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Why WeChat Matters for Universities

With coronavirus dominating the headlines recently and disrupting daily life for millions of people in China and beyond, there has been renewed attention to the significant role the platform WeChat plays in information sharing in China.

What is WeChat?

In short, WeChat is a social media network, messaging app, e-commerce platform, and more, all in one app. It’s become ubiquitous in daily life in China – with more than 1.1 billion active users.

WeChat logo

How do universities use WeChat?

Importantly for communicators, WeChat is also the first place many users will turn for official news and updates – before looking at an institution’s website, or checking their email.

At Duke, we have more students and alumni from China than from any other country outside of the United States. Because Chinese internet restrictions generally prevent prospective students, parents, alumni and others in China from accessing our other social media channels, we’ve been active on Weibo (another prominent Chinese social network) since 2011, and we launched our WeChat presence in 2015.

WeChat post screenshot

In addition to posting stories and updates and promoting admissions information sessions in China, we’ve successfully used WeChat groups to host live chat sessions for admitted students – most of whom aren’t able to visit campus before enrolling – who are eager to learn more about life on campus or connect with other students. And it’s an important way our Chinese alumni community stays in touch with one another and the university – there are a number of active Duke alumni chat groups in which members are sharing news and information with each other on a daily basis.

WeChat post screenshot

For our communications colleagues at Duke Kunshan University, a joint-venture university founded in 2014 in Kunshan, China, WeChat is even more critical to their work. In addition to sharing stories on the university’s public-facing profile on the platform, the university uses private WeChat groups to connect incoming students, communicate quickly with and build community among parents, and as a practical tool for the small but growing staff and faculty community to share news and updates.

In addition to its instant-messaging function, another useful component for communicators is WeChat Moments. Similar to Facebook, users can post pictures, story links and other updates to their feed for all (or selected) connections to view, “like” and forward, potentially boosting the reach of their content.

If you’re curious about how you might use WeChat to support your connections to Chinese students, parents or alumni, I’d encourage you to talk with your students and alumni who are active on WeChat to learn how they use it. You can dip a toe in the water by following some brands (many American and international brands are quite active there) and universities to get a sense for how they are using the platform. And don’t hesitate to reach out to our team ( with questions about this work.

Follow Duke University

Duke University QR code link to WeChat

Follow Duke Kunshan

Duke Kunshan University QR code to follow on WeChat

How to Get Your Social Media Strategy From Zero to Running in One Month or Less

I had the opportunity in November to make a trip to China to consult with my colleagues at Duke Kunshan University. The university itself is in its infancy– only a few years old– and so the communications strategy is ramping up, too. The team at DKU is smart and lively and they work reallyhard, but they needed a little help adjusting course on their social media and coming up with some processes to make everything more efficient.

Just look at these adorable colleagues from Duke Kunshan University!

Here at Duke I stepped into a well-oiled machine set up by my predecessor, so it was a new challenge for me to create a well-oiled machine. The experience gave me a lot of helpful knowledge and tools to use in consulting with people who want to get their social media set up in the future.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer you some of my lessons learned:

1. Start by cleaning up.

You probably already have some social media floating around that someone, at some point, started with good intentions. Begin your process by gathering and evaluating everything you have.

  • Make sure you can log in to everything. If you can’t, you may have to do some sleuthing and support calls.
  • Store your passwords somewhere secure, where multiple people can access them. (Duke recommends LastPass for this.)
  • Facebook is different! For Facebook, you shouldn’t be using shared login credentials. You should make sure that your personal profile is added as an admin on the page, and that any other people who need access are also added. Don’t use a fake account for this! (Facebook will shut it down if it finds it.)
  • Make sure you have business accounts (rather than personal accounts) where appropriate, like on Instagram and YouTube.

This whole process could take a while. I spent most of my first week hunting things down, writing things down, setting up systems to keep track of everything, and making sure the right people had access to everything and were trained on how to get passwords and log in.

Colleagues Janet and Snow White get a lesson from Yangyang on the new camera.

2. Create a strategy!

You can do this in a less formal way, but I eventually created a social media strategy document template to use.

3. Get into the nitty-gritty.

Once you’ve got a strategy in place, you’re going to want to think about your step-by-step process and schedule, and maybe a weekly checklist so that you know what should be happening on all of your channels every week. You’ll want to cover:

  • Posting frequency and type (video, image, link, etc.)
  • Password access and other ways to get account access
  • How-tos for scheduling content (Think about using some kind of scheduler like HootSuite or Buffer to help with this.)

If it helps, write all of it down! This is less important if you’re a one-person operation, but very helpful if you have a team of people working on social media or helping out, or you’d like to have documentation for future hires.

Before I left, the team took me out for hot-pot! It was delicious. (And hot!)

