Colleges Get Mixed Reviews When Using Twitter for Customer Service

At 10:58 a.m. on October 3, Lindenwood University junior Katherine Anderson notified the university's official Twitter handle about a car crash on campus, and said a professor almost hit her car. "Do something about the driving on campus," she Tweeted in all caps. Lindenwood's response from @LindenwoodU came five-and-a-half hours later: "Specific suggestions for improvement are always welcome."

Chelsy McInnis, also a junior at Lindenwood, says the university looked her friend Anderson up in the directory and called her cell phone--rather than sending a direct message on Twitter. That partly explains why McInnis says the school is ignoring its student body on social media, where it responds only to "positive messages or the occasional nonthreatening question."

"Lindenwood is missing out on a great opportunity to recruit new students by ignoring the ones they're attempting to retain," says McInnis, who writes the handle @chelsysayshi.

Although a recent University of Massachusetts--Dartmouth study found that every college and university surveyed has some kind of social media presence, many schools' official handles function essentially as a list of links back to the university homepage. Other schools, like Syracuse University, have conversational handles, which they use to engage students directly.

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Rodney Fleming, a junior at Syracuse, doesn't know the feeling McInnis describes of being digitally disconnected from her university. "Personally, I take it for granted that @SyracuseU will respond to me within an hour on any given weekday with any university-related question I pose," he says. When he recently asked the Syracuse handle if there was a hashtag--a way to track a conversation on Twitter--for a campus event with bestselling author David Sedaris, Syracuse responded within three minutes.

Though he praises Syracuse's Twitter handle--which has a score of 67 out of 100 on the site Klout, which measures online influencers--Fleming notes a recent article in the student newspaper, The Daily Orange, which says Syracuse has slipped from second to seventh place on Klout's rankings of colleges using social media.

Fleming says at a big school like Syracuse, it can seem like every office has a Twitter handle, "which makes things somewhat disconnected when looking for a definitive answer." If students have a computer issue, they message the IT services handle; if there's a housing problem, they Tweet at the residence life handle. But he's confident that "things will change for the better very soon" after hearing that Syracuse recently appointed a new assistant director of social media.

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Kelly Bartling, news director at University of Nebraska--Lincoln, says the kind of Twitter monitoring and outreach she does is "pretty typical for colleges, many of [which] are ramping up their social media operations" and hiring staff dedicated specifically to social media. At UNL, there is no staff devoted to social media, Bartling says, so it's "getting overwhelming for us ... because you really need to be constantly monitoring in order to respond to posts quickly."

UNL's Twitter handle, @UNLNews, has a Klout score of 50 to Syracuse's 67, but is no slouch, having Tweeted more than 2,400 times at its followers, which now number about 4,300.

Though he says the handle does "a good job" keeping followers appraised of campus news and events--particularly during a lockdown at the College of Law last year when a gunman was reported nearby--Ari Kohen, associate professor of social justice and political science at UNL, says he's left wanting more.

Kohen, whose school bio says he's an "admitted pop culture and technology fiend," argues the handle puts out "a lot of Tweets about things that not everyone is desperate to know: reactions to the weather, to an air show in Lincoln, and lots of Huskers sports Tweets." Instead, Kohen says the faculty and students would be better served by Tweets that were more relevant to them.

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In the four years she's been on Twitter, Bartling, of UNL's communications office, has fielded customer service issues from students frustrated that they couldn't get into a class to complaints about parking tickets. "I try to monitor those sorts of things; it's just good public relations," she says. "I'm surprised we don't get more."

That's not really a bad thing, says Harrison Kratz, community manager for MBA@UNC, an online M.B.A. program at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. According to Kratz, many schools have a "great voice and love getting their students to interact," but--like most brands--they can't solve private matters in a public forum, so students shouldn't expect them to by taking to Twitter.

"Generally, I think students should do their best to solve their problems internally from the beginning, because that is where the resolution will ultimately be found," he says.

Though he feels students should think before Tweeting their complaints, Kratz encourages applicants to study prospective schools' handles as part of the application process. "When searching for schools, I think students should look at a school's social media presence when applying," he says, "because it usually is a strong indicator of the school's approach to innovation and development."

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