What Is the ROI of Social Listening?

ROI. Everyone likes to ask for it, yet few report it. That’s because it’s hard to quantify both sides of the Return on Investment equation in higher education. The investment should be easy enough: staff time, software, marketing expenses, supplies and materials, vendors/consultants are the most common components of an investment. The return poses more difficulty, as it can take years to materialize (e.g., a major gift, a life-long donor, or an enrolled and retained student). But Campus Sonar and EverTrue are up to the challenge. Let’s talk about the ROI of social listening.

Return: Social Listening Drives Real Offline Value

Social listening (finding and analyzing the online conversations of interest to you) enables informed, authentic engagement with prospective and current students, their families, and alumni. Whether it’s finding and responding to public online conversations, or using public social media activity to inform your recruitment or advancement campaigns, the result of strategic social listening is additional tuition revenue and engaged alumni with the potential to be life-long donors and institutional advocates.

Alumni Identity logo of graduation cap with person silhouetteNew research from Dr. Jay Dillon paints a clear picture for the value of social media engagement for advancement professionals. His research focuses on Alumni Identity: how much of a graduate’s personal self relates to where they attended college. Higher levels of Alumni Identity correlate with higher frequency of alumni donations, while age, class year, and proximity to campus don’t correlate with giving. Two of the five primary factors that increase Alumni Identity are participating in a college/university LinkedIn group and liking a college/university Facebook page. Dr. Dillon concludes that because digital and social media engagements positively impact Alumni Identity, advancement offices should work to increase social media engagement with alumni to cultivate donors. These donors will provide real value to the campus over the course of their life as they continue to give.

Advancement Return: Social Listening Drives Development Segmentation

RAISE 2018 overlaying conference imageAt RAISE 2018, the marketing and acquisition team at the University of Connecticut Foundation shared how it’s personalizing outreach in response to alumni interactions with UConn on Facebook or its website.

For example, instead of sending a generic, one-size-fits-all invite to Huskies Forever 2017 (UConn’s homecoming weekend), the team delivered custom messaging to ten segments of its alumni audience. If they saw graduates interact with Facebook posts about craft brewing or the 5k race, they sent them an invite promoting similar events during homecoming weekend.

As a result, UConn increased attendance by an astounding 79 percent over the previous year just by listening to alumni interests and reaching out with programming that spoke directly to their passions.

These social-segmentation strategies also translate directly to fundraising. Boston University’s annual giving team starts with Facebook engagement to understand a potential donor’s interests before making an ask.

When BU wanted to raise support to convert an iconic campus building into a new alumni center, the team posted pictures and videos of the project on Facebook, then reviewed who liked or commented on the posts. The team contacted these engaged non-donors during the next phonathon and converted 75 percent of them into donors—a success rate more than twice the typical phonathon average. Connecting donor interests to fundraising priorities is powerful (and rewarding)!

Enrollment Return: Social Listening Impacts Individual Enrollment Decisions

Seneca College in Toronto has been using social listening for years under the leadership of Kayla Lewis, Associate Director of Communications and PR. In a recent conference presentation, she shared how they search for people talking about Seneca without tagging any of the @SenecaCollege accounts. Occasionally this search uncovers students talking about their application choices, or their acceptance to multiple colleges while they’re in the decision phase. Seneca jumps into these conversations and offers support, encouragement, and the chance to answer additional questions from applicants. When asked about the value of their social listening program, Kayla refers to a recent online exchange with Jessica, a student who was admitted to multiple schools and tweeted about it. “We were the only school that engaged with her online because our competitors aren’t using social listening tools ... Jessica enrolled.” Now that is a return you can take to the bank.

Lifetime Value: Social Listening Enables Individual Donor Cultivation

On the fundraising side, investment in this same listening-based approach holds great potential for advancement teams looking to increase donations. Keith Hannon of the Boyce Thompson Institute spoke recently about his experience as a digital gift officer.

Keith used social media to identify Cornell University alumni who were interacting with the school’s channels and had a high capacity to give, but weren’t yet assigned to a gift officer. He connected directly with these alumni on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and built relationships with them using their preferred channel. One previously unknown and untracked alumna who Keith discovered has since made $45,000 in gifts to Cornell and is on track for a six-figure donation.

