About a year ago, I decided to follow Yale’s Tumblr. Our goal is to help organizations share their expertise directly with the public and I wanted to study Yale’s approach. After all, Yale – or any major academic institution – has extremely deep expertise in a broad variety of topics. What’s more, universities have many audiences: existing students, prospective students, faculty, staff, academic peers, etc. Figuring out how to communicate so much to so many is a complex challenge.
Today, I’m a huge fan of Yale. While Yale’s Tumblr sometimes makes me envious of the kids who get to study there, it’s always a pleasure to read.
I emailed some questions to Yale’s Emmanuel Quartey to find out how they do it. He was very generous with his responses. Read on and learn how Yale uses Tumblr to fulfill its mission to “create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge” and delight life-long learners around the world.
On finding the right mood
MV: On your about page, you say that your Tumblr is a “photo album, sketchbook and moodboard of sights and sounds from around the University.” Generally, what’s Yale’s mood?
Emmanuel: Joyful and dynamic. On any given day, there are literally hundreds of exhibitions, guest lectures, musical and theatrical performances, games, and scientific experiments happening all over the University. The sheer breadth and depth of activity here is truly mind-boggling, and our Tumblr is a window into the many facets of life at Yale.
On knowing who you are and who you’re talking to
Who is your audience on social media? Current students? Prospective students? The world at large? Who do you think of when you write?
There are two broad audiences we keep in mind – prospective students, but also life-long learners, the kind of people who spend hours reading up on something on Wikipedia. For the former, we post beautiful photos of campus and student life , as well as updates about Admissions . Most of our posts, however, are broadly intended for people who simply love to learn.
As a 300 year-old research institution, Yale is a treasure chest of learning about literally every aspect of human existence. Our Tumblr, therefore, reflects our mission to “create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge.” It’s where we share the cool and unusual things we find in our vaults, as well as the new discoveries by our researchers. For example, did you know that there is a room full of human brains at the Yale School of Medicine, collected by Harvey Cushing, Yale class of 1891 and the father of neurosurgery? Or that the oldest literary work by a known author is a 4000 year old poem which is part of the Yale Babylonian Collection? Or that Yale astronomers led the recent discovery of a diamond planet?
We share lots of this content on our other channels as well, of course, but Tumblr users are particularly eager to learn something new. They want to be inspired and amazed, and we’re happy to oblige.
Yale is an august institution. How do you ensure that Yale is properly represented on Tumblr?
As a social media manager of an institution of higher learning, I never lose sight of the fact that I am a steward of a place that has a storied and celebrated history. We’re also defined by the youthful, infectious energy of our students and faculty. Our posts, therefore, are chosen and captioned in such a way as to reflect both the intellectual curiosity as well as the sense of levity that is characteristic of the place.
The choice between respectability and personability is a false dichotomy. Deadly serious and aloof, or wild and slapstick – you don’t have to choose either extreme! Indeed, we believe strongly that the best institutional communications are wholly human , which means staying true to the institution’s values of academic excellence while allowing yourself to be a a little playful. The challenge of representing large institutions online is not insignificant. It’s a balancing act, but it is possible to remain true to your values while exhibiting soul.
In the notes from your excellent slides about Yale on Tumblr, you say the following: “Don’t be afraid to be conversational on Tumblr […] people except brands to have a human face on Tumblr.” How do you put a human face on Yale? Do you think of anyone in particular? Is there a persona?
The persona of the Yale Tumblr is that of an intensely curious person who is always excited to share his or her latest discoveries with friends. It is personable and good humoured. This is someone you can geek out with about some obscure branch of neuroscience, but who also possesses an enviable knowledge of pop culture. Here’re a few concrete ideas for putting a human face to a blog:
- Most institutional blogs wisely use the “we” when communicating, but an infrequent “I” can underscore that there is a real person behind the account who is genuinely fascinated by the content, and who delights in seeing the comments that people reblog.
- One of the best thing about Tumblr is its community. Blogs that use it as a one-directional broadcast medium will be ignored. Don’t be afraid to celebrate people who take the time to write to or about you. Again, this communicates that there is a real person behind the blog who genuinely cares. For example, when a Tumblr user posted a nice comment about how much she enjoyed the Yale Tumblr, we reblogged her together with a custom thank you graphic bearing her URL. Little gestures like this go a long way in creating a rapport between an institution and its followers.
