Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success

Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success


  • Emily S. Kinsky, West Texas A&M University
  • Karen Freberg, University of Louisville
  • Carolyn Kim, Biola University
  • Matt Kushin, Shepherd University
  • William Ward, Syracuse University

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Public relations educators are challenged with developing practical approaches to teaching social media. This study explores the use of Hootsuite University, a social media education and certification program that has reached more than 20,000 students. The impact of the training is examined through three angles. First, the study explores the value to students who participate in Hootsuite University within a classroom setting. Researchers at five universities used a pre-/post-test survey with students in their social-media-related courses in the spring, summer and fall semesters of 2014 and conducted in-depth interviews with former students who had completed Hootsuite Certification. Second, through in-depth interviews with employers who hire for digital positions, the study highlights the impact of Hootsuite University training on professionals who hire recent graduates. Finally, the study examines the partnership between professors and the Hootsuite organization. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with Hootsuite staff and analyzed the results of Hootsuiteís annual professor survey conducted in fall 2014.

Keywords: Social media education; social media certification; Hootsuite University

Kinsky, E. S., Freberg, K., Kim, C., Kushin, M., & Ward, W. (2016). Hootsuite University: Equipping Academics and Future PR Professionals for Social Media Success, Journal of Public Relations Education 2(1), 1-18.

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Menu: Abstract | PDF | Introduction | Literature Review | Method | Results | Discussion & Conclusions | References


Professional organizations grapple with maintaining strong social media engagement, adjusting to changing social platforms, and continually training and preparing employees for social media crisis and engagement (Brown, 2014). In today’s social environment, organizations experience real-time consequences for their employees’ actions. These consequences carry strong implications for the public relations efforts of these organizations. For example, Krispy Kreme received intense backlash over its “Krispy Kreme Klub” promoted via Facebook with the acronym “KKK” (Healy, 2015). On the other hand, The Salvation Army leveraged a social media viral conversation to engage communities around the issue of domestic violence (Tan, 2015). The question is no longer whether brands will need to engage in the ever-changing landscape of social media, but how to best prepare employees to monitor and manage those conversations well. The connection between social media and public relations is clear. In a study by Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis et al. (2013), 66% of their respondents said that their corporate communication/public relations department contained staff dedicated to social media. According to the 2014 Generally Accepted Practices Study (known as GAP VIII), Swerling et al. noted an increase in public relations practitioners using social media techniques above traditional media relations. The top four media techniques used by the 347 senior communicators who responded to the 2014 GAP survey were (in order): “content created to be spread by social media,” Twitter, online video production, and Facebook (Swerling et al., para. 6).

Researchers have explored how public relations practitioners have increased their use of social media (Wright & Hinson, 2014), and educators are challenged with developing practical pedagogical approaches to teaching social media in the shifting digital world (Fratti, 2013). The rapidly changing digital environment has paved the way for many academic and popular texts on the topic of successfully leveraging social media (e.g., DiStaso & Bortree, 2014; Kerpen, 2011; Shih, 2011). Yet, an important but understudied component in how brands can prepare for social media success is how university programs can equip students to enter the professional world with robust social media acumen.

To address this gap, the current study explores social media education certification programs as a tool for enhancing professional social media education in the college classroom. Specifically, we examine Hootsuite University, a social media and Hootsuite dashboard education program that has reached more than 20,000 students (K. Jung, personal communication, March 27, 2015). Our purpose is to identify the impact of Hootsuite University training on U.S. communication majors. Data related to the perceived value of the program was gathered through surveys and interviews of professionals, current and former students, and professors. Future implications and directions for social media pedagogy in public relations classes are also discussed.

Literature Review

Public Relations & Social Media

The goal of public relations is to build mutually beneficial relationships (Public Relations Society of America, n.d.). With the advent of social media, public relations practitioners have learned to use social media to effectively build relationships in the digital world. Breakenridge (2012), for example, argues that social media are tools that public relations professionals should be engaging with to enhance relationships. This is often accomplished by identifying key influencers in the social sphere and developing conversations that will then reach a larger social community (Freberg, Graham, McGaughey & Freberg, 2011). The growing focus on public relations and social media led to Smith (2010) proposing the social model of interaction, which looks at user initiation as a key facet in the relationship-building dimension of social media. In other words, public relations in the social media world rests on an understanding that conversations, activities and dialogue are driven by publics and not organizations (Macnamara, 2010). This audience-focused approach requires public relations professionals to be skilled with social media tools in order to be effective in the digital landscape.