4. Don’t forget your other communications!

It’s really important to remember that social media is just one part of your communications strategy, and a lot of what you use can be stuff that you are re-using or sharing from your colleagues. The easiest way to keep track of what everyone else is doing is to have an editorial calendar that everyone looks at and contributes to.

I’ve set up both our Duke communications team and the communications team at DKU on Trello. I find it pretty simple and intuitive to use.

Hope that helps you out if you’re struggling to get your social media headed in the right direction! Start small and just keep plugging away, and always feel free to contact me if you need some more help.

Working with Students

If you were to ask me what the most rewarding part of my job is, one of my top 3 answers would easily be getting to work with students. It’s also one of the most common questions my colleagues and I are asked about our social strategy at conferences–“How do we use our students’ voices so strategically?” During my three years at Duke, I’ve been ridiculously fortunate to work with and get to know some pretty exceptional students.

Can they be a handful at times? Does it take a lot of time and effort to manage our student team? Is it an absolute NIGHTMARE wrangling student schedules to nail down a meeting time for the semester? Absolutely. But allow me to make the case for working with students–plenty of them, and often.

While working with student teams can be a bit like herding a bunch of overachieving and hilarious kittens at times, they also have some of the best ideas when it comes to content or how to reach their peers. Their opinions on how we market to prospective and current students are invaluable. Plus, they advise us on what platforms their peers are using, how to speak to them in an authentic way, and when and where to reach them. Essentially, they keep us cool and up to speed on what The Kids are doing. So working with them is a mix of:

But also,

At Duke, our @DukeStudents handles are absolutely flourishing and it is 100% due to the efforts of the students who have total ownership over each platform. They’re currently on Instagram (by far their strongest presence), Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  There are the formal Duke University institutional accounts that I manage and the more informal, student-voiced @DukeStudents channels that allow current students to interact with one another as well as prospective students. We keep these DukeStudents and Duke University branded social accounts completely separate. Our student team is composed of 8 editors–one for each platform and a managing editor who acts as team leader and analytics expert.

While we certainly give them guidelines on things to avoid and advise them in certain situations, the students have ownership of their channels and the content they post there. We’ve found that properly training and then empowering them to own their channels is a great way to foster the dedication and level of professionalism and enthusiasm needed to see their audiences grow. Ownership = Attachment = Dedication.


We even take this one step further when it comes time to replace our graduating seniors. — MOMENT OF SILENCE–

We task each editor with identifying stars from a larger pool of their peers in a volunteer capacity to be promoted to the paid editor positions. The team is structured with 8 paid student editors who mentor a larger pool of mostly-first-year student volunteers (usually around 20). These student volunteers help to curate and create content for the DukeStudents channels and as our platform editors graduate, they select their successors largely from this broader volunteer pool. Our editors get experience with managing and mentoring a team and our student volunteers get to feel like they are a part of a structured effort on behalf of their university with opportunities to play a significant future role in the DukeStudents social presence.

P.S. Paying them helps too. Managing an institutional social channel is a job and should be treated as such.

We also offer them other perks, like exclusivity on information that will be relevant to the broader student body. For example, one of our student editors was actually featured in our top secret project with Apple earlier this year. We tapped him because we had the working relationship from his time on the @DukeStudents team. We also let the broader team of editors know what was coming about 20 minutes before the video formally dropped. Additionally, we tap them for special projects related to recruitment and yield.  We want them to feel important and valued as a member of the communications team for their university.

We also want to help our students build up their professional skills and resumes. We get them access to our colleagues who may be experts in areas that they are interested in pursuing or who can teach them particular skills that they want to learn. We make sure to give their creativity and work a large platform. For example, this past fall one of our student interns produced a beautiful video to welcome Duke 2022 to the incoming class when decisions were announced.


Join the Blue, #Duke2022!!! 🔵😈🎉🎊

A post shared by Duke University (@dukeuniversity) on

She created, filmed, produced and edited this project from start to finish. We amplified on our channels, but she now has a solid piece of work to add to her portfolio.

Did I also mention they’re just fun to hang out with? So there’s our approach to working with students. It’s not for everyone but I highly encourage you to make the effort to find a few good ones and see what sort of magic you can make together!

Bringing Duke’s excitement to admitted Chinese students via WeChat

While our team has had strong success partnering with our admissions colleagues to host live YouTube chats connecting newly admitted students with current Duke students, those chats are generally not accessible to the significant number of students coming to Duke each year from China, where YouTube is blocked.

Our solution to this is to use WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging and social networking application, to connect our current students to admitted students from China for real-time conversations.

Regular decision results for admission to Duke were released on March 29, and on April 1 we hosted our live session with the admitted students.  A team of current students from China gathered at 8:00 a.m.  Durham time to share their Duke experiences and answer the admitted students’ questions about Duke.