- When I find myself struggling with a caption, I take a second and imagine that I’m sharing something fascinating with an intelligent friend. This frame of mind allows me to write in a way that quickly communicates: a) what my friend is looking at and b) why this is awesome and why that friend should care.
On the rewards of giving to your audience
You also say “Each post should be a gift.” Are there any other institutional blogs – other than Yale’s – that do this well?
The University of California Research Blog does a great job at this. It highlights the science research happening all across the University of California system, and every post is a fascinating bit of science news that makes me want to drop everything and read up on the topic.
Another blog that I think gets this right is the PBS Digital Studios Tumblr. Every post features a custom graphic, a fun animated gif or a well edited video. Any one of these post-types is resource intensive, and it’s inspiring to see how much loving care and attention to detail goes into every single one. PBS Digital Studios actually picked up three well deserved Webby awards this year for their digital work.
How do you measure success on social media?
We measure success by the number of shares or reblogs on a post, as well as the quality of comments that people make when they share the post with their friends. This is Mark Coatney, Director of Media Outreach at Tumblr, on how to measure the success of a blog: “To me, the primary metric of success for any Tumblr blog is the reblog – it shows you’ve published something so great that one of your followers has said, ‘This is so cool; I want to be associated with this and reblog it.’” I think this is exactly correct.
For Tumblr in particular, we’re more excited about the number of people who consistently reblog our posts than our number of followers. For example, we posted an infographic titled How much sugar does your drink contain? on National Food Day, and the highlight of the day was seeing hundreds of people reblog the graphic, surprised at the revelation of how much sugar their favorite drink contained. I consider a post that results in 100 people saying some variation of “This taught me something!” to be more successful than a post that gets 100 likes.
In addition to Tumblr, Yale is active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Sina Weibo, and for all these channels, another measure of success is how well we link back to stories on YaleNews, which is our primary digital news platform. In other words, it’s not just the metrics on specific social media channels that matter, but also how they help link people back to other content from Yale.
How to gather expertise from across your organization
Do you have a process to find things to post about? Obviously, Yale has a lot going on. How do you stay on top of it all?
Our content comes from multiple different sources. One of them is the twice-weekly meetings we have with communications officers who cover different “beats” such as arts, science etc. They keep us abreast of most of the things on the horizon. We also maintain an internal calendar of happenings, which allows us to create or curate content, be they infocomics, infographics, photos and videos. The University’s many digital archives are another great resource.
Finally, the Yale community itself has proven to be an excellent source of content. We’re constantly reminding our fellow communications officers, students, and staff to tip us using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, and this has created a culture where our community has become a great source of photos and tips about upcoming events.
The White House announced a new open data policy today. It’s an exciting development that you can learn more about on the White House’s very comprehensive Project Open Data site. John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation has shared some great analysis of the policy as well.
We’re big fans of open government data (we’ve even helped create some), but instead of writing about why we love this new policy, we’re going to write about why we love the announcement of this new policy.
The video you see above is a beautiful example of an organization going direct. Instead of assembling a bunch of reporters to transcribe their announcement to be retyped in news stories later, our nation’s CIO and CTO sat down in front of a camera and told us directly.
The individuals responsible for the new policy told us about it, why they’re doing it, and what it means for us. They told us in plain language. And they did it in under 2 minutes – as is made clear by the countdown clock in the top-right corner of the video.
They honored their audience. They honored our intelligence and our time.
The White House’s new media team makes this look easy, but it’s not. The video works thanks to many nuances that may not seem obvious to most people – the music, multiple camera angles, good sound recording, a tight script, great lighting, shallow focus, and a friendly delivery.
Indeed, the White House is its own media entity and has the resources it needs to make great videos like this, but you don’t need to have a ton of resources to go direct.
Whether you’re communicating on behalf of a government organization or not, honor your audience. Whether you’re writing a blog post or recording a vido, use a human voice. Tell your audience what you’re up to and why. If it makes sense, pull back the curtain and show them your face. Your candor will be appreciated.
The best approach is to write for just one person. Make an impact on just one person. Even better, make it so they can’t sleep that night unless they choose to make a difference for just one other person by sharing your message with them.
You may have found yourself reading the Priceonomics blog recently. Priceonomics’s deeply thoughtful posts about food trucks, diamonds, Japanese toilets, and Phish get shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter.
