One of the programs I teach in is run, at least partially, under the auspices of QU Online. I noticed this week that QU Online had started tweeting. Cool! But when I looked at the content of the tweet, not-so-cool:
Quinnipiac University offers online master’s degree programs as well as online certificate programs for students.
I think, by almost any definition, that would be seen as spam. Now, it’s spam I’m sympathetic to, but it’s about the equivalent of me spraypainting the same message on the back wall of my apartment building: no one’s going to see it; if they do see it, it’s highly unlikely that they will care; if they do care, they won’t know what to do about it. So, I posted my 140 word critique:
How not to use Twitter: @QU_Online . Argh. Think: authentic, connected, interesting.
OK, that’s fine, but it doesn’t really give our PR folks much to go on. I figure I am obliged to at least take a stab at providing something more concrete, if only because it might draw some suggestions from people more publicity-minded than I am. So here goes:
Do you really need to Twitter?
Yes, all the cool kids are doing it–but let’s face it, you aren’t cool. I know you want to be, but you are a university, and even if you are located in Florida, you are s.q.u.a.r.e. If you are in Connecticut, cube that.
More to the point, what do you expect the return on your investment will be? Wait, you might say, setting up an account on Twitter is free, and putting out 140 word blurbs takes me fifteen minutes a week, max.
Ah, there’s our problem. Let’s call this the “shot in the foot” strategy. Tweeting a 140 word press release at best gets you very little traction. To be fair, the traction it might get you is a way for folks to direct message you. But they aren’t going to find you this way, and it doesn’t help to recruit students (the ultimate aim).
Twittering is not a press release. It’s also not an ad. The above tweet works fine as a Google ad: marginalia that may lead someone to check us out. At worst, it marks us as clueless, or at least off-key.
Twitter is a conversation
Like other social media, Twitter is essentially a conversation. It is arguably more that than is Facebook or blogging or podcasting or YouTube.
Consider a conversation with a prospective student that begins “Quinnipiac University offers online master’s degree programs as well as online certificate programs for students.” Let’s face it, if someone came up to you on the street and said that–check that, they do. Then they try to shove a piece of paper in your hands. These people are annoying.
No, basic manners says you start a conversation by asking people what they want and then giving it to them. The only worthwhile play on Twitter is the long game: building relationships with individuals who then tell their colleagues and employees about Quinnipiac’s programs. It’s about increasing the recognition of the name and providing something of value to them, for free.
Who should be tweeting?
You shouldn’t be tweeting about your efforts to recruit. “But these are the things I’m interested in!” And that’s why PR folks should not be tweeting. You are not trying to “sell” anyone, you are trying to build relationships and long term discussions.
If you tweet about your PR and recruiting efforts, you are likely to get into good conversations with your counterparts at other universities. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s not meeting your more proximate aim of getting people interested in the school.
Frankly, social media denizens don’t trust most PR folks, and in many cases with good reason. The best way for marketing and PR folks to use social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is to empower their employees to directly talk to the outside. This is what Naked Conversations are all about.
Someone tweeted recently about her decision of where to go to graduate school. Our program was one on the list. I happened to notice this and contacted her via Twitter. In this case, no intervention was necessary, but the ideal role for a recruiting or marketing person is this case. They should notice when people are talking about us–and in this case, when it’s by name, that’s pretty easy–and put the right person in touch with them. I may not have been the right person in this case, but a program director or appropriate faculty member or current student probably is. The marketing person probably is not.
Beyond this, who should be actually tweeting? That same group of people: the faculty and students. Encouraging them to do that, and to put the university and the program in a good light by doing so, is a really powerful thing.
What to Tweet?
You need to be on people’s radar, and that means Tweeting news they can use. Useful tweets have demonstrative value to the reader: most importantly they teach her something she didn’t know and wants to know.
Frankly, she doesn’t want to know that Quinnipiac has an online grad program. Or, at least she doesn’t know she wants to know that :). She might want to know that there is a free lecture on campus about information architecture. She might want to know that Disney is starting a new virtual worlds division. She might want to know that you can load Adobe Air applications on an Android-based device. (I made those up!)
She also wants links on each of those to more information. If she wants to know what programs we have online, or when the application date is, she’ll go to our website, not to Twitter.
How can I tell if it’s working?
