We're Measuring Social Media Wrong

Why followers and engagement rate don't matter and how marketers should measure social media to better reflect campus priorities.

“Getting more followers” or “going viral” isn’t why campuses invest in social media. They invest because it’s a primary communication channel used to increase brand awareness and equity, build alumni affinity, recruit students by increasing applications or yield, or any other number of objectives found in a campus strategic plan. The metrics we use to measure it should assess those goals. Yet many social media managers and their CMOs are tied to vanity metrics like followers or engagement rate without a clear path to change. That’s one reason “Goals and Purpose” is the first chapter of my new book, Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses. When campus social media efforts align with campus priorities, the way we measure social media changes.

Move Beyond Followers and Engagement

If your social media reporting focuses on followers, engagements, and impressions from a handful of “official” campus accounts, it doesn't assess your impact on campus priorities. Rather, it measures how well you’re conforming to the metrics social platforms choose to report, regardless of strategic alignment. Vanity metrics don’t assess how social media helps or hurts your brand, impacts enrollment, or secures alumni donations. Prioritizing vanity metrics forces your staff to align their social strategy and content creation to the demands of platforms, rather than your strategic plan.

Measuring the entire social media conversation about your institution—not just your contribution to it—along with direct goal-related conversions prompted by social media content, is a better way to assess your social media efforts.

Social Media Metrics to Assess Brand

Angela Polec, Vice President of Enrollment, Marketing, and Communications at La Salle University, puts it this way: “Marketers tend to report in-the-moment metrics from social media such as followers, engagement, and reach so we see what’s working for us and how our posts and our content are performing.” But if your brand is truly what people say about you, she says campus marketing leaders should be concerned with “how the conversation forms around us, not just from us.” 

To measure the entire conversation about your brand on social media, you need to go beyond the analytics within platforms or social media management software. Social listening metrics capture your content as well as what others say about you, whether you’re tagged or not. Start with three basic brand metrics.

  • Total Conversation Volume. The number of times your institution is mentioned in online conversation indicates how many people talk about you, and how much they’re talking. Increasing conversation volume over time reflects an increase in word-of-mouth about your brand.
  • Earned Conversation. The portion of the online conversation that doesn’t come from campus accounts (i.e., students, journalists, alumni, prospects). Track this as a percentage of total volume and as a total number. As your brand awareness improves, your earned conversation should increase. You may also want to understand how much of your earned conversation is related to athletics to understand its impact on your brand.
  • Voices. The number of individuals who contribute to conversation about your campus. Unique authors can indicate a healthy community with diverse experiences and perspectives, and a shared affinity for campus. As you develop more brand advocates, the number of voices in the conversation should increase.

Jenny Petty, former Director of Enrollment Marketing at the University of Wyoming, recently presented social listening metrics to her cabinet and trustees while talking about the impact of the pandemic on their brand. “Presenting social listening metrics allowed me to frame our work on social media as managing the brand as an asset. Instead of sharing our most popular posts (which can come across as cutesy), approaching social media this way underscored that what people say about you—or don’t say about you—is your brand. It shifted leadership’s view of marketing from strictly being promoters to being managers of an important asset: our brand.” 

Typically, 64% to 88% of online conversation about colleges and universities occurs on social media, and much of that is earned conversation. Leaving that conversation out of your social media reporting ignores the contribution of word-of-mouth to your brand.

Tie Social Media to Revenue and Enrollment

Beyond brand, marketers have a responsibility to demonstrate how social media contributes to institutional priorities. A few years ago, Tony Dobies, Senior Director of Marketing at West Virginia University, grappled with this task as his team grew. "Likes and followers and pretty pictures don't prove the worth of social media,” he said. “We had to find something that senior leadership, up to the board of governors, could understand. That's money and enrollment.”

The WVU team focused on measuring conversions for common recruitment milestones, such as registering for a campus visit or starting an application. This is where most campuses start; other revenue-driving conversions may include donations, housing or dining plans, or special event sales. If you promote these on social media with a link, the conversions happen on your website.

Data to demonstrate impact and value comes from web analytics software (e.g., Google Analytics), not social media platforms. Dobies counsels, “You need to know how to use Google Analytics, otherwise you don't have the foundation to get this far. If you don't have conversions set up, you shouldn't be thinking about how to connect it to social yet.” If you’re new at this, start with the free Google Analytics Academy.

Get buy-in from leadership to identify website actions to track as goals, and work with your web developers or marketing technology team to ensure they’re implemented. It’s possible this infrastructure already exists for your website or email marketing; Dobies built on existing practices at WVU. After the foundation is established, you can begin to publish social media content with built-in tracking (i.e., UTM codes) so you can tie efforts to outcomes.

You could—and should—go one step further by assigning a dollar value to each goal conversion. Identify how much a campus visit or application is worth to the university, working backwards from net tuition revenue using enrollment yield rates (if this is a new concept for you, page 37 of the Enrollment Growth Playbook is a good place to start). For fundraising or ticket sales, use the actual value of the transaction. Assigning a dollar value to website conversions allows you to connect social media efforts to revenue.

“In six months during 2019, our organic social media efforts resulted in $200,000 worth of enrollment conversions,” Dobies explained. “Going forward, we’ll get even more specific to understand how much revenue Instagram Stories generates, or even a specific post. We’ll also expand beyond enrollment conversions.”

Measure What Matters

Social media is part of an integrated marketing strategy, and every campus should treat it as the high-profile, high-potential communication channel it is. This includes assessing social media efforts against core campus goals, rather than the metrics provided by a social media platform. 

Breaking free from the seductive pull of vanity metrics and engagement rate is a process that won’t happen overnight. Platforms, self-proclaimed gurus, and even your peers devote considerable effort to reinforce the value of vanity metrics. And the dopamine jolt that comes from a single piece of high-performing content is highly addictive, even if we’ve been warned about its effects. 

As an individual, you’ll need to consistently reflect on your purpose and commit to critical reading of industry reports, conference presentations, and the humble bragging of peers who may have been put on a pedestal for the wrong reasons.

Commit to measuring what matters, and the outcome will be worth the effort. Measuring social media's impact on brand and enrollment allows leadership to make informed decisions about investments in social media staff and tools to impact strategic objectives. 

Are you a social media manager who’s ready to get started? Schedule some honest conversations and fact-finding exercises with your supervisor. You’re not alone. Industry peers can offer help. The first section of Fundamentals of Social Media Management: A Guide for College Campuses can be your guide. 

At Campus Sonar, we’re not done thinking about this. I’m on a mission to help higher education social media managers approach their work strategically, and to persuade their bosses to recognize the value and impact of their work. Further, I’m amplifying voices of campus executives who’ve already embraced the strategic role of social media to achieve their goals. Keep an eye on this space, or subscribe to our newsletter. We’re just getting started.

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A version of this article first appeared in Inside Higher Education.