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6. How are we doing so far? 

This section at a glance:

  • we propose that higher education institutions to date have been operating without a clear business case for the use of social media;
  • we use some league tables to illustrate the difficulty in knowing what to measure;
  • we suggest some approaches to help you build on existing good practice and to determine meaningful metrics.
To a certain extent the HE sector has taken a bit of a suck it and see approach to the adoption of social media to date, recognising the strength of the global trend towards use of these tools without necessarily identifying a clear business case closer to home. The fact that we are talking about end user tools that many people are familiar with in their day-to-day lives means it has been possible for early adopters to undertake developments in a bottom-up way. Much of the progress to date has therefore been due to a combination of the work of a few enthusiasts and a general sense that the institution should not get left behind rather than a clear idea of the benefits and a focused strategy. Things are beginning to change and institutions are now taking more unified approaches, although there is a sense that the driver for this is more to do with managing risk than benefits realisation. The outcome of this is that we still seem to be a long way from having effective metrics to judge whether or not university use of social networking is actually helping achieve strategic goals. 

“The role of a university is knowledge creation and dissemination. It seems unfathomable to me that a modern progressive university would not look at social media and say here is the most fabulous set of tools for helping us carry out some of our core tasks.”

That is not to say there have not already been various attempts to create university social media league tables. The outcomes have however, even by league table standards, lacked real meaning and have, in some cases, been downright contradictory. As an example, in two studies of universities’ use of social media, both published in 2012, one (Sociagility, 2012) describes the University of Sheffield as:

Whilst the other (LSE 2012) says:

    “By contrast, there are some other well-known and sizeable universities who seem to be having difficulty getting their social media visibility off the ground at all, most notably Sheffield....”

Another university social media league table published by Unipod in 2013 extols the benefits of engagement with social media and states:

    “With over four billion videos viewed a day on YouTube and 60 hours of video uploaded every minute, it is surprising to see that seven UK universities do not have any social media links on their university homepage. Indeed two of them had no social media links on their website whatsoever, suggesting a critical lack of social media engagement.”

The Unipod league table itself however, as shown by the comments on the web page, has again come in for criticism over its methodology and use of raw numbers without considering what types of people these viewers are (or indeed whether they are human at all) and what actually constitutes meaningful engagement.

Whilst it is relatively easy to dismiss some of the crude comparisons, it is not clear that our institutions are yet developing effective means of evaluating their activity for themselves. The lack of a clear business case and specific objectives for what universities are trying to achieve through social media may be part of the problem. Raw numbers of students and potential students viewing the channels are interesting but do not really tell us about the value of the engagement.

Joint research by Communications Management and the online community, The Student Room, looked at universities’ use of social media in relation to student recruitment, and concluded that potential students did not find the channels particularly trustworthy and nor did they find the information they needed.

“We found that although 65% of students use social media channels several times a day, students rated universities' social media presence as less influential and less trustworthy than more traditional sources such as prospectuses or open days.”

Students showed a willingness to engage with universities through social media but tended not to look there for information because universities did not make sufficient or appropriate use of these channels.

“’They do not talk about the things we need to know’.”

The researchers in the Guardian study also concluded that the fundamental problem was a lack of clarity about what universities were trying to achieve and who the communications were aimed at:

    “This suggests that many universities are using social media to try and engage with too many stakeholder groups at once, and consequently not being tailored enough about the updates they are sending out. The danger of using social media channels to push out any and all university messages… [is] the risk of engaging with no one successfully.” (Shaw 2013)

A study by a social media analytics company looking at the use of Twitter by what it deemed the 10 top ranked UK universities, found that none of their corporate accounts sent out more than 3-4 tweets per day, that the accounts were used purely for broadcasting rather than engagement and that they were possibly missing opportunities to engage with significant numbers of overseas followers .

Similar issues are addressed, although from a different perspective, by Smithers (2012) who feels that very often university social media policies are being developed by people with backgrounds in other industries, who have been brought in for this purpose, and who do not really understand how scholarly communities operate. The policies are therefore developed without enough vision for what could be achieved and are taking protectionist and damage-limitation approaches, restricting the opportunities to innovate and collaborate.

There are numerous examples of embracing social media with great success in other sectors. An article on the top 10 social media success stories of 2012 includes Barack Obama's astute approach to understanding the demographic of his target audience and their use of social media; Mercedes-Benz allowing viewers to decide the outcome of advertisements; and a charity creating the world's shortest recipe book via 140 character recipes on Twitter. The key to all of these success stories is understanding the target audience and using the tools creatively.

In Section 3, Delivering benefits, we look at a considerable number of examples where universities are achieving tangible benefits through the effective use of social media. It is evidence that there is much good practice around but many universities have not yet been able to pick up on these pockets of good practice and embed them into more strategic approaches that fit closely with their particular mission. Having been, to a certain extent, swept along by a global trend, the time is right for those developing and/or reviewing strategies and policies to be both more visionary in their approach and more tactical in their use of particular tools and to determine what kind of metrics or other evidence will help them evaluate whether or not they are delivering the desired benefits. 

Good practice tips:

  • Be benefits driven – focus on the benefits you expect your use of social media to deliver and be both specific and realistic about what you expect to achieve

  • Be user-focused – talk to your stakeholders about how you can better use social media to deliver benefits to them

  • Measure progress – think about what types of engagement via social media will show you are making progress towards delivering benefits.

  • Make use of analytical tools – find a tool that can deliver social media analytics that are meaningful to you.

  • Measure what really matters – think about what metrics are real indicators of success: these are more likely to relate to student recruitment, retention and achievement, research collaborations or fundraising from alumni than anything that can be derived from social media analytics alone.

  • Cut out dead wood – be prepared to focus on the tools and approaches that are working for you and to discontinue activities that are not achieving appropriate returns.

  • Innovate and evaluate – bearing the above in mind, be creative – do not be afraid to innovate or experiment – just be clear how and when you will evaluate the outcomes.




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