Is Twitter Right for Your Department?

I have long espoused the benefits of being active on Twitter. For me, Twitter has been an incredible networking tool, connecting me to higher education web and social media professionals across the country. It took some thought and research, though, to determine how UM-Flint should join the Twitter game. Are you considering joining? Are you already in the game, but not sure if you’re playing by the rules?

If you’ve ever spoken to me about social media, you’ve doubtless heard me say “if you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all.” This holds true for Twitter. So how do you know how to “do it well?”

Last year, University Relations took a good look at UM-Flint’s Twitter communication and made some decisions about how to proceed. We found that UM-Flint’s following is largely comprised of community members, organizations, alumni, and some current students. Messaging aimed at prospective students would likely be unsuccessful. Thus, @umflint on Twitter has become an outlet for brand-related messages, a source for notes to and about our community, and a point of contact for our followers. Recognizing the customer service opportunity that Twitter allows, conversations with and about UM-Flint are monitored. We decided that the best way to influence the conversation about UM-Flint was to be a part of it.

Before you or your department endeavors to use Twitter as part of your communication plan, I urge you to go through a similar exercise. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is likely to follow you on Twitter? If you already have a Twitter account, take a look at who your current followers are.
  • Will your followers be your target audience?
  • What message do you want to convey? Will it be relevant to your actual audience (if it differs from your target)?
  • Will you be able to participate in and monitor Twitter discussion?
  • Can you better leverage other social media outlets to get your message out?

You may go through this exercise and wonder if Twitter is where you should spend your energy, especially if your target audience is prospective students. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center reported that while 73% of American teens were actively using social media, only 8% used Twitter. When it comes to current students, it seems that Twitter usage among young adults age 18-29 is higher (one-third according to Pew). According the 2011 E-Expectations Report by Noel-Levitz, “only 9 percent of students and 5 percent of parents [have] Twitter accounts.” On our campus, we haven’t seen much adoption of Twitter by current students so far. At over 1,000 followers, @umflint’s interaction with students is growing, but still minimal.

Despite these potentially discouraging statistics, you might still find benefit in using Twitter. Perhaps you’re not hoping to connect with students en mass, but a segmented group of students who’d appreciate an additional point of contact. Some professors, for example, incorporate Twitter into their coursework. Twitter could be great for interacting with students and encouraging dialogue outside of the classroom. Some departments might find that their students are already communicating amongst themselves on Twitter (and not necessarily with the university at large). Doing some additional research and surveying your target audience about its social media habits might help you build your plan.

As the New Media person in University Relations, I talk with people every day about how social media and technology can work for them. I firmly believe that there is a social media strategy that will work for everyone–given that there is, in fact, a strategy. In higher education, it can be incredibly tempting to jump into every social media outlet available. Isn’t this where our target audience is getting its information? The answer to that is yes. And no.

There are so many social media applications today that it’s impossible to find the one place where the entirety of our audience is spending its time. Our strategy, then, must be to focus our time and energy where we get the most bang for our buck. If Twitter is something you’d like to pursue, start with a strategy. Do some research to find out whether your target audience is on Twitter, then decide how you’ll reach them and keep them engaged.

Alaina Wiens
New Media Communications Specialist