• December 23, 2010
  • By Koa Beck, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

Schools and Social Media: Pass or Flail

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Although the recent recession affected all industries, higher education may have been hit harder than most, with public institutions bearing the brunt of the damage. Those schools, according to Nicole Engelbert, practice leader of technology industries at research firm Ovum, are now struggling to absorb cuts in tax revenue while facing a massive increase in the number of prospective students. Just look at California, where state colleges and the University of California chain of schools are dealing with the worst of it: Despite rising demand for education, dramatic cuts to the state budget mean either fewer admission slots or, at best, a battle to maintain current levels of enrollment.

“[These schools] have been battered by the recession,” says Gary McNeil, vice president of marketing at Parature, a provider of customer service solutions. “All the public universities have received across-the-board cuts—many of these institutions felt there was no way to run their businesses. Some of them have had 20 [percent] to 40 percent budget cuts. [And yet they’ve] had to still service their students and their faculty.” (See “Making the Grade,” in CRM’s July 2009 issue, for more on the education field’s response to the recession.)

One result of the budget cuts is a heightened interest in outside providers of email services, such as Google’s Gmail or Microsoft’s Live@edu. Engelbert says she considers this transition away from internal email systems “one of the most exciting and positive changes in technology in the last five years in higher education…[and a] brilliant strategy for institutions,” many of which have struggled with security issues. “Microsoft and Gmail are more qualified to handle security around email,” she says.

One of the biggest misconceptions in higher-education funding, Engelbert asserts, is the belief that a single student’s tuition covers the full cost of that student’s education. Despite aid from the state, alumni, and grant-funded research programs, she says, “there’s still a gap.” No matter what price tag a university settles on for a year’s worth of classes, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses, there will always be a sliding threshold for each student’s ability to pay.

To stay afloat, universities and colleges are prioritizing their students’ satisfaction, becoming more conscious of the entire student life cycle—from applicant to student to alumnus. A university’s alumni, McNeil says, represent the institution’s true revenue stream. “If [a school is] able to retain a student over the course of four years, then the lifetime value of that student becomes exponentially larger,” he says. “The lifetime value of that alumni is immeasurable.”

Current students are also more diverse in terms of age, as the nontraditional student—also known as a “resumer,” returning to school after a period away—is becoming far more common at many universities. According to Jessica Tsai, associate analyst of education technology at Ovum, the rapid influx of nontraditional learners is forcing universities to refocus on service. This segment represents “an important revenue source for higher education,” Tsai says. “Institutions need to nurture these relationships.”

A 40 percent dropout rate is common among many universities, making retention a prime concern. Public perception plays a major role in retention, and the advent of social media means that student contentment—or dissatisfaction—can now become viral. Little surprise, then, that universities are suddenly cramming for a pop quiz on social networking.

One example of the influence of social media? Some institutions, such as Boston College, don’t even issue email addresses to incoming students anymore. “The massive shift to social media,” McNeil says, “has completely changed the way [universities] manage their customer communications. Everybody is going to the Facebook fan page. The university is now having to jump in and manage [its] posts—and the comments back to [its] posts.”

One approach can be seen in the social media monitoring offerings that are specifically geared toward universities. Parature, for example, recently launched a solution for the education market that contains its Parature for Facebook customer service application, allowing institutions to respond to comments and posts, chat in real time, and review trouble tickets.

“A lot of universities are grappling with how [to] manage all these conversations,” says Duke Chung, Parature’s founder and chief strategy officer. In Parature for Facebook, Chung says, “certain keywords or sentiments or triggers are flagged and they then get forwarded over to a support team who respond to the Wall posts, and those responses get posted back to the Facebook Wall.”

Despite rising student demand for multichannel capabilities, many universities remain “slow and clumsy,” according to Engelbert. A few may be gradually developing a Facebook page, but most still hammer away with an overuse of email.

“Institutions are struggling mightily with multichannel,” Engelbert says. “I think institutions are gravitating toward what they understand. They’ve ‘gotten’ email—to their detriment—[but are] degrading the value of their email and other CRM solutions, [conducting] online registration via email as opposed to leveraging text or leveraging call centers, or [using] online chat or a social network. Students love that.”

At the moment, Engelbert says, most university administrators still find Twitter “very noisy and chaotic”—making it the channel most likely to be either ignored or, worse, misused. “I haven’t seen any institution that has been successful in leveraging [Twitter],” she says.
Engelbert suggests, however, that properly leveraging Twitter would be “transformative” for the all-too-common university communications strategy that fails to couple the right information with the right channels. Uniting the answers to just a few simple questions, she says, could produce a powerful multichannel strategy: What are we trying to tell our students? What information do we need from them? What channels are the best for that?

“As far as I can see,” Engelbert laments, “[universities are] not doing that.” 

Koa Beck can be reached at kbeck@destinationcrm.com.

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