is higher ed still a mouse-in-the-maze model?

I remember my first college orientation, where a comedian compared the now-antiquated model of registration (where we went from table to table to get classes) to a bunch of mice in a maze. Except now the cheese was old and stinky and everyone just wanted to get out of the maze. Oddly, that comment, coupled with a recent observation by Michael Fienen, rang very true on higher ed’s continuing challenge to do a better job in serving students.

Fienen’s observation, on a particularly ornery day for the knowledgeable Pittsburg State web guy, wondered why the term “request more information” appears so often on web pages. Does this infer we’re hiding information from visitors and there’s some veil we have to let them behind? Not necessarily. Generally, “request more information” means “join our database” by requesting some kind of print material. From the inside, this all has to do with justification of return on investment (the dreaded ROI) for everything from personnel to software packages, the ability to establish benchmarks and determine the inquiry-admissions-yield funnel.

And if you read that last sentence without falling asleep, you may have wondered: What is the least bit customer-friendly about treating students as bits of data to justify our existence? If so, you’re 100 percent right.

One advantage of social media — that it’s a third space where students can learn more about, and build an affinity with, institutions — could make old-school bean-counters bristle. Thus all the sabre-rattling about Establishing ROI of Social Media to Justify Its Existence. “How many Facebook questions did you answer last month?” “How many people follow us on Twitter?” “Do we know how many viewers of our YouTube videos were prospective students?”

This all ignores one very simple, very human thing: Social media customer service helps students with questions, information-gathering and decision-making in a way they find convenient. But it doesn’t create numbers of inquiries to the Admissions Office via email. It doesn’t fall into the neat funnel that says this student asked for a viewbook, called the college, applied, attended an open house and enrolled. And from the moment they requested more information for the first time, how many different forms did they have to fill out, approvals were required and parts of the bureaucratic maze did they have to run through for the “privilege” of attending the school?

Quite simply: This week, we had an interaction via social media that may keep a serious, motivated student from withdrawing from school. Some folks’ first reaction may be to wonder where to chart that datapoint or how to include this in the ROI of our social media plan. My main thought is that we may have helped improve someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong: I know most people in higher education have the best intentions. But I worry that when we build a forest out of data, ROI and “best practices,” we forget how beautiful the trees are. And that, without each tree that really does require some kind of care, there is no forest.



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13 responses to “is higher ed still a mouse-in-the-maze model?

  1. Tim, thank you for this post. I think we sometimes forget (and this is a point I want to try to make in my #hewebar keynote) that we work in places surrounded by amazing people trying to do important things (and “figuring out what you want to do with your life” *is* an important thing), and it’s our job to help them. That can’t always be quantified, but interactions like yours are sometimes the most important work we do. If we get lost in the numbers, are we forgetting all the people who need our help? It’s about them, not us.

  2. This is incredibly timely. I just finished my monthly “social media update” to campus that attempts to somehow quantify the college’s social media activity. I struggle every single month to find a way to make the numbers *mean* something. So what if our percentage of FB fan increase is higher or lower than it was last month, really? This is a great post.

  3. You are a poet, sir. And a beautiful tree.

    Can you describe the interaction you had with the student that you mention above? Have you already talked about it in other forums and I missed it?

  4. I think I’d replace “convenient” with “personal.” SM allows us to build, tenuous at first, connections with *individuals*. It’s one of the reasons I get so frustrated with the “bullhorn” nature of most social media initiatives. While it’s the easy way to use SM it’s not, in the end, the most effective for the bottom line.

  5. Tim, you bring up another good point. Processes for applying, registering for classes, etc. should be designed to be convenient for students, not staff. My university’s online application, for example, begins with a never-ending page of instructions that are there primarily to make life easier for the people who have to review the apps. They make the application process more tedious and intimidating for prospective students. We’re in the process of reviewing and (hopefully) changing this. But it’s evidence of our general lack of concern for good “customer” service, which, as you point out, is extremely important even though it may be difficult to quantify.

  6. Tim Nekritz

    GEORGY: Well-said, friend! Working on a campus means interacting with so many amazing young people … and we should always remember it’s more important to guide them than to provide barriers. Or at least that’s my philosophy.

    ALAINA: Glad you enjoyed it! You know how I feel about quality > quantity, but I also know that people want quantitative data (le sigh). Basically, numbers mean a lot less than the people behind the numbers. Hope you can maybe find a good anecdote or two or more along the way.

    LORI: Haven’t gone into much detail because a) I’m not much of a chest-thumper, b) it’s still a fluid situation and c) if the situation resolves itself, then maybe I can elaborate. Put briefly, a student blogged about an experience that made them question continuing here, and I contacted someone who left a comment to give them perspective, context and his contact information to discuss it further. So far, the potential to resolve the situation appears promising.

    DAVE: You’re right that “personal” is a good word, because that’s how they view social media. They don’t think about institutional accounts or policies or other things … they just want someone to give them an answer. I’m working on a social media guide right now for our campus, and using the bullhorn metaphor as a what not to do.

    TODD: You raise a great point. If we structure things to provide the least inconvenience for ourselves, this is often at cross purposes for what is most convenient for our students. It comes back to basic customer service, empathy for others and a desire to do the right thing.

  7. Great post, Tim. I totally agree that measuring Return-on-effort in social media is more challenging than with traditional e-marketing and, in many cases, a focus on hard numbers causes people to miss some of the qualitative value of a social media presence.

