Social media and #highered: Where’s the ROI?

Posted on August 4, 2012



A recent “social media ROI” report from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth talks about how college and university admissions offices view and use social media. The report summary trumpets the findings as an indication that social media is significantly altering the way colleges and universities recruit students. The report (or at least the headline) even goes so far as to trumpet social media tools as “a Game Changer.” The headline and report also tout the return on investment (ROI) social media tools bring to higher education.

The report is filled with some good information, but I couldn’t really pinpoint any actual ROI indicators.

I’m no ROI expert, but it seems to me that the authors of this report have confused cost reductions with ROI. For instance, the report points out that institutions surveyed “report 33% less spent on printing, 24% less spent on newspaper ads and 17% less spent on radio and TV ads.”

But reducing costs, or reducing your media spend, isn’t the same thing as investing. Cutting costs does not equal increased investment.

One uncritical report about this research (posted on attracted the interest of several higher ed folks, including three very bright guys: Andrew Gossen of Cornell (@agossen), higher ed consultant Michael Stoner (@mStonerblog) and Mike Petroff, a digital strategist at Harvard (@mikepetroff). Gossen and Stoner took to Twitter to chat about the findings with a more skeptical view. But of course, there’s only so much you can discuss 140 characters at a time.

So Stoner visited to share his thoughts on the subject, then expanded them in this blog post on his own site. (Tracy Playle of Pickle Jar Communications — @picklejar — also does a fine job of dissecting the Massachusetts Dartmouth study.) Both Stoner’s comment and his blog post are worth reading, as he eloquently discusses the nuances of higher education that the Massachusetts Dartmouth study seems to overlook.

The money quote, however, comes from Stoner’s comment on blog:

[T]he story is more complicated than The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research data indicate.

For example, Noel-Levitz, an enrollment and admissions consulting firm, does a yearly study of prospective students to see what they say about various channels (in 2012, 2000 students, 51% high school seniors). This year, 72% said they used “brochures/mail” to research colleges. When asked the best ways to learn about academic programs (the most important content to them), 71% said brochures were best; 38% cited social media as the best source. Only 10% said that social media was the best source of info for financial aid and 35% for information about the campus location and community. So while they do use Facebook (and other social channels), these aren’t the only, or even the primary, sources of information.

Indeed, this confirms my observation that adults continuously over-estimate the appetite of teens for whatever it is adults we think they should be interested in. We’ve seen from our own experience that teens love printed pieces — they just aren’t impressed with the kind of glossy viewbooks that most admission offices send out.

Interestingly, just a week after that Massachusetts Dartmouth report came out,’s report about another study — the Social Habit Research Project — provided the perfect definition of ROI for businesses. It’ comes from social media marketer Rhonda Hurwitz, and it’s a definition that can be modified to fit the realm of higher education:

For me, it always comes down to figuring out how to connect social media usage or activity to revenue. I would ask “have you ever bought a product or service due to a social media interaction” … “have you ever recommended a product or service to others via social media?”

So, for higher education, perhaps the ROI questions should be:

  • Has a prospective student ever decided to attend a college due to a social media interaction?
  • Has a prospective donor ever given to his or her alma mater due to a social media interaction?
  • Has a current student ever recommended a college or university to a prospect via social media?

And perhaps we should be asking them of our customers (students, alumni, etc.) rather than those in charge of delivering the services, recruiting students or raising money. Maybe then we would gain a better sense of the true ROI of our social media activities.

* Disclaimer: I am no ROI guru. Far from it. But I agree with Stoner when he says, in his recent blog post on this topic, that “Measuring ROI is complicated, especially in higher ed.” It’s messy, and it’s a hassle. And that’s probably why we don’t do much of it.

Image: Clara Peller as the “Where’s the Beef?” lady from Wendy’s classic early 1980s ad campaign.