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Blog: The Big Opportunity for Small Campuses

The fall 2020 semester provided intel marketers at campuses large and small can use to differentiate themselves. 

Marketing: Blog

It’s hard to evaluate 2020 as a marketer, isn’t it? 

For almost every marketing metric, context is a challenge. Year-over-year comparisons carry little weight; almost nothing about 2020 can be viewed through a pre-pandemic lens. Comparisons to individual competitors can also be difficult to assess; athletic, learning, and residency decisions for the fall 2020 semester varied greatly, all of which impacted, at a minimum, the volume and sentiment of campus conversation. 

But even in a year in which our industry was turned upside down, the fall 2020 semester provided intel that can, and should, be used by marketers at campuses large and small. 

First, a recap of what we know: 

  • The median overall conversation decreased by 65% for our sample comparing July through December 2020 to the same six months in 2018. Only eight campuses saw an increase in overall conversation during our analysis period in 2020.
  • Based on our data, we believe campuses with athletic programs experienced a greater decrease in online conversation last year; the median for non-athletics overall conversation decreased only by 41%.
  • Not all campus sizes were impacted the same way by the pandemic, and consistency even within certain size groups varied

It’s this last point we'll hone in on in this article. 

Understanding the Typical Range 

First, a quick lesson/reminder. We'll talk about the typical range quite a bit. If this is your first time encountering the typical range, or if you just need a refresher, here’s some background on what it is and what it means. 

The typical range is the difference between the 25th percentile and 75th percentile for any given metric. In our reports, we use median values to signal what the target should be for a campus. Very few campuses will have the exact same value as the median, however, which can make it hard to evaluate if your own results are considered normal. 

That’s why we also include the typical range, which you might think of as a “normal range,” helping you more confidently decide if what you see on your campus is normal.

What does the typical range mean?

  • A smaller typical range means there is more consistency among campuses.
  • A larger typical range means there is less consistency among campuses. 

The Differences Between Campus Sizes

When we look at conversation within higher ed in fall 2020 with the lens of typical ranges, it’s clear that consistency among campuses of a certain size varies greatly, across conversation volume, unique authors, and content sources. 

Depending on the size of your campus size, the data from the May benchmarking report has very different takeaways. 

The Impact of Athletics

Let’s start with conversation volume and the number of unique authors for campuses of each size, specifically when adding athletics. We've written about why athletics matters for marketing and communication teams multiple times. In 2019, we examined the impact of athletics in relation to our 2019 Benchmarking Report on the Brain Waves blog, and just a few months ago, we wrote about why athletics matters for your brand and how to create better relationships with athletics. 

The TL;DR of those articles is this: a substantial amount of the athletics conversation about your campus comes from within your campus. But the audience that sees your athletics content often isn’t the same audience that follows your non-athletics branded accounts. Therefore, there’s an opportunity to weave brand pillars and non-athletics strategic messaging into that conversation to increase awareness of your campus and overall brand alignment.

Conversation Volume

When we look at conversation volume by enrollment size, we see that both large (at or above 5,000 full-time enrollment, or FTE) and small (below 2,000 FTE) campuses see the same increase in conversation volume (65%) when we incorporate athletics conversation.

However, when we examine the typical range of conversation volume with athletics included, the typical range for large campuses increases by 16%, meaning most campuses see a similar increase in volume. For small campuses, however, the typical range increases by 61%, and for very small (under 500 FTE) campuses, the typical range increases by 60%—meaning the increase in conversation volume from athletics is far less consistent across small and very small campuses. 

Unique Authors

We see the same phenomenon when we look at unique authors. When we look at the number of unique authors by enrollment size and incorporate athletics conversation, small campuses see a similar increase in the median number of unique authors (62%) as do large campuses (56%). 

But again, the typical range of unique authors tells a different story. For large campuses, the typical range of unique authors only increases by 1% when incorporating athletics. What’s considered normal really doesn’t change at all. But for small campuses, the typical range increases by 57%. The bump in what’s considered normal is substantially wider, or less consistent, when athletics enters the picture. 

Content Sources

This varied level of consistency doesn’t just occur when considering athletics. Let’s examine industry conversation by content sources. As a reminder, understanding where your online conversation occurs informs where to invest your time and effort and guide your overall content strategy. 

In our analysis, we grouped conversation content sources into six categories. 

  • Social Media: Includes social media sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
  • News: Includes sites labeled or promoted as news sources.
  • Forums: Includes forum sites like Reddit and College Confidential.
  • Blogs: Includes blog sites primarily focused on individual or small group opinions.
  • Media Sharing: Includes sites like Flickr that are dedicated to image and video hosting.
  • Reviews: Includes review sites like TripAdvisor.

Because content sources indicate where conversation happens and to what degree, campuses can prioritize using this information to monitor and be present on the sites that matter most to their constituents. Furthermore, this information can provide a competitive advantage. Once a campus knows how they measure up, they can identify where and how much their competitors appear and grow their presence and market share accordingly.

