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Analytics: The Holy Grail of Social Media?

A year of growth for measuring social media activity
University Business, June 2011

A year ago, at the presentation I gave at the EduComm conference and within this column (June 2010 issue of UB), I made the argument--and plea--for a web and social media analytics revolution in higher education. I explained why and how institutions should rely on analytics to stop making marketing decisions on opinions, guesses, and hunches and start embracing a more data-driven approach.

So, have these past 12 months made a difference? Has higher education finally warmed up to the possibilities offered by web and social media analytics?

Officials at many colleges and universities have acquired a taste for a more data-driven marketing culture. And, this nascent taste has fed the recent flurry of articles, blog posts, conference presentations, webinars, and conversations on social media--all focusing on what analytics can do to help institutions make marketing decisions.

Over the past year, more web, marketing, and communication professionals have started talking about analytics in higher education--and more top executives, pushed by budget woes, have paid attention to this analytics talk.

But, what has been done beyond all the talking?

Web analytics insights have become a central piece for many website redesign projects. Web traffic data collected through Google Analytics or other similar applications is used to inform the optimization of web visitor experience for institutions such as the University of Notre Dame (Ind.), Florida International University, Penn State University, and many more.

The myth of the elusive social media ROI still prevails.

Today, no respectable web team can afford to ignore web analytics when it's time to redesign the website, but what happens between two overhauls? The new iterative approach to website redesign has also reinforced the need to use web analytics. By monitoring more closely web traffic patterns and site key metrics, staff at institutions like Wayne State University (Mich.) have managed to identify and quickly fix design issues that prevent web visitors from completing their intended tasks, such as a request for more information, an admissions application, or an online donation.

Meanwhile, it's been surprisingly more challenging for colleges and universities to walk the walk of social media measurement. Despite all the talk about social media strategies, policies, and tools in higher education, the myth of the elusive--if not impossible--social media return on investment (ROI) still prevails.

While there's no "social media ROI" button, analytics can indeed provide answers to inform marketing decisions. Despite a common belief, institutions can measure the ROI of social media activities--as they could with handshakes exchanged at college fairs or even phone calls made during fundraising campaigns.

In a survey of 18,000 CASE members focusing on their social media practices and conducted online in February 2011, 68 percent of the 951 respondents agreed that measuring the ROI of their social media initiatives was tough. "Indeed, it's not easy. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't do it," says Stephane Hamel, web analytics adjunct professor at The University of British Columbia and Université Laval (Canada) and one of the leading experts in the field. Hamel, who teaches the first online master class on social media analytics in higher education this month for Higher Ed Experts, insists that measuring real outcomes starts by defining specific goals. "Are we into social media to boost our ego and get the most Twitter followers and Facebook likes or are we into it to rally new students, create a sense of community or simply better serve them?" he asks rhetorically.

The vast majority, according to the CASE survey, still focuses on measuring the simplest form of engagement activity, with 89 percent tracking the number of followers, likes, etc., and 79 percent tracking the volume of participation. Three-quarters of respondents said they track click-through rate from the social media outposts to the website, somehow measuring a micro-conversion in the engagement funnel. About a third of survey respondents rely on donations and admissions applications to measure the ROI of their social media activities. Also, 47 percent plan to do more quantitative measurement activities in the next 12 months.

But, what is concretely done in higher education when it comes to social media analytics?

Social media measurement focusing on engagement activities (reading, following, liking, retweeting, sharing, or commenting) has become the norm in higher education. This shouldn't come as a surprise because most colleges and universities have somehow limited their social media efforts to engagement activities up until now. Ryan Yarosh, assistant director of media relations at Binghamton University (N.Y.), explains that "with social media, we try to create communities in which people who have some sort of Binghamton connection will have a place to exchange ideas and receive useful information."

However, social media can help institutions with much more than engagement once clear objectives tied to broader institutional goals are defined. While a common social media goal among beginners, "having thousands of followers and doing it only for brand awareness aren't good objectives in themselves," confirms Hamel.

Fortunately, some institutions are now past this experimentation stage. They have started to follow a better approach by identifying expected and measurable outcomes for their social media campaigns.

At Marquette University (Wis.), the National Marquette Day social media campaign set up for the January 2010 men's basketball contest against Syracuse University (N.Y.) was designed to engage alumni around the world through game parties, "Marquette Pride" photo submissions and other activities. But, its success was also measured ultimately by the amount of online donations directly resulting from the campaign. "We raised $17,000 through e-solicitations associated with the event," says Tim Cigelske, communication specialist.

Gettysburg College (Pa.) also used this winning formula of athletics, school pride, and social media to raise money online among its alumni during the NCAA basketball tournament this year. Along with nearby Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.) and Dickinson College (Pa.), the institution took part in the March Mania Challenge. Gettysburg prevailed by collecting 1,048 online donations from current seniors and alums. Facebook and Twitter played a key part in its outreach to alumni: 440 gifts were directly linked to the social media campaign during the last 72 hours of--March Mania.

The same tactics had been used for a fundraising initiative the year before at Gettysburg. During the Cly-Del Challenge, over 100 online donations were made in the last 36 hours. "We worked with the fundraising team to integrate social media with other communications, but the real credit goes to the college's virtual communities and fans. They shared the story and got each other to give," explains Paul Redfern, director of web communications and electronic media.

Social media activities can indeed be measured-as long as they are directly tied to business goals.

Harper College, a two-year school in suburban Chicago with 25,000 students, also managed to define clear objectives and measure real outcomes for its social media campaign designed to promote its summer classes. The YouTube video contest, first executed last year, prompts students to upload a video about their summer academic plans (taking a few Spanish classes, working toward a degree, enrolling in a cooking course, etc.). The video with the most views by the campaign's end wins a $1,500 scholarship.

Last year's initiative results offer a great business case for social media measurement done right. The strategic goals of this campaign included, among others, an increased number of inquiries and registration/enrollment for the summer session. Results were tracked through online analytics tools, URL shorteners, collateral-specific sub-domains, and QR codes. "The 2010 Summer Campaign engaged more than 6,500 people who viewed initiatives (clicks) and generated more than 55 leads and 34 enrollments directly traceable to this campaign," recalls Marc Westenburg, the marketing specialist who developed the campaign. Directly traceable enrollment revenues exceeded the effort's associated costs.

Harper College, Gettysburg College, and Marquette University are among a small number of institutions that have proved the performance of social media activities can indeed be measured, as long as they are directly tied to business--or institutional, if you prefer--goals.

Who said it was impossible to crack the "social media ROI" code? Definitely not officials at these three institutions.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community at