5 Questions with the Social Media Squirrels of Keele University

Why humour matters in HE marketing and communications

October 11, 2018

Keele University frequently features an informal, humorous tone in their social media accounts and has been a fixture on my HE social media radar since I arrived in the United Kingdom in 2014.

They might not be actual squirrels, but Russell Reader, Head of the Communications Team at Keele University and Paul Newton, Deputy Head of Communications at the university spend a fair amount of time posting about the furry creatures that inhabit the institution's bucolic grounds.

Every day at @KeeleComms begins with a ten-minute quick-fire team meeting where they discuss that day’s research press releases, roving reporting, crisis comms - and of course the numerous 'dank memes' that they're planning to drop over the next eight hours.



Recently, I had the chance to ask Russell and Paul some questions about using humour in higher education marketing and communications:

Why does humour matter in HE marketing and communications?

We believe that humour in higher education marketing and communications can be a powerful thing. It demonstrates confidence, and it really resonates with an educated young audience. As the social web becomes a noisier place, it is becoming more of a challenge for universities to connect with their audiences, find new connections, and build unique and distinguishable identities. Humour helps us do that.

As a sector, best practice in marketing and communications is now well established. The majority of universities are doing the right things, and doing them pretty well. It’s therefore crucial in such a well-run, broad and content-rich sector that we find and develop a unique voice for Keele that stands out above the noise - and for us that often means adding a smattering of humour and irreverence to our content plan.

The bread and butter of any university’s content plan has to be centred around academic endeavour, be it demonstrating top quality teaching or showcasing research projects, but we think that it’s important to complement this type of content with more light-hearted and (dare we say) fun stuff that gives a more accurate glimpse into what life is actually like on our campus.

From a recruitment marketing perspective, we also know that younger audiences who have grown up with social and are more comfortable using it as their main communications method enjoy engaging with businesses and organisations that are confident and witty, hence we add our own special blend of humour - often linked to topical trends - as part of our strategy to reach and engage with these digital natives.

This combination of serious and silly has done us well. We’ve increased our social reach through relatable, humorous and highly shareable content, and we’ve found that this type of content holds our audience’s attention, makes us memorable, and often elicits an emotional response.

For example, one of our videos - which cost nothing to produce - went viral last year and was viewed by 500,000 people on Facebook alone:



We also follow the zeitgeist and craft posts around topical issues and popular memes, often poking fun at ourselves in a way seldom seen within higher education. Our students love this kind of content and share it widely.

A good example of how we leverage national trends in a strategic yet light-hearted way in order to amplify the Keele brand without spending a penny is our annual John Lewis Christmas spoof. Over the last few years we’ve become known for these, and 2017 was no exception. We were able to quickly put together a reactive - and, obviously, squirrel-based - spoof within a couple of hours of the television advert being premiered, which our students loved and shared with friends all over the UK. It also won us plaudits from PR Week, which was nice.

This approach is paying dividends in terms of our organic reach and engagement - we had a 47% spike in social media engagement in 2017 compared with the previous twelve months, with zero cost.

Why are so many universities so boring on social media?

We’re lucky at Keele. We’re given lots of creative freedom and trust from senior management to implement our strategy, based on evidenced and successful communications campaigns that we’ve run over the last couple of years.

We know that many others don’t enjoy this kind of support and often have colleagues who are nervous or even fearful of running any kind of marketing or communications campaigns that have even the faintest whiff of inventiveness or originality to them.

The challenges facing universities on a day-to-day basis - and filling up comms team inboxes - are myriad, often serious, and nearly always complex. At the same time, these comms teams are also juggling the outputs of prestigious and eminent research activities and managing a brand that has taken decades, or even centuries, to build and prosper. The stakes are therefore pretty high. The last few years have also seen universities come under seemingly perpetual pressure from the media - as well as staff and students - as the sector has shifted and changed, with many difficult and challenging twists and turns to navigate - fees, pensions, accusations of snowflakism. A badly timed Spongebob meme within this kind of climate doesn't always go down well.

The scale and speed of all this change has, we think, made some universities scared of putting their heads above the parapet - which from a communications perspective has sadly resulted in staid and unimaginative content and the same old clichéd campaigns coming out of the comms department.

