Tweets from the Ivory Towers

The Times Higher Education crew recently released results from a study (completed by Brandwatch) which looked at the Twitter activities at UK universities.

The very basic analysis available to the public looked into the social media activity of the top ten UK universities (based on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014). Unfortunately, it leaves us with more questions than it answers about the tweets from the Ivory Towers.

Let’s have a quick look at the results. (I couldn’t find the original study, so if someone has found it, please do leave a link in the comments.)

One of the metrics measured by Brandwatch was how many followers each university had. We can see from the first table that leading the team was the University of Oxford, followed by Cambridge and then Edinburgh.

university-twitter-followes

Courtesy of THE

The second table looked at how many tweets each handle created in total and as an average per day, over a two month period from 31 January to 31 March.

University-tweets

Courtesy of THE

This table has University of Oxford right down at the bottom, tweeting the least of all, but has Bristol, UCL and Imperial at the top.

The third table shows engagement: what percentage of the tweets produced by each institution were directed at other users.

university-engagement

Courtesy of THE

Again we see Oxford University at the bottom, but this time, it’s Manchester University (the admissions account, remember!), followed by Edinburgh and Durham at the top. Oxford University is again coming in last.

What this piece of data doesn’t tell you is which Twitter handles were used in the study. In the comments section at the bottom of the THE article, one person mentions that the Manchester Uni Twitter handle that was used was the Admissions one (@AdmissionsUoM). Had they used the @manchesteruni handle (1747 followers) or @UoMNews (11.9k followers) this table may have looked completely different.

This data is extremely difficult to analyse without knowing who is doing the tweeting. Different Twitter accounts will have different goals; some will be marketing products, others will be solely for personal reasons, others might be dedicated to dealing with customer enquiries. Each one of these types of Twitter handle will have a different scope, following and agenda.

Looking at universities then, each one will have many different Twitter handles associated with it. The University of Oxford, for example, has several Twitter handles associated with it (@UniofOxford, @OxfordSparks, @oxfordpodcasts, @OxfordJournals (13.9k followers), @oxopendays (only 1170 followers…) etc). Different departments within the university also have their own Twitter handles: @InSiS (Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, 2087 followers), @enfac (Faculty of English, 1377 followers), @OxfordChemistry (Chemistry department, 3582 followers) etc. And each university will also have staff that use their own, independent Twitter accounts.

So I trawled through, and found the accounts that had the closest matches to the number of followers in the THE study:

UK University Tweets

From looking at this table, there are already some conclusions that we can draw, and it makes it clear that it is extremely important to define which Twitter handles were used, considering the audiences for each one will vary considerably.

For example, the @AdmissionsUoM account will only really be of interest to prospective students and schools. It won’t be of much interest to current students, alumni, or the general public. The team that run this account will also have great interest in engaging with their audience, making sure that they are making prospective students feel welcome, answering any potential questions they might have and generally being attentive in the hope that it will draw in the next bunch of students. So you can understand why the Uni of Manchester account directs 25% of their tweets to other users.

A news account, like @UCLnews, won’t have the same goals as an admissions account in terms of engagement, but will have a much wider audience. It be of interest to those both within the university, and outside. The general public, other universities, teachers wanting to know the latest research, all of the above.

The Oxford and Cambridge universities are amongst the most famous in the world, along with @Yale (132k followers), @Harvard (356k followers) and @MIT (118k followers). The prestige of these institutions alone will automatically lead to an increased number of followers. They also don’t need to engage as much with their followers to gain attention: they already have it. So you cannot really blame Oxford university for (during the period of the analysis) not directing any of their total tweets to other users.

You could take this one step further, and attempt to find out who is managing the Twitter accounts. Heather Doran (aka @Hapsci) mentioned that at @aberdeenuni (22.4k followers), it’s the marketing/student recruitment teams that do the tweeting:

Hapsci tweet

This @aberdeenuni account could be considered as a marketing account looking to leverage the standing of the university as a producer of research, and attract new students to its research departments. In this respect, it has a similar role to the @AdmissionsUoM account, but doesn’t say so explicitly (this raises a whole lot more questions about how a Twitter handle should be chosen, but that’s for another time). It would most probably produce a high number of tweets, and like @AdmissionsUoM, a large percentage of them are probably directed at other users.

Without seeing more of the study, it’s difficult to draw many more conclusions from this. But it does highlight the importance of knowing who is doing the tweeting. There are several questions that follow on from this is:

If a university is actively tweeting and marketing its business, research and ideas, does it encourage its research staff to do the same?

I hope that the rest of the study will be released so that we can see if there is more to it than just these numbers.

Fred Humphreys

Scientist at University of Portsmouth
I'm a research scientist based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. My passions include biology, gardening and walking.

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