The elements of a great #highered Twitter account

successkidLast month, in response to Education Dive’s unsatisfactory ranking of the 10 best university Twitter accounts — and what they do right, I posed a question: What makes a great #highered Twitter account?

Your responses, both in your comments to that post and on Twitter, provided some great perspective on this topic. (Some of you even took up the question on your own blogs, providing more than 140 characters’ worth of insight.)

In my post, I said I would try to draw from your insights to outline an alternative to Education Dive’s method of measuring Twitter greatness for colleges and universities.

It is no easy task. In many ways, Twitter greatness is in the eye of the beholder and difficult to gauge. No wonder Education Dive stuck with two easy metrics — an account’s number of followers and Klout score — to develop their top 10 list. (True, the author of that post also claimed to conduct a “subjective appraisal,” but much of the evidence is based solely on numbers.) The number of followers and Klout score are certainly metrics to consider, but they inherently favor bigger schools over small ones. Perhaps a more nuanced approach to analyzing followers is in order.

But more about that later. For now, let’s look at a few of the themes that emerged from our online discussion on this topic.

Start with strategy

It should come as no surprise that someone with a title like “digital strategist” would suggest we start with strategy. That’s how Mike Petroff (@mikepetroff), the guy behind the @Harvard Twitter account, suggests any social media person in higher ed begin. And not all strategies are the same.

“It’s important to note that there can be differences in meaningful metrics for institutional accounts on Twitter,” Mike wrote in his comment to my post. “Some may focus on student engagement and customer service, while others may be driven by specific campaign efforts or general news awareness and amplification. These strategies are really an extension of the ‘voice’ of the Twitter account and how they focus their efforts.

“I respect both strategies, when executed well and attached to specific goals.”

The key here is to start with a strategy. Your institution’s social media strategy may not be the same as Harvard’s (which, by the way, topped Education Dive’s list). But if you don’t have a strategy, and don’t connect it with specific goals, then you have nothing to measure.

Taking a step back from Twitter, it’s also important to consider this platform in the broader perspective of social media strategy. Jeff Puklin (@JeffPuklin), who manages the @ConnCollege and @ConnCollegeLive Twitter account, shared this comment on the blog:

A great Twitter account in Higher ed should live in the center of a larger social media strategy [emphasis added]. Through the creation of our internally focused @ConnCollegeLive Twitter account – we engage our current students by facilitating conversations and promoting the vibrancy of our digital campus community. This allows us to provide admitted, prospective students and parents with an authentic user-generated view of campus life. The result: vibrancy and transparency.

Stepping back even further, that social media strategy should be connected to an institution’s communications and marketing strategy (or strategies), which in turn should be connected to the institution’s strategy. (A separate post about strategy some other time.)

Be human

Mike Petroff also mentions the “voice” of a Twitter account. The idea of voice — especially a human voice — seemed to be important to many of us.

Ma`ayan Plaut (@plautmaayan), the human behind @OberlinCollege, put it this way:

Ma`ayan was not alone in that sentiment:

I believe that a human voice is critical for success in Twitter. It may be easy to simply push out press releases or marketing-speak. That just gets information out there. Making it human is what matters and leads to meaningful interaction with your audiences.

Which leads us to…

Interact. Like a human.

“IMHO,” commented Jessica Krywosa (@jesskry) of @HamiltonCollege, “what makes a Twitter account great is that it is an active participant in the community. It RT’s, provides valued, timely information and it creates opportunities to bring people into a conversation. It creates targeted hash tags so that people can follow conversations. It cross promotes other accounts of value to its audience. It follows back relevant accounts/people. It has a personality (brand). Its not afraid to be cheeky/human/real.”

I could not agree more. Justin J. Ware of Bentz Whaley Flessner also concurs. As he said in his comment on my earlier post: “It doesn’t matter what industry, real interaction always makes for a better Twitter account.”

Measure what matters

I received a lot of ideas about measurement, and few of them had to do with raw numbers. A lot of us tend to agree with a quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein (but probably more accurately attributed to William Bruce Cameron):

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

One possibly useful measurement of Twitter greatness could be engagement-to-follower ratio.

