For the last four months I have conducted interviews and made observations of social activity of 16 Senior Level Student Affairs Leaders. These participants include positions such as Dean of Student up to Vice President & Senior Vice Chancellor in both student affairs and enrollment management.
While I am still in the midst of data analysis, a few patterns are coming across loud and clear that I wanted to share. In particular, how I see many of these leaders using Twitter to engage with students. I have found their use of Twitter as a tool with their campus communities to be extremely inspiring and the type of leadership behavior that all higher education professionals will need to become accustom to and competent with in the future.
Social media provides these Deans and Vice Presidents access and immediate reach to their campus communities. The impact is all documented through conversations on Twitter itself.
For example, I observed one Senior Vice President respond to a student who declared “F this school, I’m dropping out.” The SVP responding within hours, tweeting “What’s up, how can I help? My email is _________.”
The student responded that their financial aid package had been changed and they could not afford school. The SVP again responded, this time also including the Director of Financial Aid in the tweet. By the next day the two staff members had a sit down with the student. I do not know if the student ended up staying enrolled, but the example speaks volumes of how higher education leaders can use Twitter as a customer service and even more a retention tool.
Considering this example, imagine how you, no matter what your position on your campus, could use Twitter to support students beyond event promotion and marketing efforts. The following eight steps can guide leaders to ultimately use Twitter as a tool to reach students. Each builds on the other, especially starting basic for Twitter newbies. As the list progresses, it takes it to the next level using intermediate then advanced steps. So, if you are already comfortable on this platform, then right jump ahead to explore how else you can reach your students.
Beginner: Build a Base
1. Listen & Respond
To engage with students online you need to listen and respond. I always thought this would be obvious, but unfortunately it is not. Higher Education professionals who have set up Twitter accounts and left them like an abandon house. Like ignoring emails or phone messages, how unprofessional this silence is on a platform that students may have already attempted to contact you through. This was definitely not the case for the 16 participants in my research.
- Interaction was consistent, some communicated everyday throughout the day, others in smaller bursts during the week. Take responsibility for your activity as basic as responding to direct tweets and messages in a schedule that works naturally for you.
- Build trust with your campus community, that you are engaged on Twitter as a real person (see #5) and are interested in dialogue through this venue with students.
2. Announce Yourself
If you produce a campus program and never market it, will anyone come? If you want your campus community to follow you on Twitter, you need to tell them to.
- Include in your Twitter bio your university affiliation and follow the hashtags your campus uses for big and small events to be part of the conversation.
- At events or meetings (when appropriate) let students know you are on Twitter and that you’d love to connect. A great venue for this would be new student orientation, for incoming freshman as well as their parents. Also, consider doing this at student leadership training functions.
- Even further, put your Twitter handle in your email signature.
3. Know Thy Campus
A number of the senior level administrators I spoke with talked of a “Facebook or Twitter Campus” meaning, some campuses have heavier use of Facebook or Twitter.
- Know the platform that is the strongest with your students. Ask students directly which platforms they use the most and why, further your undertaking of usage patterns and purposes. If you are a new SSAO to campus, it will also take time to gain a following (see #2).
- Two of the participants talked about the transition from being branded on one campus, then taking a new position and re-branding to another. One campus was heavier on Facebook, the new one on Twitter. Go where the students are.
- Get to know and follow other Twitter accounts at the university and ask at every event you attend what is the hashtag.
- Understand clearly any related technology policies on your campus including responsible computer use and/or social media policies that would outright express the use of Twitter in your position.
- Build a working relationship with you University Relations or another associated office that may have a vested interested in you, supporting the university mission and brand by your presence online.
Intermediate: Be You
Social Media is calling for a new type of leadership behavior, the idea of being who you are in the boardroom to your own backyard. Being yourself is celebrated online, and for students they can smell a fake or ‘phoned in’ account quickly. To really use Twitter to connect with students, it is going to take more than just using it.
4. Contribute Original Content
A great step as a newbie is to re-tweet or respond to posts, but if you really want to join the Twitter conversation with students you need to contribute original content. Incorporating Twitter into your professional role is a simple as thinking about your schedule and when appropriate sharing out content.
- Photos are a really great way to do this and based upon my research are highly engaged with ‘favorites’ and ‘re-tweets.’ At an event, take a photo celebrating the hard work students put into coordinating. Lunch meeting catered by campus food service with amazing desserts, another opportunity for a great shout out.
- Inspirational tweets are also popular, as simple as tweeting out your favorite message or photo of a quote, image or campus landmark that your community will be inspired by.
- Athletics is another very popular activity. Think about live tweeting at sport events, cheering on the team as well as providing live updates. You don’t have to tweet the entire game, maybe just in spurts. Instead of responding to email during the game, switch your attention to Twitter.
