Rethinking Success in Storytelling | Call to Action: Marketing and Communications in Higher Education
Rethinking Success in Storytelling | Call to Action: Marketing and Communications in Higher Education

Earlier this week, my friend and storyteller extraordinaire Andy Fuller laid out the need for higher education to invest in more emotive communications efforts. The case for more storytelling in higher education is fairly straightforward: higher education faces a perception problem, and facts alone have not been, and are unlikely to be, enough to change that perception. But little about the actual process of storytelling, to say nothing of its larger purpose of changing perception, is similarly easy.

The challenge of being interesting is indeed daunting, but more often, I find that strategic storytelling fails due to an inability to show results or progress beyond subjective opinions about what is and isn’t “good content.” In some cases, this shortcoming is a result of impatience or mismanaged expectations. Human perception is not changed quickly, and if the long-term nature of this initiative is not communicated proactively, investment and support in the endeavor can vanish quickly and without warning. But more so, I believe long-term strategic storytelling fails because, collectively, we aren’t actually sure how to measure it.

For higher ed marketers, the measurement of traditional marketing and communications efforts generally falls into three buckets: proxy measures, survey results and digital analytics.

Proxy measures are appealing because of their accessibility and significance on campus. Not everyone understands or appreciates niche analytics like bounce rate or time on page, but everyone understands whether or not your campus made its class, and further, what achieving (or failing to achieve) that metric means for the campus as a business. With storytelling, however, we’re not trying to directly make a class or increase alumni giving. We’re trying to change the way audiences perceive our institution. No proxy measure can definitively tell you that.

Most institutionwide proxy measures are also only updated once per year, which means you’ll have to work in uncertainty for long stretches of time without a navigational beacon for progress. Because of that, many marketers turn to short-term analytics in the form of click-through rates, page views, engagement rate, reach or earned media value.

The value in these metrics lies in their near-instant feedback on individual pieces of content. But influence and perception -- again, the ultimate goal of storytelling -- can’t be proven by analytics alone.

That leaves us with surveys. Surveys are the most natural fit in terms of measuring the impact of storytelling. Questions can be written to capture information specific to brand and reputation, and surveys are repeatable, meaning you can measure progress over time. The shortfall of surveys lies in execution. At most campuses, surveys are repeated years apart, if at all, again creating a void in which practitioners are left to wonder about the broader impact of their work.

We turn to these measures because they are familiar to us. But collectively, they fall short with storytelling because they either fail to capture the bigger picture or take too long to develop it.

Using Online Conversation to Quantify the Perception of Your Campus

You need to measure perception over time and in real time. Luckily, there’s a way to find that balance using information that already exists: publicly available online conversations. These conversations include social media updates from students, posts and comments from prospective and admitted students on forums, and news articles from local, regional and national journalists.

At the individual level, each mention contains keywords or phrases that can help you understand how the author perceives your campus. Better yet, these mentions largely occur organically, providing more authentic, in-the-moment perspectives than do responses prompted by carefully worded survey questions.

When left unstructured, as is the case on most campuses, these mentions provide little value at the individual level and take the form of an overwhelming fire hose of information when viewed collectively. That’s because, depending on the size of your campus, there are anywhere between a few hundred to a few hundred thousand of these mentions published every year. Only by adding structure to the data set can you unlock its superpower.

How you use online conversation to measure perception depends on your strategic plan, institutional goals or brand pillars, but at the highest level, you need to categorize your conversation by topic or theme. At the more advanced level, you may consider additional layers of segmentation by considering audience, source and/or athletic-focused conversation.

By prioritizing the coding of your conversation to match brand pillars or strategic priorities, you can credibly and directly describe the impact of your strategic storytelling to senior leaders or board members on campus. Coding for pillars or priorities allows you to answer questions like, “How often do people mention world-class research when talking about our campus?” and “Are we increasing the volume of that conversation year over year?”

Each additional layer of segmentation opens a new depth of analysis. By focusing on audiences, for example, you could analyze content published by the campus versus that which is published externally by students or alumni. Focusing on content sources would allow you to track brand-aligned conversation posted in news outlets versus individually on social media, on blogs or in forums. That means you could answer questions like, “Which brand pillars do the media report on most frequently?” and more importantly, “Do the aspects of our campus most frequently covered by the media reflect our strategic priorities?”

Notably, tracking this data over time provides a rolling time period in which you can measure progress. Monthly or semester-long results will provide you with short-term checkpoints on the impact of your storytelling on perception and brand. Long term, you’ll be able to see progress over years, but importantly, you’ll be comparing progress over the entirety of that time period, rather than comparing two separate moments in time several years apart. Are you moving the needle in the right direction? That’s perception 101.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that business as usual wasn’t exactly good for business. Storytelling can play a significant role in changing the perception of your campus and our industry. But perception doesn’t change overnight, and the traditional approaches to measuring marketing efforts each possess an inherent flaw that make them ill suited to measuring the impact of strategic storytelling. There is a way to track perception in real time, however, using data that are already at your disposal. Fail to take advantage of it, and you’re unlikely to have the kind of long-term investment needed to make any difference at all.

Stephen App is a business development manager at Campus Sonar, a specialized social listening agency committed to higher education.



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