This is something Liz Gross (@lizgross144) was getting at in her comment about the value of retweets as a metric.

“Retweets, while some might consider it a vanity metric, might be useful here,” she wrote. “If someone find the information in the account so valuable that they want to pass it on to to other people, that might mean something.”

Determining this ratio can be tricky and time-consuming. But here’s one approach (as discussed in this blog post):

  1. Select a tweet (or series of tweets during a given period)
  2. Calculate the number of mentions and retweets of that tweet during a given period
  3. Divide by number of followers during that period
  4. Multiply by 100

I’ve never tried this before. I may give it a shot.

There’s another approach that could provide context to the “raw number of followers” issue. Chris Syme (@cksyme) talks about this in her comment on my original post.

I’d leave follower numbers completely off the table, but maybe look at the number as a percentage of the total number you could reach (alumni, students, staff, faculty, etc.) Reach is a shallow metric — has nothing to do with effectiveness — only shows how many people could have access to your information.

I like that apples-to-apples approach, even though it’s crude and, as Chris points out, has nothing to do with effectiveness. Let’s say one university has 50,000 Twitter followers, and let’s suppose it has 20,000 students and 480,000 living alumni, giving it a potential audience of 500,000. Using only students and living alumni as the universe to measure, we could conclude that this school has a 10 percent reach.

Now, let’s suppose another university has 5,000 followers on Twitter but enrollment of 2,000 and living alumni of 48,000. It too would have a 10 percent reach.

Don’t forget to listen

Listening is not the same as monitoring. But both are important.

I view monitoring as more of an intel-gathering function, to find out what people are saying about your organization in social media. It’s an important function of brand and reputation management.

But monitoring your brand in the social media sphere doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be great at Twitter. It could just mean you’re good at gathering intel, and maybe you should consider working for the CIA.

Listening means more than monitoring.

Sometimes it means knowing when to respond, and when to respond publicly versus privately.

“For our institutional feed, I place a lot of emphasis on listening and responding to individual tweets, and I don’t always respond publicly,” writes Davina Gould (@davinagould).

Listening is also an issue Ma’ayan Plaut wrestled with in her blog post on this topic. With refreshing honesty, she struggles to find the appropriate balance of listening to interacting:

I’m still in limbo about how Oberlin College on Twitter needs to act. I tried a few weeks of retweeting things from our community, then added in some personal conversation/outreach to people talking about Oberlin, but then there was a lot of institutional silence but a heck of a lot more listening. Sometimes I broadcast original stuff. Is that okay? Is that a cop-out? On the whole, I don’t know what makes people visit, follow, converse with, retweet, favorite, or any of the other actions one desires from a/our Twitter account, or what we could do to make them do (something?) more.

A continuous feedback loop

What I’ve presented in this lengthy post merely scratches the surface of the web of issues related to achieving Twitter greatness. In the end, though, I think it all begins and ends with strategy and goal-setting for your specific institution or organization. And part of that goal-setting should involve listening to your constituents and determining what they need or expect from you at any given time. As Ma’ayan said in her post: “If we’re operating in an always-changing space, the replicability and scalability of what we’re doing is more tied to what the humans out there want rather than what we want and what the tools seem to encourage. …”

So maybe this entire blog post should be flipped. Maybe we should start with listening, build our goals and strategy from there, while taking into consideration the business goals of our organizations (i.e., how social media fits into those goals, including overall marketing).

Or maybe it’s a continuous loop that begins and ends with listening, revising and reworking our processes and approaches in the fluidity of the social media space.

Whatever it is, I think what I’ve taken away from the past month of listening, discussing and thinking about this topic is that no third-party assessment of “what makes a great Twitter account” can necessarily fit all institutions. It’s up to us to make our Twitter accounts great in the context that meets the needs and helps fulfill the dreams of our human audiences.

I’m ready to make @MissouriSandT more awesome on Twitter. How about you and your account? Starting today, Star Wars Day, let’s join forces and achieve #highered Twitter greatness.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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