Social Media in Universities

Due to the growing demand to utilize social media and the need to equip students to effectively engage in the digital world, the use of social media within higher education is a rapidly growing area of research. To date, various aspects of social media use in the classroom have been studied, including research focused on Facebook (e.g., McCorkindale, DiStaso, & Fussell Sisco, 2013; Pempek, Yermolayeva, & Calvert, 2009), Twitter (e.g., Anderson & Swenson, 2013; Forgie, Duff & Ross, 2013; Hosterman, 2011; Junco, Heibergert & Loken, 2010; Kassens-Noor, 2012; Rankin, 2009), and social media in the curriculum in general (e.g., Davis III, Deil-Amen, Rios-Aguilar, & Gonz·lez CanchÈ, 2012; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith & Zickuhr, 2010; Santovec, 2006; Seaman & Tinti-Kane, 2013). However, no published academic research has focused specifically on social media software certification programs, such as Hootsuite University, in the university classroom.

Student Perceptions of Social Media

With the penetration of social media into seemingly all facets of life, scholarly interest has sought to explore how college students use social media in a variety of ways (Cheung, Chiu, & Lee, 2011; Joy & Katherine, 2008; Kushin & Yamamoto, 2010). Along these lines is growing scholarly examination into the perceptions of students who use social media in higher education (Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman & Witty, 2010; So & Brush, 2008). Yet, scholarly research has not examined student perceptions regarding the professional application of social media and its role in communication careers. Meanwhile, popular publications have highlighted the growing need for students to be trained in the professional uses of social media (e.g., Brodock, 2012). Despite evidence of the growing need for students to understand professional social media standards, formal research is lacking as to how students, professors and professionals perceive social media education and its role in preparing students for success in communication careers.

Certification Programs for Public Relations Students

Just as Merriam-Webster explains, certifying someone says they have, “met the official requirements that are needed to do [a] particular type of work” (“Certified,” 2015). For many years, higher education institutions have used certifications as a component of information technology learning outcomes (Randall & Zirkle, 2005; Rob & Roy, 2013). The popularity of these certification programs may be due to the perception that such certifications will assist in employment for students (McGill & Dixon, 2007). Indeed, Rob and Roy (2013) found that current students and alumni believe that certifications will help build a better career trajectory. Some of the certifications offered regarding information technologies, in addition to Hootsuite Universityís Certificate (Hootsuite, 2015), include Codecademy (Codecademy, 2015), Google Analytics (Google, 2015); Hubspot (Hubspot, 2015); and Cision (Cision, 2015). Building on this research, the present study investigates the use of the Hootsuite University certification program in college communication classes to uncover perceptions of its value in educating students in the professional use of social media.

Hootsuite launched “Hootsuite University” in 2011 to help people understand how to use social media better for business and how to use Hootsuiteís dashboard to maintain social media feeds. According to Hootsuite (2015), that program has trained more than 50,000 people. In 2012, Hootsuite established its Higher Education Program to help educators and their students. Since Jan. 1, 2013, this program has been used by 20,600 students and been implemented into 790 classes (K. Jang, personal communication, March 27, 2015). Through the program, Hootsuite provides professors free access to tools to effectively teach social media while also empowering students with training that helps close the digital skills gap within the current workforce. This tool allows faculty a resource to incorporate into their courses, which is particularly beneficial in a public relations industry that is so rapidly changing. The fast-paced developments can be one of the tension points faculty face when tasked with effectively teaching social media in a university setting.

Social Media Professions for PR students

As previously mentioned, the rapidly growing world of social media garners attention from the professional and academic worlds. Within the PR industry, there is an increased focus on the ability of organizations to properly prepare, monitor and evaluate social media efforts (Breakenridge, 2012; Kerns, 2014; Treadaway & Smith, 2010). However, organizations are not simply looking to mechanize social interactionóthey recognize that the value of social media is two-way communication with real-time audiences (Kerns, 2014). Instead, organizations desire to customize digital conversations into compelling dialogues that engage unique audiences and industry partners (Brito, 2014; Scott, 2011; Swann, 2014). These desires directly relate to the perception hiring managers have of students entering the digital profession (Aders, 2014; Mitchell, 2015).

Recognizing the industry need for qualified professionals, the growing body of research in the academy on how to prepare students with digital expertise, and the lack of research currently available on the impact of Hootsuite University and other certification programs for public relations students, this study will explore the following research questions:
RQ1: Will students feel more confident with social media after completing Hootsuite training?
RQ2: How does Hootsuite certification impact students’ job readiness?
RQ3: Will students’ recognition of the importance of social media education increase after completing Hootsuite training?
RQ4: What aspects of Hootsuite training are the most valuable to students?
RQ5: How do communication students think social media will impact their careers?
RQ6: What type of social media education do students still feel they need after Hootsuite training?
RQ 7: What are the perceptions of Hootsuite Certification among industry professionals who make hiring decisions?
RQ 8: What thoughts do professors who have used Hootsuite University have about the program?