Investment: The Cost of Social Listening

Social listening has real costs, in at least two categories: human resources and software.

The Human Cost of Social Listening

Depending on the sophistication of the social listening program, a small college using social listening strategically can expect to spend .25 to .5 FTE on social listening efforts (i.e., writing and refining queries, reviewing and analyzing results, engaging, reporting), while a large school may have one or more full-time people dedicated to the effort (perhaps one in marketing, one in advancement, and at least part of a dedicated person in enrollment). These staff must be trained, and staff turnover can increase the costs in this area in the short-term.

Social Listening Software Costs

While there are free social listening software options, few are sophisticated enough to meet the needs of higher education−with common names, multiple sources of brand confusion, and nicknames galore. Paid social listening software that supports strong social listening can range from $10,000-$25,000 annually for a small school, to $50,000+ for a large school (with a proportionately larger conversation). And you also need to learn how to use it, and pay a person (or multiple people) to manage it.

For advancement, additional software options start at $15,000 and can cost much more, depending on the feature set you desire. Industry-specific software can help you develop full personas or segmentation strategies by mapping Facebook, Instagram, or discussion board activity to individual alumni to better understand what they’re interested in and how they’re interacting with your campus community.

Making the Investment

You likely don’t have a social listening budget. That’s ok; it’s new. Think about where you may have budget that isn’t generating ROI. How much of your print/mail budget are you spending without knowing if it generates value? Are you buying too many names (and sending mail) when you could be looking for the students who are already interested in your institution or alumni non-donors who are already digitally engaged? Changing times call for changing strategies; you may already have the money to make an investment; it’s just tied up in something else.

Social Listening Has Long-Term ROI

If your goal is enrollment-focused, you can expect the full ROI of social listening in 2-6 years, as you go through an admissions and graduation cycle. Let’s say you’re a small private school with tuition of $30,000 per year. You invest $45,000 per year in social listening (whether through an in-house program or a partnership with Campus Sonar). Perhaps each year, social listening allows you to identify and cultivate just two full-pay students who wouldn’t otherwise have enrolled at your institution. They enroll the following year and stay for four years. Here’s what the 5-year ROI might look like.


Annual Investment

Annual Return

Annual ROI

Total Investment

Total Return

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If your goal is advancement-focused, then we’re in a world where the ROI includes a whole lot of zeros. We’re talking six, seven figures (and above).

Let’s start with the lowest of low-hanging fruit: your socially engaged former donors. These are people who gave in the past and interact with your institution on social media, but for one reason or another didn’t make a gift last fiscal year.

$184,000—The amount of money smaller schools left on the table last fiscal year by missing the support of this audience. And the larger the institution, the more money is left on the table.

$3.1 million—Colleges with 300,000+ constituents lost an average of more than 3 million dollars by missing donations from prior donors who were actively interacting on Facebook.

(These numbers are based on a recent study of EverTrue customers. We work with 300+ colleges and independent school fundraising teams.)

We also see that 5 percent of all socially engaged alumni never made a gift. That’s a perfect target audience to bring new donors into the fold and grow your institution’s annual fund. Who knows, one of them could be your organization’s next million-dollar donor.

It’s Time to Take Action

You would never ignore the results of an institution-wide survey, a comment card from a campus visitor, or a handwritten letter from an alumnus. So, why overlook thousands of student and alumni comments simply because they’re digital?

EverTrue Digital ROI: hands typing on a keyboardAt EverTrue, we’ve tracked more than 50 million social interactions from alumni. That’s a wealth of information available for every college or university to access, analyze, and respond to as it seeks to increase enrollment and fundraising dollars.

The Campus Sonar team identifies tens of thousands of online mentions annually from prospective and current students, alumni, and other campus community members for each campus we partner with. These mentions represent real recruitment and advancement opportunities you can use to drive strategic engagement.

What could you do if you knew what each prospective student or potential donor was thinking? If you knew about their interests or understood their hesitations?

You’d be able to meet each person right where they were, offering each the perfect story to answer their questions or motivate them to take action. You’d develop personal relationships (at scale!) and treat potential students and donors like real people.

In a world that’s increasingly noisy and competitive for each new student or gift, the institutions that win are the ones who connect directly to their audience’s interests.

Will yours be one of them?

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