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University comms in the age of Facebook posts and tweets !

Nic Mitchell (alias @EuprioNIc

Nic Mitchell (alias @EuprioNic)

EUPRIO’s chief blogger Nic Mitchell drew on his experience managing the flow of news on the association’s website and social media pages when he spoke, via Skype, to the 4th UNICA PR and Communication Workshop this month. Here he highlights some of his key messages.

My talk focused on ‘University communications in the digital age – where a feature is a blog and a news brief becomes a tweet’. I drew on my experience as a newspaper journalist until the age of 35, who moved into higher education comms for two decades and is now back practising my old journalistic craft as a freelance.

I was due to make the opening keynote address to UNICA, the network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe, at its two-day seminar for university communicators held at Vilnius University, Lithuania. But I couldn’t attend in person, so instead used Skype – and thankfully there were no technical hiccups.

Positive feedback

Nic on Skype to UNICA's Vilnius Workshop

Nic on Skype to UNICA’s Vilnius Workshop

And so far, feedback has been positive, with Katerina Nikolaidou, Chair of the UNICA PR & Comms Workshop and head of comms at the University of Cyprus, saying: “Despite Nic having to do his speech by Skype at 8am in the morning UK time, he managed stir up a lively discussion on social media use…why we should use various channels, in what way and with what audience in mind. He talked about the best time for each platform and cleared up the social media scenery and made us all remember that even for internal audiences, the rules still apply. Be short and sweet with your tweets and Facebook posts.”

I’m pleased it went down well as I had only intended to talk for about 18 to 20 minutes – in line with the latest thinking about the length of online presentations, but the questions flowed for 40 minutes or more and my session more than filled its time slot.

One the questions I posed was whether good digital communication was really so different from old school good journalism from the pre-Internet age.

Good storytelling

Granted that today a feature article, or more precisely an opinion piece, is now more likely to be called a blog; and those short amusing news briefs of 40 words or less are now tweets – but, apart from exchanging newsprint for mobile phone and tablets, how much has actually changed about what I call ‘storytelling’?

When I trained to be a journalist, it was drilled into us that we weren’t writing for ourselves – but for the readers. That’s something that today’s digital communicators ignore at their peril!

We also used to obsess about the right length for the introductory paragraph. I think we sometimes spent almost as much time trying to get the ‘intro’ right as writing the rest of the story.

And the latest research findings into effective digital communications perhaps show we weren’t wasting our time.

Grabbing the reader’s attention

For unless you grabbed the reader’s attention in the first few seconds, he or she would move on to the next story. Just as today they will pass over your tweet or Facebook message if it hasn’t got that instant impact.

The best news reporting was, and still is, not just newsworthy but also factual, balanced and accurate. If you want to be taken seriously as an online commentator, or blogger, you need to gain the trust of your followers, or readers, and be seen as a reliable source of interesting information.”

Distinguish fact from opinion

In my talk to UNICA, I argued that making a distinction between the factual side of reporting and giving opinions is still important, perhaps even more so in the fast moving 24-hours-a-day news world we are living in today.

If you want to put your spin on the conclusions drawn from the facts, that’s fine – but make it clear that it is not news reporting, but a blog or an opinion piece.

The power of blogs

As long as they are well written, and well argued, they can be a powerful way of getting your message across – and have the advantage of the personal touch – and can encourage two-way communications!

Most good websites make this distinction between facts and features, or news and blogs in today’s jargon. Certainly the websites I’m associated with do; whether it is my own delacourcommunications.com site or the European Universities Public Relations & Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO.eu website.

University-World-News-420x210University World News, which I also write for, goes even further than most by clearly labelling their stories News, Features, Commentary, World Blogs, Student View, etc.,

At Euprio.eu, I do most of the interviewing and storytelling but I love it when one of our members offers to write blogs and do a story about what is happening to higher education in their country. Surprisingly, despite being an association of university communicators, it is still difficult to get members to put pen to paper and normally takes a lot of arm-twisting before any copy appears.

Perhaps it is down to a worry about what their bosses might think if they express an opinion; but I suspect it has more to do with a fear that their English isn’t good enough. I try to reassure potential contributors by offering a copy-editing and proofing service; and usually there’s nothing more required than a quick sub-editing job, often no more than I would do to copy supplied by a native English-speaker.

Getting your English right!

Of course, if you are providing news and blogs in English, you should really try to get the English right. It can make you look very unprofessional if you don’t.

As I told the UNICA seminar, one of the first things you need to decide is which version of English you are going to use: Anglo English, American English, or something I call European, or EU English! Most of the articles that I get to proof from universities in mainland Europe are a combination of all three styles.

I’m still amazed how few people realise the significant differences between US and UK English, particularly when it comes to the written word.