To address the research questions, interviews and online surveys were employed.


First, a mix of email, phone, and face-to-face interviews were conducted as was appropriate to the time or distance restraints or the stated preference of the interviewee. In the event of phone or face-to-face interviews, text-transcripts were taken during the interview. Purposive sampling was employed to identify students who had completed the Hootsuite University program and employers familiar with Hootsuite University.

In regard to student interviews, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with persons who had completed new-media-related communication classes taught by one of the researchers between 2012 and 2014. Each interviewee was 18 years or older, resided in the United States, and had completed the Hootsuite University program as part of the course curriculum. All participants were given the opportunity to opt into having their name used in the study. Those who opted out were given pseudonyms.

In total, 28 interviews were conducted with students/graduates from five universities, which will be referred to as University A, B, C, D and E: six from University A, three from University B, eight from University C, seven from University D, and four from University E.

Researchers recruited potential student interviewees directly. While 28 is a small sample when compared to the 20,600 students who have completed the program (K. Jang, personal communication, March 27, 2015), these interviews represent a variety of students from different backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, prior social media knowledge and experience, academic standings, degree majors, as well as various geographic locations across the United States.

In addition, interviews were conducted with employers who hire for digital positions, including current or former employers of students who had completed Hootsuite Certification. Employer interviewees were recruited via the researchersí prior knowledge of an employer who had hired a Hootsuite Certified student or who had expressed interest in Hootsuite University. The employers interviewed included the CEO of a small public relations firm, the managing editor of a university magazine, the president of a full-service marketing firm, the director of student affairs marketing at a university, the broadcasting director for a Junior A Tier II hockey team, and a university web communication manager. In total, six employer interviews were conducted. While there were many students to pull from, there were far fewer employers available to interview. There are a few reasons for this: only some students who have completed Hootsuite have positions that directly utilize social media; sometimes the person who hired the student is no longer with the organization; some employers were nonresponsive perhaps due to busy schedules; and some students chose not to provide employer contact information.

Semi-structured interviews were used enabling the interviewer to be flexible and ask follow-up questions to further explore interviewee responses (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). The interview protocol with students began with a broad question about how the Hootsuite University training impacted the intervieweeís life and/or work. The interviewer also asked what parts of the training program seemed most and least helpful. Lastly, the interviewer asked what suggestions the interviewee had for students taking the Hootsuite training in the future.

Using the semi-structured interview approach, interviews with employers of students who had completed Hootsuite University training adhered to the following protocol. The employer interviewees were asked how Hootsuite University training in the college classroom impacted a student who interned or worked for the employer. The interviewee was also asked what portions of the studentís Hootsuite University training seemed most helpful to the studentís employment. The interviewer then asked if, and in what way, a student candidateís certification status with Hootsuite impacts the employerís impression of the candidate.

Semi-structured interviews were also used to gather data on employers who hire for digital positions, but who have not yet hired a Hootsuite Certified student. These interviews enabled the researchers to examine the wider understanding of Hootsuite Certification among the industry. These employers were asked about their familiarity with Hootsuite University, their perceptions of the program, and how an applicantís certification might impact hiring decisions.

Applying the Glaser and Strauss (1967) constant comparison method, researchers qualitatively coded interview transcripts to allow for the emergence of themes. Due to lack of scholarly research into perceptions of the Hootsuite University program, a qualitative, grounded theory approach is appropriate for in-depth exploration of perceptions of its utility in social media education.

To analyze the interviews, two researchers independently read all student transcripts and two researchers read all employer transcripts to establish familiarity with the content and to allow themes to emerge. Second, through repeated analysis and refinement, and in consideration of the research questions, each coder individually established initial themes and evidence in the form of quotes, through an open-coding procedure (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Third, the researchers compared the completed individual analyses to identify categories and discuss category dimensions. The researchers discussed any inconsistent initial coding to reach a consensus on data coding procedures and ensure validity and reliability of category coding. From this discussion, a coding scheme was created and the researchers revisited the data to ensure consistent coding of the transcripts. Lastly, the researchers reconvened to confirm findings.


In addition, surveys with a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions were conducted with students who had completed Hootsuite University, as well as professors who had used Hootsuite University with their students. A pre-certification survey was administered in the beginning weeks of the semester to students enrolled in a new media course that was going to participate in the Hootsuite University program. Once students had completed the Hootsuite University training, a second, post-certification survey was administered. In total, 164 students responded to the pre-certification survey between Feb. 7 and Nov. 5, 2014, and 129 students responded to the post-certification survey between March 24 and Dec. 3, 2014.

