Higher Ed and the Real-Time Web

On Sept. 14, I spoke at the 140 Characters Conference (#140conf) in Boston, an event that aims to “provide attendees with knowledge, perspectives and insights to the next wave of effects Twitter and the real-time internet will have on business.” What follows is an adaptation of the talk I delivered, “Higher Ed in the Now: Building Our Brands in Real-Time.”

There is a new challenge for higher ed. In the words of Col. Sanders from Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs,” “You’re in now, now.” It’s the real-time web. And it is moving at ludicrous speed.

The real-time web is about immediacy, availability, presence and on-demand engagement. It’s about a pulse of information that we have no choice but to feel for, a stream of content we have no option but to wade into. It’s not just Twitter, though that’s the most prominent example. It’s seeping into every corner of the online world.

In higher ed, we as web marketing and public relations professionals must adhere to these new expectations and obligations to be present in the now, because our brands are already there even if we aren’t.

You want a barometer? Look at the typical social media page for universities. It’s evolving. We are beginning to see the value of integrating real-time web conversations into our .edus. It’s no longer just about a bunch of icons for YouTube and Facebook. It’s more about pulling in the streams – even crossing them (apologies, Egon). Check out Rochester Institute of Technology’s admissions page. At a glance, you can see the conversations and seek out targeted social content.

There are three things upon which the real-time web depends to give it traction and prevent it from becoming an unmanageable mess of content: trust, relationships and context. And with respect to all three, we get what we give.

I see four main opportunities for universities to get real with real-time:


Events are present the perfect opportunity to create live, participatory experiences on the web, via real-time content creation and curation, live video (Duke does this well with Duke University Live on Facebook) and chats (BU has done live video chats as well as text chats using Cover it Live), uploading pics via Eye-Fi cards (like SUNY New Paltz’s coverage of their Hawk Pride event last February) or video via Qik mobile livestreaming, and hashtags. At Tufts, we’ve done this a couple of ways.

When our men’s a cappella group, the Beelzebubs, was on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” last December. We capitalized on the finale of the program by live-tweeting, retweeting comments by the community, hosting a live chat via a service called Cover it Live, and publishing a recap within minutes of the finale’s conclusion. We created a real-time platform where people could share in an experience and connect with one another. We saw, in the chat room, alumni reconnecting, people recognizing one another. The effort earned us a CASE Bronze award this year.

Another example is how we used the #tufts2014 hashtag for the most recently admitted class. The tag was appropriated for a variety of uses, from student groups trying to lure incoming freshmen, to the admissions office encouraging students to tweet about the topics where they could offer advice to the incoming class. When the class arrived on campus, #tufts2014 was utilized by parents, students, departments, and others as they tweeted about orientation. In these ways, hashtags allow us to bridge disparate branches of the university community, compressing the layers between our audiences and bringing prospective students, current students, parents and alumni into the same space in a way that would be beyond challenging in real space. Also on Twitter, last spring we launched a Twitter account dedicated to live tweeting of events, TuftsLive, which we’ve used with great success on Commencement, Matriculation and other events.

Real-Time Publishing

Just like we did with The Sing-Off where we published a story just minutes after the finale, universities have to upgrade their publishing processes and mechanisms to take advantage of RSS, real-time publishing protocols like PubSubHubBub (the engine behind real-time publishing on WordPress and elsewhere) and social media distribution, so our content can be found via an increasingly real-time search environment and meet our audiences’ new expectations for immediacy. The recent announcement of Google’s real-time search engine makes this even more critical.

Is the CMS powering your news site publishing in real-time? Do your news items, once published, get picked up via Google News and Google Blog Alerts? If you subscribe to your own news site’s RSS feed, how long does it take for a published story to show up in your reader? Look at the model the New York Times adopted ten years ago of the Continuous News Desk, the affirmation of a “web first” publishing model and content as evolving and not finite. Do you work in a “web first” operation? On top of all this, we’ve got to pitch our news items to blogs that will in turn publish them in real-time. And while we’ve got to publish fast, we need to correct and respond faster. In the real-time web, a day of silence is like a week.