The response and participation from admitted students was incredible: about 90 percent of the admitted students joined the chat group. Our student hosts had to shut the conversation down after about 70 minutes of questions and conversation across a range of topics, such as finding your “group” on campus, FOCUS, DukeEngage and other programs, when and how to choose a major, taking classes outside of your intended major, selective living groups, how to get basketball tickets, what the party scene is like on campus, and on and on.

Duke’s Graduate School also hosts a similar chat session for its admitted students from China each year, working in partnership with graduate student hosts from China.

So now you know. If your institution is also home to a large population of Chinese students, it may be worth investing some time to tailor your efforts to connect with them around critical points in the admissions process.

Admitted Chinese Graduate Students Get Answers via Sina Weibo

By Laura Brinn
Their questions were typical of incoming graduate students: What are the best housing options on- and off-campus? Are tuition payment plans available? How successful have graduates been in pursuing careers in New York and Washington D.C.? And of course, are graduate students able to get tickets to Duke basketball games?

What made the group of admitted graduate students posing the questions different is that they were using Weibo, a popular Chinese social media channel, to connect with current graduate students and Duke staff in real time to learn more about graduate school and campus life at Duke.

The session Tuesday morning was hosted by the Graduate School’s Admissions Office, in collaboration with Duke’s International House and Public Affairs and Government Relations team, the Career Center and the Duke Chinese Student and Scholars Association.

Nearly 40 percent of the Chinese applicants who have received admissions offers from the Graduate School signed on to join the one-hour chat session, during which seven students and five staff members scrambled to keep up with the constant influx of questions and comments. While some of the participants have already accepted their offers of admission to Duke, others are still weighing their decisions, and finances, housing and career prospects are among the many factors they must consider.

Representatives from the Pratt School of Engineering’s graduate programs, as well as the computer science department, also attended the session to provide specific answers to questions about their programs, which attract large numbers of applicants from China.

“This is a great way for us to answer common questions in real-time, in a conversation-like forum,” said Liz Hutton, associate dean for graduate admissions. “The Graduate School has experienced tremendous growth in applications from Chinese students in recent years, and connecting like this helps us overcome time-zone and connection challenges and provide instant access to current students, program staff and experts on campus life.”

This is the second year the Graduate School has used Weibo to connect with admitted students. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions will host a chat session for admitted students from China this Friday on RenRen, another Chinese social media channel.

Duke maintains official university accounts on three Chinese social media channels: Weibo, RenRen and Youku. If you are interested in using these channels to connect with prospective students or other groups in China, contact Laura Brinn, executive director of global communications, or Cara Rousseau, social media manager.

This post originally appeared on Duke’s global website.

Duke’s 2013 Social Media Roundup

For our most recent Duke Communicators event, I organized a fun tour of what’s happening across our community in social media.

At our 2013 Social Media Roundup, my colleagues described how they are using social media to promote bloggers, share photos, reach new international audiences and much more. Each person spoke for five minutes, in a format similar to an Ignite session. Hopefully the Duke Communicators group walked away with lots of new ideas to try, as well as with information about colleagues to call for inspiration and advice.

Our presenters were:

Laura Brinn, Global Communications

Debbe Geiger, Duke University Medical Center

Wendy Livingston and J. Caldwell, Nasher Museum of Art

Orla Swift, Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Aaron Welborn, Duke Libraries

Ashley Wolf, Duke Athletics

(Tawnee Milko with the Nicholas School of the Environment was unable to make the presentation and her slides are at the end of the slide deck.)

You can view our entire slide deck from the event here.

What would you like to see at our next Social Media Roundup?

Duke is Chatting in Chinese on Sina Weibo

A few Duke graduate students made the world a smaller place today by using Chinese social media tools to connect with prospective students.

Five students from the Pratt School of Engineering Masters of Engineering Management program led a group chat this morning on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Duke University maintains a public Sina Weibo page where we post content from the university for audiences in China, where access to Facebook and Twitter is generally restricted.


Students and staff lead the group chat on Sina Weibo


Nearly  150 participants joined the group chat, posing more than 80 questions in an hour. Questions and comments focused mainly on the application process and the career opportunities for students who graduate from the program. Our discussion was very rich throughout the chat, as shown in the screenshot of the chat below.

Duke’s presence on Sina Weibo is part of a Chinese social media strategy developed by Laura Brinn, Duke’s director of global communications, and managed in partnership with the social media team I lead.  We partnered with Bridget Fletcher, Susan Brown and Erin Degerman of Pratt’s admissions and student services office in order to create this chat supporting their admissions priorities.

Duke also has a presence on Renren, a social network similar to Facebook that is popular with high school and college students. We have several Chinese student interns on our team who help manage and post content to these accounts.

What are you doing to connect online with your Chinese audiences here at Duke or elsewhere?