Do Numbers Have Enough Value?

The following is a guest post by Director of Web Communication, Director of Web Communication & Strategic Projects at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She was a guest blogger in August when she published her research paper on “The Use of Social Media in Higher Education for Marketing and Communications: A Guide for Professionals in Higher Education” on this site, and was a live blogger for .eduGuru during Stamats ’08. You can connect with her through TwitterLinkedIn or Facebook.  This is the sixth post of the .eduGuru Blogger(s) Search Contest.

I often receive e-mails from people around campus asking for the “number of hits” their site received for a given time period. (My favorite is “…in the last year, so I can include it in my annual report.”) With some people, I take the time to try to get to the root of what it is they’re trying to find value in, and often times try to explain that what they actually asked for isn’t going to help their cause. Will a random number really help them? Do I really need to dig deeply into Google Analytics to give them the number they requested? Why not make one up? Will they know the difference? How does this number have context?

In academe, we’re often asked to undertake assessment projects. One of my biggest professional challenges is to find a credible, valuable way to assess the effectiveness of our electronic media. Using Web Analytics and calculated ROI for certain projects are great starts, but I think there’s more to it.

Foundertalks a lot about Web Analytics, and teaches us how to make sense of these numbers.

Head of Marketing talks about ROI, especially with e-mail marketing campaigns, and proves you can put a dollar and percentage return value on your efforts to share with the powers-that-be.

For a museum on our campus, what does it mean to them to have 5,000 visitors to their site a month? Does it mean a good percentage of them physically went to the museum to see a particular exhibition? Does it mean a local school teacher was influenced to schedule a field trip to the museum for her class because of what she saw? Did they see enough online exhibitions that they felt they didn’t need to come to the museum in person? Sure, there are ways to track all of these things, but not solely by providing “you had 5,000 visitors to your site last month.” And should that take into context the overall university site having nearly a million visitors in that same month? Are they the same audiences?

I think there is a way to quantify all these numbers in a way that impresses directors/administrators, but provides them greater value. I’d argue it would be more effective to provide dialog. Collect anecdotes – turn on comments and engage people in blog conversations. Share stories from your Facebook Fan Page wall. Be part of the conversation in your forums.

Can you put a number on value and influence? Say your university has a Twitter account and 100 people follow. You have over 2,000 fans of your Facebook Page. Your main university site has one million visitors on average every month. What did you do to convince those following you on Twitter, Facebook and your site, that your college is the right one for them? Were you directly involved, or was it the influence of the community sharing their thoughts and opinions? Will these efforts turn into more prospects, more applicants, higher yield rates? And are these higher quality students? What are your university’s strategic goals? How do you embed these goals into the use of social media, and further, train key players at your campus that being able to rattle off “your site had 5,000 visitors last month” doesn’t get them any closer to achieving them?

Let’s compare stats for three college Facebook Pages:

Which college would you want to be providing numbers for?

I would argue college #1 (and it’s not because of my personal bias of knowing the real college behind the curtains) – look at the activity of the community. It’s not about hard fast numbers – especially the fan numbers, as College #3 is currently in the lead. All three have very similar number of fans, but the difference is the conversation – the volume of conversation, and the topics of discussion that the community is engaged in. These are the numbers, and the anecdotes behind them, that I’d want to be sharing (and do) with my administrators on campus.

Next time you’re asked to provide numbers - throw them a curveball and provide more than just a number. Share with them anecdotes, comments on blogs, flattering Twitter messages, and engaging Facebook wall posts and discussions. More specifically:

  • Summarize the types of conversations that are taking place – share a specific anecdote or two
  • Talk about the activity that is taking place – is there interaction going on between individuals? Are they helping each other? Are you guiding them?
  • For the museum example – suggest they start tracking individuals that walk through the door with some sort of survey that asks if they’ve explored their Web site.
  • Which blog posts drew attention of commenters? Which ones didn’t?

Help give them context and illusrate how just providing them with one, or even a few, numbers, may not provide the value or insight they’re really looking for.

15 Responses to “Do Numbers Have Enough Value?”

  1. Says:

    Good post, Rachel!

    Web or no Web, this is one of the big problems people make with numbers. Numbers by themselves mean nothing. You need to know what you are asking and how to use the numbers answer your question.

    Otherwise, 42 would suffice. ;)

  2. Says:

    Great points. Conversations and interactions trump hits.

  3. Says:

    I do love those folks who ask for the number of hits their pages have received over a period of time. Great post.

  4. Says:

    Kind of goes back to the whole idea to always give 110% Even more importantly I think is that these people ask for something not knowing why they want it or if it really the information that they need and should be making decisions with. So then it is our responsibility to provide them with something extra or more that tells the story.

