The United Kingdom's 10 top-ranked universities have a combined total of more than 400,000 followers on Twitter, according to new research - but they are failing to engage with potential students and "stand out from the crowd through social media".
Twitter followers represent a massive potential recruitment pool, but none of the top 10 universities "is sending out more than four tweets a day, let alone directly engaging with their followers", said Brandwatch, a social media analytics company.
With fierce competition for students, the company said, pressure on universities to market themselves is intense. Also, said Joel Windels, EMEA marketing manager for Brandwatch:
"This is one of the first generations of digitally native students seeking a place at university. We already know from previous studies that students don't feel universities make enough use of social media to attract them - and our research clearly backs this up."
The study was conducted between 31 January and 31 March this year, to ascertain what leading universities are using their primary Twitter handle for and how successfully they engage their followers.
"The research was conducted using the Brandwatch tool that is able to listen to and monitor conversations online about particular topics," the company told University World News.
"We used the Times Higher Education World University Rankings to choose the top United Kingdom and United States universities, then monitored the universities' twitter channels."
A demographic breakdown for the UK, provided to University World News, showed that in the top 10 universities, Oxford had 123,000 followers and Cambridge 109,300, and then there was a sharp drop-off to Edinburgh with 35,100, Bristol with 29,900 and Imperial College London with 26,600.
University College London has 24,500 followers, King's College 24,300, Durham 14,100, the London School of Economics 13,400 and Manchester 3,400.
The study found that Oxford University tweeted the least frequently among the UK top 10 institutions, sending out on average just one tweet a day. But it is the second most tweeted university, receiving 86 daily @ tweets.
"The University of Bristol is the most prolific tweeter, sending out between three to four tweets a day," said Brandwatch in a release last week.
"Used predominantly for broadcasting university-specific and industry news, most universities have a less than 10% engagement rate for their tweets (percentage of total tweets that are @) - although a quarter of the tweets from the University of Manchester were direct." Oxford, London School of Economics and King's College sent out no direct tweets.
"The most recruitment-related chatter surrounded the University of Oxford handle, with the least around Imperial College London."
Where the followers are
Looking in more detail at five universities - Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol and Imperial College London - the study found high proportions of overseas followers.
Just over one-third of followers of Oxford and Cambridge (both 36%) were based in the UK while 32% were in the United States. Thereafter 'following' countries dropped off sharply, with The Netherlands third for all five universities, at between 3% and 4%.
In fourth for Oxford was Canada (3%). Interestingly, Morocco provided the fourth highest proportions of followers, between 2% and 3%, for the other four UK universities.
More than half of followers of Edinburgh and Imperial College London - 54% for both of them - are based in the UK, and for Bristol the figure is 58%. For all three, one-quarter of followers are based in America.
A similar breakdown for five top-ranked US universities showed higher proportions of American followers - 65% for Harvard, 81% for Stanford, 72% for Yale, 62% for MIT and 71% for Princeton. Canada or the UK provided the second and third largest proportions of followers, between 2% and 4%. Ecuador came in fourth for all except MIT, with Spain fourth.
Who the followers are
The most common professions for followers at the UK universities were 'scientist and researcher' followed by student.
The breakdowns by UK institution showed that 21% of Oxford's followers are scientists and researchers, 18% are students, 12% are lecturers or teachers and 12% are executives. The University of Cambridge had a similar follower profile, with 22% of followers scientists and researchers, 17% students and 14% teachers and lecturers.
Unexpectedly, the fourth highest category of followers for both Cambridge (10%) and Bristol (11%) is 'artist'.
Edinburgh had a higher student following - 21% - Bristol had an equal split of followers between scientists-researchers and students (20% each), while 25% of Imperial College London's followers are scientists and researchers, 16% are executives and 15% students.
There is a fairly even gender breakdown of followers of top UK universities, the study showed - while in America the top universities have considerably more male followers.
"The professions were also less university and research related for US universities, with more high level followers from the private sector than students and lecturers."
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