In Defense of Human Tweeting

A Bird Mascot Unmasked

Illustration by Tom Klimek

In April 2008, I joined Twitter (@LoriPA) and quickly found it to be a fun, useful and powerful tool. One month later, I created the University of Rochester’s Twitter account (@UofR) and quickly found it to be – well, frankly, confusing.

I created the account primarily to grab the UofR name. I assumed that as I used Twitter personally, I would learn how to use it institutionally. Instead, while my own use of Twitter exploded, my school’s use of Twitter advanced in fits and starts. I understood what it meant for me to be on Twitter, but after two years of tweeting as the University of Rochester, I never really grasped what it meant for the university to tweet.

In August 2010, following conversations that grew out of my HighEdWeb presentation “Talking to Your Boss About Twitter” and after reading Shel Israel’s insights in his book, “Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods” I made a simple change: I replaced the University of Rochester logo as the Twitter avatar with my own bespectacled mug, and was up front in the bio that the tweets were coming from me, Lori in Wallis Hall.

How have things gone, six months into the experiment. First, I have no quantifiable evidence that this change in approach has led to more followers, more retweets or a greater Klout score. We’ve gone from 1,400 followers in mid-August to 2,100 today, and we gain an average of 12 new followers a day. In the six months before this change, we grew from 960 fans to 1,400. While we are growing at a faster rate, but this likely has more to do with the overall growth of Twitter than my small but, I think, significant change.

What I do have are some stories that I think illustrate how being a person on Twitter has proved useful to me, and I hope to our followers.

Live Team Tweeting

My first real chance to explore this more personal approach to Twitter came during Rochester’s reunion and parents’ weekend, about two months after the switch. I proposed a simple idea: create a “Twitter team” – one person from Student Activities, one from Alumni Relations and me. We would be empowered to live-tweet from events and answer questions with complete transparency.

Instead of tweeting event listings and news releases, we could give our followers who weren’t in town a sense of the weekend through our photos and tweets from the weekend’s lectures, concerts and sporting events. Without feeling like we had to the carry the weight of the entire University of Rochester on our virtual shoulders, we were free to be Lori, Brie and Melissa.

University of Rochester Twitter Profile

Responses with a Personal Touch

If the June 2010 Old Spice Twitter campaign taught me anything, it’s the importance of smelling like a man. But if it taught me anything else, it’s the power of the personal response. Throughout the hugely successful campaign, the Old Spice Man would respond in near real-time to the tweets of ordinary, less-well-scented citizens. During that same summer, Tim Nekritz of SUNY Oswego blogged about the Atlanta Braves and how they use their Twitter account to respond directly to their fans.

Both of those ideas inspired me to use our Twitter account to send quick, personal, visual responses to our followers when I can. I don’t know how you measure the impact or value of such an interaction, but currently, it’s not a huge commitment of time, and it usually leads to a fun interaction that wouldn’t be possible or as immediate any other way.

Contest Time: 80s Television Edition

In December, comedian Howie Mandel came to campus. A student contacted the @UofR Twitter account and suggested I hold a Twitter contest to give away some tickets he couldn’t use.

Over lunch that day, the University’s first Twitter trivia contest began. Quick! What was the name of Mandel’s children’s series and the name of his character from the 80s television show St. Elsewhere? If you answered “Bobby’s World” and “Dr. Wayne Fiscus,” you are correct! And how fast did the responses roll in? If you answered, “Almost immediately,” you win the bonus round. There were 30 responses to give away four tickets. Again, hardly a social media revolution, I know. But it was a fun step in a new direction for us.

Communicating in a Crisis

In January 2011, a University of Rochester student was murdered during a party. While this was not a case of an ongoing threat or emergency, students, alumni and parents used Twitter as a way to express their shock and sadness, and to ask questions.

As a person and not a logo, it was much easier to commiserate with others in my community, answer questions when I could and be up front with them when I could not answer their questions.

Final Thoughts

Could each of the above scenarios have worked if I had not changed our avatar from a logo to a face? Sure. But this simple change is indicative of a larger mindset when it comes to social media. I still occasionally run into a critique of social media that goes something like this: “Everyone just updates their screens all day. Why don’t you go out and talk to some actual people for a change?” To which I reply, “Who do you think is posting all these updates and writing all these tweets?! PEOPLE!” Even in an institutional setting, it is still a person who is doing the tweeting. Why pretend otherwise?

  • Its a branding nightmare. Don’t mix the two.
    UofR
    @HighEdWeb

  • @twitter-14538180:disqus David: Do you mean mixing me with @UofR? If so, then so far I disagree. Our Twitter handle still ties to the institution not to me personally, and if we ever need to pass these duties along to another “head twit,” we can do that easily with a new profile pic and bio update. Kinda like the Dread Pirate Roberts.

    So far I remain convinced that when people want help, have a question, respond to something interesting or fun or important, etc., it helps to be
    transparent
    about the fact that a real person is behind it all.

  • Yes, mixing your brand with the OofR brand. Not sure what your branding strategy is but branding is image not twitter handles. By centering on the human baseball cap you diffuse the OofR brand. Your FB page uses the college seal so there is a branding disconnect with your social media properties.

    Of course, in a perfect world all marketing channels print, web, social media, etc would seamlessly tie in together. I do applaud you for stepping into the Human vs Institutional breech on social media strategy. That’s a tough one that has yet to play out.

  • Dan Demmons

    Amazing post Lori! I’ve just started tweeting for my institution and I’m thinking about switching over to your approach- I find it to be intimidating tweeting behind the logo of the school. There’s just “something” about it- i’m fine representing the school as myself, the lead web geek, but its another thing all together when i’m representing the school behind our logo. I also feel that we might get less snarky comments if those posting those comments were addressing a human face, rather than the school’s logo.

  • Interesting post — definitely has my mind churning. At Vassar where I work I set up @vassarnews:twitter — the main name was taken, but also I wanted to get us up and running on Twitter in a sustainable way. Without staff I opted for a news feed, presented as a news feed. Fast forward a couple years to this month and we now also have @vassar:twitter . I’m working with colleagues, slowly, to work out a strategy including who should staff it (when and how too) so we can respond in a timely way to questions and comments, and post regularly without spamming the community.

    A twist at our campus: we don’t do branding per se, at least not on our websites. Vassar is the brand — not a color scheme or logo. Of course we also have both, but we try to present each department and office individually to communicate as part of a larger Vassar community. The “branded” social media presence has troubled me, and this post has opened up my brain to a different approach. Thanks for the inspiration!