The magical story of Aisha’s Letter

What do reindeer eat? Can an owl turn its head all the way round? Do sharks eat angel fish? How fast do owls fly? These are the brilliant questions that a curious eight-year-old asked a professor at the University of Sheffield back in January 2017. That eight-year-old was called Aisha and she put her questions in a letter…the only problem was, she didn’t include an address for the professor to reply to.

And so began what became a wonderful story; a social media search to find Aisha, followed by bringing her onto campus to have her questions answered in person.

I sat down with Andrew Twist, content strategist at the University, to hear the story of the campaign and find out not only what happened but also what it taught his team about content distribution and how a simple letter gave the University a chance to show the world what it was about and what it wanted to be known for.

Show notes

Andrew Twist is a content strategist at the University of Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter and find him on LinkedIn.

Aisha’s letter all started back in January 2017, when a professor received a letter from an eight-year-old girl who wanted to ask a load of questions about animals for a school project. However, she forgot to include an address, which meant the professor wasn’t able to reply. So, the communications team were called to help try and find Aisha through the power of social media.

What followed was a wonderful story that saw the University find Aisha and invite her and her classmates onto campus to have her questions answered in person.

Key points

Social media was an obvious channel, but traditional media were also a valuable asset, as they still have such large and influential followings online. The University also targeted a few individuals who were influential in the science world – Professor Brian Cox, for example.

When Brian Cox retweeted our message, I’ve never known my phone to blow up so much – it was like one, constant notification sound!

The key to getting something to go viral isn’t about getting a virus-like spread, from person-to-person; it’s about finding key, individual sources who have the reach to spread your message to the widest audiences.

The University ended up finding Aisha within 24 hours, after her teacher spotted it on Facebook. That very quickly saw Andrew’s team moving onto the next part and working out how to tell the story appropriately.

We knew we had all these people who had helped with the search who would want to know what happened.

Andrew’s team made an effort to experiment with different formats and styles of videos – as well as the above piece on YouTube, they made content for Stories and also creating versions that were appropriate for different channels.

While the search was largely on Twitter, the video actually got more views on Facebook.

As well as being a fun, light-hearted story about a little girl being inspired – it went beyond that. It showed how academics care about inspiring young people, it was about inspiring young women to be passionate about STEM subjects and showed a lot about what the University of Sheffield wanted to be known for.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of creating good content – because that’s fun – but you also need to think about distribution at the start of it. For any story, think about who you want to see it and how will you get it to them?

Very quickly after we put the video out there, we saw lots of comments from alumni and from parents of prospective students – it spoke volumes about what the University wants to be, and that we have amazing academics and we’re not just an ivory tower.

Andrew’s top three tips for getting great content to the audience it deserves

Think about distribution as early as possible.

Do your research – find out everything about your target audience.

Educate people as to why your approach to distribution is the right one.


5 apps on your phone you use the most

Gmail, Instagram, Pocket Casts, YouTube and banking

4 people you’d like to invite round for dinner

Aaron Rodgers, Helen Sharman, David Attenborough and JK Rowling

3 words to describe what it’s like working for the University of Sheffield

Varied, fun and frustrating (not in a bad, more in a ‘there’s no time to do everything I want to do’ way)

2 places/events in the world you’d really love to visit but haven’t been able to yet

Snowboarding in Canada and the Wimbledon final

1 social media platform you love more than any of the others

My current favourite is Instagram, but my favourite of all-time is actually MySpace, circa 2005/2006!