To attain professors’ perceptions of Hootsuite University, the researchers also examined results from a survey performed by the Higher Education program within Hootsuite. The survey was launched online in September 2014 and targeted professors who had or were currently using Hootsuite University in their classes. The Hootsuite personnel shared the results with the researchers of this project. In total, 45 professors from varying universities responded to the survey. Text responses from both student and professor surveys were analyzed using the same constant comparison approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) as applied to the interviews described above. As a result of the analyses, the research team arrived at the following results. Descriptive statistics were performed using Qualtrics to offer additional insight into the research questions.


This research gathered feedback from students, professionals and professors regarding the use of Hootsuite University training in undergraduate communication classes. The responses and emergent themes are shared below in reference to the research questions posed.

Research Question 1: Social Media Confidence

Regarding the first research question, a comparison was made between the pre-certification survey and the post-certification survey for the question: “What is your comfort level on social media?” On the pre-certification test given to current students in a course using Hootsuite University, students self-reported an average comfort level of 3.94 (on a scale of 1 to 5). Of the 157 students who responded to that question, 38 were very comfortable, 81 were comfortable, 30 were neutral, 7 were uncomfortable and 1 was very uncomfortable prior to completing their certification. The post-certification survey showed an increased average comfort level of 4.06 (n = 124). Of the 124 participants who responded to this question on the post-test survey, 42 said they were very comfortable, 62 said they were comfortable, 12 were neutral, 1 was uncomfortable, and 7 were very uncomfortable.

From the in-depth interviews with students who earned Hootsuite Certification in previous semesters, a theme emerged that these students had a better understanding of the professional application of social media tools, concepts, and strategies. Sub-themes included better understanding of personal social media use and a feeling of empowerment.

Professional social media understanding. Alex Ptanchick, a graduate of University E and currently working with USA Todayís social media team, described her experience with Hootsuite University: “one day you’re learning about the importance of keywords and tagging and the next you are finding out how important it is to have a professional, engaging bio” (personal communication, February 9, 2015). Ptanchick said, “There’s really nothing quite like Hootsuite University in the sense that someone is actually telling you what to do, how to do it and why itís important that itís done.”

Adelyn Biendenbach, the social media coordinator for the Florida Panthers hockey team and another graduate of University E, discussed how she uses Hootsuite in her job:

I use it for social listening to see every tweet from and about our players and prospects. The season at a pro-sports team really is year-round with long hours and crazy busy days, I was able to so quickly jump into and adapt to this atmosphere because of the extensive training I already had in the Hootsuite software. (personal communication, February 2, 2015)

Rebecca from University D interns at a non-profit and a small business. She said her experience with Hootsuite University gave her the tools to demonstrate ìwhat I can do for them, how I can prove results, and how I will stay organized, ahead, and proactive. For the most part, I use [Hootsuite] to schedule messages, report metrics, and search for key wordsî (personal communication, May 4, 2015).

Personal social media understanding. Besides professional understanding of social media, students felt that Hootsuite University served as a tool for growth and development of personal social media literacy, skills, and understanding. Some of the students had not heard of Hootsuite before taking their social media class.

Nicole Gabriel from University B (personal communication, September 14, 2014) shared:

I had never heard of … “social media management” before hearing about Hootsuite. When I heard one of our assignments for the course was to become Hootsuite Certified I actually panicked. When I dove into Hootsuite and found out I could look at my Facebook wall and Twitter feed I got pretty excited.

“Clark,” a student from University D, felt that the program allowed students to explore all of the possibilities of social media and how they could use it not just for their professional career, but personal as well (personal communication, June 1, 2014). There were specific lessons within Hootsuite University that struck a chord with students. University D student “Thomas” pointed out that, “On the personal end, the sections of the program regarding etiquette and ways to use social media have left more of an impression for me” (personal communication, June 14, 2014).

Empowerment. Knowing the strategic applications and tools allowed students to feel emboldened and ahead of the game. Students felt that Hootsuite enabled them to have a positive impact on their organizationís social media presence or strategy.

Leadership. In one vein, students felt the knowledge they gained enabled them to stand out to their employers. They said the certification helped them feel confident in their ability to engender change within the organization. Emily Maher, a graduate of University E and a reporter for Hearst Television, mentioned that “[Within] the first 6-8 months I was there, they started using Hootsuite at work. Everyone else had a learning curve, so I was already ahead of the game” (personal communication, Feb. 5, 2015).

