Beyond Anecdote

Communications officials owe it to their colleges not to make decisions based on an N of 1, write David Brond and Teresa Valerio Parrot.

September 27, 2013

“I received an unflattering letter from a parent.” “An employee stopped me in the hall to comment on a recent decision by the board/president.” “We received a negative tweet about an article on our news website.” “A member of our board heard some feedback at last week’s alumni event.” “My husband was reading the comment section of an article in the local paper and one entry in particular caught his eye.”

What do all of these anecdotal quotes have in common?

They are shared on a daily basis with our peers who are responsible for communications and marketing at institutions across the country and, most importantly, all of the statements represent the viewpoint of exactly one individual.

Actions should not be taken and strategies shifted based on a sample size of one. Anecdotes do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of a critical number of students, alumni, prospective students, faculty members or business leaders.

As campus communicators we have an obligation to put these “real time” comments into perspective for the leaders of our institutions, reiterate the larger marketing and communications strategies we are tasked with developing and implementing, and return our focus to our institutions’ mission statement or strategic plan.

That’s not to say feedback can’t bring to light issues that need to be investigated further or reflect opinions of a larger sample. It is a leader’s responsibility to perform the due diligence that provides context for how well anecdotal feedback reflects the opinions of a reasonable sample size of our core audiences. After all, there are multiple sides to every story.

Should you find yourself in a situation where you are being asked by board members, president, chancellor or supervisor to shift communications strategy and tactics based on a limited sample size, consider the following ways to reframe the discussion.

Collecting the Necessary Data

The world is moving quickly. Innovations in service and program offerings are being introduced on college campuses on a daily basis and competition for students, alumni support, philanthropic dollars, research funding, etc., are at an all-time high. Our stakeholders and audiences are learning about our institutions in ways that did not exist a few years ago. What does this shift mean for institutions of higher education? Data are readily available if you know where to look.

Our websites, mass e-mail sends, common data set collections, social media analytics and internal metrics can be used to provide insights into on- and off-campus audiences that we are responsible for engaging. Our peers with website responsibility, social media management and institutional research oversight should become our closest allies and we should become their champions.

In addition, colleagues across campus should be asked for an inventory of the data they currently collect from their constituencies. The questions we need answered to move beyond an N of one may have already been asked, the data collected and the analysis performed. Also ask if they are willing to add a question or two to their standing surveys to cover topics you need to test or validate over time.

Our colleges and universities already collect quantitative data on a continual basis and we should analyze it for relevance to our fields and convert the data into information that can inform our marketing and communications efforts. We need to be disciplined, orderly and methodical about collecting the opinions of key targets. We should use a constant stream of qualitative and quantitative research to capture the opinions of our key stakeholders.

Consider the qualitative data you can collect if you accompany your president and senior officials to official functions and campus events. For example, at Georgia Regents University, the president regularly goes on “listening tours” of alumni groups across the state and country as well as with internal departments and units across campus. Hearing firsthand what is on the minds of these individuals on an ongoing basis leads us to further examine trends with more specific research.

Making Leadership Decisions

Once the data have been collected and integrated into our outreach strategies then we, as marketers, need to make the case for our campus leaders to take an informed leap of faith with our data-based approach rather than knee-jerk reactions to a limited sample.

The most successful marketers and communicators know how to balance what they solicit, gather and observe as they perform their jobs as strategists and counselors. Without the input of our current and prospective audiences we cannot begin to meet their needs, build affinity or ask for their support.

As leaders, what we do after we receive feedback from a limited sample says as much about decision-making at our institutions as it does about our leadership capability. We owe it to our campuses to do the additional work necessary to move from an N of one to a sample representative of the vibrancy of our colleges and universities.

The alternative is to limit the potential impact we are charged with making. After all, it takes more than one person to comprise a campus community.


David Brond is senior vice president of communications and marketing at Georgia Regents University. Teresa Valerio Parrot is principal of TVP Communications.

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