Social Media Delivers ROI for Universities. Or Not.
If you want to believe that social media is more efficient for student recruitment than other channels and that universities lead in establishing ROI for social media, there was good news this week.
According to The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, which has reported on trends in social media in higher ed (and in business) for the past five years, “Higher Ed Documents Social Media ROI: New Communications Tools Are a Game Changer.”
Among their findings [boldface theirs]:
- Reduced costs for traditional media are attributed to use of social media. Schools report 33% less spent on printing, 24% less spent on newspaper ads and 17% less spent on radio and TV ads.
- One in 3 schools say social media is more efficient than traditional media in reaching their target audience (this number increases to 44% for top MBA programs).
- 92% of undergraduate admissions officers agree that social media is worth the investment they make in it and 86% plan to increase their investment in social media in the next year.
- The most useful tools for recruiting undergraduates include Facebook (94%), YouTube (81%), Twitter (69%) and Downloadable Mobil Apps (51%). Mobile apps are a favorite of top MBA programs with 82% citing them as an effective recruiting tool.
Pretty awesome news for those who espouse social media über alles, isn’t it? But let’s look at some other data. When you ask teens about the impact of various media on their college decisionmaking, they’re a lot less bullish on social media than the admission officers whose views are reflected in the UMass Dartmouth research.
Here’s what actual, real-live juniors and seniors told Noel-Levitz about how they use various types of media in their college search and choice. This data is from the 2012 E-Expectations report and from a presentation by Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president, web strategy, at Noel-Levitz, and Lance Merker, president of OmniUpdate, at EDUWeb 2012 [boldface mine]:
- Websites are important to teens: for example, 71% of seniors rely on web content for information about academic program options; 38% say they rely on social media for the same info. Many (72%) use Google, Bing, or Yahoo to search for colleges. And websites are way more influential for seniors (4.54) than a college’s Facebook page (2.29).
- Print is important to teens: 58% rely on printed brochures to learn about campus location and community; 34% use social media. And 72% use brochures/print mail from schools to build their list of schools to check out.
- Teens use email: for example, 62% said they used “emails I get from schools” to help identify schools to explore further.
- Only 46% have visited a school’s Facebook page and of those, 69% have liked a college or university page. Even brochures are more influential than a college’s Facebook page (3.38 vs. 2.47).
What To Make of This?
This is yet another confirmation of selective reality, isn’t it? Whatever your bias is, you can pick data to confirm it. Here are some of my observations.
- Don’t believe everything you read! In this specific case, I venture that it’s not that teens love social and hate print. It’s that admission officers think they do just because they’re teens. In my experience, adults usually always over-estimate the appetite of young people for technology; they’re much smarter about it using it than we give them credit for.
- Don’t dismiss traditional channels quite yet (and I include email and websites here). We’re in a time of change, so those channels still work and are often critical sources of information. Isn’t that what the Noel-Levitz data tells us? It’s not that teens don’t like print (they told Noel-Levitz they do), they’re discriminating: they don’t like print that sucks, just like they want web content that is informative and relevant, delivered in a way that helps them find information quickly.
- We should talk about what’s most effective. But measuring what’s most effective is very complicated. While the UMass Dartmouth research presents the view from admission, it ignores other key offices (communications, PR, development, student life, and alumni) that have significant insights into whether social media is delivering any return on investment and what other channels might be as, or more, important.
- Measuring ROI is complicated, especially in higher ed. If we know anything about measurement in higher ed, it’s complicated and undisciplined. Tracy Playe makes that point a lot more passionately than I can right now. A thoughtful, data-driven, integrated (i.e. institution-wide), measured approach to ROI is the only one that will deliver on the promise that universities lead in demonstrating ROI for social media. And I agree with Tracy: we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.
Update (9 August): Andrew Careaga wrote a terrific followup to this post on his blog, Higher Ed Marketing (one of those must-follow blogs for people in higher ed). One of his key points about this research:
But reducing costs, or reducing your media spend, isn’t the same thing as investing. Cutting costs does not equal increased investment.
He’s absolutely right, of course, and that’s a really important point.