USING SOCIAL MEDIA IS JUST not optional anymore for many marketing, communications, PR, and web professionals working at colleges and universities. While Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and LinkedIn as well as other social networking websites were only used by a small group of institutions just two years ago, they have now become default communication platforms for the majority in trying to reach and engage students, alums, and other constituents on their terms and at a minimum cost.
Things go fast with the social web?so fast that only a minority of institutions have taken the time to set proper measurement systems to assess the results of their new communication tool set. Yet tracking results has never been so important. At a time when countless self-proclaimed social media experts want to dictate new rules of engagement to optimize your institution’s social media footprint, skipping the measurement part is a risky proposition.
Using social media doesn’t require big budgets. But success on the social web can only be achieved at the price of major time commitments. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that time spent on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and LinkedIn is always well spent.
So how do you make sure you don’t waste your time? Start by following these steps to set up a simple social media measurement system for your institution.
Clear goals make the difference between strategy and mere tactics. Try to spell out what you want to achieve by using social media. Do you want to raise the yield of your admitted students’ pool? Do you want to increase connections among your alums to help them find jobs? Do you want to reduce the time your staff spends addressing basic questions from prospective students and their parents? When you define high-level goals, make sure they can be measured and really matter to the institution.
Determine how you will measure success?and failure. This involves selecting metrics that will tell how your initiatives perform. Key performance indicators should be very specific. For example, in the case of connections among alums used earlier, it makes sense to track the total number of interactions (wall posts, comments, etc.) related to career issues on your Facebook page or your LinkedIn group. If you use Twitter to address questions from prospective students or their parents by directing them to resources on the institution’s website or Facebook page, you will need to track the click-through rate on these links along with the total number of e-mails and phone calls related to these topics that staff members receive.
While Facebook and YouTube provide a wide range of metrics about your page or channel, Twitter and LinkedIn don’t. And whether or not they include statistics, most social media platforms won’t provide the full picture. If you need to track click-through rates to the links you share on your different outposts in social media land, consider using a tracking tool such as HootSuite or BudURL, or set up your own with Get Shorty or the WordPress Short URL Plugin.
Moreover, if you’re trying to measure any type of conversions on your institution’s website, you should also use URLs that identify at least the medium and the campaign. Such web addresses include parameters that can be read by the analytics applications and will help in tracking web visitors referred by your social media initiatives.
Once the right tools have been selected, it’s time to get started with implementation of initiatives. Given the very dynamic nature of social media, plan to capture measurement data at preset intervals?every hour, every day, every week, every month, etc.?depending on the type of activities. This “on-the-fly” measurement will help you make necessary adjustments quickly and ensure a record of the full life cycle of your video, slideshow, or post. Once again, Facebook and YouTube have made life easier by offering easy access to archived data, which should help save some time. With Twitter, you will have to keep track of your metrics on your own.
While you should not live and die by what your competition is doing, competitive analysis can also help in assessing relative performance. For certain metrics publicly available, you can rely on industrywide reports, such as the Blue Fuego Research Files published last summer. Or you can adopt a do-it-yourself benchmarking approach for two or three competing institutions. It doesn’t take too much time to track numbers of followers, fans, posts, or comments on a monthly basis. And doing so can help you make sense of your own numbers by reflecting broader trends.
Collected data shouldn’t sit on your desk. You need to share meaningful results with decision-makers. Try to come up with a one- or two-page report or dashboard that will provide output and outcome metrics for a given period along with a quick snapshot of the related social media initiatives launched. In other words, you need to report on what you do?the direct general results in terms of followers, fans, comments, etc.?but also the more targeted results in relation with your KPIs. Don’t overwhelm the recipients of reports with numbers, and remember to add some short narrative to explain results and suggest actions to be taken.
If your reports include action items suggested by the results, make sure required changes and adjustments are implemented?and then rinse and repeat. Due to the lack of a definitive body of knowledge on social media, a measurement program should be a key component of a social media strategy. Following these basic steps will provide enough information to decide which platform is worth your time and which type of initiatives work best.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community www.higheredexperts.com.