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Recruiting with Twitter

American University uses Twitter to communicate with prospective students, spread the news, and even handle complaints.

With just the few clicks of her computer keyboard, Colleen Newman informed a prospective student that American University accepts transfers from other colleges; put the word out about a new textbook rental program; and said farewell to two retiring professors. Newman, who is assistant director of undergraduate admissions for the Washington, DC college, handled each communication in 140 characters or fewer using the microblogging tool Twitter, which her school has embraced across several departments.

Jon Hussey, American University's manager of Web communications, introduced the American University staff to social networking in the fall of 2008, when he "noticed a lot more people jumping on Twitter." On the school's media relations team at the time, Hussey said that when news and talk about the controversial Iran election found its way onto Twitter in June 2009, "it really demonstrated to me the power of this social media network."

"Thousands of people were using Twitter to get their protests heard--it turned into a really big deal," said Hussey, whose first American University account on Twitter was "AUMedia." Not only did he start posting information about the school and its activities, but he also started reading other posts--particularly those that made any mention of American University.

"I began noticing that prospective students would tweet when they took a tour of our campus, or when they received materials from us and decided to apply," said Hussey. "That's when I knew it would not only be valuable for media relations, but also for our admissions department." Not long after, Hussey found himself offering advice and guidance to that department on how to start up and manage a Twitter account.

"They adopted Twitter quickly," said Hussey. Today, Newman manages the day-to-day aspect of the social media initiative by both posting information and listening in on what future students are saying about the school. Frequently, for example, students will tweet questions to their followers and in doing so open the door for an American University representative to address those questions directly in 140 characters or fewer.

"Its mainly just answering questions," said Hussey. Prospective students usually want to know about clubs, activities, and other interesting perks that their future alma mater has to offer, outside of academics. "Many times we just let them know that we're a resource for when they need it," Hussey added. "It tells them that we're there and that they can get their questions and concerns answered."

Hussey and Newman also use Twitter hashtags to track information and comments pertaining to American University. (By placing the "#" sign before certain keywords, those words are then organized into user-defined groupings that focus on a specific topic). Hussey said his more frequent searches are for the keywords American Univ (a popular abbreviation for the school), American University, and AmericanU.

Sometimes "listening in" on Twitter helps the college nip problems in the bud before they turn into bigger issues. Recently, for example, Hussey came upon a student who was complaining about the institution's Facebook page and using Twitter to tell the world that he "couldn't take the page seriously because of all the spam that was on it."

Upon accessing American University's Facebook page, Hussey found the spam and deleted much of it. Then he sent a tweet to the student, thanking him for the heads up and telling him the problem was fixed. In response to that tweet, Hussey got a simple smiley face from the student. "Even just a simply 'thank you and we took care of the problem,'" said Hussey, "can go a long way in the social networking environment."

Hussey said the biggest challenge in getting various American University departments to integrate Twitter into their day-to-day activities is the perception that it will take up too much time and too many resources. That view is usually wrong, he said, and can be circumvented with effective time management and by using Twitter applications (such as Swift or Tweetdeck) and RSS feeds that Hussey follows via the college's Web site.

"These tools let you keep up with Twitter in the background, all day," said Hussey. "When you have a free moment between projects, you can read through a feed and/or send a quick tweet or two. It's not that time consuming."

Expect even more colleges to use social networking tools like Twitter to communicate with current and prospective students, most of whom have already "come to expect that their colleges are in the same realm that they are," said Hussey. "The vehicles may change, but the expectation of online interactivity will not. Going forward, all universities will have to integrate these tools in some way or risk being left behind."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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