The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has been evaluating social media’s return on investment (ROI) in higher education and generated a lot of reactions to their recent report from the Center for Marketing Research. In this edition of Take Two, Kevin and I are going to offer our own take on this general topic. 

Are your college/university’s social media efforts worth it? That is the million dollar question as of late.  I’ve come across several opinions recently that argue measuring social media ROI in higher education is complicated, it does not happen enough and warrants a university-wide effort.  I agree with all these points. Today though, I’d like to present my own take on this important and complicated conversation from a student services perspective.  A perspective that many times is not adequately addressed when looking at social media in higher education, but inevitably one that must be incorporated in the ROI discussion. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for this topic, but it’s important to consider as many angles as possible.

First, why are student services important to social media ROI in higher education?

They are important departments because they help students stay at your institution and succeed.   According to Kyle James on .eduGuru, ROI should focus on enrollment because if students do not enroll and pay, the university will cease to exist because that brings in the most money at an institution.  I agree with his logic here, and I’m glad he mentioned the importance of retention, albeit briefly, and the need to identify activities that influence enrollment.  These activities are what warrant more attention, and where student services come into the ROI discussion.

Students enroll at an institution in consideration of an institution’s reputation and their likelihood to succeed in their academic and extracurricular life on campus.   Families and students make their own huge investment, and want the ultimate return, a degree and a career.  Student service departments increase the likelihood of students attaining that goal.   They have grown exponentially in the past 30 years for that reason. Furthermore, these offices help the institution convert students into alumni who donate and/or recruit from their alma mater for jobs or internships.   To me, these are very important functions which influence the return on investment from an individual and institutional level.

Why does this complicate measurement of social media ROI?

This complicates matters because there are a lot of departments and offices that aid in retention and student success.  Each of these departments, or at least the most active, should be considered for a thorough understanding of an institution’s social media ROI.  Academic advising, student affairs, student organizations, greek life, mental health counseling, career services, cultural and LGBT offices, are a few departments that come to mind in the student services category.  The majority of these departments have turned to social media and other online tools in light of budget cuts or freezes and the increase in enrollment numbers.

As student populations grow, departments leverage online resources to enhance their visibility on campus as a resource, but also to educate students before they physically come into an office for a more efficient use of staff time.  Social media is one of these resources that allow staff to engage students in new, creative and efficient ways. And yes, this is why it is important to measure social media ROI.  Is it worth it? It is truly efficient?

The other complication, in addition to the sheer number of departments to consider, is each department has a different objective, they serve a different population, or they have a different staff member in charge of social media as one of many responsibilities. This last piece is another important consideration in the ROI discussion.

It is difficult to establish an institutional system to measure social media ROI, especially in decentralized institutions, when it is difficult to identify the individual in charge of social media.  Moreover, these staff members often lack the time to adequately establish metrics because there is so much else to do that is mission critical for their department. Professionals who measure social media ROI outside of higher education may not understand or realize this reality faced by colleges and universities around the world.  This is not an excuse, but a reminder that smaller departments who are active on social media may need assistance in order to establish metrics and identify the tools to track those metrics.

If key departments that influence student enrollment are identified and offered assistance to establish systems to measure social media ROI, then I think a lot of progress can be made in our industry.

In the end, measuring social media ROI in higher education is very complicated because colleges and universities are comprised of hundreds of departments on the academic and student services side.  Each department today has established some sort of presence online, and social media is often involved.  These departments also contribute to the top priority of the institution, whether that is enrollment or not, in their own way.  To fully understand social media ROI, they each need to be included in the conversation and offered assistance, if needed, to ensure a successful system.

If you have established a system to measure social media ROI as a student service department or can offer any insight into this topic, please share!

by Shannon

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