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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

An Interview with Inigral CEO Michael Staton

09 Feb 2011

written by Karlyn Borysenko

An Interview with Inigral CEO Michael Staton

You’d have to be living under a rock this morning to not hear the news that The Gates Foundation has invested in Inigral, the creators of Schools on Facebook. Why is this important? It’s the first time The Foundation has made an investment in a for profit company. And it happens to be a company that serves higher education.

Like many, I had heard about Inigral peripherally a while ago, but really got to know the company better when I spent a week in their San Francisco office at the end of January. I went out there very skeptically, but they totally converted me into a believer. What really got my attention? The data. Here’s what they showed me when I was out there:

  1. Students engaged in Schools on Facebook before enrollment are 5x more likely to enroll than students who aren’t.
  2. Students engaged in Schools on Facebook after enrollment are 5% more likely to retain than those who aren’t.

Those are huge. If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you know that I’ve constantly been looking for numbers to show a correlation between social media engagement and bottom line institutional goals. Inigral has managed to do just that.

So before today’s official announcement, I sent Inigral’s CEO Michael Staton a few questions. Have other questions that aren’t covered here? Mark Greenfield will be interviewing Michael tonight and is crowdsourcing the questions. Shoot him an @ on Twitter (@markgr) with your ideas.

——–
Why do you think the Gates Foundation choose to invest in Schools on Facebook?

Though I’m not the best person to discuss the Gates Foundation strategy, they’ve made it abundantly clear they’re interested in supporting innovative technologies in higher education.  Their Next Gen Learning Challenge has set some strong priorities in this regard.  We’re outside that program for two reasons:

1) We’re actually the first technology investment, ahead of their Next Gen Grants
2) We’re not focused on learning.

I think a primary reason the Foundation chose to support us is that our Schools App is focused entirely on social integration, engagement, and involvement, and is not focused directly on learning.  This is a unique approach.  Only half our students that set out to get a degree are graduating, that’s a national challenge of immense priority.  And right now, there is a lot of creativity and energy going into how to create the next “learning platform” and increase success with pedagogy.  However, many of the reasons students don’t make it through to graduation are emotional and social – they’re not finding the right information and strategies to succeed from their peers.

How should colleges use Facebook to communicate? What are some of the most successful strategies you’ve seen?

Lot’s of colleges use Facebook really well to communicate outwardly.  Off hand, Texas A&M has always impressed me.  Pages are way more effective/cool than email marketing – but it’s still “pushing” information outwards to your “fans.”  Sure, they stop by and comment.  But it’s not a community tool, it doesn’t become a hub of students meeting and interacting with one another.  So, that’s what we’re trying to do.  The Schools App isn’t about using Facebook to communicate, it’s about using Facebook to facilitate the kind of relationship building every campus hopes to embrace.

Many colleges are using social media for admissions and marketing, but less seem to be using it to aid in retention. Can you make an argument for that?

There’s napkin math here – if you lose a student, you lost three years of revenue.  And you probably spent something like $700 – $2500 dollars just to bring that student in the door.  Not to mention, they’ve probably had a bad experience with your brand and are going to share that with their peers.  Attrition is simply bad business.

I think social media is being used for admissions and marketing because those are generally small teams of people that are asked to innovate to drive up their numbers.  You can count applicants and yield, and you can’t point the finger at someone or some strategy that helped move that number up.  With retention, the accountability gets more complex. Where’s the creative team that’s empowered to be innovative and spend resources to increase retention?  Well, most campuses can’t point to a courageous thought leader or office, there are several offices, with silo-ed responsibilities, and they often don’t even know each other.  Rarely are they given additional resources to go out and do something innovative.

That doesn’t mean that schools aren’t there doing cool things.  They are.  The movement is just less of a trend thus far.

Lots of people say you can’t calculate an ROI of social media engagement. What would you say to them? Why should colleges invest in it?

I’m going to quote, I think it’s Mark Greenfield here: “What’s the ROI in a handshake?  A smile?  A hug?”  Social Media is just another communications vehicle.  If you asked the question differently: Do you believe that allowing your students to better build relationships and friendships, access information, have meaningful encounters with faculty and staff will have positive outcomes?”  The answer is obviously yes.  It’s just that upper administrators in charge of budget think of social media as some place where people send updates about what pancakes they’re eating.  But they’re missing the point.  It’s just a new mode of communication and relationship building, and there’s ROI in that.  You just can’t calculate it, just like you can’t measure how friendly a professor is and how many lives they’ve touched.  But, everyone knows that’s what matters.

Inigral is the backer of Higher Ed Live and is a vocal proponent of changing the way higher ed thinks. What’s your vision for how higher ed should think?

