Twitter strategy

For lots of reasons, it has been an interesting start to the new academic year. One particularly interesting development has been the number of high-level administrators at VCU who have joined Twitter in the last week or two.  Academic deans, vice provosts, the provost, and the president of the university. Yes, the president of the university. Dr. Rao is certainly not the first university president to be active on Twitter, but over the first few days of his involvement, I have been impressed with his strategy. In particular, the tweet below from this past Thursday isn’t just an ordinary tweet; it demonstrates an understanding of Internet memes and the participatory culture of the Web.

In an email to the whole VCU community, Dr. Rao stated that he would be changing his overall communications strategy. He is going to send fewer emails and communicate more through his blog, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That’s quite a statement from a president of a major, urban research university.

Dr. Rao’s new communications strategy has me wondering in lots of directions, including what my less new media-savvy colleagues think about this. More importantly, though, it has me thinking about OUR Twitter strategy.

My colleagues and I are launching the Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab) at VCU. We’re in a sort of soft launch now, but announcements will be made to the whole university community in the coming days and weeks. I believe we’ll be fully “launched” when the provost sends an email blast to the whole university community this coming week. This is a very exciting time for us, and I will be writing MUCH MORE about this after we’re fully launched.

At a team meeting this past week, we discussed our Twitter strategy. The default assumption, I believe, has been that ALT Lab would have its own Twitter account. Of course we will, right? I mean, our tagline is “Connected Learning for a Networked World,” and social media potentially play a big role in connected learning. So, why wouldn’t we have a Twitter account. Well, here’s why; or, here’s my argument for why we might not have a Twitter account.

I often shake my head (#smh) at Twitter accounts for groups or organizations. It seems like every schooldepartment, organization, club, etc. at VCU has a Twitter account. Based only on my observations, the vast majority of those accounts are broadcast only or mostly used for broadcast. I understand how vast the Twittersphere is, and, therefore, the temptation to shout things out to that vast audience. But, this approach misses at least a couple of key points about Twitter. First, Twitter is a form of social media; social being the key word there, for me. It is inherently more than a one-to-many medium. It is not email, or even a blog or a website. To use Twitter like email (or TV or radio) is to use it in ways that don’t maximize its affordances. When I see Twitter accounts being used as broadcast-only, I can’t help but to think, “You’re doing it wrong.”  I’ll go one step further and say that I think lesser of organizations (or even individuals) with those kinds of Twitter accounts.

I recognize that we could have an ALT Lab Twitter account that does engage with followers. However, when I engage with organizational accounts, it feels impersonal. It’s like I’m communicating with an employee, not a person. Also, frankly, I don’t want anyone on our team to have to spend time responding on behalf of our Twitter account and having to “properly” represent the organization.

My thinking, instead, is that we’ll have a Twitter hashtag (#VCUALTLab) that my teammates and I will use when tweeting something relevant to our work. Currently, the Twitter icon on our website links out to the Twitter search page for that hashtag. Also, I’ve compiled a Twitter list with the accounts of everyone on our team. With one click, anyone with a Twitter account can follow everyone who works in ALT Lab. I believe this is more “personal” and, more importantly, is more consistent with Twitter as a network-based medium. In other words, if you want to know what’s happening in/with ALT Lab, don’t just follow one account, follow a dozen or so people. This gives you a diversity of perspectives on the organization, brings you closer to the people within the organization, and potentially exposes you to the networks of those people.

A few days ago, during our team meeting where we were discussing this Twitter issue, my colleague Tom Woodward noted that the company that makes his propane tank had a number of social media icons on the label of his propane tank. So, he sent out this tweet.

If you check out Blue Rhino’s Instagram account, you find nothing. And, so, all I can think is that some social media guru working for or with Blue Rhino has failed; I think lesser of that company.

What do you think? Do we need a dedicated Twitter account for VCU ALT Lab?


