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Higher Education and the Twittersphere: Keeping Alumni Engaged

Twitter provides higher education institutions with a direct method to contact and engage with their alumni.

An essential (but often overlooked) key to social media success in higher education is careful platform selection. Savvy social media managers identify platforms that are best suited for specific institutional goals and allocate their resources accordingly. They also avoid the common pitfall of equating a platform’s raw user total with its value to their program. I see this a lot: schools hear about Facebook’s impressive user statistics and think, “We have to be on Facebook!” without considering what it is they would like Facebook to help them accomplish, and whether or not Facebook’s structure lends itself to that purpose. For continuing and professional education programs looking to engage alumni and leverage their potential as recruiting agents, I’d argue that Twitter is actually the superior option.

This is true in part because adult program recruiters can mine alumni networks for prospective students in ways that aren’t available to traditional admissions officers wooing 18-year-olds. For example, after John takes a non-credit writing course at a local university, he might have a few friends who’d be interested in taking the same course, or maybe some other friends who’d like an course in HTML or a program in management from his alma mater. With no standard age for entering these programs, John’s network will remain a promising source of potential enrollments for many years. Twitter’s largely public format lends itself nicely to accessing these networks of alumni family and friends. While Twitter does allow for private accounts, it’s most useful as a conversational tool, so its most active accounts tend to be open to the public—unlike Facebook, where restrictive privacy settings and closed networks are the norm. And Twitter’s retweet button facilitates near-instant transmission of messages across those networks by allowing users to share another person’s tweet with one click.

It’s also easier for institutions to identify influential alumni on Twitter relative to Facebook. Alumna Amy’s Facebook friend count (if it’s visible) may represent an odd mix of close friends, one-off acquaintances, and people she hasn’t spoken with since high school, and Facebook’s secret news feed algorithm means that not all of these people are guaranteed to receive her updates. In contrast, Amy’s Twitter followers have shown an active interest in what she has to say by voluntarily opting to receive her content. A Twitter user’s follower total is therefore a better gauge of a person’s effectiveness as an online communicator and an opinion leader.

To make the most of the advantages offered by Twitter’s design, an institution needs alumni to engage with its Twitter account on a regular basis—not only to follow its updates, but also to retweet its posts and mention the school in virtual conversations. Fortunately, it’s not as difficult to generate this interaction as you might think. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is able to do it using a simple yet effective strategy. (Although it’s not strictly a lifelong learning unit, there are enough similarities between the students in Carlson’s target demographic and the students typically recruited by continuing and professional education units that I think it’s a compelling example for any unit pursuing adult students.)

The Carlson MBA Twitter account regularly highlights individual alumni accomplishments: for instance, tweeting to congratulate an alumnus on his new job title, or to promote an alumna’s blog post on a well-known business website. (The alumnus’s Twitter account is included in the tweet whenever possible to ensure that he doesn’t miss the mention.) This is a terrific idea for several reasons. First, it reinforces graduates’ loyalty by publicly demonstrating the school’s ongoing investment in their success. Second, it increases the likelihood that a message from Carlson MBA will reach graduates’ extended networks. Graduates are thrilled to be praised to the Carlson School’s 1,500+ followers, and will often retweet the original post to their own followers. Proud friends and family of the spotlighted alumnus may also retweet the post to their followers in turn. Finally, if and when the tweet does reach users beyond the Carlson School’s follower base, it shows any prospective students in the audience that Carlson School graduates go on to experience career success.

Beyond the strategy’s immediate benefits, the Carlson School has also found that regularly tweeting about alumni generates a certain amount of goodwill towards the school on social media—so much so that they’ve seen more alumni tweet about Carlson unprompted as a result. Taken together, this all adds up to enormously beneficial word-of-mouth advertising for Carlson, and it’s done without a significant time investment from Carlson staff.

I think their approach is incredibly smart, and it works because it’s based on a fundamental understanding of what Twitter can do, and how they can maximize Twitter’s potential to meet their objectives.

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