Your Higher Ed Measurement Makeover: Here’s How to Raise Your Grades


Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to upgrade your measurement? A third of our subscribers work for some kind of educational institution, so this higher education measurement makeover guide might be just the thing. It will help you whatever your level of knowledge, from beginner to expert. We include examples, quick tips, and some more ambitious projects. And for those of you who want to take a deeper dive into metrics for higher ed, check out our Communications Measurement Handbook for Higher Ed.

A Measurement Makeover from Zero: Start with the Basics

If you are new to measurement you probably have limited knowledge and budget. Not to worry. It is quite typical of higher ed comms that either they don’t measure at all, or they have no budget, or all they do is track mentions. So here are some easy—but vital—projects to begin with.

Define measurable goals

Measurement starts with articulating clear measurable goals. Typically in higher education the goals fall into one or more of three general categories. Yes, we know each institution is different, but for the purpose of this example we will focus on these three:

  1. Restore, maintain, or change a reputation.  Typical goals would be to sustain the current or (stretch goal = grow by 3%) the faculty, and student body as measured by year-to-year staffing and enrollment numbers.
  2. Build awareness and interest in a new program, new focus, or new area of study. Typical goals would be 50% growth in requests for information about the program and 10 enrolled students by the end of the fiscal year.  
  3. Grow or maintain sources of funding, either through a capital campaign, improved alumni giving, or, for state universities, the annual state budget. A typical goal would be a 5% increase in sources of funding and a 10% increase in giving levels. 

Determine what data you already have

Figure out what data you already have access to, especially if you have a limited budget. Start by looking around:

  • Ask your colleagues in communications, the press office, development, and alumni relations if anyone has ever collected or tracked your institution’s earned media coverage. Can you collect and analyze it to develop a baseline to understand how your institution is perceived in the media? And/or how it compares to peer institutions? Develop a Kick Butt Index to determine what is desirable coverage and what isn’t.
  • Is the institution on social media? Find out who manages it, and if they use a platform like Hootsuite, Sprinklr, or Sprout. Start collecting any social posts that mention your institution and analyze them. Develop your own customized social engagement index.
  • Has your faculty or alumni relations conducted any surveys to understand how people perceive the institution? If so have them send you the data.
  • If you have a business school or a communications school, find out if anyone has done any research on the institution as part of the curriculum or a class project. Get access to the papers to see if you can learn anything from the studies.

Define what success means for you

Now that you know your general goals and the data you have, sit down with your boss, and boss’s boss, and find out what their definitions of success are for the department and for you. What would make them drop a case of champagne on your desk on your first-year anniversary and say, “Congratulations, here’s a raise, a promotion, and take an extra week off!”? Is it increased registrations for a new course? Increased enrollment from a particular type of student? Getting more alumni to participate in fundraising? Whatever it is, that should become your focus.

Set up a measurement framework

Now figure out the steps between those champagne moments and some metrics that you have access to. Fill out a basic measurement framework—see below for an example (or try out the AMEC framework): 

An example of a basic measurement framework. Your entries in the cells will be different, depending on your goals and metrics.

Your goals will always determine the tools and metrics you need. For example, if your goal is “awareness” of that new program, a good basic metric is “share of search.” In other words, if people are using Google to find a course on that subject, what percentage of those searches find you vs. the competition? It’s a simple calculation using the free tool Google Search. Just log into Google Trends and type in your brand and compare it to your competition.

Intermediate Measurement Makeover: Make the data work for you

If you’ve already grasped the basics of measurement program design and planning, it’s time to dig into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll need to measure your particular goals. You’re probably gathering data about your media coverage and activity in social media. With luck you’ve connected with the folks who manage the website and have data on visits or maybe conversion goals. 

Here are some projects to help you figure out what it all means and what you can do to improve it. 