My experience with their blog reaffirmed one of our main teachings about content marketing: people fall in love with the writing first, then they fall in love with whoever wrote it. After following a few links to Priceonomics posts from Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, I thought to myself “These guys are good.” I dug deeper and learned about the company behind these great articles.
Priceonomics is a service designed to help you find the right price for anything. From their about page:
We hate getting ripped off or over-paying for stuff so we built Priceonomics. We search and analyze hundreds of millions of listings on the web to build our price guides. We hope you can use these reports to get the most value for the best price.
It’s an excellent service – already invaluable for anyone looking to buy or sell any used goods online. I’m clearly a Priceonomics fan, and it all started with their blog.
I emailed Rohin Dhar, co-founder and CEO of Priceonomics, and asked a few questions about the blog and his team’s strategy for it. He was kind enough to share some great insights useful to any organization that wants to be liked.
Try hard. Do good work. Rewards will come.
MV: On your wonderfully informative blog stats page, you admit that you haven’t clearly defined what success for your blog is. Are you getting closer to knowing what success is?
Rohin: On our blog we’re not really over thinking “what is success.” We just try to make things people enjoy reading and hopefully prove some point that’s not immediately obvious. When we started, the original goal was to use our data to write blog posts and improve our SEO. Now it’s more “try hard to write good things.”
Can you tell us how blog readers convert into users of your price guides?
We don’t try to convert our blog readers into users of the price guides. What are the odds that at the very moment you’re reading an article about Phish you also need to find out how to price a used motorcycle? Pretty low. Eventually the user comes back when they need pricing information because they heard about us through the blog or do by doing a pricing related Google search.
Honor your audience.
Do you have an audience that you’re writing for? Hacker News readers? Your parents? “The consumer?”
We’re trying to create things that at least pass the bar of “do I personally find this interesting and intellectually honest.” Hopefully if I like it, other people will as well. There is no particular audience we’re writing for, but I definitely keep in mind Hacker News when writing an article even if it has nothing to do with tech. Whenever I write a sentence, I consider how the logic could be torn to shreds in a Hacker News comment. If I think it could, I know to tighten up the argument.
What impression of Priceonomics do you want to make on your readers?
That we use facts to make a point.
You wrote over 4,000 words about Phish last week. How’d you choose them as a subject?
Basically my wife and a lot of her friends love Phish and spend a lot of money on going to see the band live. But when I listen to Phish, I get pretty bored. So to me that’s interesting. How can all these people who I respect love this band when I just can’t fathom why. So I thought I’d dig deeper into how do you reconcile the two viewpoints.
As Rohin said above, “Hopefully if I like it, other people will as well.” It’s a good assumption. The post about Phish received 79,000 views.
“Diamonds are Bullshit” is a glorious headline. Did any of you think twice before using such language in a post title?
Not really. We aren’t particularly profane in our blog posts, but there is no reason we need to adopt the stylistic practices of 100 year old newspapers. We’re just a little blog so we can basically make up our own rules of how to do things.
I can’t thank Rohin enough for taking the time to answer these questions. The lessons sound simple, but writing well takes serious time and effort. It’s especially difficult if you can’t draw a clear line between writing a great blog post and your business goals. But it pays off. If you didn’t know about Priceonomics before, you do now.
These lessons in blogging apply far beyond start up blogs. Any organization with deep expertise in complex topics can make a huge impact by sharing their expertise online. This applies especially to government and non-profit organizations. Priceonomics’s blog posts are popular because they provide understanding. They make sense out of complex topics in a way that no one else can, and thousands of readers are better off because of it.
The “re-” gestures—such as reblogging and retweeting—have become cultural rites of cachet in and of themselves. If you can filter through the mass of information and pass it on as an arbiter to others, you gain an enormous amount of cultural capital. Filtering is taste. And good taste rules the day: Marcel Duchamp’s exquisite filtering and sorting sensibility combined with his finely tuned taste rewrote the rules.
Kenneth Goldsmith, Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now? (via ancdompanies)
The most endearing thing a brand can do these days is reveal that there are humans inside.
This quirk is as good a sign as any that brands as we know them are increasingly obsolete. Their future is as a brand/human cyborg, more akin to a sports star playing for a team than as a pure icon.
Note: this kind of thing should only be done by organizations that want to appear “endearing.”