In one vein, students felt the knowledge they gained enabled them to stand out to their employers. They said the certification helped them feel confident in their ability to engender change within the organization. Emily Maher, a graduate of University E and a reporter for Hearst Television, mentioned that ì[Within] the first 6-8 months I was there, they started using Hootsuite at work. Everyone else had a learning curve, so I was already ahead of the gameî (personal communication, Feb. 5, 2015).

Gisselle Kohoyda, social media coordinator for SwimSwam and University B student, talked about how she became a leader in social media and felt empowered to help her employer:

Most people are afraid to pass off such a large portion of their company to a 23-year-old kid with an Instagram account, but after I elaborate my formal training and my experience, they are almost relieved to be passing off a piece of their business, especially to someone who actually knows what they are doing and has a very concise plan on scheduling that will benefit them (personal communication, January 27, 2015).

University B student Nicole Gabriel (personal communication, September 14, 2014) talked about how she became a social media leader within her nonprofit organization. Gabriel said, “Before I came into the picture, all . . . staff members were posting on our Facebook and Twitter page. This made for a confusing wall and newsfeed that didnít mesh well together.” Because of her training, she was able to shift social media management to Hootsuite.

Confidence. Similarly, students gained confidence in their abilities. This confidence had an impact in the studentsí outputs. For example, Laura Decorte from University C said, “It also made me more confident when working with social media platforms for my job. I understood better what helps companies increase their visibility online, and how to use hashtags and keywords to really improve engagement” (personal communication, June 18, 2014).

Robin Karber, a graduate of University A and now director of marketing for a credit union, said, “While in school, it did help me feel more comfortable and hirable, as if I was better rounding off my skill set” (personal communication, January 26, 2015).

University C student Amber Amaya said, “Practical training exercises helped me become more confident when using Hootsuite. Learning how to utilize geo-codes and geo-searches helped me tailor my clientís Twitter posts to best interact with the local audience” (personal communication, June 9, 2014).

Cassandra Acosta, also a student from University C, discussed how she was able to use Hootsuite for her work with a non-profit organization and how she has recommended the program to other non-profits. Acosta said:

I feel confident explaining what Hootsuite is and how organizations can best use the program. My Hootsuite certification also has helped me in my current job . . . because I am able to show the non-profitís director how Hootsuite would be beneficial to use in order to save time and to reach a more specific local audience (personal communication, May 19, 2014).

Rachel Snyder, also from University C, said, “After the training, I was more confident in my ability to schedule posts, and I even scheduled tweets for the month-long January term we have” (personal communication, Jan. 15, 2015).

Research Question 2: Hootsuite Certification and Job Readiness

In addition to the question of confidence levels after Hootsuite training, this research looked at certified individualsí job preparedness. Eighty-two percent of the students who responded to the post-certification survey indicated they thought the social media education they received through Hootsuite University would aid them in their job search.

Through the open coding of the in-depth interviews of Hootsuite-certified former students, several themes were found related to job readiness. In addition to improved confidence, other themes involved developing a social media skillset, understanding the professional application of social media, and the ability to find internships and jobs. For example, “Clark” said, “In the case of jobs, it does look good to have knowledge in Hootsuite. A lot [of] employers and businesses especially in marketing and public relations require applicants to have prior knowledge of all social media” (personal communication, June 1, 2104). Another student commented, “Because of our Hootsuite training in class, I have been able to explore a whole new career field as I prepare to graduate and enter the workforce” (C. Acosta, personal communication, May 19, 2014).

Laura Decorte (personal communication, June 18, 2014) said, “I am currently employed with a marketing company, and I think [Hootsuite University] provided my resume and experience with an edge because I already understood this social media aggregate and understood how to make it work.” George Lozano, graduate of University A, also talked about the value of Hootsuite Certification being on his resume: “It’s on there …. I can say, I know social media. I can keep up with trends. It prepared me to know what’s important, what they’re looking for” (personal communication, January 26, 2015). Nicole Gabriel (personal communication, September 14, 2014) said, “it looks great to employers (especially if you’re looking in the field I’m in) to be Hootsuite certified.”

Maggie Cunningham of University B, a copywriter and social media coordinator for CafePress, agreed: “Even just having the Hootsuite Certification owl emblem embedded onto my resume and LinkedIn accounts set me apart’ (personal communication, January 26, 2015).

Cunningham added, “It was a talking point in interviews, and a metaphorical gold star that really helped me stand out and show employers I was ahead of the game.” Caitlin Tye, a graduate of University A, said Hootsuite University training “makes a communication degree more marketable whether you’re selling a product or working with an organization” (personal communication, March 4, 2015).