    My question for you would be: How do you convince your university to dedicate more resources to social media efforts if you can’t point to the value it creates? I think the challenge at many schools is that Facebook / Twitter / YouTube gets dumped on someone’s plate and nothing gets taken off (if your school has a dedicated social media person, consider yourself lucky). So unless they become magically more efficient, something else has to go in order for that person to dedicate time to social media (or this “lucky” person has to work more hours). This is where measuring impact becomes important. You make a great point that the impact may not always be measured by hard numbers, but rather by powerful anecdotal evidence (the student that doesn’t drop out b/c their concerns were addressed via a social media exchange). Or maybe it’s measuring a decrease in activity elsewhere (maybe you get fewer phone calls in the admissions office than 2 years ago b/c people are getting their questions answered on Twitter and Facebook). Or maybe a handful of people just feel like your school cares about them as individuals and is not just out to get their tuition money… and feel compelled enough to share that on your Facebook wall. I think these compelling anecdotes can often be more powerful agents of change than any metric you can collect (see the book “Made to Stick” for lots of examples of this).

  8. Tim Nekritz

    MARK: Thanks for the question, and I’m one of those people who had social media added to a full plate. Anyway, I never said metrics are pointless. The great thing about the web is that we have access to so much in the way of measures not available elsewhere; we have no idea how many people read how much of last year’s printed annual report but we know how many folks accessed any page of this year’s online annual report. And our office report is stacked with all kinds of excellent statistics about how pervasive our social media presence is, even if how persuasive is more elusive. My point here is that we can’t focus only on students as points of data within various reports and funnels. They’re living, breathing human beings, and social media can paint us a greater picture. Like with any type of customer service, you’re never 100% sure how your actions affect people (unless they give a testimonial), but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

    Have you ever seen Scott Stratten (@unmarketing) speak about customer service? He’s awesome. One of my favorite lines of his, on this subject: “I don’t know the ROI of responding to a student who tweets their acceptance to your college. And I don’t care. Just do it!” Oh, and “Made to Stick” is one of my favorite books.

  9. So glad you brought up this topic. I’ve spent about 6 years working in admission and enrollment management now, and let me offer up another reason why social media and qualitative metrics may not be completely accepted in enrollment strategies — modeling. Modeling an incoming class relies heavily on placing value on key indicators (demographics, sources, contact types, etc) of the student as they move through the funnel. Since social media interactions are not generally factored into modeling metrics (while phone calls and emails may be) – we place less value there.

    I feel like if these social media and organic interactions are tracked alongside key metrics to support modeling and lead to actual predictive results, they’ll have more respect in admissions and marketing. (think: a student comments via Facebook and follows our twitter account = 3x more likely to apply and 5x more likely to enroll).

    Tons of jargon in this comment (sorry) but I wanted to offer up some more ideas on how we can get admissions to respect these awesome interactions we experience with prospective students through social media.

  10. I’ll have to check out Scott Stratten.

    I totally agree. And I actually believe that the human touch is more important on places like Facebook than on your website. I think often times people go to your website to get specific answers and information (what’s the application deadline, what do I need to do for student housing) and Facebook is often where they turn for a more authentic interaction with your school and for real connections.

  11. Tim Nekritz

    MIKE: Thanks for the inside view. I think you’re onto a great idea of adding social media considerations into the modeling. I think about the student who asked a lot of questions on Facebook while applying (and later said our responses were important in his decision) who has gone on to become very involved on campus. And who voluntarily answers the latest incoming students’ Facebook questions!

    MARK: Agreed. We try to provide authentic, behind-the-scenes taste with blogs, videos, etc., which they seem to appreciate, but Facebook likely still provides their most authentic interactions.

  12. Mallory Wood

    Wonderful post Tim. It actually has made me think a little more about another issue (related to prospective students & social media) that I’ve been pondering lately. I’d love to hear your (and others) thoughts.

    Let’s pretend there is a prospective student who has been interacting with your institution in social spaces during their junior and/or senior year of high school. They tweet you, join the Facebook group for their class, and maybe even comment on your videos or blogs. Success, right? You’ve provided strong customer service by answering their questions and have started conversations with them; you’ve humanized the process and have been a resource. And as a result you get their application and the student is very interested in attending your school. The student, unfortunately, does not wind up getting accepted. Little did you know, they are far below the average profile of an incoming student. And now they are wondering why you were so “nice and friendly” to them online.

    Did you give this student false hope? Could it be said that you mislead them into thinking they had a “shot” at acceptance? How friendly is too friendly and how informal is too informal in these social spaces? I’m wondering if this has happened anywhere. I can just see an irate parent calling the admission office saying, “Well Suzy has been tweeting you for months! Why did you respond so frequently if she had no chance!”

    Food for thought.

  13. Tim Nekritz

    MALLORY: That is a great question! Since I’m kept far away from admissions decisions, I mainly approach it as a customer-service issue whether questions or requests come from prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, alumni or parents. But when social media folks are in or connected with admissions — which is a pretty good model — obviously that murks things more. But I think whoever is doing social media has a responsibility to treat everyone equally and fairly, regardless of admissions chances. Or put another way: Would we not answer the phones or return emails of students out of the fear it would lead them to think we are accepting them? So it’s thorny, yes, but I still favor customer service any and every way we can provide it.

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