Measuring the ROI of Social Networking as a Recruitment Tool

In a recent interview appearing in Campus Techology magazine, we hear from Brad Ward, electronic communcation coordinator for Butler University. Mr. Ward is employing some innovative techniques to reach out to potential students, all based on the power of social networking. One of the sites used extensively at Butler is Zinch.

Zinch is a social networking site that is currently used by more than 300,000 students and 475 colleges and universities. The site allows students to create detailed profiles that go beyond the standard test scores and GPA that seem to dominate the college admissions process. By buidling a profile that contains information about their extracurricular activities, passions, talents, and skills, students can show themselves as a unique applicant and not just a set of standardized numbers. Zinch even has a feature called Z-Folio which allows students to upload their artwork, videos, writing, and athletic highlights.

Admissions officers at colleges use Zinch’s Advanced Zeeker search tool to filter and query all of the student profiles stored on the site. They can use this functionality to locate and target students with specific characteristics and interests. Student data can be downloaded and loaded into the college’s communications management system.

All of this allows students and colleges to better target each other and connect in the recruitment process. This is evident from the message displayed on Zinch’s homepage:

Dear student, showcase yourself to your dream college.
Dear admissions officer, showcase your college to your dream student.

At Butler, Mr. Ward is seeing intial success with Zinch and some other innovative social networking techniques (e.g., YouTube video blogs, Facebook fan pages). For example, the “open rate” (percentage of mail messages that are opened by a recipient) seems to be about 3 times higher (i.e., 33% vs. 11%) for messages sent to students on Zinch, than they are for typical e-mail blasts.

While these intial figures are encouraging, Mr. Ward speaks to the real challenge in these efforts in his response to the last interview question:

[Another problem is], in terms of YouTube and sites [like it], there’s not yet a defined metric of what is successful. If we put these videos up on YouTube, was that worth it? There’s nothing to measure this stuff with yet.
That makes it a little tougher when we try and pitch these new sites and new ways to recruit. Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll all start to be able to define what success is and whether it’s worth it to be on Facebook and those kinds of sites.

Mr. Ward has hit the bullseye with this comment. The key to this recruiting effort is figuring out how to define success, measure results, and acheive some measure of ROI. Admissions officers need to get creative. For example, by creating something like a “Student Engagement” metric, colleges could measure and track the responsiveness of students to different types of communication. For example, higher scores could be assigned to students who join social networking groups, post or respond on a blog, or participate in an admissions online chat. When combined with the data from your student information system a full engagement picture emerges. This data can then be used to help forecast and predict enrollment more accurately and helps you target the most engaged students to help ‘evangelize’ on your behalf.

Given the increasing use of social networking tools by high school and college students this is going to become an important part of the recruiting efforts of colleges. While building this strategy, admissions professionals should also think about measuring outcomes.