When it comes to the Ivy League, reputation is important. But schools can no longer depend on their historical reputation. When it comes to attracting talent, they need to prove digital competence. For Harvard Business School, social media has come to the rescue over the past few years. 

This week at the Social Integration conference in New York, HBS CMO Brian Kenny showed how his team helped bring the school into the present with social media. The hardest part? Giving up control of the Harvard Business School brand.

For many brands it may be hard to empathize with Kenny’s predicament – most would kill to have the name recognition of
Harvard Business School. But for a school trying to recruit future
executives online, its staid image was something of a problem. One
sample candidate asked to describe the brand sad that HBS brought to
mind “mahogany and taxidermy.” Doh.

Kenny wanted to change that and found a lot of help with social media. For starters, the school already had plenty of resources to work with — namely a store of high quality content. Accomplished and prolific professors had already adapted to blogging. And now there is a place to find their findings easily: Harvard’s Stay Connected page.

Meanwhile, Harvard classrooms are wired, camera ready and digitally connected. As Kenny puts it: “We video tape everything.” But that content didn’t have a home for a long time and was difficult to find. Thanks to YouTube, the school now has two channels devoted to original videos that serve as recruitment channels, publicity arms and teaching guides.

Also, a variety of Twitter feeds now send out news, information and reminders that have created a dialogue with prospective students, current students and the faculty. And now the voluminous content coming from HBS classrooms has a home.

Asked if Harvard will ever create its own site specific content, Kenny said no: “Technology is not social. People are.”

That’s why all of HBS’ digital efforts exist on sites that have preexisting communities, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. HBS wants to go where people already are, and will continue to do so.

Kenny says that social media is not just another marketing and communications channel. And as a thing unto itself it also has its own rules. HBS’ CMO says that the hardest — and most important — thing about updating the brand has been relinquishing control of it.

Kenny prefers dialogue over complete command of the brand. And actively letting students participate in a dialogue means that sometimes HBS Twitter feeds pick up tweets from HBS students that have innappropriate content, or deal with like students who get arrested while dressed in drag at an annual HBS rager.

But the payout has been worth it. 70% of students find details about Harvard Business School through online channels. According to Kenny:

“Social media has helped us show we are innovative, and we have a little bit of an edge.”