Oh Analytics, Where Art Thou?

Insights and engagement.


January 23, 2017

What’s in and what’s out. What moved the media. Top tweets and posts. Videos that went viral. Future trends.

Now that many campuses are quieter, it’s a good time for communicators, administrators, and leaders to take stock of  ’16 and plan for ’17.

In the case of my campus neighborhood, MIT, what did our audiences, across a variety of digital channels, like the most? One note: The analytics (a combo of views / engagement patterns) referenced are mash-up of Institute-wide and MIT School of Engineering stats…

  • MIT in rankings (U.S. News, QS) or MIT people celebrated in some way (awards, top innovations, etc.);
  • stories or videos about practical and tangible research (for example, driverless cars, better batteries, a second skin, and of course, all things robotic);
  • pieces about or by impressive MIT students (taking a class, creating a company, or reflecting about life and learning), and anything about the undergrads who, hooray, got in;
  • new educational and training opportunities (like Micromaster’s and professional education programs); and
  • iconic campus shots (the crazy curves of the Stata Center, Killian Court embraced by the Boston skyline), MIT people (purple hair was a plus), or cool stuff (maker spaces, gadgets, drones).

Specifically, the highest viewed story was on doubling the battery power of consumer electronics. And no surprise, the confirmation of gravitational waves made waves.

What struck me, however, were the popular stories that led with heart or humor. MIT President Rafael Reif’s beautiful, balanced post-election note. Matt Damon’s funny, self-deprecating commencement speech. How MIT gave Ghostbusters its geek cred. A still image from “The Simpsons” predicting economist Bengt Holmström’s win of the Nobel Prize. Okay, so maybe a bit of Hollywood helps.

Others that connected were more erudite, like the suggested reading list of Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, or offered something rare, like a look inside MIT’s nuclear research facilities.

As a liberal arts graduate, I was gratified to see how much history resonated. The publication on GitHub of the code that helped land us on the moon blew up our school’s Facebook feed. The Medal of Freedom win by Margaret Hamilton, one of the engineers behind that feat, upped the like meter. The passing of major figures like AI maven Marvin Minsky also made people pause.

Beauty mattered too. A video taken by a drone sweeping across MIT’s dome was a hit on our school’s Instagram channel. Year-after-year the grace of a robotic cheetah running across campus dominates MIT’s YouTube channel—and it did in 2016.

What does all that analytical insight and eager engagement mean? Finding out what resonates with your audiences is a great way to inform leadership about what’s hitting and missing, and perhaps, what might be pushing the needle on various KPIs, from admissions goals to fundraising to industry support to general visibility.

Lest big M marketing rear its head too much (with rightful salvos from John Warner), my takeaways from our audit are far simpler. Granted, what follows is data-informed, but with my own editorial biases driving the assessments.

  • Offer a glimpse of life at your institution (with no goal other than presenting, in the words of a colleague, “light and lively” content). With the right spirit, it’s not showing off, but granting access to those who may never attend or even visit. That window might inspire someone to keep on learning, experimenting, and striving.
  • Bring out the cool stuff. MIT has that in spades, but so does every institution. Rare books and archives. Art and installations. Captivating courses and student traditions. Speeches, poetry, a capella singing. And, of course, robots. All of this may count as basic or applied “research”: the output of intellectual capital that improves life, moves emotions, creates companies, or expands perspectives.
  • Show, don’t tell about the humanities. Even at a STEM institution, politics, best book lists, historical moments and figures, and pop culture, garner eyeballs. And yes, words alone (not only Snapchat stories) by leaders and advocates, especially during challenging moments, still resonate. In short, put theory into practice.
  • Be bold and beautiful. Maybe you lack the gothic cathedrals of the Ivies or 21st century biotech buildings; every campus I wager has a pretty side. My two favorite photo stories, dawn at Harvard (where I used to work), and all in a day at Kenyon (my alma mater) grabbed me by the gut. Campuses are part of the fabric of this country’s landscape and reveal, quite literally, where knowledge is born.

Now for a reminder to pause after all of this synthesis: “Colleges and universities are brands, but to be successful, they must first be institutions built on enduring substance. Higher education exists not to sell things, but to do things.” Bravo to watchdog Warner.

And yet, those “things” exist under and around the loft of mission statements. Creating stories that audiences want to read (and understanding what’s popular) is a way to celebrate, elevate, and enrich. It’s a way to show, directly, what universities are and what they do—and, most important, express our pride and love of our own and adopted alma maters.

Michael Patrick Rutter is Director of Media Relations for the MIT School of Engineering.

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