Lori, a graduate of University E, said, “When I was hired, Hootsuite was very instrumental. . . itís the same tool we used at work to monitor our clients” accountî (personal communication, February 23, 2015). In the job interview, “Lori” said she “was able to confidently say I was Hootsuite certified.” She said, “They were pleased to know that I already had experience. It definitely earned me some brownie points.”

Research Question 3: Student Recognition of the Importance of Social Media Education

In a pre/post-certification survey, students were asked how important social media education was to them. The recognition of social media educationís importance did not increase after Hootsuite University training. Ninety percent of the participants responded that social media education was important to them in the pre-test, and 83 percent said it was important to them in the post-test.

In addition, on the post-certification survey, students were asked how likely they were to recommend Hootsuite University to a friend, which also speaks to their valuation of social media education. On a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely likely), the average response was 6.62 with a mode of 8.

From the interviews, students expressed there were many opportunities available to them to apply what they had learned from the Hootsuite University program. Joshua Dominguez, a student from University C, said the training he received from Hootsuite University helped him with his job search “particularly because it has a certificate associated with the education process that can be produced for employers. The certificate helps me show employers that I am willing to go out and learn the necessary tools and skills needed” (personal communication, April 28, 2014).

There are even opportunities for creating a new role within an organization or brand if it does not have a social media presence yet. By having the strategic understanding and applied practice of Hootsuite, students felt this was a wonderful opportunity to capitalize on. Kohoyda said, “Even further, going to a business that doesn’t have specific SM platforms and mission statements directed towards social media provides a skill that will give you the edge over your competition, the edge that says ‘You need me to work for you, I am an invaluable resource'” (personal communication, January 27, 2015).

Research Question 4: Hootsuite Training Aspects Most Valuable to Students

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very little and 10 being very much, current university students who had just completed their Hootsuite Certification were asked to rate certain aspects of Hootsuite University. The elements are listed here with their average scores: Hootsuite Certification (M = 7.29), social media course-ware (M = 6.63), Hootsuite dashboard courseware (M = 6.43), certified professionals directory (M = 5.91), and lecture series webinars (M = 5.44).

When asked on the post-certification survey what particular lessons were most helpful, students responded with a variety of opinions. Answers were open-coded to reveal themes. One of the most common topics was the Hootsuite dashboard itself. One student responded, “At first the ones that showed me how to maneuver around Hootsuite.” Students also appreciated the opportunity to learn about the differences and strengths of specific platforms, including Google+ and LinkedIn. One student said, “The lesson that I found helpful to me was the lesson that dealt with all different kinds of social media. It really showed me things about some social media tools that I had no idea of how to do.” Another student replied, “I like the videos that were specific to different social networks so it was easier to see what different content to post on each.î Another popular response was the topic of professionalism and ìthe doís and doníts of social media etiquette.” Many students also mentioned the topic of monitoring or listening. One student said the most helpful videos were those “on the importance of why we monitor and how to monitor to listen to users.”

Other areas mentioned repeatedly included “learning how to create posts and scheduling them to several platformsî and ìtracking for keywords.”

Geolocation was another repeated topic. One student explained, “The lessons on location services inside of Hootsuite . . . I think that finding what people are talking about in my area will be very useful in my future.”

Research Question 5: How Students Think Social Media Will Impact Careers

In the post-certification survey, students were asked an open-ended question about how they thought social media could impact their careers. All responses were open-coded to search for emergent themes. The overarching categories that emerged were related to how social media impact getting a job and doing a job.

Landing a job. Certain students saw social media knowledge as a key element on their resume. One participant said, “I believe social is the only way our job market is heading. Knowledge in this will increase your potential for job searches and strength in your job.” Besides the importance of social media knowledge, some students recognized that even the location for job searches has changed. One student said, “I think social media can benefit the job search because nowadays many companies/organizations are posting job information online.” In addition to knowing about social media and searching for jobs via social media, students recognized the ability to connect with others on social media.

Networking. One student said, “Social media can give you opportunities to meet new and important people.” Another student commented, “In terms of getting a job, social media can impact the way I connect with people.”

Skillset. Students pointed to social media skills as beneficial to their future careers. One explained that the current economy “creates the need for people with the skill set and knowledge in social media.” Another respondent said, “If I am well rounded, it may give me an upper hand in the hiring spectrum. The more skills you have the better!” One student said, “I definitely think that having sufficiency in all platforms would be a great idea for all people entering into the job market. It will become vital in people graduating.” Similarly, one student pointed to the benefit of that skillset: “Can give me an advantage against other people applying for the same job.”

