CASE Europe Annual Conference: Day 2

Second day of CEAC 2008 in Brighton and it was an early start to walk a few miles across the city in time for the breakfast round tables at 7:45am!

I attended a session titled Technology for Higher Education run by Rebecca Avery from Hobsons. There were six of us and Rebecca had prepared a number of questions to form the basis of discussion. A number of examples of institutions using different types of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were given with everyone chipping in their own experiences. For my part I talked through the Hi applicant website and some of our other forays into “Web 2.0”. I attended another session on day three run by a representative of Hobsons so I’ll talk more about that later!

Why the student experience is unmanageable and what this means for marketingPeter Slee, Northumbria University

Great session covering the process of attempting to manage the student experience. He covered so much it’s hard to put it across, but I’ll do a notes dump:

  • Compared the decision process to that of choosing a gym:
    • Surroundings
    • Facilities
    • Staff (support, fitness programme)
    • Clientel
    • Cost – affordability and value for money
  • Most students have a pretty acurate view of support, what frustrates them is mismatch of support; e.g. VLE engagement, timetabling,
  • Three issues
    • Conflicting expectations
    • Conflicting motivations
    • Conflicting service levels: This is the easy one to address! (there’s no excuse for cancelled lectures, cardboard sandwiches, grumpy receptionists)
  • Who are their students? They’re not, local, working class, underachievers! They are 75% middle class, above average grades, and only 40% are local.
  • A chart was circulated showing what types of people deviate from the mean for drop-outs – some surprises, some not. Mature, international and clearing students more likely to drop out so this year they’ve not accepted anyone through clearing, but have accepted more “near misses” – someone who wants to come to the university with lower grades is better than someone who doesn’t but chooses through clearing.
  • Develop a sense of belonging: no college/hall means course is the centre of the community. No freshers week (instead apprentice year); every building has a learning hub; 2nd/3rd years act as learning mentors; attendance monitoring.
  • Friends
    • 9 students from across faculties and departments engage with applicants
    • Spaces within social networks
    • VIP web pages
    • Improved conversion rate
    • Lower drop out rate
    • Running for three years… yet this was the first I’d heard about it!

Listening to our users: how Imperial used “mental models” to guide their redesign – Pamela Michael, Imperial College and David Poteet, New City Media

  • Goals of redesign
    • Enhance reputation
    • Find information
    • Reflect the brand
  • Mental Model idea from Indi Young
  • 39 one-to-one interviews over a six week period
  • Research page features a tag cloud… but still not live… hold up at backend, still discussing statistical model
  • Search is really popular – Pamela didn’t know which search system they’re going for (not Google) but it does fancy stuff with publications
  • Oracle CMS
  • Internal blog (not launched until 6 months into project); user guide attached to payslips; banner on old website informing of change 2 weeks before live
  • Added Google Analytics to new site; track usage and show how homepage features drive traffic to other pages (1000% increase in some cases)
  • 65,000 visits per day

Turning MySpace into YourSpaceHotCourses

A couple of chaps from HotCourses, the makers of WhatUni and a few other websites spoke about the web. Brain dump time…

  • Don’t be swept up by the hype – got the impression he wasn’t a fan of Twitter!
  • 12% trust Facebook and YouTube compared to 62% of people who trust Amazon (I think this was in a particular market (16-18 year olds)
  • 37% of Year 12 and 59% of Year 13 students would be prepared to join a University group on Facebook.
  • WhatUni has a gadget allowing you to pull reviews into your site (Southampton may be doing this already)
  • Facebook groups:
    • Keep up to date
    • Content is king
    • Keep it visual
    • Be open – show students what they’ll be getting
    • Students would click a link on the University website to a Facebook page
  • Video: three types
    • Frivolous but of value
    • Students and departments
    • Dull but worthwhile

Branding Online: Engaging with Job seekers and Potential Students in a Digial World – Andrew Wilkinson, TMP Worldwide

Andrew’s useful take on employer branding talking first about how some of their clients had raised awareness online. RBS, KPMG and Yell created an area in SecondLife where potential recruits could come along, be matched to a suitable employer and engage with them. I’ll be up front – I’ve never “got” SecondLife – and I think as with many things, they gained more exposure from the fact they were first and featured on BBC News Online than people actually stumbling on them naturally.

