Bird on a Wire: Twitter the next big thing or dead on arrival?
By Brad J. Ward
The baby bird has officially left the nest.
Since its launch in 2006, the social media tool Twitter has grown from a “wait-and-see” communications site to a mainstream media darling. Last year was the tipping point for this site, which is as easy to use as it is to confuse. As its popularity has grown, there has been a shift in the way Twitter is used. Early Twitter adopters would follow thousands of users they’d never met, but as the platform has become more mainstream, the norm has changed.
According to a recent report from media analysis firm Sysomos.com, 92.4 percent of Twitter users follow less than 100 people. New users are more reserved, tweet less, and follow a more select group of people that they know. This means that institutions need to provide value in their Twitter feeds, or they simply won’t be followed by the audience they want to reach.
While Twitter can be effective, its traffic still falls far behind other social Web platforms in the United States. According to Compete.com, Facebook’s traffic is 467 percent higher than Twitter’s, with YouTube seeing 314 percent more use, and even MySpace getting 115 percent more traffic.
Regardless of the hits that each site receives, many institutions are launching official Twitter accounts. According to a March 2009 study conducted by BlueFuego, only 9.4 percent of 1,387 alumni association home pages had social Web page links. In December 2009, the number had risen to 34.8 percent, with the presence of a Twitter callout on alumni home pages increasing 327.8 percent since the initial study. LinkedIn increased 12.5 percent, and Facebook increased 5.1 percent.
What type are you?
BlueFuego wanted to dig deeper, so in April 2009, we began classifying more than 2,000 higher education Twitter accounts to better understand how colleges and universities are using the tool to interact with their followers. All accounts were divided into five categories based on the type of updates that they publish. (See charts on page 34.)
Type 1 accounts (32 percent of higher education accounts) provide only news and do not engage in conversation with their followers. These accounts use tools like Twitterfeed.com to push an existing news feed of information to Twitter. Their accounts consistently tweet links that take followers back to their .edu site or an institutional Facebook page. Updates are typically about press releases and events.
Type 1 accounts regularly push out more updates than other accounts. This is due to the publishing of an RSS feed, which results in several updates daily. On average, these Twitter accounts push out 40-60 updates per month. (By comparison, our research of 1,300 Facebook pages in higher education shows an average of 22 updates per month, two to three times less content.)
Type 2 accounts (15 percent) are similar to Type 1 but interject occasional conversation into their tweet streams. If someone were to send an @reply, he or she would likely get a response. About 75 percent or more of the time, however, a Type 2 account is still just pushing news updates.
Type 3 accounts (22 percent) provide limited information but do not share links or attempt to engage with others who follow them. They may offer updates on the institution’s cafeteria menu or list the admissions counselors’ travel schedules, but little more. Type 3 accounts appear to have been created so that the institution has a presence on Twitter. On average, these accounts have fewer followers, follow less people, and have the least amount of updates.
Type 4 accounts (11 percent) are somewhat conversational–they occasionally interact with followers but generally just share 140-character updates about what’s happening on campus. Whereas Type 2 account updates consist primarily of links that send followers away from Twitter, Type 4 accounts do not link away from the site.
Type 5 accounts (20 percent) are very conversational. It’s obvious that staff members are actively monitoring the account and sharing a wide range of information through updates, including links, photos, and videos. They retweet information from other followers and provide varied information to their audience. Type 5 accounts average the most followers and follow back the most, a testament to having a person or team of people actively monitoring the account and engaging with followers.
The 50:25:25 rule
We recommend that our clients adopt a 50:25:25 model when communicating on social Web platforms. Try to make 50 percent of your tweets informational: deadlines, links to press releases and events, and other information that needs to be shared.
The next 25 percent of your tweets should focus on conversations about your brand. Engage your audience with questions or statements regarding your institution, such as: “Snow Day at State! How’s the weather where you are?”
For the remaining 25 percent of updates, engage your audience with conversations that are not about your brand. These updates can be about pop culture, world news, interesting events, and more. The goal is to get them to interact with your institution, but not necessarily about the institution.
The conversation myth?
“Social media gurus” have long argued that Twitter is about the conversation and that accounts that strictly share links aren’t effective. However, our research shows that these assumptions aren’t necessarily true.
Within the five types of Twitter accounts, we further segmented the groups according to who maintains them: admissions, alumni relations, athletics, PR/news, general institution accounts, and an individual college or department within an institution.
Athletics and PR/news have the highest percentage of Type 1 accounts–those only sharing links–at 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively. When looking at the accounts that average the highest number of followers, PR/news is at the top. Athletics averages the most updates per month and follows the most people.
