5 Case Studies: How Measurement Makes the Grade in Higher Education Communications

Higher education has its own special and challenging communications environment. Here are four case studies of how measurement has help produce better higher education communications.

Case #1: The right dashboard manages data overload

A well-known university had to deal with a problem that is probably familiar to most. It had lots of different activities (traditional media, earned and owned social media, influencer tracking, videos, images) and no way to look at the results of all that activity in one place. So the university turned to Talkwalker to design a custom dashboard to present the important metrics. The dashboard allows them to dig down into the data by clicking on any element, as well as to track progress over time. Here’s a non-interactive sample of that dashboard, (redacted to protect the privacy of the client):

[pdf-embedder url=”http://painepublishing.com/measurementadvisor/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/09/SampleDashboard.pdf”]

Case #2: The right research improves competition between universities

The communications team at Georgia Tech heard frequent complaints that Georgia Tech wasn’t getting as much positive coverage as its peers, specifically the University of Michigan. A little investigation revealed that University of Michigan—as well as most of Georgia Tech’s other peer institutions—had dozens of available subject-matter experts that were frequently quoted in the media. Meanwhile Georgia Tech had a wealth of engineering expertise within its campus, but most of those persons were very reluctant to speak to reporters.

So Georgia Tech hired my firm to look into the situation. We did some digging and produced this chart that compares the number of quoted experts with the various institutions’ positive coverage over time:

A Pearson correlation found that the number of quoted experts and the volume of desirable coverage were significantly positively related.

Our conclusion: To get more desirable coverage, Georgia Tech should increase its number of quoted experts. We recommended that Georgia Tech build relationships between individual subject-matter experts and their key authors and reporters. And when we showed the data and the strength of the correlations, it was amazing how many experts were willing to talk to the media. 🙂

Case #3: A lack of measurement means a university blows its town-gown relationships and a $6 million gift

Here’s the sad tale of how one New England university learned the hard way the costs of not measuring their higher education communications. Both the university and the little town it resided in were in desperate need of soccer fields. One of the university’s alumni, a successful local entrepreneur, offered to donate $6 million to build the fields. A site was selected a little way out of town, town officials were notified, and the university assumed it would soon be hosting tournaments.

What the university failed to realize, but could have measured quite easily, was that its relationship with the town was in serious trouble. For much of the university’s history, most of the people who lived in town either worked for the university or had family members or friends involved in with it. As such they were clear and visible stakeholders. However, over the recent two decades rising real estate prices and skyrocketing property taxes had forced much of the faculty and staff out of town. Their houses were bought up by retirees and commuters who had no relationship with the university. So, what had been an engaged public had turned into an inactive, disengaged public. This public had power and legitimacy, but no urgency—yet.

What the university also had failed to do was to learn a lesson from a similar scenario that had occurred several years previously. Back then the university had decided to build a 6,000-seat sports and entertainment arena. As a tax-exempt state entity they were exempt from local zoning, so they had simply notified the town of their plans. But they had failed to anticipate two things: how the addition of 6,000 cars in a town of some 5,000 permanent residents would impact local parking, and how the absence of any tax benefit to the town would impact local tempers.

What happened next was a classic example of a lack of control mutuality and trust, two core elements in relationship measurement. The townspeople began to view their local elected officials as too accommodating to the university. Alternative candidates with no ties to the university were recruited and ultimately, a campaign to replace the town leadership was successful. Over the course of that campaign what started as a small group of disgruntled neighbors talking to each other in living rooms turned into a powerful and influential email list 2,000 names strong.

Now let’s return to the soccer field project. Because the university hadn’t been measuring their relationships with their publics, it was unaware of this latent, inactive public and its potential animus toward the university. When this citizen’s group heard about yet another attempt by the university to railroad a project through the town, the reaction was swift, noisy, and totally unexpected by the university.

Unfortunately for the university the situation came to the attention of state-wide media at the same time that the university was going before the state legislature asking for major increases in funding. Media coverage included not just the local papers but state-wide television news and and public radio—programs every lawmaker listens to.

Within two months the proposed soccer fields were, as one insider put it, “nuclear waste,” the $6 million gift had to be rejected, and the university president stepped down. All because no one had measured just how low town-gown relationships had fallen. Compared to the loss of a $6 million gift—never mind the legal fees from every encounter with the town—the ROI of the lack of measurement was clear.