Content Source Median Typical Range
Social Media 74% 61–85%
News 20 10–28%
Forums 2% 1–3%
Blog 2% 1–4%

Generally speaking, regardless of enrollment size and campus type, campuses can expect that social media is the most popular place for conversations to occur about campuses, followed by the news. Campuses can also expect that the typical range for more popular conversation sources, like social media, is likely larger than less popular content sources like blogs. 

Content Sources by Enrollment Size

But when we look at content sources by enrollment size, we again see differences in consistency. 

Take social media, for example, where the largest volume of conversation takes place. 

Source Metric Campus Size
Very Small Small Medium Large
Social Media Median 75% 74% 76% 73%
Typical Range 57–90% 67–85% 70–81% 69–79%
News Median 20% 22% 17% 22%
Typical Range 7–33% 11–27% 14–21% 16–23%
Forums Median 1% 2% 2% 2%
Typical Range 0–3% 1–3% 1–2% 2–2%
Blog Median 2% 2% 2% 2%
Typical Range 1–6% 1–3% 1–4% 2–3%

For a large campus, the typical range of conversation on social media is 69–79%, a difference of 10 percentage points. But for a small campus, the typical range is 67–85%—that’s a difference of 18 percentage points. At very small campuses the typical range is even larger at a whopping 33 percentage points. 

The same trend exists for news. For large campuses, the typical range of conversation in the news is 16–23%, a difference of 8 percentage points. But for small campuses the typical range is 11–27%, double the difference at 16 percentage points. At very small campuses, the typical range is 7–33%—a difference of 26 percentage points.  

Why the Consistent Inconsistency?

Why is there consistently more consistency (say that five times fast) among large campuses? For starters, large campuses were more likely able to uniformly support an athletics season during the fall 2020 semester than their small and very small counterparts, whose plans varied from staying on schedule to delays to outright cancellations.

More agreement in the proportion of content source by campus size is likely related to a more predictable presence across different areas of the web for large campuses, due to increased brand recognition, especially in social and the news, than small or very small enrollment campuses that may vary in their brand recognition. 

And across all metrics, resource allocations need to be considered. Larger campuses likely have a greater pool of resources to pull from and a larger number of accounts to work with versus a smaller campus with smaller team sizes and budgets. That’s especially important to consider for the time period analyzed, when furloughs and layoffs caused by financial hardship were sometimes necessary. For a team of 10 or more, losing a team member or multiple team members doesn’t have the same impact as it does for teams of one.

What Does this Data Mean for You?

If You’re at a Large Campus

For professionals on large campuses, this data should reinforce that reporting on vanity metrics or broader goals such as awareness, on their own, is unlikely to communicate or reinforce your value. One could argue that doing so never adequately communicated your value. Indeed, despite your best efforts, your campus is more likely to fall in line with your peers on matters such as conversation volume, unique authors, and the percentage of conversation taking place on social media and the news. And because there is so much conversation taking place about your campus, your big wins when it comes to social posts or story pitches are less likely to get noticed on their own by senior leadership of members of the board.

Instead, you’ll need to identify other ways to prove your impact. Consider the work of West Virginia University, which has worked over a number of years to directly tie marketing activity to revenue metrics. This can’t be done in a vacuum; you’ll need to involve others in this journey, and in the process, fostering what Melissa Richards, Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Hamilton College, calls a Culture of Assessment

If You’re at a Small or Very Small Campus

For professionals on small and very small campuses, the lack of consistency presents a massive opportunity. Less consistency equals a greater chance of differentiating your campus from your competitors, and in the process, proving your value and making the case for a larger budget.

  • Build a list of your competitors. You may use a combination of rankings, cross-application data, physical location, search engine marketing analytics, campus subject matter experts, or even social listening data. That’s called a shameless plug. 
  • Understand your differentiators. Do you offer a different level, or different roster, of athletic programs? Do you have more outspoken coaches within your athletics department? Will they share content that ladders up to established brand pillars? 
    • How do your academic offerings compare? Is there an area of study unique to your campus? Can you work with faculty in that department to pitch stories to journalists? 
    • What strategic initiatives are you working on that your competitors aren’t? Is there a narrative or angle you can use that’s unique to your campus? 
    • To the extent you’re able, work to understand the staff and resources your competitors are working with. How big is their team? How active are they on social platforms? What do you find when you google them and filter to news mentions? 
    • As you conduct your research, look for areas in which your efforts are giving your campus an advantage within your competitive set, as well as new areas in which you see an opportunity to compete more successfully with added investment. 
  • Build a list of the things you would need to seize the opportunities you identified. Do you need a bigger team? If so, what positions would you need? Do you need a bigger budget? If so, what would you spend that money on? 
    • Most importantly, consider how your added positions or financial power impact your outcomes as a department.
    • Ultimately, what you’re asking for is added investment; you need to show a return on that investment. Like with large campuses, increased awareness is not an acceptable goal. Instead, communicate what your team could deliver that impacts the bottom line or contributes to aspects of your strategic plan. 

When so much is in flux, within your campus and our industry, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and insecure. The pandemic has impacted every campus, but it hasn’t impacted every campus the same way. Know how it’s impacted you and your competitive set. And then chart a path towards a brighter future. Inconsistency is opportunity. Seize it.