Using Twitter to promote your institution

When I first created a personal account on Twitter (@franknorman) I did not have any strategy – I just did it. I observed how other twitterers used the service then I copied and adapted their practices. I am still learning and I still do not really have an explicit strategy though there is some underlying rationale to my twittering. It’s a different matter when you start using an institutional Twitter account. If you are representing your institution by sending messages (tweets) through Twitter then you need to have a plan in order to avoid problems later.
Jeremiah Owyang (http://bit.ly/3fZOHt) suggests that there are four kinds of Twitter profile: pure corporate, corporate with persona, employee with corporate association, pure personal. I am mostly considering the pure corporate profile.

Is Twitter a good tool for PR?
Twitter is inherently a personal tool, but PR is essentially a corporate activity. There is therefore tension when you use Twitter for PR purposes. Twitter provides an opportunity to engage more directly with the audience you are trying to reach; it can be a good way to establish and maintain relationships. A well-thought-out Twitter feed can keep your institution in the consciousness of your followers – this has been called ambient awareness.. The little snippets of information you post to Twitter, when taken together over time, will coalesce into a portrait of the institution.

Twitter also has the capability to reach out to a wide variety of constituencies – but the reach is very sensitive to the content of the Twitter feed. If people do not like what they read in your Twitter feed (for example if the feed is too corporate and impersonal) they may stop looking at your messages. You need to provide a human voice and devote some time to monitoring and interacting with your audience in order to develop the relationship and the respect for your institutional brand.

Your aim then should be to create a stream of Tweets about your institution that will attract a growing band of followers and give them a sense of intellectual engagement with the institution.

Preparations
The first step is to choose a username for your institutional Twitter account. Your username should be not too long and should ideally contain only letters, no numbers or other characters. This will ensure it is easy for other Twitter users to to respond to and re-use your tweets. Jack Leblond gives further guidance (http://bit.ly/21vyi). Next you need to choose an avatar, or associated image. This has to be square (48 pixels by 48 pixels) so it is possible that your standard institutional logo will not be suitable and you may need to create a new image. If you wish you can also choose a background image for your Twitter profile page.

Guidelines for Tweeting
I am not a great lover of rules. Twitter is still a new and evolving medium: people use it in different ways and I am sure that Twitter styles will change as the community of users grows and that different norms will develop as the community diversifies. The best way to develop a Twitter style is to observe and copy, learning from other Twitterers but injecting your own ideas. Developing tight institutional guidelines for content on Twitter may produce a too-safe, too-controlled channel. Twitter can be unpredictable and quirky and this is one of its attractions.

You should create some basic guidelines in order to give some consistency to your tweets, especially if more than one person is going to be sending out ttweets on the institutional account. For example,

  • use third person plural (we, us, our);
  • decide what name you will use to refer to the institution;
  • use a conversational tone, but not too casual;
  • avoid text-speak.

You will also need to decide on language – are you aiming for a national or an international audience, or a mixture. You should consider whether it would be useful to include some tweets in English as well as your own language.

If there is an RSS feed of news about your institution it is possible to feed this into your Twitter account automatically. You can even feed multiple RSS feeds into the account. However, automatic tweeting in this way makes your Twitter stream less personal, less human. Remember that Twitter is a social medium and thrives on personality; social media without people defeats the purpose. Although ideally every tweet should be hand typed it is OK to include some automatic feeds, so long as they do not dominate.

Some Twitter gurus insist that the frequency of tweets should be no less than 2 and no more than 10 per day. I think this is over-prescriptive. Whilst it is true that too few tweets may make you invisible while too many tweets can be overwhelming. I think it is more important to allow your Twitter stream to develop naturally, not to force yourself to send out Tweets just to make up the numbers.

Building your followers
The best-written and most interesting tweets in the world are no use unless someone is reading them. You will therefore want to develop your Twitter followers. When a Twitter user follows you it means that your tweets will appear on their incoming Twitter stream. If they follow you, you do not have to follow them back but you may wish to. Some Twitter etiquette guides suggest that it is rude not to reciprocate if someone follows you but I disagree. It is fine to follow just those Twitter users that you are interested in. On the other hand, you may want to build up your list of followers initially by following other Twitter users in the hope that they will follow you.

