It’s more than five years since Ruth Sparkes first applied her FE and skills marketing knowledge to the sector’s use of Twitter — so what has changed since then?

I wrote my first article on colleges and Twitter in 2009, so I’m guessing that by now every college and independent learning provider (ILP) must be a member of the Twitterati.

Early Twitter adopters from ‘back in the day’ were Deeside, Havering, Regents and Sunderland colleges, and my then-own college, Cornwall.

We’ve all moved on. Six years later some colleges are using Twitter very effectively and creatively. They are properly communicating (that’s two-way engagement — not just spewing out their news), engaging, monitoring and evaluating.

Some colleges understand the value of Twitter and are using it professionally and carefully, as part of the marketing mix.

Some FE chief executives and principals now have their own Twitter accounts and are using them with varying degrees of success. There have been a few duds (these have been reported on in this very newspaper), but NewVic’s Eddie Playfair, Harlow College’s Karen Spencer and Milton Keynes College’s Dr Julie Mills are examples of welcome visitors to my Twitter feed.

We FE types still struggle a bit when it comes to writing in 140 characters — a principal’s PA recently told me that she didn’t have time to write succinctly.

But, is there really a right way to use Twitter, and what should colleges and ILPs be using it for?

Well, personally, I think there’s definitely a wrong way to use Twitter and I’m seeing it more and more. I believe this down to the pressures that FE is under to recruit the right ‘sort’ of student, and lots of ‘em.

Some FE chief executives and principals now have their own Twitter accounts and are using them with varying degrees of success

My main gripe is the constant tweeting and retweeting of apprenticeship vacancies. FE providers are more than apprenticeships; it’s a major turnoff.

Case studies, news stories and informed comment about apprenticeships are far better topics of Twitter conversation than blurting out lists of apprenticeship vacancies. You should be allowing and encouraging your followers to properly engage, whether they’re in the market for an apprenticeship or not.

What is required is a grown-up social media strategy, aligned with your other marketing and communications activities.

Strategies ought to include identifying relevant issues and topics to stimulate conversation, debate and participation from your target communities and influencers.

The key to success online is to develop memorable and remarkable content that is relevant to those you are seeking to engage.

Your strategy should include analysis of relevant influencers and communities so you can build online relationships and achieve your campaign objectives.

These days there are excellent tools to analyse what’s going on with your tweets. Twitter’s own analytics is very good, and it’s free. To check out what’s happening in your twittersphere, make sure you’re logged in to the Twitter account that you want to analyse then go to analytics.twitter.com.

Click on the “view all tweet activity” and it takes you to a 28-day overview. There’s a graph that gives you the total number of impressions you’ve received over the period, the number per day, and the daily average. This lets you instantly view trends.

You can work out the best times to tweet, what day of the week is best, whether your images and videos increase engagement. You can compare one sort of tweet with another.

Students, staff, parents, employers, schools, alumni — they’re all out there, and you need to keep them engaged and interested.

If you really must have this ‘roll’ of apprenticeship vacancies, why not set up a new, apprenticeship-specific Twitter account? Redcar & Cleveland College has done this, take a look: @Apprenticeinfo

FE providers should be projecting their personality using Twitter; communicating a sense of humour, expertise, passion and quality. You don’t want to be known as a Twitter bore.