Another innovative approach which I think has a bit more potential is in-game advertising. GCHQ placed adverts inside X-Box Live games which presumably helps target otherwise hard to reach audiences.

46% of people have accessed the internet over a mobile phone. This is possibly a little higher than I’d imagine and I’d be interested in knowing more about frequency of access and the types of activity they undertake. With products like the Apple iPhone gaining popularity this is clearly a growth area and “mobile” is on my to-do list for Edge Hill.

He then went through a bunch of information about how people search for jobs online, how people are more likely than in regular searches to page through results looking for brands they know. Very few universities place posts with online jobs sites. Those that do make very little use of extras such as buttons or adding their branding to pages. on the other hand is very popular but still very few universities take advantage of the extra branding that can be placed on job pages.

Jobs search sites aren’t the only way people look for jobs though. I was really interested to hear that people use Google directly and that through paid adverts you can quite effectively direct traffic to relevant jobs on your own website. I’ll be looking at the SEO of the jobs website to try to get more organic results for searches like “jobs ormskirk” too.

Andrew then went on to apply some of these thoughts to the area of student recruitment. He admitted himself that this was a new area for him but it was quite refreshing to hear someone cut through a lot of the complexity we build up.

Buzz, Brand and Budget – Helen Aspell, University of Southampton, without the chaps from Precedent

After missing her at IWMW 2008, I finally got to see one of Helen Aspell’s sessions! As is the trend these days, very little text on the slides so you’ll have to cope with my scrawled notes.

  • Web 2.0 is about people and gossip
  • Technorati, bloglines, blogpulse, google alerts to track not just your University but notable alumni and professors
  • WhatUni provides XML feeds
  • Not engaging with Facebook institutionally but they’re paying SU to do so, student ambassadors in that space as well
  • Flickr – School of Art but not corporate images
  • Select technologies through the SAFE matrix. Might work for them but I’m less convinced – bypasses the gut instinct that is often required
  • Hobsons Ask product, soon to make ratings visible on site and do some interesting stuff with tracking response satisfaction
  • 16 subscribers to news feed, would like to know what they’re using for that figure – mentioned bloglines but surely FeedBurner is more accurate?
  • When launching their new website they had a blog – 435 comments, many quite negative
  • Focus on what to measure rather than how
  • No common reporting metrics – MeasurementCamp
  • iSoton

And that was day two! Tune in next time for all the excitement of day three!

CASE Europe Annual Conference: Day 1

A leisurely walk from University of Brighton Pheonix Halls kicked off the first day of CEAC 2008. Check-in was painless and lunch was great before descending on the main hall for the opening plenary. Conference Chair Trisha King (Birkbeck College, University of London) welcomed before handing over to Juliette Pochin and James Morgan for a bit of a sing song.

The four tracks – fundraising, alumni, marketing and communications – then split with me following communications for the track plenary and the first session of the day. Tara Brabazon, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton spoke about why universities need to engage with the media. She’s a bit of a character, and the fact she presented using an OHP and a large ring-bound stack of cue cards was a sign of what was to come. Tara’s ten tips for academics engaging with the media was useful:

  1. Be clear about why you’re talking to the media
  2. Select media platform
  3. Write down sound bites
  4. DO a background check on journalists
  5. Use emal to answer questions wherever possible
  6. Listen to producers before going on air
  7. Don’t allow yourself to be ghosted… ever
  8. Be conscious of how the web works – local is not local
  9. Focus on building strong and reliable relations with great journalists
  10. Never speak out of your brief

All this was, of course, backed up by amusing anecdotes from her time spent in higher education in the UK and Australia.

Continuing in the communication track, I went to “Where’s our news going? Media is transforming and so are its audiences – the vision for the future of news” by Fran Unsworth, Head of Newsgathering at the BBC.

I’m a big fan of a lot of what the beeb does and it was very interesting to get an inside view of some of the challenges that face them. Fran’s talk was jam-packed with statistics like the fact that ITV’s News at Ten has dropped from 10 million to 2.7 million viewers in the last 20 years. Their own services have been affected too – the 6 O’Clock news has dropped from 8 million to 4.3 million viewers since 1990. Online sources have grown though with the web being the second most popular source after TV for the under 30s.

