The Social Side of College Admissions

4 Lessons from Twitter Office Hours with Federal Student Aid

April 15, 2013

FSA Office Hours TeamI'm always interested in hearing about folks who are trying to push the envelope in how they utilize social media. While you could probably find thousands of articles about social media strategy with a simple Google search, let's be honest… social media is really just in its infancy. We're all still trying to figure out what levers we can pull to effectively reach and engage with our target audiences.

So when I heard about Federal Student Aid (FSA) holding monthly office hours on Twitter, I had to see it for myself first-hand. They were kind enough to let me be a fly on the wall for the February installment of their Twitter office hours.

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I'm guessing that the federal government is not a first stop for many of you when it comes to social media inspiration. However, after talking with them a bit and experiencing the action live, I wanted to share some of what I saw that may be useful for many admissions offices navigating their way in the world of social media.

Lesson #1: Have a Clear Plan of Attack

This wasn't the first rodeo for the folks at FSA. This was the 13th installment of their office hours on Twitter, and they were a well-oiled machine. Each person had a clearly defined role. One person was in charge of monitoring incoming questions and putting them into a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that everyone had access to. Two people were busy formulating clear and succinct answers. Remember: 140 characters is not a lot for answering a question about filling out the FAFSA. One person was taking these answers, performing quality checks, and queuing up the responses. And a final person handled the posts to the @FAFSA Twitter account. Everyone was busy, but no one was frantic. Not only did each person know exactly what they were supposed to do, but they also knew what they did not need to worry about. There was clear accountability for each step of the process with very little overlap. This mirrors what we often see with our own partner schools. Things go much smoother when one or two people are in charge of specific tasks. When three people are all managing everything collectively, things seem to slip through the cracks ("I thought you were handling that").

Lesson #2: Listen to Concerns, Don't Try to Squash Criticism

As you can imagine, when you're a federal agency answering a student's question about financial aid, you can't just throw out your best guess. You need to make sure you provide accurate information. Response time to office-hour questions typically took ~5-10 minutes to go through the entire process I just highlighted. In a medium where your feed may be updating with several Tweets every second, this seemed like an eternity to one participant who complained about the response time. The FSA team acknowledged the concern and let the student know they were working on an answer. We created a Storify so you can see how the FSA team handled this participant's complaint. By the end of the back-and-forth, they were exchanging virtual high-fives and kisses.

Lesson #3: Don't Be Afraid to Let Your Hair Down a Little

What surprised me the most (in a good way) was the willingness of the FSA team to be playful on Twitter. They posted a couple photos of themselves during the office hours (one with them blowing kisses) and even used emoticons here and there.

I thought they found the right balance on this front. You don't want to sound like a 15-year-old, but you also don't want to sound like a robot. A little playfulness lets your audience know there are real people behind your organization's social media accounts who care about helping their followers / fans. Personally, there's not much I hate more than dealing with an automated customer service line or with customer service reps following a script. The human element can go a long way toward earning trust.

Lesson #4: Give Your Fans / Followers a Reason to Get the Word Out

One of the really interesting aspects of the FSA's office hours on Twitter was that it seemed to mobilize a number of their followers and partner organizations to get the word out. It was a reason for them to promote the @FAFSA account along with the #AskFAFSA hashtag. They had something useful for them to share. They were not saying, "Hey, can you tell your own followers about the @FAFSA Twitter account again?" They were essentially saying "Hey, we're providing an outlet for your followers to get important financial aid questions answered. Let them know about this event."

Dozens of financial aid offices, high school counselors, and other student-focused organizations were re-tweeting the event announcement to their followers. The office hours on Twitter give these "friends of FSA" a regular opportunity to help promote FSA and its educational efforts. You could argue that this may be the most valuable aspect of these regular office hours.

Thanks again to the great team at FSA for letting me pull back the curtain on this unique initiative and get a glimpse into how it works.

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