Tweeting in the Ivy League

Twitter was founded in 2006, some 370 years AFTER Harvard University. It would be easy for the iconic Crimson to say, in that time, they figured out how to educate America’s most elite students WITHOUT the help of a social network that features a cartoonish blue bird. After all, the university library is full of large books written by the world’s most brilliant people, so why would they spend time dabbling in a space that forces them to convey their brilliance in just 140 characters?

Well, because you don’t remain the world’s top university by rejecting innovation.

The Ivy League is comprised of eight schools, most of which represent America’s earliest stabs at education. While some debate the significance of the Ivy brand when comparing it to the Ivy price tag, these schools remain a fixture at the top of the annual rankings. If there are any advancement shops in the world that have a case for why they don’t need to utilize social media on behalf of alumni engagement and fundraising, it’s them.

However, all of these schools DO have an active Twitter presence, and while their number of followers varies, there is a common approach to how they engage their constituencies. With the help of, I’m going to break down each school’s alumni Twitter handle and offer my own 1.5 cents on the Ivy approach.*

*For those who don’t know, I am employed by an Ivy institution (Cornell), so that’s partly the catalyst for this analysis. Also, I want to be very clear that I have no intention of criticizing a school’s approach to Twitter because every alumni population is different, and I won’t assume to know more about their people than they do. Also, the order of the schools in no way serves as a ranking.


Followers and Following

Harvard has a dedicated alumni base, and they happen to be—arguably—the most famous institution in the world. With that in mind, it’s not crazy to find their 21,000+ followers dwarfs the rest of the Ivy League. There are certain brands that attract a more general following, and Harvard definitely has that going on. They also were the first in the league to adopt an alumni Twitter handle, which is impressive because you might think they’re a good candidate to believe “If it’s not broken don’t fix it.” But you don’t remain the world’s best university by ignoring emerging technology.

Followers can also be a vanity metric. For central university handles, a big following is probably more important because you’re dealing with public affairs content, and you’re trying to be visible to the world’s best high school students.

For alumni handles, it’s not so much how many people are following you but are the RIGHT people following you. I don’t mean Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. I mean are you engaging alumni and are those alumni important to engagement and/or fundraising efforts?

To help organize this, I recommend building out lists to act as a way of organizing your followers and those you’re following. As you follow/get followed by people, put them in buckets like “major gift donor,” “major gift prospect,” “regional clubs,” “classes,” “young alumni,” “entrepreneurs,” etc. This will help define your strategy and help you connect real people to your engagement efforts. This also allows you to run donor names up the flag pole and show fundraisers that there’s wealth in the Twitterverse.


Tweet Frequency

Harvard, Penn, and Cornell round out the top three for most followers in the Ivy and average the most tweets per day, which seems to show a direct correlation between how often you tweet and how many followers you have. This isn’t rocket science: if you want more followers, you need to be more visible, and that means Tweeting more regularly.

The Crimson would seem to have a machine gun approach to Twitter: lots of content all of the time. Twelve tweets per day is a feverish pace and is more than double the net active Ivy handle. The first reaction might be to think that 12 tweets per day is too much. Certainly, you never want to pepper your audience with so many tweets that you become white noise or spam.

However, this IS Harvard and as much as my employer doesn’t respect their hockey game, they have a proud alumni base and no shortage of research or fascinating content emanating from the campus.

The lesson here is, be active on Twitter, but only be as active as your content allows. How can you increase your Tweet frequency when you don’t have a plethora of original content? Glad you asked…


Replies and Retweets

For me, this is the most important metric. Much like Yente from “Fiddler on the Roof,” advancement professionals are constantly playing the role of matchmaker. We’re tasked with connecting alumni back to their alma mater in hopes they will engage in a life-long relationship.

I don’t know too many successful marriages where only one person is allowed to do all the talking. Twitter offers an opportunity to listen, respond, and promote. So when you look at Harvard’s daily barrage of  tweets, you also have to realize they have the highest percentage of tweets coming in the form of a reply. Talking with people and not just AT people is an opportunity social media presents that really no traditional medium can. If we’re going to create relationships, we need to be willing to have a conversation.

Interestingly, Harvard is last when it comes to their 11.91% retweet rate, which may suggest they prefer to be the source of their Twitter content.  For schools that want to increase their Tweet frequency, but don’t think they have more to say, Retweeting is a great way to serve up content to your followers without the burden of creating/discovering the content yourself.  Yale is the top re-tweeter of the Ivies, with nearly 2/3 of their tweets coming in the form of RT. That’s either a commitment to what other people are saying, or a lack of commitment to a social media staff.  Either way, it’s also a fantastic way to promote alumni who are slugging it out in the real world.  Whether they’re an author, musician, CEO, etc., alumni are out there doing and making things.  This provides an opportunity to serve as a cheerleader for them and their work, which can go a long way in building the before mentioned relationship.

Now, with that said, only three of the eight alumni Ivy handles have an actual person as their top reply. The top reply of the other four schools went to an institutional handle. With regards to retweeting, only Penn’s most frequently retweeted handle was a real person versus an institutional handle and that person, while they are an alum, is also a full-time staff member.




So what’s all this mean? Well, it means the Ivy League alumni handles are scraping the surface of alumni engagement, but for the most part, we’re spending most of our time broadcasting. As the manager of the @CornellAlumni handle I strive to strike a balance between promotion and conversation. As the metrics prove, that’s easier said than done, but it’s what we should all aim for.


How We Can Improve

As you can see from the stats, the top posting vehicle for five of the eight schools is Hootsuite. Cornell prefers Tweetdeck, but the two are very similar. Only Dartmouth is doing the majority of their posting directly through Twitter.

By utilizing tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck you can better monitor people and hashtags in real-time so you can jump on opportunities to reply and retweet. Earlier, I mentioned listening and these tools can help with that. People who stay off Twitter because they feel like they have nothing to say are missing the real power of Twitter. When it comes to alumni relations, it’s not about what we have to say, it’s about what our people are saying.

Now, it’s important to note that these stats are for the lifetime of the handle, so it’s plausible that the schools are doing more replying and retweeting in the last couple of years versus a commitment to broadcasting early on in their existence.

The Ivy League consists of America’s oldest institutions, who are seemingly entrenched in centuries of tradition. However, analyzing the Twitter presence of the plant-covered eight reveals a general willingness to embrace a new way of engaging alumni. Clearly some use it more aggressively than others, but everyone is there. The Ivies probably have an advantage that many other schools don’t: they’re not overly concerned with cash flow. Sure, we have our campaign goals, but the endowments are big and the alumni donor participation rates are much higher than average.

So why put the time in? Because you don’t stay at the top by looking down your nose at new tools that could help you do your job better. Another way of looking at it is if these schools are doing it, schools that already have successful engagement and fundraising initiatives, shouldn’t every institution be on board? Your people are living in the Twitterverse and if you don’t start building a relationship with them, other non-profits will.

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