Not Your Regular #highered Annual Report: Michigan State Goes Real-Time and Social

February 27th, 2013 Karine Joly 6 Comments

Do you remember your school’s last annual report?

Unless you spent countless hours working on it for several months, chances are you didn’t read or even open it.

The annual report (or the President’s report depending on how it’s called at your institution) is a very important staple of the advancement toolkit in higher education. This is where most non-profit institutions tell (and show) what they have done with the funds given by small and big donors or granted by governments, foundations or companies.

Yet, this ultimate “return on investment” document is rarely seen by people who haven’t given any money.

While the introduction of digital annual report (Boston University’s report, winner of an eduStyle award, comes to mind) has made it more accessible, interactive and sometimes playful, the ratio of time spent reading it to the time invested in creating it is… painful.

Spartans Will. 360 = Global + Real-Time + Social

Spartans Will. 360 Annual ReportIn this context, what Michigan State University decided to do this year for its report is unconventional and innovative.

Since the earlier days of January 2013, a team composed of staffer and students has been traveling all over the world to build in real-time and in front of a noticeable social media following the digital report, “SPARTANS WILL. 360,” showcasing the research and other great things done by Spartans.

The team has also gathered an incredible amount of content (photos, videos, etc.) that will be used on other channels.

After Kristen Parker, Communications Manager, pitched me the story a couple of weeks ago, I managed to do an email interview with, Heather Swain, Vice President of Communications and Brand Strategy at Michigan State, so we can all learn more about this new take on annual reports.

1) Why did Michigan State choose to go social and real-time with its President’s report? What were the strategic goals for this project?

Heather Swain

Heather Swain (Photo credit: G.L. Kohuth, Michigan State University)

Traditional university annual reports and president’s reports just don’t get read that much. And, because most universities are mission-driven and have very similar missions – teaching, research, outreach – we start to look the same, too.

So, we simply started with a What if?

What if instead of saying it, we showed it?

What if instead of reading about it or seeing it in a video we were somehow able to take you there?

What if we could really communicate, in an emotional way, the power of discovery and new knowledge gained through research and applied in the field to change the world – because that is what we do at Michigan State? So, our strategic goal was to build something that would satisfy these questions. We decided that the only way you can achieve this is to give a voice to your researchers, to your chroniclers, and to your audience. You don’t just tell the story, you tell the story in multiple ways, you talk about the story, you share the story, you take the story to where the audience is and you celebrate the story.

2) You’ve indicated in an interview to Ragan.com that this project will cost $220,000 – most of the budget being spent on travel expenses. How will you measure its success and return on investment?

Last year’s report was primarily an online product. However, we did produce a printed piece to mail to a select list of donors and prospective donors. The cost was approximately $10,000. This year we’ve invested in content acquisition, but even more than that, in taking a talented storytelling and engagement team on location so that our audience can feel they’re on this journey of discovery, too.

Results for this year’s report have been impressive.

  • There have been nearly twice as many visitors to the SPARTANS WILL.360 website in the first six weeks than there were total visits to the president’s report last year… and we haven’t even promoted the “final” president’s report website.
  • Visitors to the site spend an average of 4.5 minutes and visit 7 pages. The prior year, they visited only 1.13 pages and spent only 1.19 minutes on our president’s report site.

But, frankly, this isn’t the kind of project where you measure return on investment in simple terms. We’re not capturing leads or trying to generate a sale. This is really just part of our ongoing university-level brand image marketing, and we look to move the needle on certain brand perceptions over time. These are benchmarked and identified, and we have a timeline for measurement.

This report covered tens of thousands of miles, but the mileage we’ll get out of it is almost as impressive as the distance covered. In addition to creating content for a website and social accounts for more than two months, it has or will provide content for an online “artifact” report, for Big Ten Network television shows, for our Spartan Sagas, for brand banners on the msu.edu homepage, for products our colleges and Advancement are using for fundraising, and for college websites, and newsletters and magazines, and the list goes on.

3) So far only 1.7% of MSU following on Facebook has liked the report Facebook page despite the great, unique and engaging content posted there. Any idea why a bigger part hasn’t engaged with this project yet?

Spartans Will. 360 Facebook PageMichigan State’s Facebook following of 215,000 plus was developed over a period of four years. It’s a broad audience with a mix of members from prospective students to current students to parents to athletic fans to alumni to people in the state or the world who have benefitted from the work that we do.

Creating separate social media accounts for SPARTANS WILL.360 was never about trying to hit high numbers—we knew these accounts would only exist for a limited amount of time—it was more about creating a dynamic space where enthusiasts could interact with our crew and get the feeling of going behind the scenes. It was about creating places where those ambassadors could pick up content and share it with friends, expanding the reach of this content in ways that are way beyond the scope of a traditional president’s or annual report, even one online, even one with “share” buttons on every story.

So with just 3,244 fans and growing—which isn’t too bad for a six week period—we’ve reached more than 470,000 people via Facebook and there are 6,000 people talking about 360 on Facebook. Close to 8,000 stories have been generated about SPARTANS WILL.360. We have more than 10,000 engaged users. On the university’s main FB page, Michigan State University — SPARTANS, each SPARTANS WILL.360 story posted is seen by an additional 32,000 on average.

Beyond the total fan count, we’ve seen great metrics for the number of people the content has reached. The content posted to the SPARTANS WILL. 360 Facebook Page has reached a total of 418,584 people—2,544 of those reached were organic, 101,133 were paid, and 345,246 were viral. Close to 8,000 stories have been generated about SPARTANS WILL. 360 and there are 6,000 people talking about 360 on Facebook. On the university’s main Facebook page, Michigan State University – SPARTANS, we’ve reached more than 470,000 people with the most recent promoted post and each SPARTANS WILL. 360 story posted is seen by an additional 32,000 on average.

So, when you take our website and Facebook metrics together and consider them with the great positive comments and anecdotal feedback via these mechanisms and others, we are by every measure of reach, engagement, and simply delighting our audience, killing it compared to any kind of president’s report we could have done without social media as a key part of it. And there are things we have learned about how to produce and frame our content that will inform what we do with our other products going forward.

4) How did you promote the initiative on social media channels? Have you done any Facebook advertising? Anything you would do (are doing) differently at this point?

We have shared, mentioned, and promoted via our primary social media accounts at the institutional level and have worked with our partners in other parts of the university—University Advancement and the individual colleges—for instance, to promote through their channels. The content and calls to action shared are tailored to work well in the individual social networks like Twitter and Facebook. We’ve also varied what is being posted in order to keep it interesting—a mix of images, stories, videos, spur of the moment content and more slickly produced content.

We did limited Facebook promotion. Two out of our three Facebook paid promotions, which consist of two ads, one sponsored story, and one promoted post, pointed to the 360 website. The most recent one pointed to the 360 Facebook page. That one was the most successful, increasing likes by 136 percent in a month. The Facebook sponsored stories and promoted posts help reach both the audiences who have liked our pages and those who have indicated interest in MSU or have friends/connections who like MSU We plan to continue using some promoted posts since we still have three weeks to go as we end with four more Michigan stories.

Traditional e-mail to our alumni at launch was also a key component of the marketing. We sent them an e-mail from the president letting them know about the project and how to follow it. We will also promote the final “artifact” website to alumni and friends, as well as higher education peers via e-mail this spring.

This has been an epic adventure for our folks out in the field, but it’s also been adventure in conceptualization, design and development for the team in the office as we worked on this project. From travel and support logistics to technology needs to designing the interplay of components in the interface working, in the end there was a tremendous amount we had to learn about flying with the airplane in the air. Everything wasn’t always perfect. But the outcome has been outstanding.