Do You Know What Your Social Media Analytics are Telling You?

Despite the proven power of social media for reaching prospective students, some higher education marketers spend little time tracking their social media efforts. Considering the amount of insight that marketers can derive from analytics, I would argue with anyone who says, “Who has the time?” that tracking actually saves you time—and money—in the long run. Without measuring, tracking, and analyzing, you’ll never know if your social media initiatives are helping your institution succeed or pushing you further from your goal.

To jump start your efforts, here’s a primer on tracking for three common platforms, as well as how to interpret what these metrics mean and how they can inform and improve your digital campaigns.

  1. Twitter Analytics: Twitter gives marketers a look into audiences’ consumer and lifestyle preferences. In addition to generating metrics on impressions, engagement rates, retweets, and likes, Twitter Analytics paints a vivid picture of your audience. It generates a report that shows your audience’s top interests, most-used languages, lifestyle type, and consumer behavior. Analyzing these trends is key to driving your social media strategy and engaging your audience with their desired content. Tailoring your posts to fit your audience’s interests and likes can do wonders for your digital brand. For example, if your report shows that your followers’ top interest is comedy and that they like to shop online for premium brands, you might consider punctuating posts with pop-culture references and offering gift cards to high-end retailers as incentives for social engagement.
  2. Instagram and Facebook Insights: Even though Instagram and Facebook do not provide as clear a picture of your audiences’ interests and content preferences as Twitter does, these platforms do offer a locational breakdown of your audience, which can be helpful for advertising and recruitment efforts. In addition, they provide an engagement rate per post, which can be analyzed to determine what content is (or isn’t) working. For example, a quick comparison of posts within a month will show you which types of content outperform others. For Facebook, these metrics can be accessed through your brand’s page by clicking on the “Insights” tab. Similarly, for Instagram, they can be accessed through your brand’s Instagram account by clicking “View Insights” under each post. (And since Facebook owns Instagram, you can also pull your Instagram report from your Facebook Insights tab.)
  3. Snapchat: Snapchat is beloved by teens and college students, but its lack of free/affordable analytics services can make it hard for cash-strapped marcom departments to dive very deeply into their audiences’ Snapchat interactions. If Snapchat analytics services don’t fit into your budget, there are still ways to track audience trends. One way is to keep a spreadsheet of the number of views, responses, and screenshots each snap receives. Once you begin to track this information, you will start to see which types of stories get the most interactions. Tracking is crucial: without it, you could miss these trends altogether and keep posting content that is simply unpopular, or worse, causes students to disengage or question your authenticity.
  4. Email Marketing: While email marketing is not considered social media, it is a direct digital communication that produces helpful data. Most mass email services provide some type of measurement of audience engagement, with metrics on open rates and click rates among the most important. The higher the open rate, the better your campaign performed. What really drives up the open rate? The subject line. If you look at your recent subject lines and analyze the ones with higher open rates, you may see trends in topics or subject-line formats that pique your recipients’ interest. Additionally, click rate (also called “heat mapping”) will show the actual content that your audience is clicking on to get more information, providing useful insight for planning future content—both for email and social media.

By analyzing and consolidating these insights and trends across platforms, you can develop a clearer picture of your audiences’ consistent behaviors, motivators, and desires—a powerful tool that can help you truly optimize every social media post.

Lexi Verret is a Project Strategy Intern at SimpsonScarborough. She is a second-year MBA student at Louisiana State University (LSU), where she specializes in marketing analytics.

Customer Service as a Competitive Advantage

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 29th annual National Small College Enrollment Conference. The keynote speaker was Dr. Neal Raisman, principal of N.Raisman & Associates, a leading customer service consulting group for retention, enrollment, morale, and marketing for higher education. He challenged attendees to think about students and families as their customers and to prioritize customer service at their institutions. While perhaps causing some to shift uncomfortably in their seats, Raisman’s argument is convincing.

We all know that negative experiences are one cause of attrition at colleges and universities. A large portion of those are arguably related to poor customer service. Attrition is tied to loss in tuition revenue, so why aren’t institutions prioritizing customer service more?

While the marketing of higher ed, especially to prospective students and their families, has changed dramatically in the past five to 10 years, have institutions made similar changes on the customer service front to keep those students and families satisfied with their “purchase decision?” In February 2017, Dr. Raisman, with the Educational Policy Institute, released “The State of Academic Customer Service on U.S. Campuses.” In this report, Raisman argues that strong academic customer service can in fact be a competitive advantage for schools today, especially because most schools themselves say they aren’t doing a great job of it.