Appearance. For some, they noted the importance of not just social media skills, but the appearance of one’s social media profiles: “I think it’s a huge deciding factor on whether or not you will get a job. Most employers look on your social media accounts before hiring.” Another student agreed: “I think that all employers look at every social media outlet that you have. So in that way, what I post can influence if I get a job or not.” Closely connected to appearance was the reference to personal branding.

Self-Branding. One student said, “It can help create ‘My brand.'” Another student replied, “If done right, social media can help share your personal brand and show future employers that you can help publicize their brand.” One participant said, “I think that social media has the power to impact your image and brand on a broader level. You can show your personality and also your professionalism on one profile or even post.” Another respondent said, “Social media can help us brand ourselves, and being educated in it can help us to be more marketable for future jobs.”

In addition to the positive possibilities in personal branding, other students pointed to the caution needed. One said, “You have to be careful what you post and how you brand yourself.” Another student agreed: “Employers will search you on various platforms. It’s important to have a good online persona.” Another participant explained, you “never know when an employer may choose to look up [your] profile on Facebook. I believe that if you present yourself well not only in person, but also in social media you are more likely to get a job.”

On the job. Many of the students noted how social media will not only help them get a job, but it will be part of those careers. One student indicated the widespread need of social media knowledge: “Social media is becoming so important for companies. Every company or brand needs a social media presence and social media teams for these companies are growing.” Another respondent discussed the uses for social media within business in general: “Social media can impact the way we gain customer perceived value, data information, and build a relationship with our customers.” Similarly, another student said, “Social media allows for customers to feel heard, valued, and listened to when used correctly with business.” One student expressed the usefulness of social media within the non-profit realm: “I hope to go into the non-profit sector, so social media (as a free and prominent resource) will be a huge part of reaching out to our audiences. We have to meet them where they already are.”

Reputation. While many students mentioned the importance of watching what they post as they get ready to search for a job, one student suggested the need for continual vigilance: “If not wise when posting, it could end your career.”

Networking. In addition to using social media to network to find a job, students mentioned networking within their jobs. One student said, “I use LinkedIn to help network with co-workers and potential clients.” Another said, I can use social media to “connect with prospective clients/connect with consumers/get information to the public/promote.” One respondent said, “It can impact [my career] by expanding contacts and networking, while promoting the non profit organization I hope to work for.”

Expected in field. Some students pointed to the expectation of social media use in public relations. One student said:

Being in the public relations field, social media will have a huge impact in my career. Social media is a great tool for directly communicating with the public to further understand their wants as well as their opinions on given subjects.

Another student said, “It is my career, honestly.”

Research Question 6: Type of Training Still Needed

The survey also asked respondents what type of social media training they thought they still needed after earning their certification. Respondents were encouraged to select all choices that applied to them. The majority selected measuring social media analytics (64%) and education on social media for business (54%). Other choices were education on specific social networks (29%) and social media etiquette and responsibility (14%). They were asked a similar question on the pre-certification survey to see what areas of social media education they thought they needed. Eighty percent of the respondents wanted education on social media for business; 61% on measuring social media analytics; 57% on specific social networks; and 47% on social media etiquette and responsibility. Most of the percentages were dramatically lower on the post-test survey, which suggests some of their educational needs were satisfied through the Hootsuite University training.

Research Question 7: Perceptions of Hootsuite Certification Among Industry Professionals

Through open coding of employer interviews, several themes emerged. First, having Hootsuite certification apparently gains students more credibility in the eyes of decision makers who are looking for social media interns/employees. Assistant Director of Brand Messaging and Content Strategy at University C, Brett McCracken, said, “A student’s certification status definitely makes me feel more confident in their skills” (personal communication, February 16, 2015). According to Kim May, president of Nobox Creative, if she saw Hootsuite Certification on a resume, “I would at least want to interview this person. I wouldn’t make the hiring decision based on it, but it would help” (personal communication, March 4, 2015).

Second, according to the professionals interviewed, Hootsuite University training provides verification that students have basic social media acumen. McCracken (personal communication, February 16, 2015) said, “It is a big plus to know that an applicant to a social media job has taken the time to develop their skills and familiarity with things like Hootsuite.” When asked about seeing Hootsuite Certification on a resume, Web Communication Manager Trey Roach said, “If it were for a social media job, I would almost expect it. If it were for a web/marketing job, it would be a huge plus” (personal communication, March 6, 2015). Denis J. Puska, director of broadcasting/media relations for a local hockey team, said, “Having an intern come in with prior experience makes a huge difference and puts us ahead of the game right away, and it takes the stress off our staff” (personal communication, March 16, 2015).

