Act I: I Know Why the .edu Bird Tweets
Twitter Basics
Benefits of Twitter
Ambient Awareness I
Ambient Awareness II
Potential Audiences: Prospective Students
Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
Home Page Widget
Twitter Badges
Media Relations and Brand Management
Best Reason for University Tweeting?
Act II: Getting Off the Ground
Step I
Getting Approval
Key Questions Regarding Content
Content Integration
Who Will Tweet For You?
How will you interact with followers?
What Tools Will You Use?
Measuring ROI
Act III: Birds of a Feather
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A Bird in the Hand: Twitter as a Higher Ed Communications Tool


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Presented at the 2009 eduWeb conference in Chicago, July 21, 2009.

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  • Hi, I’m Aaron Rester. I’m the Manager of Electronic Communications at the University of Chicago Law School. My presentation today is about the effective use of Twitter as a communications/marketing/PR tool for colleges and Universities. I’ve been on Twitter for a relatively short time compared to many at this conference, I joined in May of 2008. I know people have a wide variety of experience with Twitter, so before we begin, I’d like to just see where everyone is at. - How many of you have personal twitter accounts? - How many of you are currently in charge of an institutional account? - How many of you are trying to get an institutional account off the ground? I'm going to first speak broadly about how and why institutions of higher ed might use Twitter as an effective way of communicating with different constituencies, and then about the things you need to think about when you’re launching your Twitter presence.
  • Since we’re just a few blocks away from where “This American Life” is broadcast, I figured I’d do my best Ira Glass impression and organize my presentation into three acts.
  • First some Twitter basics: Twitter allows you to post short 140-character maximum bursts (called “tweets”); these tweets are publicly available, but also go out to all of the other Twitter users that have chosen to receive your tweets (they’re known as your followers). You in turn can follow others to receive their tweets, but you are not required to follow those who follow you (this is one difference between Twitter and, say, Facebook). While it was originally conceived of as strictly a broadcast medium, people started using the “@” symbol to carry on conversations with each other and this is what I think has made it so successful - it became a tool for collaboration. You can also follow trending subjects that have been marked with a hashtag such as the #iranelection or #eduweb. When Twitter first emerged lots of people, not just in higher ed, were baffled as to why on earth they might want to use this quirky little system in their personal life, let alone as part of their job promoting a major brand or a world-class university. You couldn’t say anything worthwhile in 140 characters, it was just more digital noise for us to wade through, and so on. However, many institutions of higher ed have since managed to make these constraints work for them to reach out to a wide variety of constituencies.
  • At first, most institutions start out seeing Twitter as a glorified news feed -- its utility seems to lie in its ability to update followers to news, events, upcoming deadlines, etc. But what you find is that in the course of doing so you are establishing (or maintaining already existing) relationships in ways that previous generations of communications/marketing/PR /development professionals could only dream about. You can keep your school in the consciousness of your followers constantly, you can engage them wherever they are, and establish what Clive Thompson describes as “ambient awareness.”
  • “ Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ambient awareness.’ It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye... Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting… Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.”
  • “ Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ambient awareness.’ It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye... Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting… Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.” So what schools have the chance to do using Twitter is to create that composite painting, to write that novel in your followers minds 140 characters at a time, to tell the story of your school.
  • So who will you be telling this story to? Current students are, in my opinion, the least important audience for your Twitter presence. They generally are already plugged in to a dozen different ways of finding out what’s going on on-campus, and they’re busy writing their own chapters in the story of your school. But Twitter can be a valuable additional means of keeping them informed about things like financial aid deadlines and the other minutiae of campus life, and 57% of the schools that replied to a survey I did were targeting their current students. I’ve been working in higher ed web communications now for 10 years, and I’ve noticed that when a new technology comes along, one of the first questions we always seem to ask ourselves is: how can this help admissions? There’s been a lot of discussion amongst higher ed web folks about the efficacy of using Twitter to reach prospective students. One camp points to research like that done by Participatory Marketing Network:
  • PMN says “only 22 percent of Generation Y consumers are using Twitter. When asked about social network usage, however, 99 percent of this same group reports having an active profile on at least one social networking site.” However, the Pew Internet and American Life Project looks at similar data and claims that “Young adults are leading the way” with this technology. “Twitter and similar services have been most avidly embraced by young adults. Nearly one in five (19%) online adults ages 18 and 24 have ever used Twitter and its ilk, as have 20% of online adults 25 to 34. Use of these services drops off steadily after age 35 with 10% of 35 to 44 year olds and 5% of 45 to 54 year olds using Twitter. The decline is even more stark among older internet users; 4% of 55-64 year olds and 2% of those 65 and older use Twitter.” Regardless of whether you see this as a glass half-full or half-empty situation, however, you do not need to rely on the number of people in a given group who are actually signed up for Twitter to make Twitter work for you.
