Tuesday, November 24, 2015

2015-11-24 Twitter Follower Analysis of Virginia University Alumni Associations

The primary goal of any alumni association is to maintain and strengthen the ties between its alumni, the community, and the mission of the university. With social media, it's easier than ever to connect with current and former graduates on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with a simple invitation to "like us" or "follow me." Considering just one of these social platforms, we recently analyzed the Twitter networks of twenty-three (23) Virginia colleges and universities to determine what, if any, social characteristics were shared among the institutions and whether we could gain any insight by examining the public profiles of their respective followers. The colleges of interest, ranked by number of followers in Table 1, vary in size, mission, type of institution, admissions selectivity and perceived prestige. Each of the alumni associations has maintained a Twitter presence for an average of six (6) years. The oldest Twitter account belongs to Roanoke College (@roanokecollege) which is approaching the eight (8) year mark. The newest Twitter account was registered by Randolph Macon College (@RMCalums) nearly two years ago.

University Followers Joined Twitter
University of Virginia 12,100 11/1/2008
Roanoke College* 9,588 3/1/2008
Regent University* 7,966 11/1/2008
James Madison University 7,865 8/1/2008
Virginia Tech 6,418 4/1/2009
College of William & Mary 4,448 1/1/2009
University of Mary Washington 3,847 10/1/2009
Liberty University 3,699 11/6/2009
University of Richmond 3,299 5/1/2009
Sweet Briar College* 2,523 8/1/2010
George Mason University 2,375 2/1/2011
Hampton University 2,372 2/15/2012
Christopher Newport University 2,191 8/1/2010
Old Dominion University 1,996 7/1/2009
Randolph College* 1,857 8/1/2008
Washington and Lee University 1,842 8/1/2011
Radford University 1,758 3/11/2011
Hampden-Sydney College 1,086 7/1/2009
Longwood University 1,035 2/28/2013
Hollins University 923 4/1/2009
Virginia Military Institute 836 3/1/2009
Norfolk State University 629 8/15/2011
Randolph-Macon College 172 3/7/2014
Table 1 - Alumni Associations Ranked by Followers

* Institution does not have an official alumni Twitter account.
The university Twitter account was used instead.

Social Graph Analysis

NodeXL is a template for Microsoft Excel which makes network analysis easy and rather intuitive. We used this tool for data collection to import the Twitter networks and to analyze the various social media interactions. There are limitations established in the Twitter API which regulate the amount of data collected per hour by any one user. Therefore, due to rate limiting, NodeXL will inherently only import the 2,000 most recent friends and followers for any Twitter account. To improve the response time of the API, we further restricted our data collection to the 200 most recent tweets for both the university and each of its follower accounts.

For our first look at the alumni associations, we clustered the data based on an algorithm in NodeXL which looks at how the vertices are connected to one another. The clusters, as shown in Figure 1, are indicated by the color of the nodes. The clusters themselves revealed some interesting patterns.  The high level of inter-association connectivity, as measured in follows, tweets and mentions, was unexpected. We would have thought that each association operated within the confines of its own Twitter space or that of its parent organization. As we examine the groupings in this network, it is not unreasonable that we would observe connections between Old Dominion University (@ODUAlumni), Norfolk State University (@nsu_alumni_1935) and Hampton University (@HamptonU_Alumni) as all three are located within close proximity of one another in the Hampton Roads area. But, then we must take notice of Hollins University (@HollinsAlum), a small, private women's college in Roanoke, VA, which has a connection with ten (10) other alumni associations; more connections than any other school. Hollins is one of the smallest universities in our group with enrollment of less than 800 students. Since Twitter is primarily about influence, in this instance, we can probably assume the follows serve as a means to observe best practices and current engagement trends employed by larger institutions. While Hollins University is well connected, as are many of the other schools, at the opposite end of the spectrum we find Liberty University (@LibertyUAlum), a large school with more than 77,000 students. Liberty University remains totally isolated with no follower connections to the other alumni associations. You might minimally expect some type of connection with either Regent University (@RegentU) since both share a similar mission as private, Christian institutions or other universities within close physical proximity such as Randolph College (@randolphcollege).

