Show Me The Conversions

The job of a college admissions office is to enroll students at the institution. That is their sole reason for being. It is why the college invests money in them. It’s why the admissions staff has jobs.

There are plenty of web experts out there who seem to ignore this very basic fact. They say that the web is purely about relationship building. And, of course, you can’t measure relationships.

I call bullshit.

It doesn’t matter how many friends your school has on its Facebook page, or how many followers it has on its Twitter account. It doesn’t matter how engaged those prospects are over those mediums. If those friends and followers do not convert applicants (and ultimately enrolled students), then the return on investment of investing in those mediums is zero.

I take that back - it’s actually less than zero. You’ve dedicated resources to tools that did not yield results. Those resources could have been used elsewhere.

It’s ALWAYS been about relationship building.

It still is. But social media isn’t the only medium to use. It’s just the newest. The sexiest.

Do you think print publications were the end all, be all of the recruitment process before the advent of the Internet? No. Guess what the primary decision-maker for prospects has always been: Visitation. Good, old fashioned, in-person relationship building. Throw in a dash of alumni referrals and a pinch of affordability and that’s all she wrote.

A prospect is statistically much more likely to apply, and ultimately enroll, at an institution if they visit campus. Yes, there are prospects that enroll that never visit…but they are much more likely to transfer away from the institution than those who have visited. Getting them in the door is only half the battle - you have to keep them there through graduation.

So, minimally, one should be able to show a correlation between social media and getting a student on campus to visit, right? If the relationship you’ve built with them is that strong? I’ve yet to see data that tells me that story.

But your Facebook page has thousands of fans, so it must be effective.

Saying that you can’t measure relationships is a cop-out of epic proportion. You measure their effectiveness in the form of conversions. If those relationships don’t result in students attending the institution, then they probably weren’t in much of a “relationship” with the institution to begin with.

Tracking sources and referrals is nothing new to admissions offices, and the web is nothing more than a tool. It’s not any more or less special than any of the traditional recruitment tactics.

The web is not special. It’s not a unique snowflake. It’s a tool.

Tracking will never be 100%, for any medium. But saying you can’t measure at all is wrong. Read Groundswell, and you’ll find plenty of examples of corporations measuring the use of social media in terms of achieving business goals.

Some would say that colleges wouldn’t have built websites 10 years ago if they used measuring ROI as a standard. That just shows a lack of imagination. Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that even 10 years ago, a website still had more exposure than the very expensive print publications a college produced. It also produced a return in other ways. Here’s just one example: Websites allow prospects to apply online. Even a very basic online application can provide a mechanism for loading applicant data directly into a database, without having to be transcribed by an admin. That saves resources, which saves money. Even then, a website could be justified purely in terms of ROI.

Now, none of this is to say that you CAN’T use social media to achieve enrollment goals. Of course you can. In fact, an extremely effective use of social media is to steward students who have decided to attend a school, but haven’t arrived as a new student yet. Re-enforce their decision by keeping them engaged between high school graduation and college enrollment.

The point is that you need to be results oriented. Put mechanisms in place to measure your results. This is not new, and the web is not exempt from this very basic business rule.  Don’t become so enamored with the tools that you abdicate your responsibility as a marketer.

By the way, none of this is specific to admissions - that’s just the exampled used here. Communicating for the sake of communicating to any audience, without having strategic goals, is a waste of resource.  And if you think a college shouldn’t have to operate by the same rules that dictate business, think of it this way - if a college doesn’t bring the dollars in the door, then your salary will disappear. Still want to waste those resources?

I thought not.

14 Responses to “Show Me The Conversions”

  1. Says:

    “If those friends and followers do not convert applicants (and ultimately enrolled students), then the return on investment of investing in those mediums is zero.”

    I very slightly disagree in that relationships can extend beyond the obvious and immediate. The more years I am in admissions, the more I run into parents considering my school for a son or daughter who had a previous son or daughter apply or simply consider us (and receive quite a bit of mail and e-mail) but not enroll. And, to use your phrase, I call bullshit on my own rebuttal. The next point you made *greatly* outranks this, imho:

    “…it’s actually less than zero. You’ve dedicated resources to tools that did not yield results. Those resources could have been used elsewhere.”

    One of my favorite quotes: A bad use of time is to do something well that should not have been done in the first place.

    “Tracking sources and referrals is nothing new to admissions offices…”

    Sadly, it is new to many admissions offices who barely track sources of inquiry or do so ineffectively, and to the vendors that work with them. I had a vendor/consultant of a major higher ed ERP system give me a puzzled look when I asked him how the Web forms of their ERP system were able to track source of inquiry for e-mail search. And this consultant worked in Admissions prior to becoming a consultant. Yikes! Their only apparent solution is to create a separate form for every e-mail search segment. Which means if I had to make a change to the form, I’d need to change 40+ forms. I kid you not. I will be fighting to keep our locally-developed inquiry form.

    I’m no longer amazed, but still appalled by how tough it is to submit an online inquiry to many colleges.

    I’m dumbstruck that household name higher ed marketing consultants can design print publications that build brands but lack basic information that prospective students want to know. These publication sets should NOT win awards.

    The basics, and honing and mastering basic processes and details, will do more to meet and exceed enrollment goals (class size, revenue, academic profile, etc.) than the latest trendy tool. The same applies to fundraising, etc.

