It was midnight on Jan. 5, the night before the Common App was due, and high schoolers were freaking out on Twitter.
There was some confusion — was the application due at midnight for everyone? Or did West Coasters have three more hours to hit submit?
Matt Griffin was sitting at home when he noticed the students dropping Penn’s name. He logged into the Penn Twitter account, and confirmed that the West Coast did indeed have three more hours.
Then he began tweeting encouragement to those procrastinating seniors, at one point even quoting Drake: “I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing. The supplement is due.”
Griffin, senior manager of New Media Communications at Penn, takes great pleasure in these spontaneous moments. As director of the University’s entire social media presence, he is able to reach an immense number of people, from prospective students to current students to alumni.
“Would those students have finished their applications anyway? Probably,” Griffin said. “But it was a nice bit of interaction.”
College freshman Elena Hoffman was one of the students tweeting at the account. She heard from some friends that Penn was replying to their tweets, so she too jumped into the fray.
She thought she was probably communicating with an admissions officer, and was somewhat worried that the admissions committee might link her Twitter account to her application and see this less professional side of her.
But then she saw the tweets quoting Hamilton, Pitbull and Taylor Swift. “I was thinking, wait, this makes me feel less nervous about Penn, maybe this is what the community is like,” Hoffman said. “It’s the Ivy League, obviously it’s very prestigious, but it doesn’t mean they can’t have fun on the side.”
Griffin, who graduated from Bucknell University in 2002 and previously worked in marketing at a publishing company and a local music school, has overseen Penn’s many social media pages since 2012. He’s purchased Snapchat filters for Hey Day and Commencement, and he’s had his tweets favorited by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the official True Blood Twitter page. He’s posted articles highlighting the latest research from Penn faculty. In the last two weeks alone, his various posts have reached over eleven million people.
When Griffin first began, Penn’s social media accounts had only a fraction of the reach they do today. The Facebook page, which now totals more than 175,000 followers, has grown 800 percent under his watch.
The technology has been increasing at an equally exponential rate. “When I first started this, it was status updates and photos,” Griffin said.
Now there are Vines, Snapchats, Periscopes, a whole host of other social media channels that either didn’t exist or were unknown when Griffin was hired.
“Four and a half years doesn’t really seem like a long time, but in the world of communications, it’s a lifetime,” Associate Vice President for University Communications Phyllis Holtzman said.
Despite the explosive growth across all of Penn’s social channels, Griffin finds himself more interested in the numbers beyond likes and follows. He knows that on Instagram, photos of buildings do better than those of people, though people get more comments. He knows that the best time to post a photo is after 3 p.m. And he knows that alumni make up the majority of followers on both Facebook and Twitter.
“If there’s one through-line through my career, it’s the numbers behind the stuff,” Griffin said.
Griffin uses all of this data to craft the best possible content. He exercises exclusive control over Penn’s different accounts, posting material that originates from the University Communications office, as well as from Admissions, Athletics, Alumni Relations and many other departments.
“He works in collaboration with content producers across the University to showcase the best of Penn on our social channels,” Holtzman said.
Engineering junior Lucy Wu has followed the Penn Instagram account since her senior year of high school. To this day, she likes most of the photos Griffin posts. “I enjoy seeing all of the pictures of Penn,” she said. “It really makes me appreciate the Penn campus a lot more.”
In a school as decentralized and large as Penn, it can be difficult for Griffin to craft a coherent University-wide message, a challenge shared by fellow social media guru Stefan Frank, director of social media at Wharton.
When he began his job in 2013, there were hundreds of different Wharton accounts across multiple channels. Frank, who has a full-time staff of four employees and four photography interns, has worked to consolidate as many as possible.
“There’s a bit of a movement on the part of the administration on down to create one Wharton, one voice,” he said.
Wharton is also in the process of strengthening its enterprise social media presence — the school is implementing new Customer Relationship Management software which will, according to Frank, “enhance the student and alumni experience by providing them with the most relevant and valuable content.”
Griffin, who is the only member of the University Communications office working entirely on social media, is more concerned with how to maintain his broad reach across the different channels. The landscape is made only more volatile by the fact that he loses a quarter of his student audience every year.
“What you do and how you personally interact with social media is far different than the student in your class four years ago would interact with social media,” he said.
Griffin is also forced to confront changing algorithms within the social networks themselves, which can sometimes slice his audience by more than half.
“Big changes aren’t announced,” he said. “You’ll just suddenly notice, ‘Hey we’re riding high at around 10,000 reach per post’ and then the next day all of a sudden it’s 2,000.’”
But Griffin is not daunted by this task.
“I think of it very much like a game,” he said. “This move happened, what’s my counter-move?”
In the case of Facebook, this has meant posting more videos and live-streams, as the platform has slowly shifted away from news. These decisions are made strategically, and only after consulting hard data.
Occasionally people tweet at Griffin assuming he’s just an intern. He chafes at this suggestion. He believes his job can’t be done by any twenty-something who uses social media.
“If your car breaks down, you don’t take it to someone who can drive a car,” Griffin said. “You take it to someone who can fix a car.”
“If I get defensive at all, it’s just that I would like people to know that it is a real thing and it does take real thought, and it’s not tossed off,” he said.
But if Griffin admits to occasionally craving some respect, he is unequivocal in stating that he does not need public recognition for his work. He’s happy to serve as the University’s all-powerful mouthpiece behind the scenes.
Just like he did that night in January, when a prospective student asked him who was running the Penn account.
“That depends who’s asking,” Griffin’s reply began.
“Just kidding. It’s Ben Franklin.”
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