Figure 1 - Connectivity of Alumni Associations

Twitter Followers, Enrollment, and Selectivity

We normally measure the popularity of a Twitter account based on the number of followers. Instead of simply quantifying the follower counts of each alumni association, we sought to understand if certain factors, actions or inherent qualities about the institution might influence the relative number of followers.  First, we considered whether more active tweeters would attract more alumni followers. As shown in Figure 2, the College of William and Mary (@wmalumni) has generated the most tweets over its lifetime, approximately 6,200 or 2.5 tweets per day. But, we also observe the University of Mary Washington (@UMaryWash), which has approximately half the student enrollment, a similar Twitter life span, 50% percent less tweets at 2,800 or 1.3 per day, with only a slight difference in the number of followers, 4,400 versus 3,800 respectively. While the graph shows that schools such as Virginia Tech (@vt_alumni) and the University of Virginia (@UVA_Alumni) have more followers with fewer lifetime tweets, the caveat is that these public institutions have the benefit of considerably larger student populations which inherently increases the pool of potential alumni.

Figure 2 - Lifetime Tweets Versus Followers

Next, we considered whether a higher graduation rate, or alumni production, would result in more followers. We obtained the most recent, 2014 overall graduation rates for each institution from the National Center for Education Statistics, with reported overall six-year graduation rates ranging from 34% to 94%. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of the Demographics of Social Media Users indicates that among all internet users, 32% in the 18 to 29 age range use Twitter. This is a key demographic as we would expect our alumni associations to be primarily focused on attracting recent undergraduates. We also factored in selectivity, a comparative scoring of the admissions process, using the categories defined in the 2016 U.S. News Best Colleges Directory. In this directory, colleges are designated as most selective, more selective, selective, less selective or least selective based on a formula.

As we look at Figure 3, we observe a positive correlation between admissions selectivity and the institution's overall graduation rate. Schools which were least selective during the admissions phase also produced the lowest graduation rates (less than 40%) while schools which were most selective, experienced the highest graduation rates (around 90%).  It isn't surprising that improved graduation rates positively affect the expected number of alumni Twitter followers. We'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to extrapolate how closely each institution's annual undergraduate enrollment, graduation rate and expected level of engagement on Twitter corresponds to the actual number of followers when all three factors are considered.

Figure 3 - Followers Versus Graduation Rate

Potential Reach of Verified Followers

Users on Twitter want to be followed so we looked carefully at who, besides alumni and students, was following each of the alumni associations. Specifically, we noted the number of Twitter verified followers; accounts which are usually associated with high-profile users in "music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business and other key interest areas." In addition to an abundance of local news reporters and sports anchors, regional politicians and career sites, other notable followers included: restaurant review site Zagat (@Zagat), automaker Toyota USA (@toyota), musician and rapper DJ King Assassin (@DjKingAssassin), the Nelson Mandela Foundation (@NelsonMandela), the President of the United States Barack Obama (@BarackObama), Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (@GovernorVA) and artist and singer Yoko Ono (@yokoono). It's a safe assumption that some of the follower relationships with verified users were probably established prior to 2013. This is the year in which Twitter instituted new rules to kill the "auto follow" which was a programmatic way of following another user back after they follow you. Either way, the open question would remain as to why these particular users would follow an alumni association when there are no readily apparent educational ties.

Twitter doesn't take follower count into consideration when verifying an account, but it's not unusual for a verified account to have a considerable following. Since the mission of an alumni association is essentially about networking and information dissemination, we also measured the potential reach or level of influence across the followers' extended network obtained from the verified accounts. No single university had more than 70 verified accounts among its followers. However, when we look at their contribution, in Figure 4, as a percentage of the combined reach achieved by all followers of each alumni association, these select users accounted for as little as 1.6% for Virginia Military Institute (@vmialumni) to as much as 95.8% for Longwood University (@acaptainforlife) of the institution's total potential reach (i.e., followers of my followers).

Figure 4 - Potential Reach Percentage of Verified Accounts

Alumni Sentiment

Finally, we examined how each follower described himself in the description (i.e., bio) portion of their Twitter profile by extracting the top 200 most frequently occurring terms for each alumni association. A word cloud for the alumni of each university is shown in Figure 5. If we further isolated the descriptions to the top ten most frequently occurring words, we observed a common pattern among all alumni followers. In addition to the official or some derivative of the institution name (e.g., JMU, NSU, Tech), we find the terms love, life, and some intimate description of the follower as a mom, husband, student, father or alumni.  If the university has an athletic department, we also found mention of sports and, in the case of our two Christian universities, Liberty and Regent, the terms God, Jesus, and Christ were prevalent. In 22 of 23 institutions, the alumni primarily described themselves using these personal terms. Conversely, the alumni followers at only one institution, the University of Richmond (@urspidernetwork), described themselves in a more business-like or academic manner with more frequent mention of the words PhD, career, and job.

Figure 5 - Word Clouds of Twitter Follower Descriptions

-- Corren McCoy

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