Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Alumni Associations = Twitter FAIL

“You are not doing it right.”
This is a bold statement that might be better suited for a manifesto. The statement is directed at alumni associations who are (for the most part) failing to use twitter the way they should.

You are showing up to a cocktail party with a megaphone.

On twitter, your alums think of you as the obnoxious guy who is unaware of himself and unable to carry on a normal, human conversation. Do you know this guy? The one who only talks about himself…incessantly, completely oblivious to the nonverbal cues he is being sent that clearly communicate he should be quiet, ask a question, or take a breath? Yeah…that guy… is you (on twitter), and I have the numbers to prove it.


Finding your twitter feeds wasn’t that difficult. Most of you have the word “alumni” in your profile name. A few of your colleges and universities may have a consolidated feed that is named for your school and not for the association. Feeds that are managed by your central communication departments have the advantage of being unified and clear in the distribution of status updates, but the gigantic disadvantages of needing to crowd out the human voice that might come through a twitter feed compounded with inability of the alumni association to have a voice.

For instance, take a look at the feed of the University of Southern California. USC’s feed, at follows nobody, engages none, is primarily filled with automated feeds surrounding their sports teams, and boasts one of the largest followings among universities using twitter. Their contrast is Marquette University, . MU maintains a very engaging feed, has an even larger following than USC, but has little room or time to focus on alumni association goals.

Translation – twitter feeds controlled by your school’s marketing have large followings and don’t have time for the alumni association.

Therefore, I have ignored the feeds that are named for your college and university, and have focused this analysis on those feeds that have been named specifically for the alumni association. You won’t be able to blame central communication for this one!

The Obvious Numbers

What you will see here is sampling of 50 alumni associations and the brief analysis I found using free tools, easily available, on the web. The top 40 were intentionally chosen for analysis based on the size of their followings. Ashton Kutcher has taught us all (unfortunately) that the size of your following is what is most important. [You’ll see that the analysis of this report runs counter to that notion, but I went ahead and selected and organized these twitter feeds based upon this misunderstood metric] The last several entries were chosen as a cohort that was intentionally chosen for being low in followers and brand new to twitter. It sounded interesting to have input from this representation.

I'll arrange the first look at these based on the way that a casual twitter user might measure influence and clout - based on followers alone. These numbers were recorded as of May 27, 2009.

Don't let the follower metric fool you. What does it mean to have 1873 followers?
Is that follower number a metric that really matters?
What was the reason you opened up your alumni association twitter feed to begin with?
Was this a series of questions you even asked yourself prior to jumping into twitter?

The Not-So-Obvious Numbers

If we take a quick look at the way that these alumni associations engage their followers, we can come a little closer to the value of having over 1,000 followers. By looking at the feeds themselves, we can get a sense of what strategy is being used to increase followers as well as the approach that is being utilized in the day-to-day use of twitter.

* A twitter feed can be used as purely one-way communication and can also be used to speak with and republish others content.
* A twitter user that engages in conversation can be easily spotted by the number of @ replies found in their feed.
* A twitter user that intentionally republished others content can be easily spotted by the "RTs" that lead their updates.
* A twitter profile that asks questions is intentionally engaging followers and eliciting @replies.

An organizations tendency to follow or refollw people also says a lot about the way they have chosen to use twitter. Most of the time, those that just deliver content (and don't engage their followers by asking questions, engaging in conversation or refollowing them) expose themselves as users who are only using this social web platform as a distribution channel (while ignoring the social components).

Here is the same sampling and a look at how these organizations strategically use their feed.

The Numbers You Should Be Looking At...

Which would you rather have... 1000 followers who don't pay attention to you or 40 followers who are actively listening and participating with you?
What is 10,000 followers worth if you are causing your feed to be lost in the twitter noise?
To take a quick look at how engaged these feed's followings are, I took a quick look at their last several days of tweets. By doing a simple search of the twitter profile name you can count how often the feed name is mentioned by other twitter users in the past few days. This is a broad representation to how often people are retweeting, replying, or answering questions the alumni association is asking. This chart also gives you a general idea of the frequency of the outgoing updates by each of these feeds.

Do you see what these numbers are saying? Chris Brogan's twitter name is mentioned 100 times in the past 3 hours and 92 of those mentions are other people talking about, replying to, or retweeting what he has said. That is influence!

Speaking of Influence...

Influence is the real value of any social network. Your follower number is a deceiving metric, especially if you have inadvertently trained your followship to turn a blind eye to your updates. I suppose you could be satisfied with the idea that your alumni network is among the early adopters of this growing social network. As a branding exercise, this may cause you to not care about your influence in the conversation. As long as your profile isn't embarrassing you, maybe you couldn't care whether yor alums are actually listening. But if you do care, this last set of numbers will have some significance and education in themselves for you. This is a snapshot of the recent activity your profile was engaged with in the end of May. based upon the tweets of the previous seven days in combination with a whole host of metrics, these are the scores given to your twitter profiles by a great little tool found at

I don't see any reports that show what the average Clout or Influence score is across all twitter users, but from a brief twitalyzer search of a handful of my active twitter friends and a few brands, it seems that a clout score of over 2% is above average and an influence score over 1% is perhaps a bit above average. Either way, you can compare yourself among others in your field to see where you fit in while comparing yourself to other alumni associations that are using twitter. I am not suggesting you should tweet like Chris Brogan does, but I do think there is a lot more value in these number than simply measuring success by your growing followers.
Here is a quick word about the scores you see and how the are mined. These are lifted directly from Twitalyzer's explanation.

