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Developing a friendly voice, in 140 characters or less

Social media has redefined the Office of University Communications.

A stack of white steno notebooks sits near the corner of Hillel Hoffmann’s desk closest to the door, but front and center on his workspace is his computer. The juxtaposition says more than you’d think.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t recognize Hoffmann’s name. The former journalist turned Temple communications director is on Twitter – and you probably follow him. He’s better known by a 10-character Twitter handle: @TempleUniv.

Hoffmann, who had a storied career at National Geographic and arrived at Temple in 2004, has mastered the art of Tweeting on behalf of the university.

It’s no secret that social media is a communications frontier that has become strikingly important in the way society operates and converses. But it has also completely changed the way communicators do business – and the Office of University Communications is no exception.

Budgetary decisions led to the office slashing the printing of the university newsletter, the Temple Times, in half; it now prints once a month. Filling in that gap is the everyday effort from those who work in the office to engage people online.

Hoffmann took the reins of the Twitter account in Fall 2010, when the account’s following was just more than 2,500. Two and a half years later, that number rose to nearly 20,000.

The numbers – including engagement, tweets and retweets – afforded the account the honor of being one of the nation’s Top 10 most influential Twitter accounts in the country in 2011, according to Klout.com, a website that measures social media presence. Temple has since dropped off the list. According to fanpagelist.com, it ranks No. 47 on the site’s college and university feeds list.

Even so, the Twitter account’s relevance at Temple remains on the upswing, a point proven by its growing following.

Temple’s Twitter feed has acted as much more than a microphone for the university’s press releases. It has developed an obvious relationship with its audience – students, faculty, alumni and even prospective students.

Ashley DeMarco, a recently accepted student who Hoffmann followed and retweeted on Instant Decision Day, said the social media engagement wasn’t expected. That sense of welcoming meant a lot, she said.

“It’s making the transition from a homey community college to a big university a lot less scary for me personally,” she said in an email.

For someone whose college cohort “didn’t even have personal computers,” Hoffmann said operating the account comes natural. Tweeting, he said, is a task of reformatting the message for the 140-character medium.

But more than simply knowing the website logistically, Twitter boils down to finding the right voice.

“An effective Twitter account strikes the right balance between being professional yet also showing personality,” said Assistant Professor Steven L. Johnson, who specializes in social media, in an email.

Temple’s account has become a source of spontaneous lines about university pride, photos from Main Campus, links to news releases, live sporting event tweets and even humor. The latter is best illustrated by example. One of Hoffmann’s Super Bowl tweets read: “#TUPowerOutageIdeas: Put Travis Mahoney ’12 on a stationary bike, plug him in.”

ANGELO FICHERA / TTN

ANGELO FICHERA / TTN

That’s a part of the voice Hoffmann has been perfecting. The collective feed, he said, is meant to be a reflection of ways that the Temple community speaks and tweets: smart, urban and “maybe with a little attitude.”

“This is one of the hardest things for organizations to get right on Twitter, to reflect core values positively while also being personable and engaging,” Johnson said.

There’s no shortage of information release on the feed, either.

Last week, hours before the men’s basketball game, Hoffmann contacted sources in the athletic department and at the Liacouras Center to determine the number of seats remaining for the event.

The box office was “projecting it to be a sold out game,” he said. Judging by his former career and current job duties, which includes writing stories for the university, Hoffmann is no stranger to reporting for an audience.

More than just putting information out there, Hoffmann said, he tries to maintain a two-way stream, replying to or direct messaging those who reach out. Being responsive is imperative to any social media operation, Johnson said.

Hoffmann tweets constantly – using the closest piece of technology to do it – or utilizing online tools to schedule them. First to his surprise, Hoffmann’s found strong engagement late at night.

“I’ve tweeted from every imaginable place from every imaginable platform,” Hoffmann said. “We tweet and retweet 24/7.”

As the account’s bio suggests, Temple has created an online feed of community.

Hoffmann likened the site’s capabilities to an “emotional barometer” of what those in the extended Temple family are thinking and talking about.

When an alumnus committed suicide in 2010, Hoffmann used the site to provide updates, walk-in counseling information and, he said, a sense of understandable emotional distress.

“It’s important to react to real-time events that impact your audience,” Johnson said.

And for those not on Twitter, there’s always Facebook. Hoffmann’s colleagues, Eryn Jelesiewicz and Vaughn Shinkus, operate that site’s official university account on that site.

In December 2011, the office set out to double the number of Facebook followers – from 7,000 to 14,000 – and reached that goal by November 2012, according to numbers provided by Shinkus. The website now has more than 17,000 followers.

The Facebook account serves a similar audience – Shinkus said about half of the page’s audience is current students and that the next largest group is young alumni – but is operated in a different way. Unlike Twitter, the Facebook account posts two to five times a day, Shinkus said.

“There’s not an appetite for more than that,” Shinkus said. “Facebook posts have a longer shelf life.”

The social media messages themselves are often more organic than one might expect of a strategic communications department.

“I took a photo of a manhole with a Temple ‘T,’” Shinkus said. “It got wild engagement.”

Ultimately, Hoffmann said, harnessing the power of social media has just been a matter of finding new ways of reaching the masses.

“It’s a natural extension of what we do as communicators,” Hoffmann said.

Angelo Fichera can be reached at afichera@temple.edu or on Twitter @AJFichera.

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