Does navel-gazing and number crunching really tell us anything about university use of social media?

Posted by on Jan 18, 2011 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Last week I was alerted to two separate ‘research’ reports on university use of social media. As this is the area that I spend most of my life working in and advising on, both of course grabbed my attention. Great, methinks, some good studies to really show us how universities are performing in the use of social media. The studies I refer to are as follows:


Both of these reports have two things in common: they focus on numbers of followers/fans and they benchmark universities against each other. As the title of my blog post suggests, I refer to this as ‘number crunching’ and ‘navel gazing’ respectively. And so, having read both of them, I found myself feeling a tinge of disappointment and wanting something more. I’ll explain why in a moment, but let’s first reflect on what’s good and useful about studies such as this.

What is number crunching and navel-gazing useful for?

Let’s face it, we have very little information to work with when it comes to assessing performance of brands using social media. Many universities are using it widely now, but evidence of return on investment (ROI) or impact is in early days and often based on anecdotal evidence or ‘gut feeling’ that it is, somehow, working for us. So, if we are to convince senior managers that this is something that we should invest time and resource on (and, of course, I argue that we should), then we need something to show them and tell them to back this up. Figures mean something to senior managers, and benchmarking ourselves against other universities is a way of showing our managers that either ‘we need to do something to catch up’, or ‘aren’t we doing a great job?’  We can show steady improvements and examine ‘spikes’ (number of retweets, numbers of new Facebook fans, etc.) to see what is working well, what is popular, and what has flopped. So, let’s first accept that I do see some value in this exercise. Indeed, I’ve just delivered a social and digital media strategy for a Russell Group university in which I too did this very same benchmarking exercise against their key UK competitors (LinkedIn Group members, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, YouTube channel video upload views, web traffic statistics, etc.) But, importantly, this exercise didn’t stop there but instead (taking a considerable amount of time) offered a detailed analysis of use of those sites and platforms and content created for them. So, it’s useful because it helps us to put some kind of shape and meaning to social media use by universities while we work out how to really properly evaluate this. And so, that brings me on to the shortcomings of such reports…

What do the numbers really tell us?

When I look at a university’s twitter account (I look at many on a daily basis), the first metric I look at is the follower:following ratio. If the account follows a low number of people relative to the number of followers that it has, this screams out one thing to me: ‘we want you to listen to what we have to say, but we don’t really want to listen to anyone back’. This is against the spirit of Twitter, and social media as a whole (the clue is in the title: social), and about the only thing that I really take away from the numbers. Numbers of fans and followers are therefore somewhat meaningless, for the following reasons:


  • Numbers will vary greatly according to how long the pages or accounts have been set up for. An account that has only existed for two weeks, is highly unlikely to have the number of followers of an account that has been active for two years.

  • The size of the organisation and existing community is likely to impact on the number of followers/fans. Therefore comparing The University of Manchester with the University of Buckingham is a meaningless exercise. This is particularly the case, for example, for Facebook pages designed for communicating with current students (a more useful metric would to see the per cent of the existing community that are engaging with them in these spaces).

  • Different organisations use the spaces differently and we can therefore be comparing apples with pears. While one Twitter account might primarily be used to support student recruitment and answer questions from prospective students, another might be used to push out news feeds to journalists.

  • Numbers alone tell us nothing about actual levels of interest or engagement. It does not take account of the individuals who may have clicked the Facebook ‘Like’ button once, but never visited the page ever again.


The simple point here though, is that from a marketing and communications point of view, if our objective is simply to increase the number of our fans or followers on our social media sites, then we are failing as professionals. Harsh words, I know, but effective marketing and communications must result in some kind of return on investment for an organisation: quantity/quality of applicants, increased research income, improved results in the student satisfaction survey, more donations from alumni, the long-term survival of your organisation in an ever-increasingly competitive marketplace… This is about using social media as a call to action in some way shape or form. When I run workshops with universities to think about this, I challenge them to set tangible objectives (SMART) and be clear about what they want individuals to think, feel and do as a consequence of engaging with them through social media (or any other marketing and communications exercise, or learning experience for that matter).