Clout -
Clout is often thought of as "special advantage, pull, or influence" in the real world, as in "the senator's nephew has a lot of clout with his uncle." In our usage, clout is the likelihood that other people will reference you in Twitter, as in "gee that @Mashable sure does drive a lot of traffic!" The more people who reference you, the higher your clout.
Our definition of clout is simply the number of references to you divided by the total number of possible references (as governed by the Twitter Search APIs).

Velocity -
Your velocity is simply the rate at which you contribute to Twitter. Since the Twitter Search APIs limit us to 1,500 records, at least for the time being, you are judged against a theoretical maximum of 1,500 updates per week.
This is not to say that you should attempt to write 1,500 updates every week, especially if you don't have very much to say and would end up telling your followers about your cats, lint, or your feelings about your mother. But the reality of the situation is that the most influential people in Twitter are, by and large, writing a lot which helps increase the awareness of their personal brand, the likelihood that they will be referenced, and the likelihood that they will be retweeted by others.
Conversely, Twittering a lot about nothing will increase your velocity but decrease your signal-to-noise ratio. And while the latter is not directly factored into the influence calculation at Twitalyzer, in our experience if you start to ramble about nothing you will lose followers very, very quickly.

Generosity -
We believe that Twitter is a lot like life, only in fewer characters, and that being generous with others is extremely admirable. In Twitter, we think of generosity as one's willingness to pass along ideas and call attention to those ideas we think are great. Our measure of generosity is one's propensity to "retweet" someone else, thusly creating awareness of their work and ideas among your own followers. Specifically, our measure of generosity is based on the ratio of retweets you pass along to all updates you publish. Simple, huh?
This leads to the obvious (yet cynical) conclusion that "if you want to game the Twitalyzer's influence calculation, all you have to do is retweet other people a lot." Yes, yes that will work. And if we are able to get more people to share information in Twitter just to eke a few more points out of their influence score, well, then we believe we have done good work.
Incidentally, if you retweet more frequently, you'll also increase your signal-to-noise ratio as well. Sweet, huh?

Signal to Noise Percentage -
One of the great things about Twitter is that you can say anything you want (in 140 characters or less.) Some people choose to pass along information, others choose to share anecdotes, and still others talk about their cats. The Twitalyzer has observed that people tend to gravitate towards strangers who are passing along information. Our signal-to-noise ratio is a measure of the tendency for people to pass information, as opposed to anecdote.

By our definition, "signal" will be counted for any update that includes at least one of the following elements:

* References to other people (defined by the use of "@" followed by text)
* Links to URLs you can visit (defined by the use of "http://" followed by text)
* Hashtags you can explore and participate with (defined by the use of "#" followed by text)
* Retweets of other people, passing along information (defined by the use of "rt", "r/t/", "retweet" or "via")

If you take the sum of these four elements and divide that by the number of updates published, you get the "signal to noise" ratio. For example, if you published four updates and two of them contained links, your signal-to-noise ratio would be 50% (2 updates with signal / 4 total updates).

Influence -
As Twitter becomes increasingly important to online communication, the creators of the Twitalyzer believe that the need to measure the impact of our efforts in Twitter will increase a commensurate amount. While some believe that "popularity" is an appropriate measure of success, we disagree, eschewing this easily gamed metric in favor of something more robust, more fair, and more difficult to cheat.
The Twitalyzer solution is our measure of "influence in Twitter" calculated based on:

* Your relative reach in Twitter, measured by the number of followers you have
* Your relative authority, measured by the number of times you are "retweeted"
* Your relative generosity, measured by the number of times you "retweet" others
* Your relative clout, measured by the number of times you are referenced by others
* Your relative velocity, measured by the number of updates you publish over a seven day period.
Each of these measures are weighted but otherwise the calculation is incredibly simple. We believe that what you get is a measure of success in Twitter that can be applied in a variety of ways. We know this measure is not perfect but, well, we're not perfect and we don't believe in holding software to a higher standard that we ourselves live up to.

What do the Real Numbers teach us?

They teach us what we suspected from the beginning. Don't make too much of the following. Your influence is a much better indicator of effectiveness and usefulness. Your questions of whether you whould change your approach or turn this into a place for fundraising appeals is a question for your original objectives in particpating. Perhaps you are satisfied with the knowledge that your update habits are teaching your alums to ignore your messaging, as long as you have an active feed.

I am going to monitor these feeds (a total of 50) over the next several weeks and report on progressing numbers. I'm interested to compare tactics with growth rates and report on other observations that will come with time based analysis. Stay tuned!
When I have done a snapshot of the data over several weeks, I'll give you a look at all the numbers and all the feeds.

Fail Whale image via