Engagement with the wider community was particularly interesting with questions being raised about political bloggers tendancy to mix fact with opinion (I think we’re looking at Guido Fawkes here). On the other hand the BBC are more willing than ever to feature “citizen journalist’s” photographs, video and commentary. I do wonder though, whether in the rush to be first with the pictures on screen, there is sufficient scrutiny of the reliability of these sources.

Finally for this session there was an interesting comment about the increasing willingness to put BBC content out through alternative sources such as Google, iTunes and YouTube. This is something which comes up time and again inside HE teams, but if Auntie is doing it, then there must be some merit to it!

The evening reception at an art gallery was brought alive by beach balls being thrown from the balcony onto the crowds below… followed shortly by the sound of glasses smashing to the crowd. I felt sorry for the staff chasing dashing around trying to sweep up the mess. Evil stare of the night was when I (only half jokingly) asked someone “so, what exactly is the point of fundraising?” We web folk are somewhat outnumbered so maybe that wasn’t the best idea!

Bath Get Creative

Flat OutAt last month’s IWMW in Aberdeen, Alison Wildish announced Get Creative Week – an idea inspired by Carsonified to spend a week doing something different to their normal day to day jobs, and work in different ways on different types of project.

Bath Web Services set aside 18th – 22nd August to run the week so now that it’s all over, how did it go, what can we learn from them?

I’m sure work has been going on in the background for some time, but from the outsiders view, the process began a few weeks ago when the team delivered pitches for their ideas.

The winning pitch brought up wider issues involving institutional systems so Alison picked another project to work on.

The result was Flat Out, a Facebook-only application designed to allow students to find a flat to live in. You can read a whole load of information about the project on their blog and wiki, but here’s some of the things that caught my eye:

  • A project manager was picked at the start of the first day. Notably it wasn’t Alison or the Web Applications Team Leader – they both took their place as part of the team.
  • Regular standup meetings were held to keep track of progress and set half day targets.
  • Regular hours were kept – everyone worked on Get Creative between 9am and 4pm. A rota was set to ensure that essential support was still provided for web services.
  • Enforced downtime through Fika (a Swedish verb meaning to coffee and cake – sounds like my kind of thing!)
  • Communicate progress through Twitter, blog posts and video.

The final application itself is quite basic, but benefits from being so, and shows exactly what’s possible in such a short amount of time. It takes data from the University noticeboard and external sources and aggregates them into a browsable view within Facebook. The interesting part which shows the potential power of Facebook is the social aspects of the application – how it spreads amongst friends. The use of Facebook also allowed development to focus on the useful functionality because FB takes care of the core requirements:

Finding that writing a Facebook app means you don’t have to be concerned with user management and connecting people, it sounds obvious but it’s amazing how much time we spend on this in our other apps

Alison and the rest of the team have shown quite clearly through their blog the benefits Get Creative Week has brought to the team. Some have questioned how they are able to dedicate everyone’s time for a full week to “non-University work” but this is missing the point. All departments support their staff through professional development, away days and in learning new skills. Get Creative Week has all these benefits, in a more condensed form, plus develops the team as a whole as well as individuals.

There has already been interest from web teams across the country, and I’ll be grilling Alison further about her experiences this week while we’re at the CASE conference. Could it work at Edge Hill? Yes, I’m certain it would, but we shouldn’t just copy Bath, we need to be clear what we wish to get out of the project and that will determine the form it could take.

Video killed the radio star

If you’ve seen the homepage of the Edge Hill website since the new design went live you’ll see something we’ve not done before – embedded video featured predominantly on the site. Of course we’ve had video on the site for ages – we’ve been linking to a Windows Media streaming server for a several years and more recently we’ve been converting video to Flash so it can be embedded in pages (on the Careers website for example). The user experience has been mixed – availability of broadband wasn’t universal, plugin support was often sketchy and the process of getting video from tape to web complex.

