Social Media Summit gathers industry leaders, highlights university’s award-winning storytelling strategy

A panel at Northeastern's Social Media Summit.
Northeastern director of digital news and social media Meghan Donovan leads a panel of experts from Boston area universities including Ashley Simmons of Harvard, Dave McDonald of Boston University, Zanna Ollove of Boston College and Cameron Sleeper of Northeastern in a discussion of how to master short form video during the first Social Media Summit hosted by Northeastern University. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Northeastern held its first Social Media Summit on Tuesday, Sept. 12, bringing industry leaders from multiple consumer, media and higher ed brands, alongside the university’s own award-winning social media team for a day of discussions about how brands can use their online presence to tell a story.

Northeastern Vice President of Communications Renata Nyul welcomes guests to the first Social Media Summit hosted by Northeastern University in the East Village. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

A crowded room in East Village on Northeastern’s Boston campus was the venue for the daylong event that included panels on how to engage your social media audience, and how to use innovative tools such as AI, short form video and accessibility aids in order to improve audience engagement across social media platforms.  

Renata Nyul, vice president for communications at Northeastern, pointed out how social media has allowed brands to embrace various personas while still being authentic.

“Whatever industry, company or organization you work for, social media is part of your strategy,” Nyul said. “It’s also a place where you can showcase a different side of your brand’s personality, something you may not be able to do on your traditional channels. Is your brand serious or funny? 

“Before social media, you had to choose. Today, a serious research university can be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for its innovative strategy and get 2 million views on TikTok for a dance video at the same time.” 

Throughout the event, panelists emphasized the importance of using social media not just to push a product, but to tell a brand’s story.

“Storytelling — whether it’s student stories, alumni stories, faculty stories — it doesn’t need to be a three-act structure in every TikTok,” said Cameron Sleeper, Northeastern’s senior social media video producer. “But it needs to evoke some emotions.”

A common theme touched upon throughout the summit was the value of authenticity and creativity. Arielle Mulgrew, head of social media with EF Ultimate Break, spoke with Northeastern audience engagement manager Virginia Roa about the importance of using social media not just to push a product or hop in on the latest trends, but as a way to build relationships with audiences and create a face for your brand.

“Authenticity is important,” Mulgrew said. “People can see right through when you’re not authentic. I’d advise brands and businesses away from being something you’re not just to be cool. It’s not going to help you at the end of the day.”

At the same time, Mulgrew — who’s also worked for brands such as Burger King, Drizly, Converse, Hyatt and Chipotle — said taking risks with social media and trusting your team to do so can pay off. When she worked at Burger King, she pitched an idea about one of the company’s Boston-area locations “asking” the neighboring Wendy’s to prom via its forefront signage. The brand cautiously ran with the stunt and it paid off: The story was covered in national outlets.

This is what WBZ/iHeartMedia reporter and producer Matt Shearer also discovered when his boss tasked him with beginning the AM radio station’s TikTok account. At first, Shearer leaned into his initial instinct of playing it safe and serious, and simply posted videos of B-roll with radio stories over them. 

But eventually, he tapped into his personality and those of the community he covered. He began covering quirky stories, conducting an interview with a local puppeteer in Waltham using said puppets or talking to participants in a local cat-and-owner costume contest. His videos quickly picked up steam, resulting in WBZ winning four Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards in 2023, two of which acknowledged Shearer’s work on TikTok.

“I was buttoned up because I wanted everybody to take me very seriously,” Shearer said. “Over time, I started to realize that’s just not who I am. I’m more of a creative type. I don’t like doing everything like everyone else. I don’t want to sound like every other reporter. I don’t want to look like every other reporter. Now, I just dress down and am myself. And I find my stories come out better that way, because on social media, authenticity is everything.”

And there’s a number of ways to tell these stories, particularly in the evolving media landscape. Sleeper spoke with his counterparts at Boston University, Harvard University and Boston College about how the four came together earlier this year to collaborate on a series of TikToks for The Beanpot, the annual men’s and women’s ice hockey tournament among the four hockey teams. The idea from Sleeper broke new ground in how schools can engage with each other on social media.

In addition to there always being new platforms to explore, there are also new tools emerging every day to help create this content. Mary Kate Mulligan, who oversees marketing at Till Financial and previously worked for Goldman Sachs, spoke with Roa about how artificial intelligence can be used in innovative ways across social platforms.

Mulligan cautioned brands from using AI to generate entire posts or campaigns, especially given that AI can make mistakes. She instead encouraged people to experiment with the different tools and to have conversations about these tools so they have baselines for moving forward.

Artificial intelligence can also be used as a way to draft content that social media managers can then tweak to their brand’s voice.

“The ideal would be if you saw 20 different captions by 20 different brands, to immediately be able to pick out yours,” she said.

Equally important is using tools such as alt text, captions and subtitles to make social media more accessible. Karolína Kristína Chorváth, a chronic illness advocate, journalist and Northeastern graduate, spoke with Michaela Quigley, a digital media producer at the university, about how brands can make sure their stories are accounting for the different needs of their audience.

In addition to the importance of alt text which can be used to describe images for users with visual impairments or using capitalization in hashtags proper punctuation for people who use screen readers, Chorváth said it’s important to include diverse voices in the content itself.

“There’s not one way to be disabled,” she said. “We’re a vibrant community full of different backgrounds and communities. There’s unfortunately a hierarchy of who gets visibility. There’s an endless number of people that deserve to be seen, appreciated, and lifted up. We don’t deserve to hide.”

Livestream of the Social Media Summit hosted by Northeastern University at the Boston campus’s East Village 17th Floor event space.

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @erin_kayata.