Cracking the Facebook Engagement Code

What do Lady Gaga, the film Donnie Darko, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and Facebook all have in common?

They are all things I REALLY don’t understand.

While I know a bit about this foursome–with the possible exception of Mrs. “Poker Face,” seriously, what’s the deal with these get ups?–my knowledge is fairly limited. Naturally, this poses a problem when it comes to Facebook in particular, since a significant part of my social media work at the Harvard Business School (HBS) depends on a deep understanding of this outlet and how to maximize its potential.

But I do want something to be clear. I’m not saying I don’t understand how to use Facebook or to be successful (at times) with it. Rather, my work with Facebook is problematic because it’s difficult to predict whether or not my outreach will meet my engagement expectations. This isn’t the case with Twitter; I can usually predict how successful I will be (see my “Rules of (Twitter) Engagement” post for more on this topic) when posing a “Question of the Week” or otherwise reaching out to alumni.

But not all my Facebook outreach has been disappointing. There have been cases, whether by accident or not, where I have been successful and in this post I will share some of these instances as well as strategies I have used.

Photos…and Then Some

It comes as no surprise that photos and Facebook go together like, as Forrest Gump would say, “Peas and Carrots”  but there are some steps you can take to make it about more than the photos. By using both email and social media (e.g., Twitter), you can increase both the number of “likes” you receive and the comments to a given photo or photos. Here’s a recent example of this “blended” approach.

Earlier this month, we hosted an alumni event at a local restaurant in Boston. The event drew around 100 alumni and featured presentations by faculty members and alumni. As with most events, we had a photographer present. The day after the event, I posted several photos on our Facebook page. Once the photos were up, I went to work.

The first thing I did was pull up my Twitter tracking sheet (see my first Social Media Matters post for more on list management); sorted it by “city” and “state”; and then, using Tweetdeck, scheduled a series of tweets to Boston-based alumni. These tweets included a very brief synopsis of the event with a link to the photo gallery, which is included below.

Blog pic 10.20

So, did this targeted outreach make a difference? While it’s difficult to say how many “likes” and “comments” resulted from my tweets, I can say with confidence that I was able to, at the very least, get alumni to view the gallery. This is evident in the number of Twitter-based clickthroughs my gallery link received–33. It’s important to note that the more followers you can send direct tweets to–for example, in New York we have identified more than 100 alumni on Twitter–the better chance you have of “leading” followers to your photos or other content on Facebook.

But Twitter was just one piece of the engagement puzzle. Once the gallery was posted, a colleague emailed the link to all alumni who had pre-registered for the event. Together, social media and email helped the event photos generate 138 likes, 14 shares, and 23 comments. These numbers are significant, especially compared to those generated by a previous photo set that, without the help Twitter and email, generated only 11 likes, and no comments or shares.

Question Your Audience

When it comes to Twitter, it’s crucial to “know” your followers. This knowledge includes, but is not limited to, understanding what your followers like–from books to movies–to what they are doing career wise. Armed with this “data,” it’s possible to engage with them around their interests, as opposed to simply broadcasting information that may or may not resonate with your followers.

Facebook, on the other hand, presents a few problems. In my experience, it’s difficult to know what your Facebook “friends” are interested in without going to their individual profile pages. But, with patience and a little experimentation, it’s possible to have substantive discussions (i.e., engagement) with your Facebook audience. One approach I’ve taken is to pose questions focused on the HBS experience, but I only came to this approach after experiencing the following failures.



Obviously, these questions did not produce the engagement I was looking for. So, to use a business term I have picked up at HBS, I decided to “pivot” and try something different. This unproven approach was to ask questions which encouraged alumni to reflect on their student experience. My thesis was based on the assumption that alumni were interested in our Facebook page because the school resonated with them on an emotional level. So, if I could encourage alumni to reflect on their time at HBS, they might be inspired to “like” the question we asked or (even better!) respond to the query I posed. Below are a few examples of this approach in action.



Here’s another one.


As you can see, I was much more successful in my Facebook outreach in the second set of examples, as opposed to the first. I not only increased my number of “likes,” but also generated more comments/responses to the question I asked. These comments also provided pockets of engagement opportunity where I could ask follow-up questions using the Facebook “reply” option.



Another example.


So, what did I learn from this process? I learned that,,,

1) Your engagement approach should be based on what your Facebook friends are interested in, and not what you find interesting. How do you find this out? See #2

2) You should ALWAYS be willing to experiment and fail BIG when using Facebook to interact with alumni. If something fails, try something similar to see if there were any extenuating circumstances that caused your engagement to “miss the mark.” If the problem was with the content itself, try something different and continue to do so until you find a Facebook strategy that works.

3) You should have a way of tracking your work on Facebook. I use a spreadsheet which includes each post and link, as well as the day and time that the post was published. This data helps me determines if a specific day or time had any impact, whether positive or negative, on my social media outreach.

Was this post helpful? Is there anything I missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Robert Bochnak manages social media for the Harvard Business School’s alumni office. He’s also the former writer and editor of GradMatters: The Blog for Tufts GSAS. 

Follow Robert on Twitter at


2 thoughts on “

  1. Thanks again for the thoughtful data driven post. What I notice is that your first questions may be: 1. too revealing; 2. require too much thought; 3. might take too long to write out. Your second set of questions are quick and top of mind. I think this speaks to the mind set of people using Facebook – they don’t want to write an “email” length reply but will more easily engage with something quick and brings a smile to their face.

    I’d love your comments on keeping the event coverage fresh – I find what is challenging with social media is that it’s easy to come up with “the way” to cover or promote a certain event. It’s easy to be successful once, but have engagement drop off if I do the same kind of event over and over. I find it’s better to find things that make me smile and share these exciting moments. Question: do your followers tire if you keep promoting events the same way?

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: Social Media Matters

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