Jessica McCaughey, The George Washington University
One student follows planetariums on Facebook. Another is an expert on the Twitter account of Donald Trump. A young man follows three feminist writers, and the woman next to him dissects the Twitter jokes of stand-up comics. While they may be first-year students as they walk into my class on day one, they immediately transform into social media marketing experts. They are tasked with something they inevitably already spend their time doing—browsing social media—but changing the lens through which they do it. In this new role, students analyze and critique the social media of a related group of individuals or organizations in weekly blog posts. The assignment challenges students to use digital tools and spaces both for composing and as objects of study as they explore the rhetoric of branding, fundraising, advocacy, outreach, and marketing as it takes place on social media. The concept of applying scholarly texts, ideas, and frameworks to these people and organizations is often startling to my students at first, and yet, a few weeks in, their analyses of the arguments being made in this digital realm are inevitably complex and remarkable—scholarly, even—and their hesitations are replaced with genuine interest in the overlap between the academic and the personal.
Level of Difficulty
Beginner to advanced
There is a significant amount of writing involved in this assignment, as students write a 750-1,000-word blog post each week.
Social Media, Blogging Platform
Students complete their work individually, so the project can work with any size group.
Level of Preparation
Most incoming college students have, of course, substantial experience with social media, although most report that coming to these platforms with a critical eye and an intention to explore purpose and audience does require a period of adjustment. For instructors, the level of preparation is minimal, and includes lesson planning for the early class sessions mentioned above and writing/adapting the prompt to target the skills and strategies they most want students to focus on.
In their new role, students examine and analyze alphabetic-text posts as well as visual and multi-modal outreach from various organizations, and they begin with a list of questions: What kinds of arguments are being made in this new realm? Who is doing the asking or the selling, and who are they trying to reach? What is their overarching purpose, and what rhetorical appeals and tools are being used to meet these goals? Why is this an effective or ineffective communication in this particular context? What is complicated or enhanced in these digital, social spaces? These questions apply, of course, whether we’re looking at a Tweet from an environmental advocacy group or a flash sale advertised on Instagram from a trendy boutique in our city.
Students are also asked to hone in, early in the semester, on their specific industry or area of specialty. For some this might be straightforward—the airline industry or fashion—and for others this might be more broad or conceptual, such as humanitarian organizations or the literary world. Weekly, students blog in “consultant” mode about the industry and specific organizations or individuals they’re been tracking on social media—three art museums, for instance, or three record labels, or (yes, often) three Kardashians. Through the project, students not only work to consider how multi-modal arguments are made and effectively function (or don’t) in the context of varying rhetorical situations, but they also find themselves situated in an unexpected rhetorical situation for a first-year writing class themselves; their blog audience is professional social media experts and/or those working in other capacities in the industry they have chosen to focus on.
I describe the blog to students this way:
In this new role, each of you will choose a related group of three individuals, companies, or organizations that are active in social media and track, analyze, and critique their marketing or promotion efforts over the course of the semester. For instance, you might choose to examine a group of cosmetic companies or a chain of coffee shops. Those interested in policy and politics might follow individual politicians or lobbying groups. You could follow churches or food brands; or you could track celebrities working to create and maintain a brand or authors promoting new books, or perhaps sports teams or airlines, venture capital firms or yoga studios. Analyses and comparisons of these campaigns, along with related posts, will be posted on your individual blog.
In choosing, you should consider the following qualifications: The organizations/causes/people you choose to follow must have an active (though not necessarily effective!) social media presence. This means that you must demonstrate that each of campaigns you’re tracking uses social media (FB or Twitter, for example, or they have YouTube channel, or they utilize Pinterest) at least twice weekly. Further, you should consider variety in your choices. While the organizations you track must be related, they should be diverse within an industry, as we are going to be comparing and contrasting. For instance, following Coke, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew (three huge brands with similar budgets, with very similar target buyers) would likely not yield analysis that furthers the larger dialogue. However, an examination of Pepsi alongside of World Classics (a European soda company), and a small, regional organic soda producer would likely have more at stake and allow you to explore with more nuance.
As experts in the rhetoric of selling with social media, you will use your blog to respond to the ideas of other experts in the field and analyze academic articles. You will also occasionally address the rhetoric of campaigns outside of their chosen industry. Posts will address a variety of topics (and varying degrees of “meta-ness”). Further, each Friday, you’ll post a Weekly Round-Up, in which you’ll produce a brief comparison/contrast post of the three social media campaigns you’re following.
Then, weekly, students are tasked with either a “Weekly Round-Up” post, mentioned above, or a variation on examining their chosen organizations or individuals. Below is a sampling of these brief prompts:
Weekly Round-Up—Write a comparison/contrast post of the three social media campaigns you’re following. What did each organization (or individual, etc.) do on social media this week? What was especially interesting (or not)? What venues did they employ? What rhetorical appeals did they rely upon? You should provide analysis for at least one specific example from each individual or organization, and you should include images and/or screen shots when you are analyzing visuals. Was there a stand out among the three for best (or worst) this week? What makes you say so?
Social Media in Your Chosen Industry—For today’s post, write a general overview of why social media is important in your chosen field or industry and with the organization you’re writing your proposal for, particularly. You might frame this as an answer to the question: What can they do on social media that they couldn’t achieve through traditional media? Although the post should be short (around 500 words), you should utilize at least three outside sources in your rationale. These sources can be popular, as long as they are credible, or scholarly.
Closer Look Post—Choose a social media post (a FB update or link, a Tweet, a “pin,” etc.) from your “least effective” organization. Describe it and, being as specific as possible, consider whether or not it is effective.You might consider the following questions to get your mind moving in the right direction: What is the purpose of this social media campaign? What surprises, perplexes, or interests me about this post? Is it more image driven or word driven? What clues here hint at its intended audience and the advertiser’s assumptions about that audience? Does the ad contain a logo or slogan? If so, in what way does it contribute to the ad? What kinds of emotional appeals are used in an attempt to persuade the consumer? Is it ultimately effective?
For the first month to six weeks of the semester, students receive peer reviews on their posts and have the opportunity to revise them.
The project ultimately helps students make big leaps in not only analyzing and evaluating both text-based and multi-modal arguments, but also in their sentence-level writing, as they produce and receive peer commentary on this public writing weekly in the early weeks of the semester. The blogs are inevitably impressive both in their complexity analytic insight, but even more so, in their professionalism. I frame the project as allowing students to become experts in their chosen field or industry, and they fully rise to this challenge.
Further, this project is infinitely adaptable. In a first-year writing class like mine, this assignment would likely target on the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals. (For instance, what was this brand arguing in this post? To whom? Using what persuasive techniques or visual arguments?) If your class focuses on professional writing, situating students as “consultants” can foster rich discussions about professional personas, public writing, and the actual rhetoric of social media marketing. In a digital storytelling or new media course, this blog project might lead students to develop multi-media content “for” the organizations they’re following, perhaps in the form of a compelling fundraising video for a non-profit or a podcast. Finally, if a long-term project like a blog isn’t feasible for your class, this project could also be transformed into a one-time writing or speaking assignment or a more substantial proposal project in which students consider ways to improve an organization’s social media presence.
I point students to actual social media consulting blogs each semester as a glimpse into the variations on “real-world” versions of this genre actually look like. Additionally, the Frontline documentary Generation Like serves as a useful point of discussion early in the process.