Digital analytics case study: Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish

A couple of years ago, I co-authored an ebook with Katie Paine entitled, Communication Measurement Handbook for Higher Education. The ebook explains why marketing and communications executives at colleges and universities need to rethink how they measure their campaigns and programs — both for defining success and optimizing results.

The 62-page ebook not only spells out how to measure the effectiveness of your efforts, but also shares half a dozen case studies of institutions that are measuring what matters. Here is one of those digital analytics case studies, which illustrates why you don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish when it becomes necessary to cut your budget.

Case Study #1: Rutgers Center for Management Development (CMD)

In the third quarter of 2011, the Rutgers Center for Management Development (CMD) launched 10 new courses in its Mini-MBA program. And Rutgers CMD spent $23,230 to write, optimize, and distribute 10 press releases to promote each of these new courses in Content Marketing, Conversion Rate Optimization, Digital Marketing, Digital Public Relations, Email Marketing, Mobile Marketing, Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising, Search Engine Optimization, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. (Disclosure: Greg was also an instructor in several of these courses.)

To track this Digital PR Campaign in Google Analytics, they used Google’s Campaign URL Builder tool, which allowed them to easily add campaign parameters to URLs in each press release. And at the end of the campaign, Google Analytics reported the tagged links in the releases had generated 1,139 visits and 77 leads, which was a goal conversion rate of 6.8%. And 20% of these leads converted into registrations: 7 in online courses that cost $3,500, 6 in classroom courses that cost $4,995, and 2 in short courses that cost $595. In other words, the Digital PR campaign generated a total of $55,660 in incremental revenue.

Eric Greenberg, who served as Managing Director of Rutgers CMD at the time, decided to use 70% as the Mini-MBA program’s contribution margin. So, the ROMI for the Digital PR campaign was (approximately) ($55,660 * 70% – $23,230 / $23,230), or 0.7 – which is a positive ROMI, but not a significant one. But, this used the “Last Interaction” attribution model, which gave the last touchpoint – in this case, the tagged link in a press release – 100% of the credit for the registration.

However, there are other attribution models that give more credit to the first interaction. And during the quarter, organic search and direct traffic had increased 32.1% over the second quarter, generating 162 additional leads. And referral and social traffic had increased 22.9%, generating 27 extra leads. When news sites and blogs wrote stories about one of the announcements and included links to the Rutgers website, it was easy to make the case that the Digital PR campaign should be given credit for the traffic, leads, and registrations from these other channels. But, it was harder when all I could show was an increase in search, social, or direct traffic in the third quarter over the second quarter.

Why is this important? Well, if you added 37 incremental registrations from organic search, direct, referral, and social traffic to the 15 registrations that came directly from the press releases, then the Digital PR campaign may have generated a total of 52 registrations. This would have meant that the $23,230 Digital PR campaign may have generated $198,870 in incremental revenue. Do the math ($198,870 * 70% – $23,230/$23,230) and the ROMI is 5.0.

 So, did Rutgers CMD actually get a ROMI of 5.0 from this Digital PR campaign? We needed another test to find out.

In the fourth quarter of 2011, the Great Recession led New Jersey’s Governor and Legislature to cut the state’s support for higher education. So, Rutgers CMD distributed only 1 press release in the fourth quarter because its marketing and communications budget had been cut by 90%, from $23,230 to $2,323, “saving” $20,907.

Peter Methot, who was the program manager for the Rutgers Mini-MBA program back then, compared traffic to Rutgers CMD’s website in the third quarter, which included a significantly larger communications campaign, to the fourth quarter, which included a significantly smaller one.

In Q3 2011, tagged links in releases had generated 1,139 visits and 77 leads. In Q4 2011, tagged links in releases generated 220 visits and 20 leads. In other words, visits from tagged links dropped 80.7%, and leads from this source dropped 74.0% from the third to the fourth quarter. And some of the traffic and leads in Q4 actually came from releases that had been distributed in Q3.

In Q3 2011, organic search traffic had generated 6,243 visits and 437 leads. In Q4 2011, organic search traffic generated 5,939 visits and 339 leads. So, visits from organic search traffic dropped 4.9%, and leads from this source dropped 22.4%. In other words, natural links developed in Q3 didn’t disappear. So, they helped to maintain the ranking of CMD’s pages in Google’s search engine results. This explains why the traffic and leads from organic search went down, but at less dramatic rates.

In Q3 2011, direct traffic had generated 3,587 visits and 232 leads. In Q4 2011, direct traffic generated 2,182 visits and had a goal conversion rate of 5.1% (112 leads). So, visits from direct traffic dropped 39.2%, and leads from this source dropped 51.7%. In other words, fewer people discovered pages for Rutgers Mini-MBA courses, so far fewer bookmarked those pages to come back later and register for them.

In Q3 2011, referral and social traffic had generated 2,876 visits and 147 leads. In Q4, referral and social traffic generated 1,970 visits and 120 leads. So, visits from referral and social traffic dropped 31.5%, and leads from these sources dropped 18.4%. In other words, fewer journalists wrote articles, fewer bloggers wrote blog posts, and fewer social media influencers shared news about new Rutgers Mini-MBA courses with their followers.

Since Q4 includes the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, seasonality may have played a role, although Q3 includes the Independence Day and Labor Day holidays. I also double-checked to see if Rutgers CMD competitors had been more active in Q4 2011 than in Q3 2011. They hadn’t.

Nevertheless, Rutgers CMD saw a drop of 25.5% from 13,845 visits in the quarter with a much bigger Digital PR campaign to 10,311 visits in the quarter with a much smaller one. Rutgers CMD also saw a drop of 33.8% from 893 leads in third quarter to 591 leads in the fourth quarter. So, cutting the budget $20,907 in Q4 2011 had a hidden “cost” of 302 leads and 60 registrations worth $222,640 in revenue.

In other words, Rutgers “lost” $10.65 in tuition revenue for every $1.00 it “saved.”

Leave a Reply