9 thoughts on “Twitter strategy”

  1. I think using a hashtag is smarter, allows individuals to participate without anyone taking on the maintenance of a good Twitter site. Keyword: good. There are so many well-meaning and worthy organizations that have dreary PR-only Twitter sites. I’ve even offered to introduce one to a nationally known social media expert who is willing to help them pro bono AND lives in their town. The organization said, “No, we’re good.” Except they’re really, really not good.
    Your hashtag is a bit of a mouthfull, but I’ve noticed several people have shortened it to #altlab which is a cool one, and doesn’t seem to be “owned” by anyone.
    Getting people on Twitter is not very interesting, unless they’re having good conversations, talking about interesting stuff. I think you’re off to a very good start and other institutions, not just higher ed, could learn from your approach.

  2. The people that are really ‘on’ Twitter use it as a conversation platform. I see that could be a real issue for organizations or businesses because it would be very difficult for one person or a small team to do so while keeping the identity (or branding) consistent, at least without it sounding like an infomercial.

    I think that big groups by necessity have to use social media to broadcast more than to have conversations. Even if they personally respond to individual tweets, the conversation almost has to revolve around the culture of whom they represent. That probably won’t lead to very interesting conversations.

  3. Jon Becker says:

    Thanks, @mtechman. We considered a few variants of the hashtag. For now, it feels important to have VCU in there.

    @wmchamberlain that’s an important point. I don’t want any one person to feel like they have to share the party line (if there is a party line). Also, we’re a small enough group (for now) that it’s not too burdensome on any one person to follow all of the members of our team. That’s probably important context for this strategy. In other words, this strategy won’t work for a large organization with lots of individual tweeters.

  4. It’s not as simple as “yes, you should have one” or “no, they suck” — it depends.

    The problem, as you noted, is not only that they are announcement oriented, but more importantly, they tend to have no personality, no voice, no presence. This is typically because it lands on one person, or is not really important, but mostly, we reach first for “our” accounts to speak. I’ve tried it weakly for @ds106 ( but tend to forget to use it- when I teach, students follow me).

    That said, there can be cases made. A hashtag does useful gathering of tweets, and works well on your lovely new site. The downside is, hashtags are harder to follow on a regular basis- unless people know how to save them, or use something like Tweetdeck (and will they devote a column to your tag, doubtful), and many mobile clients do not make them easy to follow. Likewise lists- a great idea, almost never used.

    The thing is people tune into the conversational flow, and that’s where you want to be. It works out well to tweet out stuff published to your site. It does work really well for something like the daily create account,

    So the answer is, if you can make the tweets interesting, worth following, and someone (or ones) will tend to the account enough, doing the things like following people, and conversing, you could make some good use of it.

    One “solution” I tried when I was at NMC was Grouptweet ( — it allows ppl to tweet from where they live, their account, but by adding a special hash tag, the tweets get sent out via the “official” account (with attribution to the tweeter). The idea was to (a) let multiple people tweet to a shared account w/o giving out passwords, but more (b) let them tweet from where they “live” their personal accounts.

    But yes, doing just announcements and blog posts w/o any voice leaves it wanting.

  5. Hey Jon,

    In some respects, I think there’s definitely a party line, and people are expected to respect that. Though, to some degree, that’s a matter of having the sense not to say that what you’re doing is BS, for example. 🙂

    I’m still a bit suspicious of Twitter. I dislike that Rao is moving some of his generally excellent (especially in comparison) communication there. Twitter seems a lot more ephemeral, and certainly brief. It also takes more effort to seek out the message than with his prior periodic e-mails. Also, the acting provost just invited people to communicate with him, but directed people to Twitter, which means I need to say what I want to say in 140 characters or less. Isn’t that arguably a way of saying, “Please don’t address anything complicated or substantive to me”?

    The hashtag makes good sense to me, though. I am cautiously pessimistic about some of the changes, and hope very much to be pleasantly surprised over the next few weeks/months. Good luck!

  6. Jon Becker says:

    Thanks for your comments, @Meriah.

