Four Data Sources to Guide Effective Higher Ed Digital Storytelling

The data you need to improve storytelling on your site may already be available. You just need to know where to look.

When you think about digital brand storytelling at a college or university, you may initially think about stories of outstanding individual achievement: faculty conducting groundbreaking research, students having enriching learning experiences, or alumni making a meaningful impact on the world.

But beyond the incredible individuals who comprise your incredible institution, there is a different story lurking — in the aggregate.

Colleges and universities, for the most part, are massive collectors of data. Most of this data collection happens outside of the marketing communications function — by an institutional research office, the president or provost’s office, career services, enrollment, or student affairs, for instance. But the same data can add tremendous value to your digital storytelling by surfacing new narratives and ideas.

Why Data-Driven Digital Storytelling Examples Are Effective

Data is fascinating because it exposes patterns, trends, gaps and needs. By taking the pulse on important institutional realities, perceptions, or outcomes, data can shine a light on a story worth telling. In short, the trend or opportunity that the data illustrates can be addressed or capitalized upon through content.

We’ve identified four ways you can use institutional data to inform how you communicate about your institution through these digital storytelling examples.

1. Post-Graduate Outcome Surveys

These surveys are “data gold.” In the all-consuming quest to demonstrate return-on-investment (ROI), solid post-graduate survey data is a rich asset. These surveys, typically administered or overseen by a career services office, are administered to recent graduates to document where they ended up shortly after graduation (usually six months out).

The data you’ll find in these surveys may help illustrate the answer to the question of “what’s next?” by showing how the educational experience at your institution leads directly to relevant outcomes – whether it’s a job or it’s a graduate or professional program. These outcomes help prove the value of the educational product, which is important given recent criticism of higher education. For example,

  • The higher percentage of students who are employed in their field of study or matriculate to a graduate school, the stronger case you can make that your school’s education puts students on a path to professional success.

  • ​The higher the average starting salary, the more you can argue that students enter the job market in a better position (and you can factor that into dialogue about repaying students loans, as well).

From this data, you’ll also gain a sense of what industries your students are entering. (Take heart, liberal arts colleges, if your graduates are bringing that incomparable blend of critical thinking skills to STEM disciplines.) If a high percentage are at nonprofits, this may bolster your narrative of yielding graduates committed to leaving the world better than they found it.

There are stories lurking in how undergraduates found their jobs (the advantage of an engaged alumni network) and where they are employed or enrolled (perhaps indicating that students at your regional school enjoy prestigious national opportunities). And even at the individual level, you may find out about a graduate who is neither employed nor enrolled in a grad program, but rather taking an unconventional yet intriguing path.

2. Admissions Decline Surveys

Even if an accepted student declines to enroll at your institution, there is still some value to be gained. That value comes from the decline survey.

The decline survey has several key benefits for your enrollment leaders, such as understanding what factors influenced the decision to not attend, identifying competitors, gauging the attractiveness of financial aid packages, and analyzing demographic trends.

But the responses to this critical survey can also shape content planning by addressing the perception or information gaps that may have influenced the decision to decline admission. Consider these digital storytelling examples:

  • Is your school being perceived as too expensive even though you know there are significant resources available to support students? Elevate stats around aid, or tell stories about scholarship recipients.

  • Are first-generation students staying away? Tell more stories about successful first-gen alumni, or showcase the on-campus experience of a first-gen student.

  • Did a surprising number of respondents fail to visit campus? Elevate your call-to-action for campus visit, create videos highlighting your campus environment from the student perspective, ask student bloggers to write about the value of the campus visit, or better promote access to your campus ambassadors.

  • Did students make a different choice because of your location? Use your students to create authentic snapshots of what campus life is like, or showcase how your host community is a fun place for students to live.

Content is just one factor in a student’s decision journey, but when delivered in the right place at the right time, it could make a meaningful difference.

3. Campus Climate Surveys

According to Dr. Susan Rankin of Rankin & Associates, campus climate consists of the "current attitudes, behaviors, standards and practices of employees and students of an institution,” shaped by personal experiences, perceptions and institutional efforts.

Many institutions undertake campus climate surveys to understand how key climate factors such as inclusion, diversity, and equity are experienced or perceived across campus from the perspective of different identity groups or demographics.

While some of the truths these surveys may surface are difficult and warrant a breadth of measures to consider and address, digital storytelling is one powerful tool to employ.

Consider this digital storytelling example: Andrew Careaga, executive director of marketing & communications at Missouri S&T, implemented a new content strategy approach when his institution’s campus climate survey indicated that certain groups on campus felt marginalized. After consulting with leadership, Careaga had the buy-in to create stories with the goal of demonstrating to these groups that they were heard and supported.

Careaga and his team published “conversations” about the experiences of African-AmericanHispanic, and veteran students on campus, women in STEM, and LGBTQ campus life. International students will be featured in a future story. (If you look at the datelines on these digital storytelling examples, you’ll note that the publication of these stories was planned against relevant milestones like Pride Month and Veterans Day.)

By featuring stories like this, Missouri S&T is communicating to these student populations that they are valued members of the campus community. It takes more than one story to make that a felt reality, but seeing yourself reflected in the mirror of the institution can leave a strong impact.

While the focus for this initiative was internal, one could easily see this approach extrapolated to target more external audiences.

4. Institutional Profile Data

Ah, the campus fact book. What used to be a glorious, spiral-bound repository of mundane campus facts is now a glorious PDF-formatted repository of mundane campus facts. But what stories lurk therein?

Like most juicy data stories, the key is to look at the trends.

  • What programs are growing?

  • What regions (or countries) are sending more students to your school?

  • ​What demographic or identity groups are growing within your campus community?

If you keep tabs on how the character of your campus community is evolving, you’ll gain a richer sense of how to communicate to its members.

Spinning Data Into Digital Storytelling Gold

In each case, these aren’t idle stories that read great but do little. When equipped with a thoughtful content strategy and lifted by a targeted digital marketing effort, they can help move the needle by pairing strong narrative with statistical reinforcement.

But as always with data, the numbers alone are not the whole story - but they are usually the start of one. Consult with institutional leadership or relevant stakeholders to fully understand the context behind the numbers and see where the story really is, any considerations around how best to tell it, and any other priorities that may inform your decision-making.

You’ll also want to consider the best way to tell a story. Sometimes, it’s a news or feature story that builds a written narrative around a trend or data point. Other times, it may be thinking about how best to contextually present current data to reinforce more static copy. Perhaps a bigger data-oriented story could be told visually (but still accessibly!) with an infographic, or you can use insights from institutional data to inform a compelling video feature.

This post only touches on a few of the rich data sources you may find at your institution. What are some other ideas for driving better higher ed digital storytelling with institutional data? Tweet at us and let us know!