The State of Online Analytics in Higher Ed
In a previous column published in the June issue of University Business, I shared a few anecdotal examples of how universities and colleges had started to use online analytics to inform their marketing and communications decisions. Unfortunately, there was no available data on analytics usage across institutions at that time. I decided to survey practitioners, thus testing my hypothesis that a change of attitudes in higher education toward web and social media analytics was required.
Completed by 399 professionals working mainly in the marketing, communication, and web offices of their institutions, this online survey about the state of web and social media analytics aimed to shed some light on the use of online analytics in higher education. This survey was filled out on a voluntary basis from May 11 to May 24, 2010. It was publicized online through e-mail, electronic mailing lists, e-newsletters, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other professional networking websites. As a consequence, it doesn't rely on a scientifically determined dataset and has a strong bias toward online users. However, it's fair to assume, due to the size of the sample and the nature of the questions, that its results reflect the general state of online analytics in higher education.
Access to web traffic data isn't a problem anymore: 95 percent of survey respondents indicated it is tracked at their institution. The free and powerful Google Analytics application has been implemented to do the job in 92 percent of cases. Open source statistic packages that can interpret web server logs are also being used by 18 percent, while 11 percent rely on their commercial counterparts. In the sphere of social media, 36 percent of survey respondents count on Facebook Insights and 24 percent on YouTube Insights, while 19 percent track click-throughs using a web address shortening service (e.g., bit.ly).
While a minority of higher ed professionals is lucky enough to focus their efforts on online analytics, a large majority of the survey respondents 72 percent of those tracking web data? spend less than two hours per week working on it. Only 2 percent report spending more than 20 hours per week on online analytics.
In response to another question, half confirmed that nobody at their institution spends more than 20 percent of their time working on monitoring, reporting, and analyzing web traffic data. This lack of human resources is unfortunately consistent with the situation in the public and nonprofit sector. According to "Tapping the Potential of Web Analytics for Public Sector and Non-Profit Sites," a report published in May 2009 by the Public Sector Special Interest Group of the Web Analytics Association, 70 percent of these organizations do not have a dedicated web analyst. More than 60 percent report spending only a few hours per week on analytics.
Half of the higher ed professionals I surveyed monitor at least 14 different e-metrics for their institutions. More than 70 percent track five basic website metrics: visits (88 percent), page views (85 percent), unique visitors (83 percent), referring websites (75 percent), and average length of visits (70 percent).
The bounce rate, often called "the king of metrics," which tracks visitors who left after viewing just a single page, is watched by 54 percent at the site level and 51 percent at the page level. Social media measurement isn't as widely implemented as expected. Only 52 percent keep track of their Facebook page fans, 40 percent of their Twitter followers, and 27 percent of their YouTube channel subscribers and friends. While they are the name of the game in social media, user interactions only retain the attention of the minority: 39 percent for Facebook Likes, 38 percent for YouTube video views, and 24 percent and 22 percent for Twitter retweets and mentions, respectively.
These center around admissions inquiries and applications. Although universities and colleges use their websites to interact with and provide services to their constituents, 35 percent of the survey respondents indicated they didn't track any conversions at all. This shows there is still a big gap between the possibilities offered by online analytics in terms of data-driven marketing decisions and the current practices in higher education.
However, the survey results also confirm how student recruitment activities have moved to the online world. Roughly 32 percent and 29 percent of surveyed professionals monitor conversions for admissions online inquiries and applications. But this relatively low percentage given the core mission of most institutions shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of interest. Indeed, 47 percent and 44 percent of survey respondents would like to monitor both types of admissions-related web conversions. The differences between who tracks and who would like to track conversions are even more accentuated for online donations (17 percent tracking with 38 percent who wish they could) and alumni online registrations (16 percent and 34 percent, respectively).
Close to 80 percent of survey respondents issue analytics reports about their web activities. In many cases though, these reports don't go further than the default - and most of the time overwhelming - reports offered by Google Analytics. For the majority of respondents, these reports are only shared with members of their team or their direct manager. Only 26 percent indicated their dean or VP is one of the report's recipients; 12 percent said their president is, and just 5 percent share metrics with the board of trustees. Even though admissions-related web conversions are deemed very important, only 18 percent distribute reports to their admissions office. This proportion falls to 9 percent for the office or association in charge of relations with alums.
When asked how they use the insights gained from analytics, 53 percent chose "improving their website" as the main way. While many respondents said they used insights for several things, 15 percent reported they don't use them at all. Optimizing online advertising and backing up requests for more budget, resources, and staff were also each chosen in 4 percent of the cases.
There is no doubt that the current state of web and social media analytics in higher education calls for a revolution in practices and mentalities. With marketing budgets under greater pressure and scrutiny in most institutions, it's time to stop making decisions based on hunches, guesses, or opinions and switch to a more data-driven approach. The good news is YOU can easily change the place of online analytics in higher education. How? By joining what I'm calling the "Higher Ed Revolution of Web and Social Media Analytics."
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies blog. She is also the founder of the professional development online community at www.higheredexperts.com.