  • You can add a Twitter widget to your site as Pierce Law has done here, which takes their official twitter feed and turns it into headlines on their website…
  • You can do this with a simple widget that Twitter makes available on their website, either in Flash or HTML which you can then style with CSS.
  • At Chicago Law, we decided to take the pointillism metaphor that Thompson used and run with it. We used several instances of the same widget I just showed you to create this page. We asked a bunch of students and faculty (we had about twelve by the end of the year) to start tweeting (most of them were not already) and let them tell the story for us, and let prospective students get a snapshot of what life at the Law School is really like. As you might have heard, the University of Chicago has the reputation of being the place “where fun comes to die” and we wanted to counter that by showing people that our students and faculty work hard, but do a lot more than that -- they take delight in baseball games and bars as well as in wrestling with complex legal issues.
  • As for alumni, it’s hard to be sure but we’re pretty certain that a lot more of the followers of our institutional Twitter feed are alumni than prospective or current students, and we’ve found they don’t care much about daily life at the Law School -- they’ve already experienced that. What they do want -- and what we want for them -- is to maintain a sense of intellectual engagement with the school, a feeling that they are still part of this tightly knit intellectual community wherever they may be. So we feed in news stories about faculty and alumni as well as links from all of the blogs and podcasts that are affiliated with the school.
  • You can also use Twitter for media relations. Every major media outlet now has a Twitter account, and many now have social media managers. You can let them know about your events or pitch story ideas to them. even if they don't decide to turn your tweet into a story (it doesn't seem like the social media managers of news outlets yet have much input back to the newsroom), a retweet from them can broaden your local audience considerably. Finally, you can also use Twitter for brand management, for shaping the perception of your school in the general public. You can and should search for and monitor discussions about your school and interject if you have anything useful to say, whether it’s correcting misconceptions or offering advice. The best reason for getting your institution onto Twitter?
  • It will happen without you. If you go to (my alma mater) you find not a feed of information produced by the college but a compilation of all tweets mentioning Oberlin from everyone in the Twittersphere.
  • So we’ve now scratched the surface about why and how a higher ed institution can use Twitter, and I’d like to focus now on the nuts and bolts of how to set up and run your Twitter page, or more accurately to raise the questions that you will need to answer as you address your own school’s individual situation.
  • Before you do anything else, you should get a personal account for yourself. Like any communications medium Twitter has its own conventions and ettiquette and you want to be fluent in these before you begin representing your school or selecting others to represent it.
  • One of the biggest stumbling blocks I’ve heard from people in getting their school on Twitter has to do with getting approval. I did a little survey in preparing for this talk, to find out how people dealt with this problem, and 70% of them just went ahead and did it, figuring that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. If you can operate the account and experiment under the radar, you’ll be able to show some examples of how it’s helping the school if and when you do have to seek approval. If you have reservations about rogue tactics or do have to go to your supervisor for approval, try showing her that Oberlin account that I just showed you, and I think they’ll likely be terrified into approving the project immediately.
  • Once you have approval, or perhaps you might want to do this before going to your supervisor so that it looks like you’ve put some thought into this, you’ll need to ask yourself some questions about content, and maybe even jot down the answers as a guide for yourself as you get your account going. Which audiences are you trying to reach? What kind of content will be most appealing to them? Where will that content come from? And as an extension how will your twitter content be integrated with your other web content, if at all?
  • Here’s a diagram of how we do it at Chicago Law. We have close to a dozen different content sources that we feed into Twitter, some of which we have no real control over, like the Becker-Posner blog or the Law Library blog. Ideally, perhaps, every tweet would be personally and lovingly handtyped, but we decided it would just be too much work for us to monitor all these sources and tweet them ourselves, especially if they’re going into multiple online destinations, so we automated. I don’t recommend having all of your tweets be automated, because social media without actual people rather defeats the purpose. Having some sort of human personality evident in your tweets is key.