    Nice post and interesting research Rachel.

  5. Says:

    @All Thank you all for your feedback!

    One of the things I struggled with when I initially started getting these types of questions, is whether it was worth it to try to explain why the numbers alone aren’t going to provide enough value - to get them to understand my thinking. It’s still a challenge with some folks, depending on their level of comprehension (or interest in understanding at least), but I do believe I’ve made some great progress and there are more people on campus concerned about more qualitative ways of measuring their online efforts.

    I hope others find this post useful and are able to use it to help them explain to their peers/colleagues that a bottom line number isn’t always the best answer.

  6. Says:

    Great post Rachel. I like “share stories” and “become a part of the conversation” really good things to keep in mind when dealing with a social network presence.

  7. Says:

    Thanks for the post Rachel, and thanks for being that (lone?!) voice in the wilderness striving to educate your colleagues on the power of the web, and by extension, web analytics. Take heart too, at least your job is never boring sitting around all day counting “hits” ;)

    The root of your post underlies an issue with the entire analytics community many have commented on over the years- the difference between real analysis, and simple (simplistic?) reporting. Your constituents seem to come for you for reporting, but you have the wise sense to show them some analysis in addition to answering their direct question.

    The real fireworks come when they recognize this analysis as valuable, and start looping you into their *planning* efforts *in advance*, so you can lead them through healthy exercises of defining how they’d like to measure success in advance. Even in your example above- what’s the goal we’re trying to accomplish on behalf of our universities?- engagement, it looks like, but to what end? I’d imagine there’s something concrete they’d like to motivate (donations, applications, campus visits, athletic event ticket sales, etc.) We all need to be held accountable, so we resist the temptation to torture the data (bad numbers, bad numbers!) to drive our point home. That’s when the ROI really starts to roll in.

    Keep up the fine work!

  8. Says:

    Great post, Rachel!

    I remember the time when I had to prepare the annual web report for my college.

    I provided numbers and as much ROI data as I could (applications, online gifts, cost savings, etc.), but also included some quotes - actually not from conversations with students (it was before the social web), but from my institutional customers (Career Services, Alum Association, etc.) to give a sense of how the Web was impacting the whole organization in a positive way.

    In this post, you’re hinting an important point: the need for higher ed to come up with a model (going beyond just stats) to measure the real results of web or social media initiatives - really important in these uncertain budget times.

  9. Says:

    Thank you for this insightful post. I have worked with people in education who were so numbers-focused that it was hard to get a true read on the situation and value of those numbers. The same is true for lead generation. One media outlet may generate twice as many leads as another, BUT if those leads aren’t as qualified, or they convert less often, it really doesn’t matter how many we get.

  10. Says:

    Rachel, you’ve really illustrated the perennial struggle faced by all of us wrestling with an institution grounded in the past yet desperate to remain contemporary and even cutting-edge. As the economy tanks, the institutional memory tells us to circle the wagons, crunch numbers, and trim the fat (i.e. anything that doesn’t have a precise numerical value that settles comfortably on a bottom line). Yet that is precisely what NOT to do in an industry dependent on brand affinity and establishing relationships. As you suggest, the conversation is essential to developing and nurturing that affinity.

    At the end of the day those of us in the northeast are sitting on the precipice of a demographic shift that will leave us all scrambling for quality students, regardless of the economic climate. We cannot in such dramatically changing times use only the old measures of success to determine the value of our efforts.

    Thanks for generating a host of great dialog topics for the rest of us to bring back to our respective war rooms!

  11. Says:

    Great post and insight as always, Rachel! Thanks for passing the link through RSS [Director of Web CommunicationSyndication System, lol]. ;)

    We HAVE to get off a numbers-only look at the web and the larger conversational nature of our efforts. Has to be a good mix of each, but it’s not as easy as spreadsheets and formulas anymore. The web is changing things, are we ready to let them be changed?

  12. Says:

    this is one of the most interesting things I’ve read all month.

  13. Says:

    What a refreshing perspective to marketing in Higher Education. Now how to you get the higher ups to understand and listen to such valuable information? Fantastic post!

  14. Says:

    Rachel, thanks for tweeting this to me. It’s really hard to quantify anything in social media, traditional business people are looking at the bottom line saying “what’s our ROI”?

    Looking at these things qualitatively you have to ask yourself “how deep is the impact were having on our customer base through our social media efforts?”

    It’s easy to slap some numbers on something, but of course it’s about the content and the feeling of “connectivity” that we get from all this social media stuff!

    -Matt Wilson


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