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social media ROI for higher education institutions, university social media ROI measuement Compared to other sectors, higher education funnels a sizeable sum into marketing: 18.5% of revenue on average according to Gartner Research. This has prompted some to grumble that marketing drains away valuable funds from other university departments. It also pressures PR and marketing departments to prove the benefits of the work.

With teenagers and their parents as the target market, colleges and universities have emphasized social media marketing more than most sectors. Be on the web where the target audience is – that’s the basic strategic approach. Many colleges and universities actually invest more in social media than traditional media PR, advertising and marketing. Through social media listening, colleges can find relevant conversations to join, identify mentions of their institutions that call for a response, engage with recruits, and help move potential applicants through the process. Many also use social media listening to identify safety threats, manage the institution’s reputation, and improve student life.

However, higher education institutions face different challenges, seek to attain different social media goals than corporations, and measure success differently. Most PR and marketing professionals representing corporations strive to show how social media activities support sales and revenue. For most corporations, measuring social ROI is the holy grail of social media measurement.

Tracking dollar-based metrics may make sense for some companies, but not for “people-focused” organizations like colleges and universities. Higher education institutions cannot directly link their financials to increased student applicants or enrollment, student loyalty, student referrals, student influence or student success.

A Different School of Thought

Travis Burchart, a communications and social media specialist at Oral Roberts University, argues that monetary ROI fails to make the social media measurement grade at higher education institutions.

“Show me the ROI—an exact figure—that’s generated by a $100K commencement speaker,” Burchart writes in Inside Higher Education. “Social PR doesn’t churn out “return” like a tuition ATM. Instead, it slowly ticks within the greater machine, orientating your university toward greater value,” Burchart says.

Social media is successful because they’re about people, not money. Human interactions sit at the core of social media. Consider the social buzzwords like community, conversation, dialog, sharing. Consequently, social ROI can’t be correctly measured if every social interaction is monetized and thereby dehumanized, he argues.

Vanity Metrics Provide a Guide

One measurement solution for higher education is, well, vanity metrics. Yes, many PR and marketing measurement experts criticize vanity metrics as irrelevant to business goals such as sales and revenue. They’re used because they look good and are easy to find. That criticism may be valid for sales and marketing, but not for PR, Burchart argues.

Vanity metrics can be valuable for measuring non-transactional marketing goals, such as brand awareness, sentiment and share of voice, he says, citing Daniel Hochuli, PAC content marketing evangelist at LinkedIn.

Vanity metrics can show if your efforts are increasing brand awareness and if content is resonating with your audience, Hochuli writes for the Content Marketing Institute.

Vanity metrics contribute to a return on investment, but how much they contribute to ROI fluctuates wildly; you need to align your expectations, he explains. At times, you can clearly see a direct line of sight from vanity metrics to an ROI goal; yet most of the time, the vanity metric is so high up the funnel that the results are too ambiguous to contribute effectively around bottom-of-the-funnel goals.

Tracing actual student enrollment back to social media may be the ultimate metric for colleges and universities. Did the enrolled student find the school on social media? Did the enrolled student engage with the school on social media? Did social media play a role in the student’s decision to apply or enroll? Did the student prospect follow the university sports results or forums on social media?

Social media analytics may not provide valid answers to all those questions – but directly asking applicants and newly enrolled students certainly can. Their answers during admission interviews or through short surveys will guide future marketing budgets and the institution’s recruitment activities on social media. By asking the students themselves, you may find that the link between social media engagement and enrollment is stronger than most higher ed organizations think.

Bottom Line: PR and marketing personnel at colleges and universities cannot realistically determine how social media improves finances of their organizations. Finding the financial ROI of social media is an unobtainable feat. While often lampooned as vanity metrics, the use of engagement metrics can show if PR and marketing activities on social media are improving brand awareness and spreading the institution’s recruitment messages to new and larger audiences of high school students. Finding the ultimate value of social media can best be measured through analytics about enrolled students and their use of social media during their college search. To get that information, ask the students themselves.

William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.