts to launch its “Stand Up 4 Public Schools” campaign in time for the 2014 Joint Annual Conference. “I think this set the tone for the content and what people could expect from these outlets,” Russell added.

While Facebook provides a more personal atmosphere that fosters conversation through a “community” that encourages sharing of photos, videos, and other media, Twitter’s rapid dissemination of information through short messages is particularly effective in offering live coverage of education-related events. The availability of each account allows IASB to adjust its message to the specific audience, and encourage users to share, comment, or act on the content.

For the past two years, IASB has “live tweeted” from a variety of events and activities at the Joint Annual Conference. At the 2014 conference, IASB sent out 59 tweets resulting in 21,600 “impressions,” or how many times each message has been seen. In November 2015, more than 23,100 impressions were recorded from the 83 tweets posted by IASB. To help create conversations between Twitter users, IASB created an official conference hashtag: #ILjac15. Use of hashtags captures and indexes all the tweets that other users are posting while at Conference. It reads like a play-by-play overview of what is happening at the event and gives participants a chance to share their stories and what they feel is most important to their professional development. The 2015 conference hashtag generated 627 tweets between Nov. 16 and 30, reaching more than 150,000 Twitter users.

IASB’s own live Tweets from the Conference included the following:

“HEROES create an exceptional experience, and take responsibility for everything.” Kevin Brown #ILjac15

“We need to rethink how we teach people to learn. People learn in groups...find ways of connecting disciplines.” — Dr. Hrabowski #ILJac15

Were you at 1st Gen. Session? Did you see Comm. Eng. video? Learn more today at Comm. Eng: What, Why & How @ 130pm, Columbus C/D-Hyatt East

In addition to Conference, other IASB events live tweeted over the past year included the Alliance Leadership Summit, New Board Member Workshops, the National School Boards Association conference, and select General Assembly hearings. The use of live tweets will likely grow as more Association staff members become involved in the process, Russell said.

In fact, both of the major social networks have been successful in meeting the initial objective of providing more communications options and opportunities to connect with members and followers.

In 2015, the Association’s Facebook fan page ended the year with 414 “likes,” and the 135 posts during the year reached 21,700 users, generating 636 “engagement” (likes, comments, shares), and more than 1,200 clicks to the links contained in the posts.

Twitter analytics indicated an even greater reach. IASB ended the calendar year with 1,069 followers and sent 382 tweets that garnered 167,000 impressions, 3,311 “engagements” ( retweets, likes), and 885 link clicks.

The topic that earned the most interest was legislation, making up five of the top ten posts on both platforms [see graphic, page 18]. Social media was also very successful in promoting targeted initiatives. “School Board Members Day” was the top tweet of 2015, earning 2,965 viewer impressions. Numerous posts were made containing Illinois Vision 20/20 news and consistently ranked as most read, liked, and shared.

YouTube video channel

While the News Blog, Facebook, and Twitter accounts make up most of IASB’s social media presence, the Association’s video sharing platform has also generated considerable interest.

The channel, which can be found at ILSchoolBoards, currently hosts 96 videos. Visitors to this independent website can find instructional guides to Association products and services, general guidance on advocacy, and other tips for board members and education officials to assist with their duties.

Seven new videos were posted on the IASB YouTube channel last year, which were viewed 647 times. To date, the most popular was “Illinois Vision 20/20: Fulfilling the Promise of Education,” which has been seen 4,050 times. Since it was launched in 2013, the channel has generated 19,628 views, with more than 40,000 minutes of actual time spent watching the content. Also popular are the videos created and uploaded by local school districts. These include videos created for the Association’s 100th anniversary celebration and districts that participated in the “Stand Up 4 Public Schools” campaign.

Public and members-only websites

If the News Blog is IASB’s infant and social media is entering the adolescent years, then the Association website serves as the parental guardian. Created in 1996, www.iasb.com is the digital warehouse of anything and everything that IASB is and does. From online training and policy updating services to executive searches and legal guidance, these services, access to them and information about them is available on the website.

