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Spreading the word: tapping social media channels boosts a nonprofit's visibility and connects students to co-op education opportunities.

The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) is a nonprofit association of 79 universities and colleges that aims to foster and advance postsecondary co-operative education. Co-op is an international model bridging students' academic knowledge and intended careers through paid work semesters in the field. Students graduate with a year or more of work experience, a sharper career focus and contacts that often lead to full-time employment. Currently, more than 80,000 students are building their careers through co-op programs across Canada.

CAFCE members are staff at universities, colleges and institutes, and were the primary audience of this campaign. To raise awareness of co-operative education and create new co-op opportunities for students, CAFCE has staged an annual National Co-op Week since 1988. Yet the initiative has struggled, and by 2011, the committee overseeing Co-op Week consisted of just two active volunteers from the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. CAFCE lacked historical information demonstrating the success of the initiative across the country; without that data, staff at many institutions were unaware of the program's benefits. Without a coordinated communication campaign to encourage member participation, CAFCE risked losing the spark from National Co-op Week's early years.

Traditional methods had done little to engage the CAFCE membership during Co-op Week, so, for 2012, the association aimed to engage co-op members collectively using social media. The objective of the campaign was to get CAFCE members volunteering, and Co-op Week was an opportunity to encourage an online dialogue among different university communities, allowing members to share ideas and feel good about their work as they saw students' success stories. Since CAFCEs member institutions consist of a diverse stakeholder base, raising national awareness with such small volunteer numbers proved challenging. The opportunity lay in engaging co-op students to share their own narratives. The idea was that if co-op students shared their favorite stories on social media channels they're already using while "@naming" and mentioning their co-op employers and schools, CAFCE could achieve a measurable level of outreach toward the collective network of co-op students, employers and staff. The goal was to increase the number of co-op jobs available to students by raising awareness of the co-op model.

To remedy the lack of member engagement, CAFCE needed a solution that was exciting, chat was easily adaptable across regions, that required a minimal time commitment and that honored the staff's achievements. Since CAFCE had no social media presence, accounts were created on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to ensure maximum participation, and social interactivity was encouraged via a challenge-per-day contest for students across the country. Each day during Co-op Week, co-op students were encouraged to share a story about their experience, answer a trivia question related to co-operative education or tweet a photo of themselves holding an "I [love] Co-op" sign at their school.

The volunteer team then selected winners at random. Prizes included two CDN$250 gift cards to Future Shop, a national electronics retailer, as well as smaller prizes from each institution for their own student winners. The higher the student participation during the weeklong event, the greater the impact the social campaign would have.

The two-year member engagement plan was divided into three steps:

1. January-March 2012: Recruit member institutions to offer the social media contest and establish CAFCE-approved benchmarks for member engagement.

2. Post-Co-op Week, April 2012-February 2013: Consult with stakeholders, communicate the successes of the contest to membership and seek feedback on members' Co-op Week experiences.

3. January-March 2013: Measure member engagement over the previous year.

The 2012 National Co-op Week campaign was a success, exceeding all communication objectives:

* The campaign went from two active volunteers in 2011 to nine (against a goal of five).

* The percentage of Canadian co-op directors in favor of participating in Co-op Week grew from 1 percent to 52 percent (against a goal of 15 percent).

* The campaign increased monetary sponsorship from member institutions to CDN$3,250 (against a goal of CDN$300).

* Hashtag use among CAFCE membership from 2012 leading up to the contest in 2013 increased from 65 to 175 instances (against a goal of 100).

* The percentage of members investing time to implement promotional web graphics increased from 6.5 percent to 39 percent (against a goal of 20 percent).

Dividing responsibilities among the nine CAFCE member volunteers allowed for a more coordinated approach to the campaign in 2013. There was enough time to produce a comprehensive participant guide that aimed for transparency in contest operation, and provided best practices for how members could help make the contest a success. The document was hosted online as a Google Doc, and views were tracked with a plug-in. More than 25 percent of the membership viewed the document in its first week.

Following the CAFCE National Conference outreach session in August 2012, members recognized the value of communication strategy in engaging membership and expressed interest in volunteering for the 2013 campaign. The Co-op Week chair doubled financial support for the contest in 2013, from CDNS250 to CDN$500. In its pilot year, the contest received 3,450 entries, and with more schools involved for 2013, CAFCE was poised to receive more entries in the contest's second year. Moreover, the social media contest has been adopted as an official CAFCE initiative for member and student engagement during National Co-op Week.


a winning entry

This program won a 201 3 IABC Cold Quill Award for employee engagement. For more than 40 years, IABC's Cold Quill Awards program has evaluated the work of communication professionals around the globe, recognizing the best of the best in the profession.

Adam Brayford is communications and marketing coordinator for Simon Fraser University's Work Integrated Learning unit in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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Title Annotation:case in point
Author:Brayford, Adam
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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