These data show us that Type 1 accounts certainly have a place on Twitter. The audience doesn’t necessarily want to engage or interact with each of your accounts directly and might just be interested in receiving your content in their tweet stream.
However, accounts run by admissions and alumni relations, areas that tend to be more relationship-focused, average more followers and updates when they fall in the Type 5 category, as they are strengthening relationships through conversation and have more to talk about with more people.
Twitter for institutional advancement
Many institutions are now interacting with students in ways that would not have happened pre-Twitter. For example, Abilene Christian University in Texas (www.twitter.com/acuedu), which has a Type 5 account, was actively monitoring a situation in which an enrolled student would occasionally mention on Twitter that she was having a poor experience at ACU. The student’s updates escalated one day, and she exclaimed that she couldn’t wait to transfer.
Scott Kilmer, director of new media, had been monitoring these tweets and stepped in to reply to the student from the ACU Twitter account, saying, “Sorry you’re having a bad day. Send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know how we can help.”
By that afternoon, the student had e-mailed and was referred to student services to talk about how her experience could be better. Later that evening, her Twitter update read, “ACU has the best people. Beth and Haley are two of the most loving people ever.” She was referring to the student services manager and a retention officer that Kilmer put her in touch with after the initial contact.
“Using Twitter to listen to our constituency has been a great way to understand customer feedback,” Kilmer says. “With access to this kind of information, we can identify areas of need and act on them with a certain amount of validation from the average customer.”
Other successful Twitter accounts
Twitter can also help create stronger bonds with followers who have a pre-established affinity for the institution. It didn’t take long for Tim Cigelske, communication specialist at Wisconsin’s Marquette University, to see the value and take advantage of his institution’s Twitter presence.
Marquette (www.twitter.com/marquetteu) is a Type 5 and is one of a handful of accounts to fall in the top 10 percent of higher education institutions in the nation for number of followers, number of accounts followed, number of updates, and number of @mentions. The school recently launched the “Give Marquette” campaign, which was promoted through all institutional media, including Twitter.
One alumnus, who was one of the first and most active followers of @MarquetteU, stepped forward to donate after seeing a tweet about the campaign.
“He direct messaged Marquette via Twitter and asked how he could donate, so I connected him with someone who could work with him personally,” Cigelske explains. “In this case, he was looking to specifically support families and students [who] are ‘working their butts off to send their average-grade students to Marquette,’ since that was the case with him and his family. We gave him information on a fund that would do just that, and it worked out beautifully.”
Twitter can also be used to garner press, as Indiana University East has quickly learned through its @IUEast account. Nasser Paydar (www.twitter.com/paydar), IU East’s chancellor, was one of the first institutional leaders on Twitter, tweeting as early as January 2009. Sending out updates about topics such as campus events, student life and athletics, and the daily life of a chancellor, he is focused on making connections with the local community.
Shortly after Paydar started tweeting, the local newspaper’s education reporter wrote a story about it, and in the process created a Twitter profile for himself. The reporter now follows several official IU East Twitter accounts, which has led to an increase in coverage for the institution.
Even though institutions are finding success with Twitter, the platform is not without its weaknesses. To put the site into perspective, there are more people playing the online game FarmVille on Facebook than using Twitter. Traffic has stalled in recent months (up only 2.5 percent in the past eight months), leaving many to wonder what is next for the site. It’s in an extremely volatile position, and 2010 will be a make-or-break year.
Furthermore, a January 2010 study of Twitter by Sysomos.com found that 50.88 percent of Twitter users and 56.59 percent of tweets are from people living in the United States. Compare this with Facebook, where 70 percent of traffic is outside the United States, and YouTube, where 76 percent of video views are from outside the United States, and it is clear that the international reach of Twitter is limited. An earlier 2009 study by Sysomos.com also revealed that 5 percent of Twitter users account for 75 percent of updates, which also shows that there is a limited audience engaging on Twitter.
Regardless of Twitter’s future, the shift in communication methods and preferences that the platform has created will last beyond Twitter itself. While Twitter is not, and will never be, a magical tool to solve all advancement communications issues, it can still be effective in communicating to your audience.
Shorter, asynchronous updates have become the norm across the Web, as people and brands share more frequent updates with their audiences. The one-to-many communication method allows institutions to reach a larger audience more quickly, but it also requires more time if an institution responds to each person and interaction.
Twitter should not be at the core of your university’s marketing strategy, but it is definitely a tool to be considered when developing your overall plan.
Brad J. Ward is the CEO at BlueFuego Inc., an international higher education consulting firm specializing in new media marketing integration.
Copyright ©2010 by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education; reprinted with permission from the May/June 2010 issue of CASE CURRENTS. All rights reserved.