Raisman found that definitions of what is good customer service, how to administer it, and its overall importance across U.S. campuses varies widely not only from institution to institution but also within different units on individual campuses. Senior administrators and those responsible for providing the bulk of customer service experiences have different views of the quality of customer service on their campuses. This is perhaps the root of sub-par customer service — yet another reason to break down those campus silos.

Further, Raisman states that faculty, staff, and administrators require training in customer service, as many do not know what academic customer service is, what it entails, and how to provide it. Some elements of good customer service include timely response to emails/voicemails, access to faculty via office hours, providing up-to-date information on course curriculums, schedules, well-maintained facilities, etc.

Ironically, after I left Raisman’s keynote that afternoon, I proceeded to have a series of not-so-great customer service experiences of my own. And, each time, I made a slight (or not so slight) grimace, and a mental note. We all know those feelings of frustration and irritation after a bad encounter or less than fluid experience — do we really want our students and families to feel that way when they think of us?

Last year, American University launched its Reinventing the Student Experience project, a multi-year initiative to transform AU’s student service infrastructure. Part of the effort involves seeking insight from businesses and organizations outside higher education. The task force asked itself these major questions, which may be helpful for you and your institution to consider answering as you look to make improvements to your own institution’s customer-service approach:

  • What is our overarching purpose and service philosophy?
  • Viewed from the student (and parent) perspective, what are the services they need and when?
  • Have we organized the touchstones for student progression and success based on the sequence of the educational process?
  • To what extent does our service “infrastructure” facilitate academic accomplishment, social adjustment, and economic stability and how do we effect these changes within the context of a traditional university?
  • What does success look like for today’s students, and for those who will come after them?

Taking Survey Questions to the Next Level with Discrete-Choice Modeling

Should we change our tuition?

What events are most appealing to alumni?

Should we offer our new program online or on campus?

These are all questions that discrete-choice modeling (DCM) can answer better than direct, standalone survey questions. DCM looks at several factors within a decision RELATIVE to each other, forcing respondents to make tradeoffs among different options. What we learn from this type of data allows us to gain deeper insight into which factors our audiences find most important.

Here is an example of DCM and how it works.

Imagine you are trying to determine the optimal way to offer a new certificate program. You are trying to figure out how much to charge, whether to offer the program online or in-person, and how interested people are in enrolling at your school versus other institutions.

One possibility is to just ask prospective students these questions directly. For example, you could ask them, “How much tuition would you prefer we charge?” and give them options for $5,000, $10,000, and $15,000. The problem? Everyone will choose the lower price.

That’s where DCM can be more effective. When setting up a DCM question to determine the optimal certificate program, we would first determine which factors we think will contribute to prospects’ decision to enroll in the program. Let’s say we decide to focus on the following three factors: tuition, school, and program format.

Then, within each of these factors we determine specific levels to test:

  1. Tuition: $5,000, $10,000, $15,000
  2. School: School 1, School 2, School 3, and School 4
  3. Format: in-person, online, or hybrid

Each survey respondent is then shown multiple combinations of factors and levels and asked to choose which they prefer. For example, we might ask:

  1. Which of the following programs would you choose? (pick one)
    1. Online program at Awesome University, tuition $5,000
    2. In person program at Fantastic College, tuition $10,000
  2. Which of the following programs would you choose? (pick one)
    1. In-person program at Super University, tuition $15,000
    2. Online program at Awesome University, tuition $10,000

And so on.

The analysis of all the responses allows us to answer questions including, “Do prospects prefer the higher cost at a smaller institution or a lower cost at a larger institution?” or “Do they prefer to go to a less expensive school offering an online program or a more expensive school with in-person classes?”

The analysis provides the relative weight of each factor in respondents’ decision-making process. In our certificate program example, DCM might generate the following importance levels:

School: 45% importance 

Price: 35% importance 

Format: 20% importance

From there, we can also calculate the order of preference of the various levels within each factor. For example, for program format, we might find that in-person classes are students’ most preferred option, followed by hybrid and then online.

So, in summary, we know that prospects will choose the least expensive option if they are asked solely about price. But by using DCM in our example above, we forced respondents to make trade-offs on price vs. other factors and learned that price was NOT the most important factor — the institution was. When forced to make trade-offs, people will sometimes be willing to pay more to get certain offerings that are more important to them. This allows us to get a much more realistic view of what people will do in the real world.

This is just the beginning of the insights DCM can uncover. It can get much deeper and even simulate different scenarios to determine the optimal bundle to offer given competition, cost, market size, etc. Food for thought as you design your next survey!

Changing the Location Narrative

At SimpsonScarborough, we love asking questions to gauge audiences’ opinions of our client institutions’ strengths and limitations. One attribute that often appears on both lists is location. This immediately causes confusion and concern and leads to the immediate question: What should we do about this?

