“Without facts, any statement is just an opinion.” This famous phrase is repeated in many classrooms to emphasize the importance of research and citation for students. Yet when you are trying to create content for the campus newsletter, website, social media pages and more, it can be tempting to rely on your gut instinct. The sheer volume of content needed and the speed at which it is distributed often leaves little time for research and development, especially for small teams.
Rather than get discouraged, communication professionals in the busy world of academics can look to data to help develop their messages and strategic plans. This can be a daunting task; however, there are steps you can take to incorporate data without doubling your workload.
Collaborate for data gathering
As other departments gather student and alumni input through surveys, interviews and focus groups, the communications team at UW-Platteville Distance Education looks for opportunities to review the data and build campaigns around it. This not only saves us time and money, but provides invaluable insight into our primary audiences.
For example, the advising team for our online programs knew that students were having trouble accessing digital materials from the online library but struggled to identify the root cause. To explore this trend, the communications team added new and modified existing questions about the library to our annual student survey. The responses helped us pinpoint the problems—75 percent of participants reported that they had used the online library, but subsets of this group encountered broken links and struggled to conduct effective searches, among other issues.
Now that we knew what steps were tripping students up, we could focus our communications to alleviate the issue. This included revising library information on our website and in the online courses, but also reaching out to students through new communication channels. We crafted articles for our monthly online newsletter, The Pioneer Connection, posts for the virtual student center, and promotions for the department’s social media pages that drove students to the library and outlined how to use its resources effectively in a focused way.
Because each of the communication channels we used included tracking mechanisms, we were able to demonstrate that this direct approach was working. We use the email marketing tool, EMMA, to track open and click rates for The Pioneer Connection so we can see who is reading what and when, and if they come back to the article more than once. These tracking features are common in email marketing tools such as Constant Contact or MailChimp as well, so your office can choose the option that works best for you.
Reviewing the data not only tells you how people are engaging with your content, but spurs ideas about the types of content to generate. One of the most successful pieces in the library campaign was a step-by-step guide that visually walked students through conducting a search, including how to narrow results by subject or publication. Though this information had always been available, revising it to include screen captures helped more students connect with and retain the information. It’s no secret that visual pieces can pull a reader’s attention, but thanks to our research we can better capitalize on opportunities like this.
Assess your results
While data can give you increased insight into your audiences’ needs, it also plays a critical role in campaign assessment. Returning to our library example, we added new questions to the 2017 student services survey to gauge the effectiveness of our efforts. The results were positive—use and knowledge of the library had jumped to 86 percent, over a 10 percent gain from the previous year. Perhaps more telling, 38 percent of respondents specifically stated that the user guides, articles and other content focused on the library had provided them with helpful information. Though there is still room for improvement, careful tracking and planning had paved the way for students to optimize their use of the library.
By supporting our campaigns with facts and quantifiable data, the communications team at UW-Platteville Distance Education has been able to collaborate with other departments to craft communications that clarify confusing processes, highlight underused resources and generate new story ideas. This helps our division and university, but most importantly improves the experiences of our students and alumni. These same best practices are easily translated to communication groups at other organizations who struggle with time, budget and resource restrictions—namely, everyone!
Megan Hinderman is a writer, editor, and instructor for Distance Education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.