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.