Learn Microsoft Excel

There is no tool more useful for storing, comparing, and learning from measurement data than Excel. Learn to use it. There are plenty of guides online, “Microsoft Excel Tutorial for Beginners - Full Course” is a good place to start.

Set up Goal Conversions in Google Analytics

Set up goal conversions in Google Analytics that mirror the actions you want your target audience to take. Watch this video to learn how.

Define proxies for progress

Often you can’t get data on exactly what your goal is, but you can get data that indicate progress towards that goal. We call these “acceptable proxies.” For example, if you are promoting a program, you probably can’t get direct data on how many students are aware of it now vs. last year. But you probably can track the media coverage and conversations about that program. Even better, you might be able to show a connection between new traffic to the program’s website (and maybe even registrations) as a result of earned media stories, social media engagement and perhaps even to registrations for the course.

So, you need to sit down with senior leadership and agree upon proxies for the outcomes they expect. Here are a few other proxy examples:

  • If your goal is to increase understanding of your leadership on sustainability, can you track your share of the sustainability conversation on social or earned media?
  • If your goal is to increase interest from new students, can you can track engagement in social media and compare it to the traffic to the pages of the web site that detail the application process?

Define quality, and set up a Media Quality Index

Do you know what quality coverage or quality engagement really means for your organization? It is important to define this, and get consensus with your boss(es) and the rest of your department. Again, this starts with a conversation with senior leadership on what elements of an earned media story or a post drive readers towards your goals.

You will find it helpful to set up a Media Quality Index, a weighted score that can be applied to every post or article to determine how “good” it really is.

Below is an example. Each post or story is graded on the listed desirable and undesirable criteria. A perfect 10 is the best possible, and a perfect -10 is the worst possible.

An example of a Media Quality Index. Yours might have different criteria or scores, to fit your situation.

Read more in “5 Steps to Develop Your Customized Media Impact Index.”

Define and track engagement and thought leadership

You also may want to have a conversation about definitions of “engagement” and “thought leadership,” two common terms that are widely misunderstood.

You will need to work with your leadership to define what behaviors make an engaged student or an engaged prospect different from one that is unengaged. Then you need to measure those characteristics or behaviors on an ongoing basis.

Similarly, if thought leadership is a goal, you need to define with leadership what thoughts (concepts or ideas) you want to lead on, and whose thoughts you want to be leading. That is, who is your exact target audience: Potential students? Faculty? Alumni? Staff? 

Choose benchmarks: What or who are you comparing to?

To whom or what will you be comparing your results to? Peer institutions, past performance, or some other tactic like paid advertising? Again, what you benchmark against depends on your goals and available data. And, yes again, you need to be sure to get agreement from your boss(es).

Advanced Measurement Makeover: Gain insights and share them.

If everything we’ve discussed so far is old hat to you and your data is coming in, then congrats, you are in good shape. Now you want to develop your abilities to learn from the data and share it with others.

Increase your insights

How exactly are your various communications efforts interacting and impacting your strategic priorities? Here are two techniques to add to your quiver, if they aren’t already there:

Dashboards are for sharing

Dashboards give you a way to quickly share your insights with senior leadership. But too often dashboards just end up being a bunch of activity metrics and some pretty charts. A truly effective integrated dashboard will enable you to compare and contrast different efforts to accurately determine what is working and not working in your program.

If you have dashboard experts in your organization, they can easily set one up that can show the relationships between your earned and social media results and goal conversions. If you don’t have in-house experts, check out Google Data Studio. The Ultimate Guide to Google Data Studio in 2021 will tell you just about everything you need to know to set it up.

Presentations deliver the goods

Your ability to deliver your results and insights to senior leadership is an important skill in its own right. To succeed, go back to basic communications. Your results should tell a story—not about what you’ve done in the past, but about what resources and strategies are needed in the future to improve those results. Don’t shy away from bad news. The data is the data; don’t try to hide the truth. Instead, make your story about learning to improve. And provide recommendations on how you will make improvements going forward.

Image up top by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.