Third, the Hootsuite Certification reportedly grabs employers’ attention. May said it “would at least take my interest” (personal communication, March 4, 2015). Sandy Sponaugle, CEO of Platinum PR, said Hootsuite experience serves as a “conversation starter” in a job interview, and she discovered after hiring a Hootsuite Certified student that it “proved to be a value because it didn’t require any training on my part. I could ask them to complete the task and then walk away from it” (personal communication, Jan. 22, 2015). Sponaugle said the certification also “immediately elevated them in an interview . . . because it is something that I don’t have.”

A fourth theme that emerged from the employer interviews was how Hootsuite Certification sent the message of being willing to learn. Employers suggested that those who have Hootsuite Certification illustrate they not only have social media proficiency but that they are driven to learn more. Finally, a theme emerged that employers do not know much of what the training entails, but they are impressed by the certification. For example, Puska said, “I don’t know much about Hootsuite, but the fact that she is certified is huge” (personal communication, March 16, 2015).

Research Question 8: Perceptions from Professors

Forty-five professors who have used Hootsuite University in their classes responded to a survey launched by Hootsuite in September 2014. Thirty-seven of them were currently using Hootsuite University in class, and the other eight had used Hootsuite University the previous semester. These professors were asked how likely they were to recommend the program to other professors. On a scale of 1 to 10, the average response was 9.18, with 26 of the professors indicating a 10 (extremely likely). The survey then asked the respondents to select the best response for why they chose the score they selected. Choices included: learning opportunity for students (selected by 16 respondents), the opportunity for students to earn Hootsuite Certification (13), recognized in the industry (7), and high quality educational materials (7). The survey also asked whether providing the opportunity for Hootsuite Certification was an important factor in the faculty memberís choice to participate in Hootsuite University. Forty-one respondents said it was an important or very important factor, while three said it was neither important or unimportant, and one said it was an unimportant factor.

Discussion & Conclusion

Several lessons can be taken away from this study of social media education. Overall, students felt that having a social media education program as part of class was important. While understanding the technical tools and tactics was essential, students also recognized the management-level opportunities that come with having this type of knowledge.

One particular result from the student surveys was surprising. Some students were more confident prior to certification than afterward. This response suggested Hootsuite University was a humbling experience for them as digital natives. In essence, students were facing somewhat of a “social media paradox” – students are considered to be digital natives, but they were perhaps uncomfortable in the realization of how much they did not know.

While some students felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable, others felt the training they received from Hootsuite University not only empowered them, but gave them the confidence needed to become a leader within their organization. Students not only felt they knew what the social media tools were, but also how to apply them strategically, which empowered them with confidence in knowing they were ahead of the game. Specifically, students felt the activities and lessons provided in the program allowed them to develop their social media skills and opened the door to understanding how this is applied in the professional field, as well as using these tools to help them find jobs and internships.

Empowerment and leadership benefits from social media education can also be applied for professors as well. Providing a tool and experience for students that is not only useful, but respected by professionals in the field, can help professors gain more acceptance in their respective departments, programs, and universities. Indeed, more programs across the nation have integrated social media into their curricula. Based on a 2013 survey by Seaman and Tinti-Kane, 41% of professors now use social media as a teaching tool compared to 34% the year before. With Hootsuite University being implemented in more universities and programs, this number will likely continue to rise.

Knowledge in social media is indeed power in today’s business environment, allowing students to apply what they have learned in the program to help make changes in the culture, business practices, and communication structure on social media for their respective internships and jobs. In a time where job competition is high, a rise in confidence in knowing new applications, strategies, and tools can be the difference for students between unemployment and becoming a rising star. Based on the post-certification surveys, students pointed to valuable training received through Hootsuite University, including the explanation of various platforms, professionalism, and monitoring/listening.

Limitations. Because of the anonymous survey method used and thus, an inability to have matched pairs, the pre-certification and post-certification data could not be tested for statistical significance. In addition, a larger sample size would be preferable to help generalizability, although the recruitment of students from five universities spread across the country should help. Finally, as with all interview and survey research, there is a chance of response bias. An attempt was made to mitigate that by offering anonymity on the surveys and using objectively worded questions in the interviews.

Future studies. Future studies could examine social media education over the long term, exploring what students judge as most helpful down the road. Other certification programs could also be studied (e.g., Google Analytics) and how they are implemented in the classroom.

In summary, professors must continue exploring the benefits and challenges within social media education for not only their students, but also among practitioners. Understanding the gaps in understanding and application of social media tools is going to continue to be a challenge for professors in social media classes; however, embracing sustainable education programs like Hootsuite University can provide public relations professors a current and beneficial tool to incorporate into their classes. Professors need to serve as a guide in social media education to help students know not only the personal use of social media, but the benefits of using these tools to accomplish their own future goals in the public relations field.



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