That’s all changing though. The BBC iPlayer has brought online video to the masses. No longer is video a novelty, it’s expected as part of the whole website package and our job is to meet those requirements. So we’ve invested in new systems to create and manage video throughout the process from capture to encoding and streaming. The media development team have acquired a Tricaster box, currently located in the control room in the Faculty of Health, which allows them to do live mixing and a whole load of other things. IT Services (or should that be Steve Daniels) have installed an eStream system to encode and store video.

The first time you might have seen these used in anger is for the Graduation ceremonies last month. There we (Media Development and Web Services) successfully mixed the ceremony and streamed live video across the campus and onto the internet. We peaked at around 70 simultaneous connections and many more in total over the three ceremonies.

The eStream box allowed us to broadcast live video in Windows Media and Flash Video formats to ensure maximum compatibility with different systems. Since then the archive video has been available for viewing, again in both WMV and FLV formats.

As part of the new website design we wanted to allow video to be more widely available throughout the site. Corporate Marketing have been generating video specifically for the website and we needed a way of embedding this. There are a couple of aspects of the eStream system that I wasn’t particularly happy with and these were addressed specifically for the website.

Firstly we maintain our own database of videos that are used on the corporate site. Here we can store extra, website-specific information, tag videos correctly, and abstract the complexities of the eStream system – we don’t care whether video is hosted on the eStream box or elsewhere.

Secondly we use a different Flash video player. The one provided by the estream box isn’t very flexible and frankly looks a bit ugly. We’re instead using the open source FLV-Player which gives us more flexibility in how it looks and what features to offer.

The video functionality for the website isn’t just on the backend – we’re adding features on the website too. Each video has its own page which is linked to across the site, and we encourage others to link to through social bookmarking systems. For an example check out one of the TV Advert pages. On this page you’ll also see that we provide code to allow you to embed the video in your own page. Here’s what the same video looks like embedded right here:

We’re particularly happy with how this looks, especially compared to some other video sites. Here’s the same video embedded from YouTube:

It’s worth noting however that YouTube have started providing higher quality versions of some videos to view within their own site, but (currently?) only low quality versions are available for embedding.

This is just the beginning of video on our websites. Over the coming months we’ll be creating much more content – everything from students talking about courses through to the next round of inaugural lectures – and making them available even more deeply within the site.

If you think all this video really does mean the death of the radio star, fear not – we’re looking at podcasts too.

On the way to Brighton

As I write this I’m sat on a Cross Country train service to Brighton for the CASE Europe Annual Conference. To take the blurb from the back of the conference flier:

CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) is an international network of professionals leading the advancement of education. Founded in 1974, it has grown to include over 3,400 member institutions (almost 23,000 individuals) in over 60 countries.

Advancement of education?! That means marketing, alumni relations, fundraising and communications. Their annual European conference will this year be attended by over 900 people from across the UK and beyond. There’s eight of us from Edge Hill attending – seven from Corporate Marketing and myself. And why should I be interested in attending a marketing conference? Well more than ever before, online is a key part of the delivery of messages to the full range of stakeholders.

With so many conference delegates, it would be impossible to cater for everyone in one group so it’s split into four tracks – alumni, communications, fundraising and marketing. Our very own Mister Roy Bayfield is co-chairing the marketing track.

[Just arrived at Birmingham New Street and the train is now FULL!]

Most of the sessions are delivered within these four tracks so there is a massive amount of choice. Details of the sessions were sent out in advance to gauge estimated numbers and a few caught my eye. After missing her at IWMW, Helen Aspell from the University of Southampton will be talking about developing a brand-focused digital strategy and will be joined by the chaps from Precedent, no doubt to explain their diagrams! Roy Bayfield will be taking the stage with Amanda Gregory (Heist) and Emma Leech (MMU) for a session titled creating and delivering award winning projects and campaigns.

The programme seems to be packed from early until late, Wednesday and Thursday kicking off with Breakfast Roundtables:

This is a great opportunity to interact with like-minded colleagues in a small and informal setting. Many colleagues at past conferences have confirmed that a moderator, a topic, a table of ten and a special breakfast create one of the most special moments of the conference.

All sounds very intriguing! At the other end of the day, right at the end of the conference, Edge Hill will be presented with the CASE Circle of Excellence Gold Award, won for the Hi applicant community.