The first thing to remember is that you can’t change your location. Your institution will always be too close to home for some prospects and too far away for others. The second is that you can’t rely on hiding the bad parts or trying to make them sound better than they really are. Instead, you have to own your location’s strengths and liabilities.

Gen Z has high expectations for college, and an appealing location is part of that mix. Since the definition of “appealing” is going to be different for every student, it’s more important to test around non-personal aspects of a location that an institution can control (i.e., not climate or size). Our research points to social opportunities and internship availability as the most important aspects of location.

Here are some ideas for leading the narrative surrounding your school’s location:

  • Include a trip to downtown as part of the campus tour. If this is too difficult logistically, consider developing a separate downtown tour with transportation provided, perhaps ending with lunch at a favorite local establishment.
  • Highlight community-institution partnerships. Take advantage of social media to post quick feel-good features about your institution’s relationships with the local community. Announcements of service events and stories of students doing internships or class projects with local businesses provide short bursts of content that can be used in multiple channels.
  • Showcase successful alumni who have stayed local. Maybe it’s a monthly column in the alumni magazine or stories pitched to media outlets in your most productive recruitment ZIP codes. We spend so much time proving that our graduates can be found all around the country and the world that we can overlook the power of those who stay nearby as testimonials for the town where students will spend four (or more) years of their lives.
  • Internships, internships, internships. Figure out the easiest way to keep a running list—maybe it’s a Google doc or just a work-study student in charge of a spreadsheet—and regularly mine your campus communicators network for updates. Admissions and marketing staff can pull examples whenever needed, whether for a recruitment email, an outcomes page on your website, or inclusion in scripts for campus tour guides.
  • Use statistics to counter safety concerns. Perceptions of crime are usually greater than reality, so putting the actual numbers in context every so often can help keep things in perspective. And it’s always good to be proactive about safety. University of Southern California, for example, has a page on its website detailing the university’s many resources to help students stay safe, including a free app managed by USC’s Department of Public Safety that the campus community can use to report crimes and suspicious activity. It even gives users the ability to share their location with selected friends so someone will always know where they are.

Finally, when it comes to location, remember everyone on campus is a brand ambassador. Look for opportunities to educate internal audiences on how to best speak to the benefits of your location.

Branding vs. Strategic Planning: Which is the Chicken, Which is the Egg?

Where do branding and strategic planning intersect? Better yet, where should they? I strongly believe that integration of the two efforts is critical. Yet, to date, the closest SimpsonScarborough has come to integrating a branding initiative with strategic planning is to conduct our work in a parallel process.

Here’s what I know:

(1) The biggest criticism of strategic plans is that they are too inward-focused, often reflecting the interests of faculty, staff, administrators, and board members more than responding to the needs of external stakeholders such as prospective students, parents, alumni, and potential industry partners.

(2) Branding initiatives begin with research with key internal and external constituents. The purposes are to identify the authentic strengths and personality of an institution, explore the needs and interests of its customers, and determine a powerful and focused strategy for positioning the institution within its very competitive market.

Most strategic plans I see are distinctly lacking in exactly the sort of insight from external audiences that a branding study generates.

There absolutely must be a direct link between how a university positions itself from a marketing standpoint and how the institution invests its resources, which is determined in large part by the strategic plan. If there is to be any “truth in advertising,” the brand strategy should reflect the direction the strategic plan is taking the institution. The reverse should also be true: the strategic plan should provide evidence that the brand strategy is authentic.

I’m not naïve. I know some will counter that unlike for-profit organizations, colleges and universities are mission-driven institutions—that we determine the strategic direction of our college using our mission statement and values as our guide rather than focusing on revenue generation or customer needs.That, in fact, is the naïve argument. Any college or university that continues to try to operate as if it doesn’t have to compete and provide real, tangible value to its external stakeholders is living in a fantasy land.

As I’ve said to many of my clients, an “If you build it, they will come” philosophy only works in the movies. Today’s universities are facing very real competitive pressures that require them to have a keen understanding of how to position against peer institutions and appeal to the needs of prospects, parents, guidance counselors, alumni, research partners, employers, and other audiences that contribute to the health and success of the institution. Truly integrating a branding initiative with the strategic planning not only ensures the ultimate plan is market-focused but also maximizes the authenticity of the brand strategy. Both initiatives benefit.

Here at SimpsonScarborough, we are testing this theory. This summer, we’re kicking off a branding initiative that is completely integrated and in lock-step with the strategic planning process. We are working with an enlightened new university president who insisted on bringing the two initiatives together. We’ll report back throughout the year on how it’s going. I’m sure there will be aspects of this experiment that work well and others that don’t; I promise to report on both!