Measuring Marketing ROI: Debunking 3 Common Myths

Higher education marketing professionals are under increased pressure to demonstrate the effectiveness of their marketing and branding initiatives. To ensure funding, marketing offices must measure the return on investment of their strategies and communicate their success in tangible ways.

We turned this week to Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, to ask where institutions may be misdirecting their attention when it comes to measuring marketing ROI. She indicated three “myths” or challenges that hold many institutions back.

Myth 1: That it’s impossible.

“There is a common misperception, both within and outside of university marketing departments,” Scarborough notes, “that it’s ultimately impossible to measure the impact of your marketing efforts. But you can gather metrics that allow you to assess the impact of your work in specific terms. The problem is that often, presidents and board members will in fact ask unanswerable questions, such as ‘How many students do we enroll because of that billboard we put up on the interstate?’ That’s an unanswerable question. Most colleges are investing more in marketing than they ever have in the past, and leadership has every right to ask what they are getting for their investment. But they may not know which questions to ask.”

The challenge for marketing professionals, Scarborough suggests, is to educate institutional leadership and other key constituents about what is measurable – and what isn’t. Identify specific measures that are linked to institutional goals, and be able to tell a clear story.

Scarborough advises:

  • Be proactive – put together a marketing dashboard to track key measures of success, and share that dashboard with institutional leaders, whether or not they have asked explicitly for it
  • Build familiarity with your key measures by inviting regular and frequent discussions of the data with institutional leaders

Scarborough explains, “If I go out to any president in the country and say, ‘Did you know that the retention rate at this other institution is 87 percent?’ They instantly know that’s great – because they have a familiarity with what that metrics is. If I go out to any institution and say, “This institution has a 65 percent alumni participation rate, they will know that’s high, and if I say 9 percent, they’ll know it’s terrible. They have context for understanding that metric. But if I say, ‘The president of such-and-such an institution has 25,000 Twitter followers,’ they don’t know if that’s good or bad. The president I’m speaking with doesn’t have any familiarity with the metric or with how to interpret at a glance when something good is happening, versus when something bad is happening.”

"Help institutional leaders develop the same level of familiarity with your marketing metrics as they have with the institution’s enrollment metrics, retention metrics, and giving metrics. The only way they will develop that familiarity is if you bring that data to their attention again and again. This is why developing a marketing dashboard to track and present your key measures of productivity is so critical."
Elizabeth Scarborough, SimpsonScarborough

Myth 2: That you can be effective without tying metrics back to performance improvement.

Scarborough notes that marketing professionals at most colleges and universities have not yet developed a system for feeding key measures of success back into specific improvements for their team’s efforts. “We get so occupied in our daily business, and never really develop a systematic, periodical effort to feed these data back to our own internal team. But our staff need to develop familiarity with these metrics no less than our leadership needs to. We need that familiarity in order to help us make better decisions. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Scarborough suggests ensuring that the marketing department’s key performance measures are used to inform:

  • Individual performance evaluation
  • Annual goal-setting

Myth 3: That you can calculate ROI without knowing the "I".

Because marketing expenditures remain decentralized at most institutions, making meaningful statements about return on investment can prove especially difficult, because there are likely cases in which the chief marketing officer does not know what the level of investment actually is. The business school may have spent a million dollars on advertising, the development office may have spent a few million marketing to alumni, while the central marketing office has its own separate budget.

Scarborough suggests that it is important to ensure that the central marketing officer has the authority and responsibility to track and measure marketing expenditures across the campus – and that this officer is held accountable for doing so. This is a prerequisite not only for being able to document and explain ROI on marketing initiatives, but also to make more strategic and informed decisions about where to invest, going forward.

"As our marketing efforts become more sophisticated, our measurement of their effect needs to become more sophisticated. Start tracking and reporting the measures that matter to the extent that you can, whether you have been asked to do so or not. After all, you can’t keep going back to the president time and again asking for more money to do more marketing, without providing data and a narrative that shows them what the money they have already invested has achieved for the institution."
Elizabeth Scarborough, SimpsonScarborough