Case #4: The difficulties of using social media to measure relationships in higher education communications

A university client of mine wanted to know how well it was doing relative to its peer institutions, specifically around the issue of trust and relationships. Because their emphasis had been on communicating with social media, we decided to do a detailed content analysis of the social media coverage of the university and its peers. We looked for discussions around trust issues based on the Grunig Relationship model, specifically control mutuality, trust, commitment, satisfaction, exchange, and communal.

The first discovery we made was that when you remove sports from any study of a university environment, most of the emotion and passion goes with it. The university that had commissioned the study was very strong in sports. One of its peers (MIT) was obviously not. So to allow an apples-to-apples comparison we removed all posts dealing with sports from the analysis.

What we had left were a great number of discussions about scientific and academic research, very few of which actually contained any sentiment at all. Of the 2,000 total items, only 265 (13%) actually contained any of the relationship concepts we were trying to study.

The second lesson learned was that some relationship concepts are easier to detect than others. Communal relationships, which, for the purposes of coder training we defined as “each party sees mutual benefit in the success of the relationship,” were frequently reflected in conversations about the community and socially responsible events in which the organizations engaged. These community events and good deeds were easily identified as promoting a positive communal relationship. On the other hand, concepts like satisfaction, exchange, and commitment were harder to find in the the media and in many cases simply weren’t present at all.

We also learned that it is easy to describe a set of terms to define trust to a human, but teaching a computer takes a lot more time. So, for example, a human easily knows the difference between “I fell in love with Stanford at first sight” and “I fell in love at Stanford at first sight.” Computers aren’t as smart—unless you spend a lot of time error checking and fixing your algorithms. So if you have tens of thousands of clips to analyze, it’s obviously worthwhile spending the time and money to teach a computer to do it right—and to audit the results to make sure those algorithms get it right. If you’re analyzing a few hundred articles, it’s a lot cheaper to have a human do it.

Case #5: Rutgers and SEO-PR use Google Surveys to optimize press for its new master’s program

The problem and objective: In January 2019, SEO-PR helped Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) launch an Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management (MHRM) program. (Greg Jarboe, our Measurement Maven this month, is president and co-founder of SEO-PR.) The objective was to generate 30 applications by Aug. 1, 2019.

A little preparation first: They used keyword research to find out what people were searching for, and also used Google Surveys to find out why. Google Surveys gives you a quick, cost-effective way to get valuable insights into the mind of your target audience. You can ask up to 10 questions, select from a variety of question formats, and filter participants based on demographics or set up screening questions.

Rutgers SMLR planned to target human resource (HR) professionals, managers, and supervisors with 4 or more years of experience who wanted to advance their careers to senior HR or management positions. Google Surveys found that they should also target professionals in personnel, staffing and recruiting, and talent acquisition. This insight more than doubled the size of their target audience.

Respondents with four or more years of HR experience also said the following factors were important when selecting a university that offers an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management:

  • “No GRE/GMAT required,”
  • “Top-ranked university,”
  • “Fully 100% online program.”

The tools: Those factors were emphasized in the subhead of the optimized multimedia release, which included a video and photo of William G. Castellano, the Chair of the Department of Human Resource Management at Rutgers SMLR.

They used Google’s free Campaign URL Builder tool to add campaign parameters to URLs in the release to track a Custom Campaign in Google Analytics. This enabled tracking the number of users, new users, sessions, bounce rate, pages/session, average session duration, conversion rate, conversions, and goal value generated by the optimized press release.

The results: The optimized multimedia release was distributed to 271 news sites in January and February. Several articles were published which included links to the optimized landing page. In late June, Google Surveys was used a second time to measure the impact of the campaign:

  • The percentage of respondents who said they were “familiar with” Rutgers University increased from 13.8% pre-launch to 18.5% post-launch.
  • The percentage of respondents who said they were “very likely” to recommend Rutgers to a friend or colleague who was interested in getting an online Master’s degree in Human Resources Management increased from 16.7% pre-launch to 19.0% post-launch.

Google Analytics showed that:

  • The campaign drove 8,337 new users to the Rutgers Online Professional Master’s in Human Resource Management landing page.
  • The landing page generated 694 leads.
  • The campaign generated 38 completed applications, worth up to $1,444,608 in tuition over the next 18 months to 5 years:
    • 33 graduate students were starting in the Fall 2019 semester.
    • 4 graduate students were starting in the Spring 2020 semester.
    • 1 graduate student was starting in the Fall 2020 semester.

Without the optimized press release only 28 applications would have resulted, not 38. Thus Rutgers would have missed out on up to $380,000 in tuition over the next 18 months to 5 years.

See the slide deck for this case study here. And come to 2019’s Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement to hear Greg Jarboe present the entire story.

 Thanks for the image to Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

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