The Story on Social

UW-Madison finds ample opportunity to connect through social media

photo-3It’s 11:20 a.m. on October 23, 2013, and Nate Moll has already delivered a message to more than 53,000 people. Not as himself, but as @UWMadison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s main Twitter account.

These 53,000 people are a diverse group. Some are students, looking for news and current events from around campus. Others are alumni who want to stay in touch with what’s going on at their alma mater. The rest are tech-savvy parents, hopeful future Badgers, other University-related Twitter accounts and thousands of people and organizations interested in UW-Madison for other reasons.

Moll knows his audience well. He knows how to make online content both appealing and informative. He understands how much content is too much, too little and just right. But few people in his audience of 53,000 even know who he is.

“I don’t like to draw attention to myself,” said Moll. “All I want is for people to like the University, no matter who is running the Twitter account.”

Moll is relatively new to the job, and the job is relatively new to the department. Although University Communications has had social media interns, Moll is the first to hold a full-time social media position.

The history of social media at UW-Madison is contained entirely within the past decade. John Lucas, the news, media relations and “new media” director for University Communications, created a Facebook account for the University in 2005 and followed with a Twitter account in 2008. Back then, the University’s Twitter handle was @UWMadisonNews, and it wasn’t used for much more than press releases.

“Just by virtue of being UW, we were able to gain a fair amount of followers,” said Lucas. “We used it in the beginning to promote our content, promote our news.”

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From there, Lucas tested the uses of Facebook and Twitter, developing an online voice and personality for the University. He also tried to engage more with those who wanted to interact with UW-Madison online. Now, Lucas, Moll and other account managers across campus work to intertwine social media with the University’s campaigns and projects.

“That’s one of the things we’ve been focusing on in the last few years: baking social into everything we do from an institutional standpoint,” Lucas said.

UW-Madison uses what Lucas calls a “hub-and-spoke” approach to social media. University Communications operates the flagship account for the University, and other departments run their own accounts and meet regularly with University Communications. Together, they aim to keep the message consistent, make sure everyone has the training and resources they need, develop collaborative projects and look into new social platforms.

Moll plays a big role in shaping the University’s voice and setting the standard for other accounts. To do this, he spends around 75 percent of his workday in front of the computer.

“Sending a tweet only takes about 10 to 15 seconds between typing it up and clicking send, but we’re really focusing on pulling from a lot of different areas,” Moll said. “The University is huge. You have student life, academics, research, athletics and just general campus buzz. It’s about finding a balance between all of that.”

By 1:50 p.m., Moll has sent two tweets as @UWMadison and has retweeted UW-Madison Media’s tweet about a UN sexual violence rep’s upcoming visit to campus. One of his original tweets is a photo of a frosted plant stalk from the UW Arboretum, and the other is an announcement from the University: The spring commencement ceremony will be held at Camp Randall.

Over on Facebook, Moll posted the link to the announcement along with a picture from UW-Madison’s extensive photo archive. The photo, a portrait of the back of a Badger grad’s cap that reads “When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all,” was taken by UW-Madison’s senior staff photographer, Jeff Miller.

photo 2Miller has been on staff with the University for 23 years. He spends most of his time taking editorial pictures to accompany articles and fill the UW-Madison photo libraries and archives. With the dawn of social media, Miller’s photographs have been featured often on the University’s Facebook and Twitter pages. He also has access to UW-Madison’s Instagram account.

“We bring a lot of storytelling to our photography,” said Miller. “We try to photograph things as we see them and communicate real, honest information about the University.”

The UW-Madison Instagram account was founded in 2012. Not long after, the University Communications department issued Miller an iPhone. He has yet to make a call on it, using it only for its camera.

For a while, he became immersed in the Instagram world: he read about it, browsed other accounts and experimented with the features of the iPhone’s camera. But he began to wonder how valuable the photos were. Miller’s Instagram photos were not archived in the UW-Madison photo libraries, and he worried that they were simply “one-time use” photos.

“I think that’s one of the things people wrestle with on social media, trying to find the balance between having immediacy and relevance and making smart use of your resources,” Miller said. “Shouldn’t I just be carrying around my pro-DSLR, making higher quality, higher resolution pictures that I can then archive and do all these other things with and feed them out to Instagram?”

Now, Miller has taken a step back from Instagram, leaving Moll to fill in with his own photos or pictures from the community. Moll inspects the Instagram photos tagged with “#uwmadison” and picks the standouts to appear on the UW-Madison Instagram page.

For Lucas, there is potential in community content. In the future, he hopes UW-Madison will be effective in blending traditional news with crowd-sourced material on the University’s home page, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Another one of his goals for the future of social media at UW-Madison is to link social media interactions with real-world outcomes.

“One day, this guy tweeted that he broke his UW coffee mug. Nate saw that, and we have coffee mugs, so we sent him [one],” Lucas said. “What we don’t know is if he’s excited about that enough to go to an alumni event, come back for a game, make a gift, things like that.”

By the end of the day on October 23, Moll has sent out six more tweets, four new replies and two retweets. Moll spent nearly 14 hours on Twitter, unconventional by the nine-to-five standard. His subject matter ranged from vintage photos of Camp Randall to links about advising sessions to a promotion for the Wisconsin volleyball match.

“We could do the junk food posts all the time, sunsets and Bucky and football, and get a lot of likes, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to advance the University’s name too much,” Moll said. “It’s like a balanced meal. You have your favorite dish or side dish, but you also have to eat the broccoli before you leave the dinner table. So it’s putting the broccoli in there with the junk food, but packaging it all so that people will enjoy it.”

The University’s social media strategy appears to be paying off. In 2011, UW-Madison was ranked the second-most influential college social media presence in the nation by Klout, a service that measures statistics and usage on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This year, Statigram, which measures influence on Instagram, named UW-Madison the top brand in education.

In addition to an audience of more than 53,000 on Twitter, the University boasts 191,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 34,000 followers on Instagram.

Despite these impressive stats, both Moll and Lucas agree that numbers don’t really tell the full story. Interacting with the UW-Madison community is something they say is one of the best parts of their jobs.

“Everyone gets so excited about interacting with the University, and that’s what I love: building affinity for this place and engaging with our students, faculty, alumni, and prospective students,” Moll said.

“It’s neat, even if it’s not in person, that we get to connect with people,” Lucas said. “Hopefully we’re having a beneficial impact.”

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