Humour in higher education comms can be a risky strategy to employ, but as the social web becomes a noisier place it becomes more of a challenge for universities to find, connect with, and keep their audiences. And if we’re always playing it safe then we might be taking an even bigger risk: irrelevance.

What makes Keele University stand out on social media?

We ensure that our content is always relevant and topical, and we’re not afraid to engage in the latest trending topic, whether that’s Donald Trump’s executive order pinpointing Keele on a map as a nod to the inevitable question that every fresher gets asked when they tell their friends that they’ve chosen Keele, celebrating the work of our Grounds Teams (a.k.a. Grit Bae) during the wintry weather, or hitting the back of the net with World Cup memes. Our impromptu tweet about the ‘red sun’ last year was retweeted over 350 times, and embedded in articles in Newsweek, the Huffington Post, and Wired - this tweet alone reached 80,466 people.

We’re quick to react to social trends and we’re happy to poke fun at ourselves. A little irreverence goes a long way.

You’ve also got to be good with a camera in this game - gone are the days when filming an academic interview against a green screen, producing a gif to celebrate a league table position, or Photoshopping two giant tech-savvy squirrels in front of Keele Hall were outsourced, replete with creative briefs and three-week lead times. We’ve made sure that we’ve got the skills in-house to react quickly and smoothly, and without any extra cost.

What digital channels are you experimenting with and why?

There has naturally been a lot of change since we both began focusing on digital communications over a decade ago; in the noughties it felt like a new social network or app was being released every day (we dread to think how much time we invested in Foursquare, and still remember the feeling of glee when TwitPic allowed images to be added to tweets. The possibilities!)

Keeping up with this was fun, if sometimes frustrating. For years Facebook seemed to be constantly tweaking its functionality, usually without any notice, and quite often at 4:30pm on a Friday. However, since the demise of YikYak and decline of Snapchat last year, it’s felt like the big four of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are firmly here to stay. Though we still have a soft spot for MySpace, natch.

So it’s not really channels that we’re experimenting with now, but functionality. We’re currently playing with new Twitter and Facebook bots (DM @KeeleUniversity with the phrase ‘InsideHE’ to meet Sammy the Squirrel Bot), and we’re really excited to see how we can link these in with our day-to-day communications and wider student recruitment and marketing activities.

We’re also really keen to transfer some of the tone of voice that we’ve honed on social media into our (banter) bot and inject it into our other marketing and communications channels - watch this space.

How do you demonstrate the value of your work with your institution's senior leaders?

Our leaders listen to our students. Many of our most senior leaders are active on Twitter themselves. As our student ambassador Adam said, “By allowing its own students to actively partake in its content creation process, Keele is able to adopt an approach that is guided by what students know other students will want. Universities are dealing with an audience that will simply scroll past if they aren’t immediately engaged, and will not be engaged without effective storytelling”. This kind of feedback is really valued at Keele at every level - and it’s acted upon.

Reporting back on what we do is really important to us. We use Sprout Social’s powerful digital analytics reporting - our social content is aligned to our overarching communications campaigns so that we can track and record press coverage and social reach simultaneously - and we produce monthly snapshot reports to let senior colleagues know what we’re doing and what’s working.

Ultimately, everything that we do in the comms team is to build the profile and perception of the Keele brand, so when enquiries are up, when open day bookings are up, when student enrolment numbers are up - as they all are at Keele this year - then we know that we’ve played a part in that via our marketing and communications, and our senior colleagues know that too.

Final thoughts from Russell and Paul:

Getting humour right is a fine line, especially on social media. The tweets that came out of the University of Reading and the University of Essex recently weren’t miles apart in terms of tone of voice and the level of bants, but who the respective tweets were intended for mattered a lot. They polarised people, and some were offended. It’s difficult though - the pressure is on, and what you think is a perfectly fine tweet after ten hours of staring at your screen and eight espressos is not always everybody else’s idea of an appropriate thing for a public institution to say. Take a step back, share it with colleagues within and outside of the comms team first, ask your student ambassadors if they think it’s funny/clever/interesting. And always, always, if in doubt, do without.

Thanks to Russell Reader and Paul Newton for taking the time to participate in this interview. For more information about social media at Keele University, please visit the university's social media directory.


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