    How hard have you worked at Twitter? Take a look at this conversation and let me know if you think nothing complicated or substantive is happening:

    Also, I don’t think this is a zero-sum game; it’s not Twitter vs. email (or blogs). How people communicate has changed drastically, and it’s not because of any one medium. It’s because we have multiple media. It used to be that for me to communicate with my family, hundreds of miles away, I had to make a phone call (only from my home) or write a letter. Now, I communicate with my family by voice (from anywhere), text, Facebook, email, Skype, etc. Literally, I use all of those. So, when Dr. Rao says he will now use Twitter and Instagram and LInkedIn all while continuing to blog, he’s just taking a more modern and comprehensive approach.

    If you do research on technology literacy as a construct, you come to learn that it’s not just about knowing how to use various tools. In fact, more inherent in the definition is knowing the right tools to bring to bear given a goal/task. So, that’s the challenge ahead for all of us. As we think about our communications strategies, what should we do where? Longer-form communications might happen via blogs (or email) and shorter forms of communication might work better (c.f. the discussion to which I linked above) in other places. Images and videos might be shared multiple ways.

  7. I think this is a much harder problem than you suggest. For a lot of historical, serious, and still entirely valid reasons, every communication that appears to be an official communication of the university bears a special responsibility that other communications (say by professors) do not have.

    Twitter is a notoriously “hot” medium–people get into fights all the time. In fact, I’d wager that fights are one of the most common social interactions on there, and I’ve got plenty of experience to prove it.

    The fact is that like every other form of official communication, everything that goes out on Twitter has to be multiply vetted by every responsible party for whatever unit is behind the particular brand. that makes it very difficult to have real-time conversations, but I see no reason to believe that rule can or should be suspended because the medium invites it.

    if you look at the way large corporations who use social media, who have similar but often not as stringent representation requirements as do public institutions of higher education, you will see them appearing to be interactive and social, but actually doing so within very narrow bounds, and clearly within a large communication hierarchy that is rigorous about keeping the content on-message. not because they are stiff: because they have to do this with all communication.

    As you know, I really don’t like the rhetoric of “these educators just don’t understand how great these new tools are, if they really understood how to use them.” In this case, I think it is butting up against real, time-tested, and necessary limits on the ways universities communication *officially* with the public, that are quite valid. As soon as a Departmental or Program or School representative starts directly interacting with a person on Twitter–outside of very narrow bounds like “where do I go to apply?” “here’s the web link!”–the head of every unit has to seriously worry about how full the supervision is of the person doing the tweeting. at a university as resource-poor as ours, that’s a luxury we don’t have, and frankly I see very few universities operating otherwise, and I don’t think that’s because they “don’t get it”–I think they DO get it, and are taking a wise and even legally-necessary course of action regarding it.

  8. Jon Becker says:

    That’s a helpful, frame, @dgolumbia. So, then, doesn’t that support the proposal I argue for? That is, by having no “official” ALT Lab account, and suggesting that folks follow team members individually, we avoid the (necessary, as you suggest) trappings of supervision and messaging.

    If not, then what would you recommend? I don’t ask that in a “throw my hands up in frustration” kind of way. It’s a genuine question; that’s why I posted this.

  9. What is assumed to be on-content for some entities makes for very unappealing messages. It’s when things get more open and inclusive that paradoxically (for a format-constricted medium), Twitter can lead to richer connections and deeper possibilities. I think there are fights in all kinds of places – Chronicle of Higher Ed, journals, email….
    It makes sense to me to have no official lab account, and take the position that participants can be themselves, be professional and not be overly managed.
    I like the serendipity of Twitter, live in my email, don’t enjoy Facebook, have gotten tired of making wikis, laugh at Pinterest even as I make learning objects with it….but that’s just me.
    I’ve been thinking about how to allow for some connections between my teen Mozilla webmaker tinkerers and some real coders and some people in my artsEd world and I think the hashtag approach, with pointers to Thimble, tumblrs etc is probably what makes sense, but still thinking….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.