Social media use in higher education is arguably in its developing stages. Where entire departments are dedicated to more traditional marketing communications — print and Web-based campaigns, highly-targeted copywriting, and market research — social media, for the most part, is an untapped resource that lives on the margins of student engagement and student recruitment. Of the more perplexing platforms is Twitter, truncating the verbose nature of academia and streaming at a rapid pace with more than 550 million active users, actual people or otherwise (“Twitter Statistics”). So the question becomes, what do institutions of higher education — as they seek to increase enrollment, promote research, gain funders, build their brand and reputation, prepare leaders and global citizens for tomorrow, and engage their communities — do to engage this audience of millions? How are colleges and universities using the platform now? And should they use it?
The majority of the commentary and research agrees that Twitter is being used as a one-way communication mechanism that pushes news and headlines, ignoring the built-in connectivity of the platform itself. And many argue that institutions are doing so at the expense of the platform’s built-in advantages as well as their audiences’ interests (Diehl-Amen et al. 11; Linvill et al. 636; Mansfield 27; Dean). Social media — and Twitter in particular — have an ingrained leveling-effect that removes institutional/organizational hierarchy and allows users — faculty, staff, students, and administrators alike — to interact on an equal plane without traditional systems of priority and privilege. Twitter establishes a valuable proximity that if used correctly can create new opportunities for two-way communication and the sharing of information and resources (Groves 33; Priego; Patel; Pacansky-Brock; Lehman). That said, in order to transform one’s content into conversation — the strategic approach needs to extend beyond messaging and consider “the other.” Which is to say that acknowledging the humanity behind the computer screen is essential in building online relationships (Groves 33). Adolfo Cardona, Assistant Professor of Principles of Marketing and Marketing Management at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, argues that creating content strategies that engage the cultural (and particularly financial) environment of today’s students are key to acknowledging the reality of young people’s experience and establishing an authentic brand. Online messaging should provide validation, mentoring, recognition/celebration, resources, and highlight student voices, he says. Cardona argues that new media tools should be used to build humanistic, empathetic, and inspirational connections — because that will fundamentally build the strongest relationship with current and prospective students (A26). What comes from this type of conversation and topoi — extending beyond press releases and campus events — is what many social media strategists refer to as “authenticity,” a voice that inspires original conversations and that takes advantage of the medium itself (Groves 33).
But let’s return to the point. Studies show that the majority of colleges are not engaging in this type of two-way personal communication, despite recommendations in the field. A Twitter content analysis of 113 colleges and universities, conducted by researchers at Clemson University, indicated that 70 percent of the content served as a “news feed to a general audience” — the tweets contained links to other parts of the institutions’ Web presences (Linvill et al.). And while there are standout examples — Texas A&M, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Tufts, University of Wisconsin – Madison — many universities struggle with investing in Twitter altogether (Dean; Patel; “Social Media Marketing Strategies in Higher Education;” “Social Media Measurement for Colleges and Universities”).
Investment, however, often denotes value — which is the question on the minds of many in higher education (Priego; Mansfield 27; Al Khalifa et al.; Blankenship 41; Wecker). Is Twitter a valuable tool in higher education? A survey of nearly 2,000 higher education professionals in 2010 found that more than half of those polled believe that Twitter has “no future in academia or potential use,” citing a waste of time and the cultivation of poor writing habits as potential problems (Al Khalifa et al.). This opinion seems to be reflected in the investment of dedicated staff for social media content strategy as well. In 2012, of 100 colleges and universities polled, only 30 reported having dedicated staff members for social media marketing; and 50 percent of respondents had a budget under $100,000 (“Social Media Marketing Strategies in Higher Education” 6). All that said, 100 percent of four-year accredited institutions in the U.S. reported using some form of social media in a recent study, with 84 percent using Twitter (Deil-Amen et al. 10).
So what we’re left with is lots of skeptics, a handful of pioneers, mostly news-related content and what is arguably untapped potential. Where do we go from there?
Ask those on the receiving end … And who is on the receiving end? This is where it gets interesting.
The easy answer is not many current students and very few prospective students — huge target markets for university offices of communications and publications. A report from 2012 indicates that only 8 percent of Twitter’s users are below 17 years old; 15 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24 years (Nurmi). To compound those figures, a study conducted by Inigral and Zinch shows only 18 percent of 7,000 high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors indicated that they used Twitter in their college search process (compared to 68 percent using Facebook) (“The Social Admissions Report” 4). A significant group of researchers and practitioners believe that Twitter serves as a poor marketing tool for prospective students and recruitment expressly because of these statistics and despite efforts to the contrary. They argue, instead, that the emphasis should be put on speaking to the audience that is “present,” specifically alumni, nontraditional, online, or graduate students (Mansfield 27-28; Deil-Amen et al.; Truong; “The Social Admissions Report” 4). Users between the ages of 25 and 54 make up approximately 70 percent of Twitter’s user-base (Nurmi).
Nevertheless, many social media content strategy firms and professionals are focusing their content strategy on prospective and current students, arguing that there’s no better way to have insight into discussions about the college experience and discover ways to enhance it (“Social Media Strategy in Higher Education” 3; Deil-Amen et al. 4; Cardona; Wecker; Blankenship 39-41; Priego). In addition, this contingent argues that there are very practical uses, including crisis management, classroom integration, and modeling skills for the professional world that current students could benefit greatly from (Wecker; Pacansky-Brock; Rich).
Who’s Doing What?
The corpus of study examined here are the Twitter feeds of DePaul University’s competitor research institutions for the last three months, including Bradley, Drake, Illinois State, Loyola, Marquette, Michigan State, Northeastern, Northern Illinois, St. Johns, and St. Louis University, as well as the Universities of Dayton, Iowa, Wisconsin – Madison, Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, and Illinois at Chicago.
What is very clear is that these universities are, without fail, using their Twitter feeds to push-out news related content, in the form of traditional public relations copy or news release headlines. The content is almost always tied to university reputation, touting the success of students, alumni, and strides in research.
Another common topoi is charity related posts, including updates about upcoming events and reporting on work students have completed. Very often university/college Twitter handles are used for a call to action. Events in general are a common content type among Twitter in higher education, but the emphasis on community service seems to be strong in this group — possibly, because of the large number of mission-focused Catholic and Jesuit institutions.
The remaining common topoi among the group is addressing the questions/concerns of students. Surprisingly, almost every school — despite what the research indicated — responded to students and tagged them in posts. Some school’s channels’ were almost entirely dedicated to this purpose (i.e., Michigan State), while others seem only to respond to the rare request. And schools like Bradley and Illinois State, for example, are clearly monitoring key terms and responding to mentions as they occur.
The tone and writing style ranges drastically and to varying degrees of success among this group. While many maintain strict “professional” and academic tones (i.e., Illinois State University, Loyola University, and St. John’s University), others embrace humor and very casual language (i.e., the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Bradley University, University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, and Northern Illinois University). In terms of frequency, college and university handles seem to be tweeting between five and fifteen times per day depending on the volume of conversations that are occurring with other users.
Interpreting the writing style of Twitter in higher education requires an understanding of the conversation happening at the institutional level and the activity happening on any one campus. The pattern of use in this research corpus is one that targets prospective and current students almost exclusively, informing them of news, campus events, and serving as a supplemental hotline to address questions, concerns and the occasional gripe. Every institution, with the exception of one, writes from an authoritative and institutional perspective, speaking — for the most part — as an institutional entity. (The University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign’s official Twitter handle speaks from the voice of a statue on campus, using a light and maternal tone.)