It’s becoming common now for conferences to have some online presence and CEAC is no exception. They are trialling the use of a service called Viadeo to provide an online community. Delegates were invited in advance to sign up and join a group CEAC. They invited feedback about the system so here goes! My initial impressions aren’t positive. Viadeo appears like it’s trying to be like LinkedIn but it’s not particularly easy to use (and that’s saying something – LinkedIn isn’t vey good either!). The community aspects are interesting but provide little in the way of identifying people – members of the CASE group are presented in one long list, making finding people difficult. I’ve not given up on Viadeo yet though – I’ll keep checking up on it and report back further.

Of more interest to me has been how Twitter is being used. While I might have expected to be following a number of people attending techie conferences, it surprised me a little to find early adopters amongst CEAC delegates. I’m not sure why this is, and it’s probably a little judgemental of me, but it’ll be interesting to meet in person a number of people who I’ve only ever talked to online (and mostly in 140 characters or less!). The dropping of SMS delivery of messages is disappointing, but you can follow discussions using the hashtag #ceac08 (as decided by a Twitter conversation a couple of months ago between myself, Mister Roy and Ellie Lovell).

On the subject of internet access, I’m disappointed to find that there is no conference-provided wireless access. While there will be an “internet cafe” available on Wednesday and Thursday, the only wifi in the venue is provided by the Hilton and costs £15 per day! I have a 3G card for my main laptop so I’ll be able to get online but it probably means I’ll be one of the few people attempting to live blog the conference, and if I get given the evils for tying to type while people are speaking then I might not bother!

So if you don’t hear from me for the next few days, fear not, there will be a full report after the conference and you can always follow my tweets.

Update: I was clearly bored on the train journey and have written two more blog posts which I’ve scheduled for the next couple of days!

Better late than never

This video came up on my feed reader when it was posted (I subscribe to Michael Wesch’s channel) but for some reason I didn’t get around to watching it. But the internet has a funny way of bringing good stuff back to you so happily Ewan McIntosh posted about it yesterday giving me a second chance to catch it:

It’s almost an hour long, but if you can afford the time it’s well worth watching – it’s pitched just right giving details about not just the technologies (which you may already know about) but the anthropological issues.

Twitter Part 3: Into the real world

TwitterAfter a short break from blogging while we finished off the redesigned website I’m back with the third and probably final part of my guide to Twitter.

It’s a fast moving world and since the last post, Twitter have stopped delivery of SMS to UK mobiles:

Let’s start with the bad news. Beginning today, Twitter is no longer delivering outbound SMS over our UK number. If you have been receiving SMS updates from Twitter via +44 762 480 1423, you’ll notice that they’ve stopped and you may want to explore some of the alternatives we’re suggesting.

Despite the title of the post, there is no good news for UK users! You can still send updates by SMS, which is quite useful for those “oh my God, I just saw a monkey run down the street” moments, but no longer can you make it seem like you’ve got friends by activating a stream of messages to your phone.

They suggest some alternatives which all rely on having data on your phone that’s not over priced – maybe it’s time to look into an iPhone after all! There’s also been a flurry of announcements from third parties who are readying to launch services to deliver tweets by SMS. These services appear to be around the 7p per message mark which IMHO is too expensive – I know first hand how much texts cost in bulk and this is a significant markup!

There’s a variety of other issues around this – these services will probably require you hand over your username and password which should be a practice that’s discouraged and Twitter don’t have any way of grouping or categorising your contacts. If I was going to pay to receive notifications I’d want more control over how many messages I receive from which people including the ability to differentiate between direct messages, @-messages and “noise”.

Anyway, back to the point of this post – how Twitter can impact on the real world. I’m going to cover a few examples of how Twitter has gone beyond virtual interactions.

Engaging with your community

One of the first things that brought home to me that services like Twitter have real uses was unrequested support from my ISP, PlusNet. I tweeted about some trouble I was having with my connection and within a few hours someone responded saying they were following up my problem. And I’m not the only one who’s found this:

Many other companies actively search for references to their products and services on Twitter as well as more generally online. Done well, it can be very good PR as well as improving the experience of users – everyone can see that you’re actively trying to solve problems.

