Is What We're Doing Working? 3 Mistakes to Avoid When Measuring ROI

Mara Zepeda shares the most common pitfalls of marketing measurement, and how to overcome them.

June 7, 2017

Is what we're doing working?

This is the one question being everyone is asking in higher education, from institutions scrambling to meet annual fund goals to students and families looking for evidence of success after graduation in the form of career services and alumni affairs.

The stark truth is while most offices are doing something they aren’t sure if that something is providing value.  

We’ve identified three of the most common pitfalls, and how to overcome them. 

1. Measuring nothing

We've all experienced the terror of flying blind, operating without metrics of any kind. That’s because deciding on the metrics that matter is  anxiety-inducing. We ask ourselves, "What if the data make me look bad?" As the Harvard Business Review reports, fear has replaced apathy as the number one enemy of data. Common pitfalls include a failure to share useful data, or excuses that the data is inaccessible, confusing, or overwhelming. The solution? Choose one or two data points to measure and start measuring them.

Since college is in the business of changing lives and providing opportunities, the one metric might be, “How many life-changing opportunities have we provided?” That might mean counting the number of jobs listed on the job board, or offers for mentorship from alumni, or meaningful connections that have been tracked and measured at networking events, or summer internships secured. That data can paint a picture and be brought to life by collecting a handful of qualitative stories that can then be leveraged for marketing.

2. Measuring the wrong things

In 2010, Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Project, an initiative where people could submit and vote for their favorite nonprofit projects to receive grants from Pepsi.

The project generated 3.5 million Facebook likes, 60,000 Twitter followers, and over 80 million votes for nonprofits.

But it didn't sell more Pepsi.

Pepsi fell from second to third place in national soda market share and cancelled the project two years later.

We can learn from their mistakes by not getting caught up in the appearance of success. One common example of measuring the wrong thing is misuse of Net Promoter Score. In the NPS system, people are asked a question, most often: "One a scale of 1 to 10, how likely would you be to recommend X to a friend?" NPS can be useful for measuring the quality of an event or program. For example, NPS results from an alumni networking event would tell us whether they liked the gathering or not. But, since the business of higher education is changing lives and providing opportunities, they wouldn't tell us...

  • How many connections alumni made during the event.
  • How many alumni hired or were hired as a result of networking.
  • How much more likely attendees are to give as a result of attending.

Demonstrating that 90% of attendees rated the event a 9 or 10 on their Net Promoter Score survey bears no correlation to meeting the institution's core objectives. We still can't demonstrate the event's ROI.

Of course it's important to create programs that our constituents would recommend to others. But it's equally if not more important to create programs that meet long-term goals and objectives to deliver value, generate a return on investment for our constituents, and to the institution as a whole.

3. Measuring too many things

On the other side spectrum is the pitfall of measuring too many things. There are hundreds of data points we can track these days, and digital tools are adding more every year. Not just participation, reach, and dollars given, but the tangled network of variables that reveal how they interact.

In data-rich environments, it's easy to lose sight of the metrics that really matter. That's why many organizations in the private sector pick One Metric That Matters (OMTM) to clarify and direct their work. Obviously, one variable won't be enough to measure the success of an entire office. But choosing your OMTM is helpful when planning and reflecting on individual projects. It's what enables you to take what you've built and make it better—to iterate. It's also what unites your team's different priorities.

An example: A marketing office might run a social media campaign and measure:

  • Audience reach
  • Impressions
  • Clicks
  • Likes
  • Comments

But without context, these metrics avoid addressing the one metric that matters: How has this engagement benefitted our community and the institution? Without measuring long-term impact on life-changing opportunities generated for the community and giving prospects for the college, a long list of metrics can miss the mark.

In conclusion

Fortunately for us, it's usually easy to intuit what we have to measure in order to answer the question, "Is what we're doing working?" But sometimes we make excuses for not measuring ROI properly—"It would be too hard," "It would take too much time," "It can't be measured," and so on.

I hope these rules of thumb will help you push past those excuses and make the case for choosing the right metrics. As management expert Peter Drucker put it, "you can't manage what you can't measure."

Mara Zepeda is co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, which provides its alumni networking platform to dozens of colleges and universities. . She has served on the alumni board at her alma mater, Reed College, and worked at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top