    Return on effort should be a primary consideration for projects at work.

  2. Says:

    In designing/crafting our new admissions app, your post makes me want to embed a new question…

    It would go something like: “Why are you choosing to apply at XYZ? What was the motivating factor? Did you A? B? C? or D?”
    Then allow room for the applicant to offer additional comments.

    Ultimately you’d be looking for applicants who were “sold” via the university website, or thru relationships they formed online thru various social channels.

    The results wouldn’t be comprehensive, but they’d offer a peak.

  3. Says:

    Head of Marketing ,

    Very well argued (though there is one strawman in there — I don’t think anyone would still seriously argue that “number of facebook fans” is an adequate measure of SM effectiveness).

    I’ve gotten some good ideas out of this discussion about potential ways to gauge SM effectiveness (e.g. number of first-time donors who are FB/Twitter fans, compare overall yield rate to yield rate of those who join FB group). Of course, you’re right that having metrics of some sort in place is necessary.

    But I still think that the number of variables in whether someone attends a school (or even visits campus, or becomes a donor after graduation) is so high, that any tracking of SM conversions for any of these actions will be more likely to show correlation than causation. We can make it easier for them with prominent calls to action to apply, plan a visit, or give, but providing the opportunity does not equal convincing them to do so. If they do convert, how do we know whether it was the campus visit, the print pieces, or the SM, or the fact that their boyfriend/girlfriend is attending school in the next town? (I guess we can ask, but is self-reporting in these circumstances reliable?)

    As for the question of ROI and websites 10 years ago (for the record, my original out-loud wondering was regarding the state of websites 15 years ago), I would argue that if websites save money in the long run (actually something I’m not convinced of — for example, instead of paying an administrator to enter contacts into a database, you have to pay web staff to maintain the site) then by that measure so do social media, by allowing schools to push content that otherwise would have been printed to constituents (at a much lower overhead than websites).

    OK, going to stop wasting the University’s resources by commenting on blogs now. :-)

  4. Says:

    Nice. I got into a debate with some people on Twitter about social media vs email marketing yesterday and here was my bottom line response.

    “There are more people with email addresses than users on Facebook”

    I think I could really expand upon that, but once again here you are driving home a very important point. One that I whole heartedly agree with and have beat away with myself. You have to measure what you are doing to know if it’s effective and a good use of your time. Resources are precious, especially in this economy.

    The one advantage social media does have, because it’s the sexy medium right now, is if you do have a success story (or failure) it’s a lot more likely to be paid attention to as a case study. This is simply because people are more interested in it right now than other, less sexy, channels. Having a story like that being picked up does have some additional benefits but it still doesn’t justify the blind use of your time.

  5. Says:

    A whole lot of points to be made about correlation vs causation. And everybody agrees that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. The problem is finding meaningful opportunities to measure. And ensuring that your measurement activities don’t crowd out your communication/community building responsibilities.

    That said, a bit of anecdotal evidence and a few personal stories to support web endeavors will go a long way, when you don’t have hard numbers that directly tie to enrollment.

  6. Says:

    Take a look at this thread -

    Everyone thinks they’re successful because they drove traffic away from their website and onto a social media site. But then when I asked if anyone had attempted to value a fan or follower nobody replies.

    But hey if 60.4% of the schools are doing it, it must be the in-thing to do!

  7. Says:

    Drew, your mention of designing/crafting a new admissions app is itself a great example of a process point that can be honed to increase conversion.

    While it depends in part on the stature and marketing approach of the school, students at the point of application can still be quite fickle in their interest level.

    Schools that are able to track partially-completed online applications know all too well that kids sometimes abandon applying altogether. Identifying and addressing the reasons for abandoning an application can itself increase the number of applications submitted. And, yes, the reason for abandonment can be a coding glitch or something else confusing on the application itself. (High school CEEB code lookup mechanisms are a common point of confusion and frustration, for example.)

    Fickleness and abandonment is more true of request for information forms, I would guess, but it is also true of online applications.

    For those cynics that say that if an applicant isn’t dedicated enough to finish the application, they don’t want that applicant, my response is that the application itself (or request for information form) shouldn’t serve as a gateway to further marketing and winning the student over.

  8. Says:

    Head of Marketing ,

    Really fantastic post. I couldn’t agree more.

    I love when people try to change the acronym “ROI” to something like return on *influence* or something to that point. Hogwash (yes, I just said Hogwash). ROI is about money, plain and simple. That’s the bottom line. It’s not that mentions, followers, etc., aren’t important. They just aren’t the way to measure ROI.

    To Aaron’s point, Social Media doesn’t happen in a vacuum and measurement needs to happen holistically (all customer touch points taken into consideration).

    Olivier Blanchard (Brand Builder Blog) has a great presentation about Social Media ROI. Really worth a flip-through - right along the lines of what you mention here.

    Thanks for the great post.


  9. Says:

    The web is a tool that you have to use it wisely. It is for your advantage to study it. The bloom of social media now a days create more exciting venue for people to market.

  10. Says:

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  14. Says:

    Hi Head of Marketing ,

    Very good analysis, a post of great value!

    With this post, you’ve given me more of an insight. I agree with you we all should be result oriented, we must look into what results can we expect in a given time frame and at the same time we must chalk out our responsibilities.

    I enjoyed the informative read up.