Asking for help

Once you’ve built up a bit of a following, it’s time to start using them! Asking questions or inviting feedback about ideas can give you very quick results. It can also be a good way to expand your network – followers of followers will see the @-replies and maybe if it’s interesting will follow up the original question.


One of the best uses of twitter I’ve found is acting as a supplementary back-channel for conferences. Either live blogging the event or just making contact with other participants, Twitter can connect people online in a physical location. At IWMW a significant number of people were Twittering – you can see the full list of posts referencing #iwmw2008 or @iwmw2008 through

I’d planned to write a bit more on the topic but I’ve broken the golden rule of blogging:

Never leave a post in draft for more than 48 hours

One final thing I will add is a note about sustainability. There’s a lot of questions about the reliability of Twitter (the feared “fail whale”), users outside US/Canada/India have complained about the switch off of SMS, and it’s a relatively closed system. So many people suggest alternatives – Jaiku (now owned by Google), which claims to be an open, decentralised system and a variety of “life straming” services which build on the simple microblogging offered by Twitter but all have one key thing missing – people. No other services can match the range of contacts that can be found there and that’s what makes it so appealing.

Faded tag cloud

It’s been a little while since I posted anything techie, and a while since I posted anything that might be of use to the symfony community so I’m going to post about the exciting topic of tag clouds!

Andy has posted about tags before so read that for more information about the concepts. We’ve had tag clouds on the site since March but with the latest designs Sam wanted something a bit more stylish. Someone came across a site with a faded tag cloud where colour rather than size determined the weight of the tag so Sam built that into the new designs.

We use a symfony plugin catchily called sfPropelActAsTaggableBehaviorPlugin which allows us to add tags to any object taken from the database (e.g. courses, events, news articles). The plugin also has some functions to output tag clouds for different types of objects and it’s this we used on the old site.

For the faded tag cloud I was planning to implement it from scratch but then wondered if it was possible to do something with the existing taggable behaviour plugin. It was, and here’s how!

Firstly we modify the output of the getPopulars() function to sort by weight:

$c = new Criteria();
$c->add(TagPeer::IS_TRIPLE, false);
$c->add(TaggingPeer::TAGGABLE_MODEL, 'newsArticle');
$c->setLimit(isset($this->limit) ? $this->limit : 30);
$this->tags = TagPeer::getPopulars($c);

Then in the template we simply output the tag cloud as normal:

<?php use_helper('Tags'); ?>
<?php echo tag_cloud($tags, '@news_tag?tags=%s'); ?>

This will produce a cloud where the size determines weight of tag with the largest at the top, which isn’t what we want, but the clever stuff can be done with CSS. The plugin produces an unordered list with <big> and <small> tags used to change the size of the tags. We use the following CSS to remove the font size styling and apply color (sic) to the text:

ul.tag-cloud li big big,
ul.tag-cloud li big,
ul.tag-cloud li,
ul.tag-cloud li small,
ul.tag-cloud li small small{font-size: 103%}
ul.tag-cloud li big big a {color: #EFEFEF}
ul.tag-cloud li big a {color: #BFBFBF}
ul.tag-cloud li a {color: #8F8F8F}
ul.tag-cloud li small a {color: #5F5F5F}
ul.tag-cloud li small small a {color: #3F3F3F}
ul.tag-cloud li a:hover{ color:#fa0}

That’s about it – a nice easy way to produce good looking tag clouds thanks to the wonders of symfony and CSS.

Changes to the Design of our Corporate Site

Over the last 5 months the :choice brand has evolved, and we felt that the current design didn’t relate enough visually to the developing brand.

The original concept of integrating the 2008 prospectus design and the corporate website design was sound. The prospectus has a visually bold magazine style; we hoped to develop a strong set of sub -homepages that mirrored this, the final pages however, lacked the impact of the printed ones.

New Functionality

New Sub-homepage layouts

We have worked with Creative Services to develop a grid-based layout that plays to the strengths of the web rather than print, which can be applied to our homepages. One of the primary :choice brand values emphasises the use of excellent imagery, we now have a measured, spatially uncluttered environment to fulfill this.