  • So that raises two more questions: who will tweet for you, and how will you interact with other Twitter users? The number of staff members who contribute to institutional accounts varies by institution, as you would expect. It sounds obvious but whoever is on the Twitter team has to be knowledgable about the institution, or at least know who to ask when a question comes up. If you have multiple staff tweeters, you should discuss what the overarching tone personality of the institutional brand is going to be -- will it be fun and snarky, will it be serious and intellectual? This doesn’t mean you need to write as someone else, but you probably want to have some measure of consistency between tweets from staff member A and staff member B. If you’re going to use student or faculty tweeters as we did with TweetChicago, it’s important to establish guidelines with them. At the Law School, we tell them: “No cursing, don’t talk about your sex life, and try to post once a day; and remember, your grandmother, your dean, and your future employer may be reading this.” Other than that we just let them do what they will and cede control over their content.
  • The most basic interaction in Twitter is following someone else. About equal numbers of schools follow everyone or no one, and three times as many follow only their community members such as students, alumni, etc. Everyone else seems to have a more hodgepodge approach. At the Law School our rule of thumb is that we’ll follow you if you are not obviously a robot, someone who wants to peddle their business to our students; and if you have not protected your account and have at least one update, and your updates are not all automated. Will you engage in conversations? Will you have some sort of Twitter-specific content? Contests? (e.g. signed book to 1000th follower) Will you treat it as a customer service outlet? (e.g. forwarding research requests to the library) Will you retweet? If so, what?
  • Additionally, you need to decide what tools you’re going to use to monitor your Twitter account. While you can certainly do this easily enough with Twitters web interface, there are also a ton of applications out there designed to make some of the tasks we’ve been talking about easier. TweetDeck is a desktop application, and i allows saved searches, multiple accounts, groups (e.g. alumni, prospective students, etc. CoTweet is web-based application, also allows multiple accounts but allows you to assign tweets to a particular team member for follow-up.
  • Finally, everyone’s favorite topic: measuring the return on investment?.How do you know if what you’re doing is working and that it’s having a positive effect for your school. This quote, from a UWebD list email last month is not an uncommon question: “Does anyone have evidence -- numbers, not feelings --that Twitter usage has resulted in anything meaningful beneficial to the university?” Now, there are ways to measure traffic generated by Twitter links. Jeanne Gosselin of Paskill Stapleton & Lloyd gave some hints yesterday about how to use Google Analytics funnels, and there are also services like Twitclicks. Are there any other services that you use to generate these numbers? I’m still wrestling with this, and I know some folks who believe that everything can be quantified in some fashion will disagree, but†I'm not entirely sure that numbers are applicable here. Twitter -- and one, might argue, all social media -- are all largely ABOUT feelings -- feelings of engagement, of caring in some fashion about the person or institution on the other end of the feed. You might not see a huge jump in good applicants because of Twitter... but you just might get one person who was planning to go to a rival school to reconsider, or an alum who had no engagement with the school to come to reunion. That kind of benefit is only ever going to be supported by anecdotal evidence (if any), but I would be tempted to argue that if it happened for us it would be a more important datum than the fact that our Faculty Blog has doubled its subscriptions since we started feeding it in to Twitter (which it has). So if you decide you need to try to monitor ROI, I would encourage you to think of ways to measure engagement: e.g. how many times have people retweeted or replied to your posts? These will be different for every school.
  • This kind of excitement is anecdotal, but it has value. This is an admitted student who is completely and utterly psyched about where she is going to be spending the next three years of her life. Why? In part at least because of something she read on Twitter.
  • At this point you’ve probably heard enough out of me, so to close out this presentation, I’d like to get everyone talking to each other about what they’re already doing with Twitter, what they might like to be able to do with Twitter, problems they’ve had, success stories, and so on.
  • A Bird in the Hand: Twitter as a Higher Ed Communications Tool

    1. 1. Introduction
    2. 2. Act I: I Know Why the .edu Bird Tweets
    3. 3. Twitter Basics
    4. 4. Benefits of Twitter
    5. 5. Ambient Awareness I
    6. 6. Ambient Awareness II
    7. 7. Potential Audiences: Prospective Students
    8. 8. Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
    9. 9. Home Page Widget
    10. 10. Twitter Badges
    11. 11. TweetChicago
    12. 12. Alumni
    13. 13. Media Relations and Brand Management
    14. 14. Best Reason for University Tweeting?
    15. 15. Act II: Getting Off the Ground
    16. 16. Step I
    17. 17. Getting Approval
    18. 18. Key Questions Regarding Content
    19. 19. Content Integration
    20. 20. Who Will Tweet For You?
    21. 21. How will you interact with followers?
    22. 22. What Tools Will You Use?
    23. 23. Measuring ROI
    24. 25. Act III: Birds of a Feather