My advice if you don’t have someone with a good, near native level of English on the team, is to hire a freelance copy-editor like me. If you can’t afford that, then at least put the English (UK), or if you are targeting the American market the English (US) spellchecker over the final version before publication! The Microsoft Word spellchecker also offers English (Aus) for Australian English.

The ideal length of everything onlineThe ideal length of everything online

I ended my UNICA session with what I called ‘The ideal length of everything online’. I confessed that much of the advice originally came from social media guru Kevan Lee’, who recently blogged on ‘The Proven Ideal Length of every Tweet, Facebook Post, and Headline Online’.

So what did he say, and how does this relate to university communications?

Tweets should ideally be just 100 characters

twitter logoYes, I know we always talk of Twitter’s 140 characters; but that’s the absolute maximum and even if you’ve got a fairly short twitter handle like @EUPRIO, you’ve used up 7 in your title, and many twitter handles are longer like my personal one @EuprioNic. For re-tweets (RTs) you need another three characters.

So, if you would like people to add something like a “Excellent tweet” or some other positive remark it is best to leave 15 or 20 more character spaces. Hence, 100 characters!

Ideal Facebook posts should be 40 characters or less

facebook-iconIf tweets are supposed to be no more than 100 characters, what about Facebook posts? Social media guru Jeff Bullas says they should be even shorter. His research has shown that ultra-short 40-character posts receive 86% higher engagement than longer ones. But, as only 5% of posts qualified at this length, his next piece of advice is to keep post to 80 characters or less, where he says you get 66% higher engagement.

Most Facebook posts have a length of about 103 characters, according to Quintly Research.

I tried out the advice on the EUPRIO Facebook page, where – for research purposes, obviously! – I posted two versions of very similar with links to stories on our website. The ones with 30 words or more got a fraction of the ‘clicks, likes and shares’ compared with posts I kept to around ten words. See the reference section at the end of this post for what got liked and what was largely ignored.

Write for the right readers!

But whether you always manage to keep within such guidelines or not, the key thing to remember is that you are writing for your readers – and to make sure you are using the ‘right’ media channel to reach them. More serious stuff may be better for twitter or LinkedIn than Facebook, etc., etc., It is kind of obvious!

Above all, make sure that whether your blog is 500 or 1,500 words, or your tweet or Facebook message is 40 or 140 characters long, it has something interesting to say – and try to capture your reader in that all important ‘intro’ for longer posts.

FURTHER THOUGHTS FROM THE EUPRIO EXPERIENCE:

EUPRIO Facebook Page

Here some lessons I’ve learnt from managing the EUPRIO Facebook.

Think of the timing of your posts. Look at how many they reach for the best time to post for the most ‘Likes’, (or re-tweets). Here are some examples from the EUPRIO Facebook Page of similar messages that were repeated within days of each other and at different times, with longer and shorter messages, to test the theory:

1.i Get ready for EUPRIO 2014 ‘How to communicate in world dominated by change’ Innsbruck, Austria. Find out more about what we’ll be focusing on: #highered #comms #Europe
– 25 April 2014 at 9.36am: Reached 82, with 6 clicks and 4 ‘Likes, Comments, or Shares’.

1.ii Registration is now open #EUPRIO14 https://www.euprio.eu/conference/
– 24 April 2014 at 19.14: Reached 517, with 15 clicks and 22 Likes, Comments, Shares.

2.i EUPRIO meets the world
– 5 April, 11.49am: Reached 214, with 21 clicks and 11 Likes, etc.,

2.ii The Steering Committee meets this weekend in Zürich to finalise details for our #EUPRIO14 conference in early September. Here’s a taster of some of the sessions, including a look at developments in India and the Middle East and the onward march of internationalisation and online learning
– 3 April at 9.25am: Reached 55, with 5 clicks and no Likes, etc.,

3.i ‘Quality replaces quantity in Danish HE’ blog by Thomas Sørensen – with large photo of Thomas
– 18 April at 16.40, reached 176 and got 11 clicks, with 6 Likes.

3.ii Denmark is normally known as Northern Europe’s ‘Happy country’, but not everyone is feeling that way about changes planned for its HE sector. Read our latest blog by guest writer Thomas Sørensen to find out why.
– 17 April at 17.18 only reached 34, got no clicks and one ‘Like’.

* So similar stories sent at different times and of varying lengths can get vastly different responses. Look for what works and what doesn’t to find the best time to post for maximum impact. Repeat messages in a different, usually shorter, format if they fail to generate much reaction first time round. Use photographs as well to improve hit rates. In EUPRIO, posts with photos of people that recognise get more Likes, etc., than those with pictures of buildings or places.

+ THIS IS an updated and abridged version of a blog on the Delacourcommunications.com website.