The grid works as a design pattern that can be applied to faculty and departmental websites, and can be easily adapted by other members of the Web Services.

example: Study Homepage

My:Choice Panel

Video and audio, image galleries, and staff and student profiles will feature in a panel with the My:Choice branding, which was established throughout the prospectus. This emphasises the experience of the individual at Edge Hill University, and also brings together multimedia content into a standardised interface.

example: Biology Course Page


The Futura font family is integral to the :choice brand. We have decided to use Futura Book Uppercase and Futura Bold Uppercase for headings. They are perfect for the web as they are clear at 72dpi and at smaller sizes.

example: Corporate Homepage

We hope that you like the improvements, feel free to leave a comment.

Twitter Part 2: Bringing order to chaos

TwitterLast time I covered getting started with Twitter, building your network of contacts and interacting with others. This time I’m going to discuss some ways to manage your Twitter subscriptions and discover tweets about topics you’re interested in.

The easiest way to use Twitter is to login to the website to read and post messages. The web interface provides a way to see replies, search for people and send and receive direct messages. This works fine for general use but you have to remember to check for new messages on a regular basis. It would be better if messages came to you, which is exactly what you can do with an SMS gateway.

This frree service, operated by Twitter themselves, lets you link a mobile phone number to your account and have messages sent directly to your phone by text message. You can choose to have only selected users’ messages sent by SMS, restrict the hours of the day messages are delivered and you can even send messages to Twitter by SMS. There’s a limit of 250 messages per week so if you follow more than a handful of people you’ll want to limit which users you’re subscribed to.

SMS isn’t the a perfect solution though – it can be quite intrusive and best reserved for people who you’re really interested in. Twitter used to allow you to connect your account to an Instant Messaging system such as Live Messenger or an XMPP-compatible service (which include Google Talk and our own Unfortunately in the struggle to cope with growing numbers, Instant Messaging gateways have been turned off. Fear not, because there’s an even better way to work with Twitter!

TwhirlTwhirl is one of many applications designed specifically for managing your Twitter accounts. There are many such programs for different operating systems and even some more advanced mobile phones. Generally though, they plug into the Twitter API and offer access to most of the features available through the Twitter website and often many more.

The Twhirl window is a bit like a combination of the friend list and message windows from a normal IM program. New messages appear at the top and you can post messages. Username, hashtags and messages are hyperlinked to give you more information and offer access to functions without over cluttering the interface.

I mentioned hashtags, so what are they? Hashtags are keywords put into messages starting with a hash (#) and used to identify a topic for that message. The major drive behind the adoption of them was the website which required you follow the hashtags user in order for your tweets to be shown on the website. It’s still worth doing this but there’s a better way of tracking hashtags which isn’t reliant on opting in.

Usage of the hashtag syntax is very common but certainly not universal. It’s useful for keeping track of certain topics and allowing your followers to pick out at an instant what it relates to. One of the most common uses is in conferences where the hashtag creates a way of finding other people twittering. At the Institutional Web Management Workshop the tag #iwmw2008 was used and in some ways this was more useful than the official live blog service. I’m going to come back to conferences next time as the use of Twitter in the Real World deserves more attention.

For someone new to Twitter, the idea of hashtags might seem a little odd – why wouldn’t you just search for the topic you’re interested in rather than relying on an obscure opt-in service? The search box at the top of the Twitter site would (mis-) lead you to think you could bang in some keywords and get back useful results! No? Of course not – the search system on the main site is next to useless!

Fortunately the clever people at Summize had the solution and have developed a real-time search engine for Twitter messages. This is really neat work (far more impressive than Twitter itself IMHO) – so neat in fact that last month Summize was bought by Twitter and integrated to become Twitter Search is fantastically easy to use yet very powerful.

At its most simple, put keywords in and it’ll give you results back but you can also use it to search for replies, hashtags, limited by date and much more. The service is really quick and it even has some Ajax goodness which tells you when there’s new results matching your search without having to keep reloading the page. Best of all, if you’re a feed-nut, you can subscribe to any query as an RSS feed so you’ll not miss a tweet!

Twitter Search is a great way of finding people or topics of interest and next time I’ll cover some real world ways to use it!