Tweeting By Faith

College officials remain confident about their social media strategies, but their methods for measuring return on investment are still crude, survey data show.

August 28, 2012

College officials remain as faithful as ever that social media outlets are useful to achieving institutional goals, and that their own institutions’ efforts have been successful. But measuring usefulness remains a challenge, and the methods colleges are using to gauge success have not grown in sophistication in recent years.

These are the findings of the 2012 CASE Social Media Survey, an annual study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the consulting firms mStoner and Slover Linett Strategies. The findings, released today, are based on responses from 1,187 CASE members -- most of whom work at higher education institutions (a small percentage work at high schools).

This is the third year of the survey, and not much appears to have changed since 2010. Officials remains steadfast in their faith that social media is working for them. In this year’s survey, 96 percent agreed that “social media have great potential for achieving important goals in my unit.” Nearly 90 percent assessed their unit’s social media efforts as at least “somewhat successful.” Asked whether it is “too soon to say whether social media will be useful at all in our line of work,” 86 percent disagreed.

These figures represent virtually no change from the first iteration of the CASE survey two years ago, when 93 percent vouched for the potential of social media to help achieve goals, 87 percent called their own efforts successful, and 80 percent had little doubt social media were useful.

But unpacking that usefulness eluded respondents then, and it still does. When evaluating the “outcomes” of social media campaigns, officials still primarily look to metrics such as “number of active ‘friends,’ ‘likes,’ ‘members,’ participants, people who post, or number of comments,” as well as “volume of participation,” according to the latest survey.  

These are the most visible metrics when it comes to measuring social media impact, but they are also some of the crudest. Social media experts often point out that number of friends and followers -- and even “likes” and “retweets” -- are not as important as who your friends are, who their friends are, and the amount of influence wielded by those who are endorsing and discussing your posts.   

The colleges do not appear to be as interested in deeper study of those with whom they are ostensibly “engaging” via social media. Asked for specific areas of success, most officials said “Increasing engagement with our target audience.” At the same time, only a slim minority said they used the two outcomes measures -- “penetration measure of use among target audiences” and “surveys of target audiences” -- that would shed significant light on the extent of that success.  

“I do think it's strange, but I'm not surprised,” said Michael Stoner, the president of mStoner.

“I don't think that [higher education] is good at measuring or tracking, in the first place,” he wrote in an e-mail. “So it's easy to count (hits on a website, number of fans/followers), but much more difficult to take the leap to measuring outcomes or engagement or figuring out how many addressable alumni are actually fans on Facebook and whether, and how, their behavior differs from that of those who aren't.”

Andrew Gossen, executive director of social media strategy at Cornell University, said many institutions probably still use blunt instruments because “they're easy to collect and report,” and “if you're under pressure to quantify your success, this is better than nothing.”

But many officials may not be struggling with limited imaginations as much as limited resources, says Gossen. “Paying attention to data over time, analyzing it, and reporting it takes time and expertise that may simply not be available,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Indeed, the 2012 survey respondents cited a lack of staffing as the greatest barrier to social media success for the third year running.

Anyway, none of this has dampened enthusiasm in college marketing and communications offices. Only 38 percent of respondents said “uncertainty about usefulness of social media” was any kind of barrier to using the tools successfully, and very few said it was a serious hindrance.

Some other findings: Twitter continues to rise as an institutional tool, with 80 percent of respondents saying their department uses Twitter in an official capacity -- up from 67 percent in 2010. Institutional YouTube channels and Flickr accounts, as well as blogs, have also grown more popular over that time. Certain social media goals have become more common, particularly increasing “awareness/advocacy/rankings,” which others, such as “engaging the local community,” have diminished.

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