Neither I nor Inigral wants to change the way higher ed thinks.  We just think that there are these energetic people with great ideas and an eagerness to try new things.  Those people need a better outlet to get those ideas and practices out there.  I, personally, haven’t really been satisfied with the way conversations about new technology and new practices happen on our conference circuits and in our publications.  There’s this culture of “where’s the data, where’s the proof?”  Getting some people in higher ed to feel confident to try new approaches requires some multi-year report published by some official organization.  I think that kind of culture stifles innovation.  I heard Seth talk, and he was just so energetic and relentless about challenging people to get out there and do.  His attitude is: “Don’t wait for the study, there are no best practices yet, we’re inventing the future.  Get out there, try, do, experiment, and share with everyone else.”  We don’t shape any of the editorial voice of Higher Ed Live, we just knew it needed to exist and we were in a position to help bring it to fruition.

You’ve been a proponent of location-based services. How do you see higher ed using these types of tools?

Location-based services will rock higher ed.  In the end, if you run a campus, it helps to know where all the kids are headed.  You need to be able to track the utilization of a lot of our support services and places for students.  It helps to encourage people to get out there and use the student center, the student union, the resource centers.  People respond to behavioral norms and go where their friends go: if you can show them that people are getting out of their dorm rooms and they go to class and access resources, that promotes that kind of activity in and of itself.

What are some social media tools that higher ed should be keeping an eye on outside of the usual suspects?

I’ve had my head in this for so long, that for me everyone is the usual suspects:

  • I think if you haven’t hooked up social widgets from Facebook, you’re missing out.
  • There are tools like Sharefeed, HootSuite, and Seesmic that help manage your presences.
  • There are tools like Social Radar, Viral Heat, Radian6, that help manage your brand online.
  • There are new services that help you archive all your social media activity.  That could be pretty useful.
  • My friend Ryan Merket runs AppBistro and that’s a cool way to find apps for your Facebook Page.
  • I have another friend named Laura Fitton (@pistachio) that runs a twitter app store called oneforty.com.  Our friends over at ustream.tv and at Vimeo totally rock.
  • I’ve met the guys at DoubleDutch, and they’re awesome. SCVNGR seems promising as well.  Our friends at Foursquare are obviously relevant.  We share investors with Gowalla, and I’m not sure what they’re doing with universities at this point.
  • I have to plug our friends over at Grockit as well, so if you’re an instructional designer and haven’t checked them out – get to it.
  • TopSchool and Intelliworks are new ways to do CRM.  Zinch is probably the most authentic lead-gen platform.
  • The SAIP team at Oracle is trying to keep SIS relevant in a world where there’s an app for anything.
  • Our friends over at Apture have a cool “more-info” pop up that’s easy to work with.

Obviously, we think our Schools App is the best way to recruit and bring on an incoming class, as well as provide a closed social environment for your current students.

Full disclosure: Though Inigral did pay for me consulting the week I visited them, I am not currently on their payroll. I think they’re a great company with a really great app that colleges should be paying attention to.

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0 license


About the author

Karlyn Borysenko

Karlyn is loving life as the marketing manager for Eduventures and as a staff writer for .eduGuru. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Boston University, a Master of Business Administration from Norwich University, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Psychology from Capella University.

To quote a friend of hers: "Karlyn is a super rad ninja marketing genius who will make your target demographic submit to your every whim through sheer willpower. Oh, and she's smarter than you."  We're not sure about the smarter part, but "super rad ninja" is true enough.

Compulsory disclaimer: The views expressed in Karlyn's posts are hers and hers alone, and do not represent those of anyone she earns a paycheck from. Yes, it's true - the girl has a mind of her own. 

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  • http://admissions.creighton.edu Christian

    Just got an email about this app today from a colleague here after hearing about it this morning on NPR and now this. You are nothing if not relevant and timely.

  • http://www.varsityoutreach.com/ Mark Rothbaum

    Congratulations to Inigral! It’s great to see strong validation of the potential for social networking in the higher ed space.

    At Varsity Outreach (http://www.varsityoutreach.com), we’ve been doing similar work creating dedicated communities on the admissions side for several years as well and currently work with 30+ undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s been great to see the connections that prospects and admits build with each other. It’s even better to see the significantly higher enrollment rates among community members vs. non-members.

    Karlyn, I think you hit on a huge key for these types of efforts, which is it comes down to data and metrics. Can you measure your efforts and the outcomes? For social media to be considered on the same level as other efforts at recruitment and retention, the numbers need to be there to show that it has real value.

  • http://patrickpowers.net Patrick Powers

    Thanks for posting, Karlyn! Michael certainly has a great product and some keen insights on where higher education may be headed in the future, at least in terms of social media. The best part of the announcement, in my opinion, is that the company is giving away the application for five schools to use over the next two years. Very cool.

  • http://stephenbiernacki.com Stephen Biernacki

    Just wanted to chime in and say this was a great read. I particularly liked Michael’s comments on the ROI of social media and the “where’s the data, where’s the proof?” section. Thanks for posting.

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