This takes time, both in terms of investing time in tweeting each week, and in terms of waiting for the outcome of the relationships. There are things you could measure to chart progress, to be sure. You could look at the number of followers (a pretty weak metric) or the number of Re-Tweets (quite a bit stronger). Or, you could look at the number of students who enroll who first find us via Twitter–or via someone who found us via Twitter. To my mind, that is the best metric by far.
Nice ideas in theory…
But is anyone actually doing things this way? A number of universities and colleges are simply posting headlines from their press office into Twitter. I won’t list them, and I’m not sure what they are thinking. It looks like they probably aren’t–that they have a module in their CMS that simply publishes automatically to Twitter.
In the corporate world you do have a lot of recognition that Twitter is a great place to eavesdrop, find out what people are saying about your brand, and respond directly to the consumer. I don’t know how many universities are doing this kind of “Student Relationship Management,” and it’s a bit more difficult because students may not name their school directly, but I think that is a great use. And it probably works as well or better with personal–rather than university-branded–accounts.
Many in the publicity departments are tweeting their regular news items. If you look at Tarleton State, among many others, you’ll see an example. UC has a bit of a twist on this, aggregating information from a variety of offices into a feed, it seems. This is the common format for sports news on campuses, and probably works pretty well there, though it is still not ideal. (Have players tweet!!!)
In all these cases, they are using url shorteners to draw people in for more information. This is not the best use of Twitter, but it’s a fine way to stay in touch with a constituency of people who are already interested. If you’re lucky, they will retweet your message to their own networks. I suspect, however, you get very low return on your fairly low investment.
The InfoSec program at Virginia Commonwealth provides news that will be of interest to the those in the information security field, and several others do something similar, collecting field-specific information and acting as a narrow clearinghouse of information.
Who is treating it as a real conversation? I think the University of New South Wales is doing a great job of their tweeting, as is RMIT. They are publicizing events at their school, but also taking a personal tone, addressing others, re-tweeting as appropriate, and generally being a good Twitter citizen. It shows in the number of followers they have, and the number they are following.
UW Green Bay also “gets it,” as do Wayne State, Marquette, Drake, and the McCombs School at UT Austin. And, of course, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University does a bang-up job. A few, like Rasmussen College are clearly headed in the right direction.
This isn’t rocket science, and I’m not the only one recommending this course. There are opportunities for those who seek them out. But do it in a deliberate, thoughtful way.
So, should I Twitter?
I think if you are willing to take the risk, and are interested in engaging current and potential students in conversation, then yes, you should. If you just want to spit out press releases, you can do that too, but don’t be surprised when you don’t get much of a return on that small investment.
Recognize that–and this should be the motto of anyone involved in social media–social media is expensive. It’s not expensive because you have to buy a fancy server, or outsource design work, or buy a five-figure license for a piece of software. It’s expensive because it takes time and dedication to do right. For many universities, it’s not a winning proposition. There are significant rewards to be reaped, but there is also a lot of investment and a lot of risk.
When it comes to our own online division, QU Online, the answer is “duh!” Of course we should be Twittering. The people we want to reach are those who are comfortable with forming relationships and having conversations online. We should show that we are comfortable doing the same. But it is perhaps even more important that we demonstrate the best practices of university tweeting. The best solution for all universities, ours included, is to coopt students, staff, and faculty to tweet from a personal account. Sure, down the road you can RT these through your branded Twitter account if you want. But for now, get people to offer their authentic voice, and direct message or email them fodder for their tweeting.
Can you spell it out for me?
Well, the first step, before anything else, is to have a goal in mind. Why are you using Twitter? What is the concrete outcome you are seeking. For us, I think it needs to be recognition by potential students and employers that QU has online programs that are not poor step-cousins of “real” degrees, and that can provide a unique experience. That is, our Twitter use has to look at the long game of branding.
Step 2. As part of your regular scan, start following current students, faculty, and staff. Retweet them when they tweet something relevant to the institution.
Step 3. Turn your followers. You now know who they are, catch them in the hall, or pick up the phone, or whatever. Recruit your own first. The message coming from a current student has way more impact than one coming from you. Cultivate those relationships first.
Step 4. Be a promiscuous friender. When someone has a birthday, wish them happy birthday. Be nice. Be informal. Be genuine. It’s almost not like work.