Meet the Brand behind @UHouston
When she’s not handing out free T-shirts on Cougar Red Friday or live-tweeting an event on UH’s official Twitter account, there’s a good chance you’ll find Jessica Brand in some remote part of nature – probably reading a classic piece of Russian literature.
That’s one of the rare times Brand allows herself to turn off her phone. As UH’s social media manager, Brand’s job forces her to be constantly tuned in to what’s happening on and around campus by monitoring UH’s many social media platforms and tracking several hashtags.
When Brand came into her career at UH in January 2010, UH was not active on any social media, other than having a long-term YouTube account.
Five years later, UH has over 112,000 likes on Facebook, almost 27,000 followers on Twitter and over 157,000 followers on LinkedIn. Brand has also expanded UH’s social media presence to include newer platforms, such as Tumblr and Pinterest; with her involvement, UH was the first among universities to begin using Snapchat.
Her first obstacle was getting the word out. Brand’s small team set up booths around campus, urging people to “like” and “follow” UH on its new accounts. But this was 2010, a time when smartphones were not yet the norm.
“Maybe 10 percent of students on campus had smartphones,” Brand said. “So we had these really old and very slow computers, and very slow Wi-Fi and long lines… But people were really excited.”
Last year, UH competed in the 7th Annual Shorty Awards, a competition honoring the best in social media within dozens of categories. Social media coordinator Tiffany Norman recalled how fiercely their team fought to have UH recognized as Social Media’s Best Barnes & Noble College, determined by how effectively the University uses social media to engage with students, faculty and the campus community. UH placed as a finalist, and despite the team’s disappointment, Norman said Brand reminded everyone how much they have to be proud of.
“Even though we didn’t win, Jessica went to a thrift shop, purchased a random trophy, decorated it and presented it to us as our own Shorty Award to honor how hard we had worked,” Norman said. “It made us feel like winners.”
Brand graduated from UH in 2004 with a bachelor’s in communications and a focus in media production. Back then, there wasn’t much social media happening. For about six years, Brand worked several different jobs, honing skills that would later be useful in her social media career, such as video production, media monitoring and news editing.
In her free time, however, Brand was directly preparing for her career at UH without even realizing it.
“On the side, I was doing a lot of social media promotion for music. I’m a musician, and I have a lot of friends who are musicians and artists,” Brand said. “I was helping everybody promote what they were doing and trying to get people to show up for these events, like concerts and art showings and stuff like that. So I had been doing social media marketing without realizing that that was what it was.”
Brand said gaining her position as UH’s social media coordinator was unexpected– she initially applied for a videographer position at the University. After a friend urged her to apply for the social media position, she was called back for an interview and soon hired.
“My career in social media has been kind of an accident and kind of organic,” Brand said. “When I applied for this job, it was the end of 2009 and there weren’t a lot of people who had that kind of experience. The title of social media coordinator was kind of made up at the time.”
There was no precedent for Brand’s position. UH threw around several ideas for her title, such as community manager or digital media manager.
“They didn’t exactly know because everybody was making it up at that time,” Brand said. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, we’ll hire somebody to do something with our social media and hope that it’ll go well.’”
Managing social media for a major university involves more than simply posting information and interacting with followers; it requires strategy, planning, multitasking and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each platform. Over the years, Brand has truly become a guru in her field.
“Being in social media, you really have to know what’s going on all the time, everywhere, because if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, it can really offend people,” Brand said. “It can come off as, ‘Why are you tweeting about free T-shirts when there’s an earthquake going on?’ Nobody cares.”
“If you’re going to manage social media, you really have to be a jack of all trades.”
Every day, her team receives requests from departments and colleges across campus about events and opportunities that they’d like the UH social media accounts to promote. Brand said they carefully consider which platforms are appropriate for distributing such messages.
“Occasionally we might agree to promote something that’s for a niche audience, but only on a platform that targets that niche audience. Other than that, we try to keep it pretty broad,” Brand said.
“On Snapchat in particular, our audience skews younger, so that tends to be a bit more playful and we don’t post as much serious stuff there. For LinkedIn, clearly our audience tends to skew a bit older, so we put a lot of alumni-focused stuff there. Instagram was skewing younger for quite a while, but we’re seeing a lot more alumni engagement there now… Tumblr is also fairly young.”
For someone whose job widely involves interacting in the digital world, it’s surprising that many of Brand’s hobbies have little to do with modern technology.
“If I’m going to turn off my phone, a lot of times I’ll be hiking, or in a forest someplace,” Brand said. “I’m very much in touch with technology, but I like to remind myself occasionally that nature is awesome.”
In addition to hiking, she loves biking and making music. For over three years, she’s been taking Russian classes with her boyfriend in the hopes of being able to read the works of her favorite Russian author, Dostoyevsky, in his native language.
If she’s out and about in Houston, you’ll most likely find her in the museum district. Rather than relaxing on her couch watching Netflix – she doesn’t own a TV – Brand said she loves watching movies at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of its film series.
She said she tries to strike a balance between her work, which could potentially follow her home and into the night, and her social life.
“I do have to admit that I have my phone on me at all times. I have Twitter notifications set so that whenever (UH President Renu Khator) tweets, I get a text message. I’m basically on the alert mostly all day, every day,” Brand said. “But when I know that I won’t access to my phone, like if I’m going camping or something, then I’ll let the other people on my team know.”
Brand said emergencies don’t usually come up during after-hours and weekends, luckily.
“One time I got a tweet notification at like 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, and this guy was like, ‘I broke my leg – do I need to go to class on Monday?’ And I’m like, ‘Um, you should probably contact your professor,’” Brand said, laughing. “But I think most people know that the University of Houston Twitter account is just going to be able to get them the same info you could find researching on your own.”
Brand is a live-in-the-moment type of woman. Ask her where she wants to be 10 years from now, and she’ll tell you that’s not a question she’s asked herself.
“I tend to go with the flow of things. What I would like to have experienced is a lot more travel, absorbing books, just learning and meeting new people,” Brand said.
Today, Brand is no longer a social media coordinator, but UH’s first social media manager. She leads a small team of two social media coordinators and three student interns. While her team handles most of the day-to-day posting and interacting on social media, Brand coordinates with the many social media departments around UH and plans big projects, such as the UH1UP Challenge.
Her direct boss, Director of Web and New Media Bill Herndon, called Brand’s enthusiasm “contagious.”
“I can honestly say that she is one of the best social media managers I have ever met because she’s interested and enthusiastic about the medium,” Herndon said. “Jessica is continually exploring ideas and asking students what they want. That hard work is one of the things that keeps UH rising as one of the top social media universities in the country.”
Brand said the environment at UH suits her perfectly.
“I want to keep learning for the rest of my life. If I had to choose my favorite thing, it’s learning,” Brand said. “I want to push more information into my brain all the time, and that’s what students are focused on… It’s a very interesting time in people’s lives, and to get to experience that with them is special.”
“There’s a special kind of energy around campus, versus if I were working in the Medical Center or in oil and gas. I wouldn’t have that kind of spark of people looking at the world with new eyes every day.”