Saturday, July 4, 2015

My arguments for more UNESCO twitter accounts

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

I would like to make a plea for more niche UNESCO twitter accounts.

I’ve heard the argument that this “proliferation” of accounts would dilute UNESCO’s twitter audience and eventually lose it. I think on the contrary that if UNESCO manages this proliferation in a targeted way UNESCO would attract more followers, more different followers, and UNESCO would also benefit more from them. Let me explain.

More targeted, better branded
The current situation is that UNESCO already has a number of niche accounts besides it general @UNESCO account, like @IocUnesco, @UnescoIHE, @UNESCO_MAB, and @EFAReport. But I think potentially powerful niche accounts could be created for topics like UNESCO’s freshwater programme IHP, UNESCO’s bio-ethics programme and it's Education or Sustainable Development programme. Other niche areas could benefit from a clearer branding. As a matter of fact UNESCO’s flagship programme, the World Heritage Programme, now seems to have two accounts (@HeritageUNESCO and @unescowhc) with just 101 and 36 followers and no blue/white “v” check that confirms that this is really UNESCO World Heritage speaking. In short: there is a big potential to gain in well-targeted and well-branded niche accounts.

Niche communication attracts new specialized audiences
Many social media users (like me) are looking for niche material. An ocean scientist for example would like to learn about UNESCO’s work in the field of oceans. She doesn’t necessarily want to be "flooded" by updates on world heritage in danger, freedom of media etc. She needs fit for purpose material she can use for her work. That's exactly the added value of the niche accounts I mentioned above: they attract specific user communities that a general and diverse account can not attract.

And niche communication just works. Why does my colleague Alexander Verbeek (@Alex_Verbeek) have so many followers? Besides his communication talent, it's also because he addresses a specific community: the large group of people interested in sustainable development. Why does David Korenfeld, the Chair of UNESCO’s IHP Council, have so many followers? In part because he writes about meteorology (the weather!), which addresses the specific needs of a large group of people. In sum they don’t just reach out, they also target both their topic and their audience intelligently.

Any feedback to @Oosterenvan?
I’m probably a bad example in this respect because I tweet about everything in UNESCO. I cover too many too specific niche areas like bio-ethics, documentary heritage, ocean science, strategic issues related to international organizations and so on. Not everybody wants to be flooded so broadly. I keep doing it for the moment because I see it as training and as an experiment: how well will I manage to make the complex reality of UNESCO interesting for my mom, my sister and the rest of the world? But I might change my communication strategy in the future. Any feedback in this regard would be most welcome. I'm learning. And please be Dutch: "call a spade a spade"!

OECD’s successful niche accounts
Let’s get back to the subject: the potential of niche accounts. I looked at the OECD’s successful niche twitter accounts like @OECDGov and @OECD_Centre. Even a “super niche account” tweeting about development evaluations like @OECD_EVALNET already has 4.6k followers. These tweets would probably have zero outreach if they had to go through the general @OECD account. They might even reduce the @OECD account’s audience: imagine what would happen if the general @UNESCO account started tweeting regularly about neurolinguistics. That’s why niche accounts can be so powerful: they fill a niche instead of polluting a more general account. And don’t underestimate the outreach of small specialized audiences: each one of the 4.6k followers has her own specialized and well connected network.

Good tweeting triggers interaction
Another argument for more niche accounts is that the organization can learn from them. Followers do not only follow, they also react to tweets, especially in their field of expertise. Take my example: I’ll be naturally tempted to correct a poorly formulated tweet about UNESCO because UNESCO is my field of expertise. And when the account follows me back it opens the possibility for me to interact with it in a more discrete way via direct messaging. That’s why Barack Obama follows so many people: he wants to know what’s going on.

It’s easier to create this type of dynamics with specialized audiences that are strongly involved in the niche topic. This is especially relevant for UNESCO, which is a network organization engaged with many, very different communities in the field of education, science, culture, communication and information. UNESCO can benefit from good niche accounts as they can trigger useful contributions to UNESCO’s work and even increase its network.

The “personal audience effect”
One last argument for niche accounts: the psychological “personal audience effect”. I don’t agree with the argument that the power of a twitter account mainly depends on its financial means. I think it also depends on how you use your human means. The best way to motivate staff members to tweet is to simply allow them to have their own audience. A growing audience is no different from love and attention: it’s a damn good motivator. It’s no secret: everybody likes “likes” and followers, especially when they like and follow you and your team. It’s just more motivating to develop a twitter dialogue with an audience of people interested in the same topic as you than to be one of UNESCO’s 1,500 staff members feeding one general @UNESCO account.

Ask Guy Berger and Irina Bokova
To test this psychological argument just ask UNESCO’s Director of Freedom of Expression @guyberger what he thinks. He has no less than 9,6k followers. That’s almost twice as much as UNESCO’s water university @UnescoIHE. And Berger would be number 4 (!) on the social media champions list of my Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see link) which employs over 5000 people. Just ask him how he got there, if the personal audience effect played a role. Or ask his boss @IrinaBokova if her recent and sky rocketing audience helps her to tweet more and better. She jumped to 3k followers in just a few weeks. I’m pretty sure they both agree.


  1. Indeed, there is a case for specialised and generic accounts. Some of the former are likely to be personal (as mine @guyberger) and not per se the voice of UNESCO, but nevertheless useful in highlighting a specific area of work being done by the Organisation - in my case, press freedom online and offline.

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