This step may take more guts for some. It takes a good dose of vulnerability. It is important at any level in Higher Education to maintain boundaries and privacy, but it is just as important in leadership roles on campus to be relatable, accessible and approachable to students. Twitter is a perfect opportunity for this.
- For every participant in my study their activity on social media reflects their personality, as well as their personal life. From photos of their cherished dogs, photos at a soccer match with their kids, vacations with friends or thanksgiving family dinner.
- Humor is another common element I have observed, from funny videos, smart remarks and overall just not taking themselves too seriously. This act of humanizing a high level leader on campus is a crucial way to connect with students.
6. Link Online to In-Person
A common theme of senior level administrators who sought out interaction with students on Twitter was to also create meet-up like experiences one finds at conferences many times called tweet-ups.
- For example, one Dean promotes an ongoing initiative where they offer free coffee at the campus coffee shop at a certain time. You have to follow this person on Twitter to know when, and many times they report the line goes out the door. An opportunity for a Dean to connect with students in-person outside the normal confides of prescribed meetings or events, all originating from Twitter.
- Another VP welcomes selfies with students, using a common hashtag to track and re-tweet fun photos with students. Students tweet to this leader, seeking them out at events for a photo. Celebrity status? Maybe!
- One Dean joked how she is better known on campus by their Twitter handle, rather than her ‘formal’ name or position. This dean prefers it this way, solidifying a bond (and brand) with her students all through Twitter.
- Many other participants used call to action through Twitter, like announcing a pancake breakfast with the vice president. By applying these online to in-person strategies, it takes these leaders beyond the screen into face to face, where relationships with students are taken to the next level.
Advanced: Bring the Heat
Advanced levels of Twitter usage to connect with students will take time management, relationship building with key campus information holders, and a shift in perspective of your ‘leadership’ role.
7. Share Time Sensitive Campus Information
The amount of information management higher education administrators carry can be powerful. Not all information is sharable, but when it is the ability for an active SSAO on Twitter to get important content out is priceless. For this research, Twitter activity was gathered in spring semester, so to no surprise there was a good deal of content about the weather, both in humor and in alerts.
- Especially leaders in geographic areas with extreme weather, Twitter proved to be extremely important when sharing class cancellations or clarifying start times. With this came more timely information such as dining hour locations and road closures.
- Even through class was cancelled, Deans and VPs were observed ‘taking to Twitter’ with a furry, using the opportunity to have fun such as posting pics of their kids or dogs in the snow or responding quickly like when a student tweeted the power was out in their residence hall.
- Tweeting out information on behalf of the campus takes a very strong relationship with key communication officers on campus, many of which may have directives when information is sent out and how. Connect with University Relations, Campus Police and/or any other department that may want to collaborate.
- Many participants were looked at as communication agents; as a key individual on campus to include on and ask to share important university announcements. They were digital influencers.
8. Be a Campus Customer Service (s)Hero
This step could be its’ own post alone, as customer service skills at the senior administrator level are quickly evolving thanks to Twitter. No longer can those at the top say they don’t have access to students, wondering if emails are opened/read or getting out of touch with the student voice. There was a handful of Deans and Vice Presidents that I observed who I would call Campus Customer Service (s)Heroes. This advanced level of Twitter usage went far beyond event promotion, sharing campus information or contributing original content.
- These campus Twitter leaders sought out the conversations students were having about the community and joined in either the celebration or even the controversy. They pursued it with passion and authentic care. When a student expressed anger about their residence hall room, one VP responded with the number to the facilities and then followed up later to make sure it was fixed.
- What has been even more impressive is their outreach comes across with care and not being creepy, and nearly every time one of the participants responded to a students’ concern, the student responded back with appreciation.
- I also observed another associate Vice President respond to nearly 50+ tweets they tracked from recently admitted students announcing on Twitter they had been accepted to that university. The AVP welcomed them to the campus, each with a unique message. Does this take time? Of course! But those 50+ new students will have a familiar face at orientation and probably also started following that AVP on Twitter. Be a campus customer service (s)hero, pushing your Twitter activity to seek out the hard (and sometimes negative) conversations online and approach the messages with the intent to help and truly ‘serve’ your students.
Twitter usage takes time to get used to. The constructs of the platform alone can be intimidating with the clutter of hashtags, RT, quotes and responses. Even I needed time to really ‘get’ Twitter, as three years ago I challenged myself to tweet everyday in one month to get over the ‘hump.’ This post is meant to challenge all higher education administrators on how they can incorporate Twitter professionally.
It is especially written to support leaders who are in senior level positions, giving clear examples of how your peers are using the platform to successfully engage with their students. I look forward to continue writing about this topic and sharing the results of my research. I welcome your reactions, as well as observations and experiences on Twitter as professionals in Higher Education.
For all reading, I would be more than happy to join on your Twitter journey, providing feedback and support. Feel free to follow me at @josieahlquist.