But it’s not just about publishing the same old content more quickly. It’s what we’re publishing. For one, you have Twitter. Think about tweets as content. All universities claim to have dynamic student life, but what about showing it? Create a Twitter list of all your student organizations on Twitter, embed it on your Student Life page, and there you have it – an up-to-date, at a glance look at how active, engaged and dynamic your student groups are.

Then there’s video. When the Old Spice Youtube videos were popular this summer, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham young University took advantage of the surrounding buzz to push out a parody that focused on the features available at the library, with the tagline “Study like a Scholar, Scholar”. The video, which got covered by Gawker, Huffington Post, Fast Company and more, has gotten more than 2.2 million pageviews.

And what about all the blogs, videos and photos our students and alums are cranking out? Some of it – a surprising amount, actually, organically aligns with our brand – and has the authentic quality of not being authored by the university. At Tufts, we created a blog called Jumble where we curate content that we call “the best of Tufts on the web,” found through our real-time monitoring of the social media content stream and republished with additional context and information. (If you want to learn more about Jumble and content curation, I will be speaking on this topic at both HighEdWeb and SIMTech in October.)


This gets said a lot, but in the real-time web it is essential – you have to listen. The real-time web offers the incredible potential not just to gauge sentiment and reputation at the moment, but to shape it. The tradeoff is time. You have to be there, and being there takes time. Answer questions about ESL programs, engineering majors and Christian life on campus. Respond to concerns and questions about alumni events, recycling and event locations. Field criticisms about programs and policies. That presence and engagement yields trust and builds relationships.
Out there, right now, are two types of people we need to listen to: our brand advocates and our brand adversaries. Both are lynchpin actors in the real-time web. Our brand advocates are the type of people whose content I link to on our Jumble blog. I favorite their tweets and videos, I republish them, but more importantly, over time, you have to build relationships with them. Our brand advocates can also, during a crisis, be our brand spotters, signaling when conversations are amiss, or misinformation is propagating. That’s when those relationships pay extra dividends.

Expertise and Relevance

Information in the real-time web is slippery. It needs traction. Expertise and relevance are invaluable because they provide that traction, in the form of context. And providing context helps build trust and credibility. Universities, as warehouses of knowledge, are well equipped to act as stewards of context in a real-time world, and thus gain real-time relevance and build trust. We have experts on topics ranging from hurricanes to cancer research to Middle Eastern politics. And a university is a trusted, reputable source. This is a new dimension of higher ed media relations and marketing in the now. We already have experts quoted in the media, but how can we push this even further? The aforementioned live chat BU hosted with Prof. Andrew Bacevich on troop escalation in Afghanistan is a great example of how we can do that.

Here’s another way academic research and insight can provide to a story breaking in real-time that I got from web marketing expert David Meerman Scott: When President Obama accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of US forces in Afghanistan a few months back, the publishers of the 1992 biography of Harry Truman saw an opportunity and proceeded to extract the chapter of the book detailing how Truman fired Gen. MacArthur and within days release it as an ebook, capitalizing on the need for historical context in a developing situation. At Tufts, we’ve done something like this for a while, linking to archived news content that has fresh relevance in relation to current news.

Get Real

We’re all strapped for time and resources, but we still manage to bootstrap with the best of them, right? The real-time web is no exception. The conversations and content creation around our brand are already happening. It is our responsibility to be there, as well. The benefits – building relationships and gaining trust – are too huge, and too essential to the life of our brand, to ignore.

This post was written by:

Georgiana Cohen

Georgiana Cohen is Manager of Web Content and Strategy for Tufts University, overseeing university-wide web content, social media and online news initiatives. She runs a web communications blog at georgycohen.com as well as a lifestyle blog, Safe Digression. A freelance writer, Georgy has also been published in the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, WorkAwesome and elsewhere.

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