The website content and its use have grown at a phenomenal rate over the past 20 years. The 1,835 pages of content on the site generated nearly 1.4 million “page views” in 2015 by 110,000 individual users. What began in 1996 as a primitive online bulletin board is now the front door to IASB for both members and public alike.

“First and foremost, we want the website to be where members can find and access the Association services they need,” Russell explained. “But it’s also where other school officials and leaders, lawmakers, the media, parents, and prospective school board members can go to learn about school governance and school board service.”     

Because of the popularity of the Joint Annual Conference, related pages consistently garner the most views and generate the most downloaded documents. The 2015 Conference Preview, posted in mid-September as a PDF document, generated 7,170 downloads. When you add documents related to registration, housing, and workshops, conference documents account for 23.3 percent of last year’s downloads. Other pages or content areas that consistently rank high include the member directory database, school board policy, school law, executive searches, and the events calendar.

The website, which was completely redesigned in 2007, has added features periodically to offer users quicker access to time-sensitive or topic-sensitive content. In 2013, for example, the home page was used to post daily facts about IASB’s 100-year history. Ongoing or temporary campaigns such as Vision 20/20 or School Board Members Day will get front-page placement for maximum visibility.

In 2009, the Association added the Members-Only website with new interactive tools and features. The secured site is password-protected and is available to board members, superintendents, and board secretaries who have a member ID number that is contained within the IASB database. This member-exclusive content includes access to the annual conference planner and panel handouts, archives to board of director minutes, member participation data, and additional resources on topics such as community engagement, superintendent evaluation, and secretary duties.

The challenge for IASB staff is to help members navigate the growing number of links and pages. “I would call this more of an art than a science,” Russell acknowledged. “We do our best to make the site intuitive, but we are always open to feedback to help our members find and use the information they want and need.”

Evidence of that use varies among the types of IASB members. For example, board members who “frequently” use the public website (10.9 percent), say it is “easy to navigate and provides a lot of important and useful information” (24.4 percent). In comparison, superintendents who frequently use it (15.0 percent) agreed by a higher margin (48.1 percent). The same is true for “occasional” users. That comprises 51.9 percent of board members, of which 24.4 percent say the website is easy and useful; and 61.3 percent of superintendents; of which 48.1 percent believe the Association website is easy and useful.

This data comes from the latest survey (2013) of IASB board members and superintendents.

Targeted e-mail delivery

One additional online tool that is not connected to or accessed by websites has become a cornerstone of the Association’s information delivery network. Since 2010, IASB has utilized Constant Contact email software to build an archive of 16,623 contacts for targeted emails.

Targeted emails allow IASB to communicate with categories and sub-categories of larger audiences. With 92 percent of online adults using email regularly (PEW Research Internet Project), it is by far the most active digital communication tool at IASB’s disposal.

In 2015, the Association sent 664,421 emails through 344 different group mailings. These groups included all school board members, board members within specific divisions, or even those from a specific district. Other groups included superintendents, secretaries, executive search clients and prospects, media outlets, educational administration professors, ROEs, and many other education leaders. Information sent by IASB includes event invitations, training opportunities, policy notification updates, superintendent and other administrative position vacancies, and a number of products and services that are available to members.

Targeted email does work, provided that the Association has valid email addresses to work from. IASB emails were opened on average 31 percent of the time, with 15 percent of viewers actively clicking a link contained within the correspondence. While these numbers may seem low, in fact they are well above the industry average open rate of 23.8 percent and 8 percent click-through rate.

The Association also utilizes two other services that users can “opt-in” to receive email notifications. “Online Update” emails highlight new items, publications, legislative reports, recent court decisions, and other material recently added to the public website. The News Blog also has a self-selected email sign-up to receive a daily message highlighting new content on the blog.   

IASB’s digital communications tools are intended to be use cohesively, across the various platforms, to accommodate different audiences at different times. Not everyone will use every method, but Russell said the goal is to reach everyone by the means they choose or rely on. That includes direct mail of print publications and notices, including this magazine.

“The diversity of this large state and our membership means that we cannot abandon or forsake old technology for new,” he said. “We must keep up, but we can’t let or keep out those who can’t. That requires a balance of resources that will continue for the foreseeable future.”