U. of Wisconsin Donor Offers $1 for Each New Twitter Follower

Colleges have done some strange things to get Twitter followers. To name a few: offering a free iPod, creating Twitter accounts for mascots, and promising a full scholarship to the applicant with the best 140-character essay.

But the University of Wisconsin at Madison may be the first college to get a donation for increasing its follower count. Through October 3, an alumnus will donate $1 for each new Twitter follower or Facebook “like,” up to $50,000.

After four days, the university has raised almost $8,000 dollars with the project, called the Bucky Challenge. The money will be used for student scholarships.

“It’s a success from Day 1, right out of the gate,” says John Lucas, Wisconsin’s social-media coordinator. Mr. Lucas says that the main goal of the project is to get alumni involved, and that getting more followers, likes, or money is almost an afterthought.

As evidence of the project’s success, Mr. Lucas cited retweets by Wisconsin alums JJ Watt, a Houston Texans defensive end, and Joan Walsh, a editor. “It’s about the number in a way, but it’s also about that engagement of getting them to do something on your behalf,” he said.

Colleges have mostly embraced Twitter and Facebook as communications channels, but the payoff for likes or retweets can be nebulous. More followers might mean a bigger audience, but colleges have struggled to relate those numbers back to concrete goals like an increase in applications or donations.

Wisconsin’s project changes that equation to some extent by explicitly linking fund-raising priorities with online engagement, says Andrew Shaindlin, author of the blog Alumni Futures and Carnegie Mellon University’s associate vice president for alumni relations and annual giving. Even an alumnus who doesn’t click to support the Bucky Challenge might still learn that student aid is a university priority, he wrote in an e-mail.

But Mr. Shaindlin, who noted that he is not speaking for Carnegie Mellon, says he has concerns that all those followers and likes might not produce any long-term value for Wisconsin.

By bringing fund raising onto Facebook and Twitter, the project could reinforce the popular complaint that “the school only contacts me when they’re asking for money,” he says. And alumni who do trigger a couple of dollars in gifts might think they are off the hook to give more money.

“Is it worth it to have one more Facebook fan if it costs you the $98 that you won’t now be getting from that person?” Mr. Shaindlin says.

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