The Our House Project: A Social Media Experiment

By Amy Barnes, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, sitting in the state’s capital city and largest population center, brands itself as a metropolitan university, a label that is as much about philosophy as location. It is a philosophy that embraces community enhancement through public service and service learning and one that faculty in all disciplines are urged to bring to the classroom.

The UALR School of Mass Communication has incorporated service learning throughout its curriculum, partnering with nonprofits and community agencies throughout metro Little Rock to provide services for the organizations and “real-world” experience for students. Our House Shelter, which provides shelter, food, job training, child care and education to the working homeless in Central Arkansas, has been a repeat partner with the school, and it was from that previous contact that the idea surfaced for the Our House Social Media Experiment, a journey of discovery and learning in the world of social media.

It only takes minimal contact with the public relations profession to witness the social media explosion in strategic communications. This is not surprising since recent findings, such as those reported by PRSA and I Pressroom in the 2009 Digital Readiness Report: Essential Online Public Relations and Marketing Skills, show that public relations owns the responsibility for web strategy relative to blogging, podcasting or RSS, social search and social networking with PR prevailing “in comparison to marketing, IT, HR and Executive Management.”

Increasing the incentive to focus on social media in this class was the UALR School of Mass Communication’s converged curriculum. That meant that at least a third of the class would be journalism majors and, as proclaimed in a recent article (, the position of social media director is one of the “hottest” jobs in journalism.

Given this climate, the university’s mission, Our House’s needs and the need for increased learning on the power of social media, I gave our PR Writing class in the Fall of 2009 a challenge and class project.

Our House has daily needs for large quantities of products that most of us simply run to Walmart to buy as needed: toothbrushes, child “sippy” cups, laundry detergent, inexpensive clothing items (underwear or slippers) – the list is long. What if these needs could be communicated through social networking? Would there be an appreciable response? Rather than asking them to give $50, $100 or $1,000, we were asking donors to purchase something they could pick up on routine trips to the grocery or discount retail store – a seemingly manageable task during a rough economic year.

I divided the class into three teams – a Twitter team, a Facebook team, and initially a LinkedIn team. Each team had a captain in charge of keeping the team organized, creating a schedule of duties that included analyzing weekly monitoring data, creating a plan to persuade “friends” and “followers” to join the campaign, and reporting to me and Our House representatives at least twice weekly.

The LinkedIn team made the first discovery, and consequently the first recommendation. Having registered with the site (when this project began, the students were familiar with Facebook only), the team determined that LinkedIn was being used more as a resume’-sharing and professional development site – perhaps not the best environment to solicit donations. Instead, she and her team suggested establishing a blog to serve as a repository for the detailed information about the project that a Facebook update or Tweet couldn’t deliver. Better yet, they argued, a blog would be perfect for generating discussion about the project and its purpose, further extending the project’s communication channels.

In the end, we settled on Twitter, Facebook and the WorkingHomeless blog. To make sure each student had a chance to experience the discovery going on with each social media outlet, we switched the teams to a different platform at five and ten weeks into the semester. The Twitter team would tweet that week’s need at least three times a day, weekends included. The Facebook team also “updated” at least three times a day. Both would spend some of their tweet or update helping to drive potential donors to the blog for more information about drop-off locations, fact sheets, videos, Powerpoints and news from and about Our House. Each team worked with the others to ensure messages were consistent, but not redundant and they were all essentially speaking with “One Voice.”

The response from the beginning was enthusiastic. The Facebook and Twitter sites had more than 200 fans and followers – eventually moving to more than 300 Twitter followers and 500 fans before the semester ended. Because of some glitches with, we were never really sure about how many people actually registered for the site, but more than 200 people visited during the first weeks, and as the semester continued, more than 50% of the weekly visitors to the site were new. Each person spent almost four minutes on the site (3:42) – almost a lifetime given that the average time on most web sites is :55 (Nielsen Online September 2009). The local ABC affiliate generated stories as did the only statewide newspaper in its weekly pop-culture publication and the UALR student newspaper, the Forum. The team captains and I also were honored at a monthly meeting of the Little Rock Tweetup – a group of public relations and communications professionals exploring the social media landscape.

Donations also were encouraging. Not only did donors respond to weekly needs, several individuals and businesses responded with unsolicited offers – T-shirts, formula, diapers and cosmetics. One “tweeter” formed a team to take advantage of a underwear sale and gathered enough money to buy 100 pair of underwear. A mother asked friends through Facebook and Twitter to buy Our House products instead of presents for her birthday. A local bakery gave $50 to Our House each time a customer said “Project Our House” and told the class it would get a surprise if 100 people responded. We got our surprise – a basketful of baked goods – when more than 150 responded.

As generous as the donors were, it was the students’ enthusiasm for the project and what they were learning that produced infinite benefits. At times, they were disappointed at a slow, almost imperceptible weekly response to their updates. Their spirits picked up, however, when, after consulting articles and a local public relations professional, they discovered that they were in an apple-to-oranges environment; that they were asking for someone to move from a digital to a physical environment by placing items in a drop-off boxes, so they placed links on their Facebook and blog pages to Target, Walmart and K-Mart gift cards. Donations increased again. Instead of dreading the releases, fact sheets and features that are assignments in a public relations writing course, they attacked the assignment enthusiastically. And that enthusiasm did not end with the semester. The team captains and several of their teammates continued to post updates and tweets months after class ended. The best indicator perhaps came in a student’s own words submitted in a final project report. “Using social media to increase awareness is certainly not new. But using social media to solicit donations in Arkansas is not only new, but innovative.”

The fall public relations class will tackle a similar project and attempt to answer some of the questions still lingering after the initial Our House project. We learned from this project that social media can certainly raise awareness – our examination of analytical and monitoring programs proved that. But can social media also generate action? It’s a question we’ll address in the fall.

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