Why we need to raise our eyes away from the navel…

We do a great deal, and rightly so, of benchmarking ourselves against other universities in the HE sector. This is good. Any organisation offering a product or service should constantly watch their competitors and monitor against them. However, when it comes to understanding our audiences, then there is also a lot to be said (particularly in terms of social media use) for looking outside of the sector and comparing and contrasting with other organisations who are competing for the attention of the same target audiences as us. There is so much information out there nowadays and social media makes this increasingly more personalised and niche. Every individual can tailor the information they choose to receive according to their interests. And your university is not the only thing interesting them at any moment in time. Think about prospective students. Sure, they are probably thinking about university quite a bit and spending a fair bit of their time looking at university information. But that is not the only thing competiting for their attention. They might be sitting exams, completing coursework, spending time on hobbies or sports, hanging out with friends, shopping, spending time with family, listening to music, learning to drive… just think how many other brands are out there potentially trying also to get them to follow them on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook and thus work their way into their news feed. As such, yes, we must benchmark against each other, but we must also look much wider and learn from non-HE organisations too that are trying to attract (or are attracting) our target audiences. Until we benchmark against organisations really using social media well, then we’re in danger of just looking at other mediocre use of it and comparing ourselves to that (rather than to the best)… not that I’m saying that all universities are mediocre, some are very good!

3 Comments

  1. Brian Kelly
    January 18, 2011

    Hi Tracy
    Thanks for he comment on my blog post.
    I agree with your comment that "evidence of return on investment (ROI) or impact is in early days and often based on anecdotal evidence or ‘gut feeling’ that it is, somehow, working for us". I'm also pleased that you carried out a similar benchmarking exercise. Have you published your findings? I would be concerned that such analyses are being replicated across the sector, at a cost, ultimately, to the tax-payer (though companies commissioned to do such work will clearly benefit).
    I agree with you on the need to compare like with like – this was a reason for analysing Russell Group universities, which have many shared characteristics.
    Note, though, that the survey did not just report on metrics – it also provided information on the "bio" details [provided by the institution which provides some insight into how the service may be used. It also indicates whether the service is labelled as an official channel.
    The names of the Twitter accounts were also listed. From this we may also gain an indication of the service (e.g. @southamptonnews implies a news channel which is likely to be perceived as a one-way channel).
    I don't disagree with your comment that HE can learn from other sectors and external benchmarking can be useful. This, I think, will be a useful approach for institutions to adopt. But before institutions start to engage in activities which you described as "taking a considerable amount of time" tit can be useful to carry out simple comparisons with one's peers within the sector as this can help to understand how services such as Twitter and Facebook are being used – an understanding which will be needed before engaging in the more time-consuming benchmarking across other sectors.

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  2. Denys Andrianjafy
    January 19, 2011

    Great post Tracy. I find it so frustrating that we get bogged down in figures, when we have yet to put together a consistent set of metrics against which the sector can benchmark itself. The traditional world view of ROI doesn't really work here, though KPIs can be set and used as milestones. As the social media landscape is shifting so quickly it is very difficult to set diffinitive goals.

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  3. Nicola Miller
    January 20, 2011

    Great reading – and we're probably sharing the same thoughts a little this week in particular, with the deadline looming for my research project on use of social media in universities for internal communications!

    Particularly agree with you when you say "different organisations use the spaces differently and we can therefore be comparing apples with pears", and the idea that if we're simply counting followers, fans and friends then we're doing a disservice to PR. Very much like limiting media evaluation to simply counting press cuttings! I hope research such as that quoted by Brian Kelly opens up the debate and encourages better practices within universities, both in execution and evaluation. Always looking to learn more about how to get social media right!

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