Unless you have protected your tweets (so that only those following you can read them) then your tweets will be readable by any Twitter user. One of the surprising things about Twitter is the extent to which activity generates followers. The more you Twitter, the more followers you gain. Some of these may be spam followers – accounts that are not genuine. These do not do much harm but you may still wish to block them. The Twitblock service (http://bit.ly/qEeif) helps to identify potential spam followers.

Depending on your objectives, you may wish to build followers from the media, your alumni, your staff and students, other similar organizations, policymakers or the general public. Remember that though it is easy to follow a Twitter account, it is just as easy to stop following! Your tweets therefore need to keep your followers interested.

You should also develop some guidelines on who you will follow, whether you will monitor their tweets, whether/when you will retweet (RT) their tweets and whether you will enter into conversations with them. You may wish to follow members of your institution who are Twitterers and retweet any tweets they write about the institution. They will probably appreciate the exposure and may be inspired to retweet you from time to time. Entering into conversation with followers through Twitter can be time-consuming if you have a large number of followers but can be rewarding and helps with relationship building.

You may also want to routinely monitor what is being said about your institution by others on Twitter, not just those who you follow. Various Twitter services allow you to do this. Again, you may want to enter into conversations in some cases.

Managing the activity
Different problems arise depending on whether the Twitter account is controlled by one person or a team of people. It is obviously easier to maintain consistency if there is a single Twitterer, but you need to consider what happens when that person is absent, and also make plans to sustain the activity if that person should leave the organisation. The activity needs to be embedded rather than just relying on the enthusiasm of one person. If a team of people are Twittering on the same account then guidelines and a way of coordinating are essential. It is important that the Twitter team are knowledgeable about the institution, especially if they will be responding to Tweets as well as generating them.

Another approach is to encourage Twitterers from within the institution to tweet on their own behalf but with an institutional slant. This can add to the overall volume of tweets coming out of the institution and adds personality but you need to be sure that the extra Twitterers will follow the institutional guidelines. If you are successful in recruiting extra Twitterers you may want to use one of the various Twitter tools to organise them into a group to make it easier to see all their activity.

A Twitter feed can be seen as a transient stream of messages that has no permanence or presence, but you may wish to preserve it or to display it on the institutional website. You can also display Twitter activity from other institutional twitterers. Brian Kelly has reviewed tools for preserving tweets (http://bit.ly/zLFks). Glen Stansberry has a good tutorial on how to integrate Twitter with your website (http://bit.ly/sAnc8).

It is good practice to include a statement on the website to make it clear who is providing the Twitter feed, the purpose of the service, policies on following other Twitter users and responding to comments, a privacy statement and a legal disclaimer.

Is it worthwhile?
Twitter is an important medium in 2009 and establishing an institutional presence makes good sense. It would be wise to review the situation after 6 or 12 months to judge whether the time spent on Twitter is still worthwhile, and whether the strategy is achieving results. The latter can be difficult to prove, but your number of followers and the number of times your messages have been retweeted give some indicator of your impact.

Conclusion
An institutional Twitter account can extend the reach of your existing communication channels. It can also provide a more human voice than other channels and shows the institution’s commitment to the digital world.

Further reading
JISCInvolve have provided a good overview of Twitter (http://bit.ly/ufVtz) and WeAreEmedia have links to other guides for the nont-for-profit sector (http://bit.ly/C0iV). There is an excellent guide to Twitter strategy from the UK Government (http://bit.ly/3wpN14) and very sound advice from Aaron Rester about using Twitter in Higher Education (http://bit.ly/Z1GG6). Paul Boag recently gave a presentation on using Twitter in an institutional context (http://bit.ly/30owF2). Brian Kelly has reviewed emerging best practice for institutional use of Twitter (http://bit.ly/EMmnP).

Frank Norman, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, The Ridgeway, London

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