Deakin University transforms engagement with social media command centre

Melbourne-based university says the launch of a social media command and innovation centre is part of a whole-of-business strategy to put digital first in customer engagement

Deakin University CMO, Andrea Turling
Deakin University CMO, Andrea Turling

Deakin University is claiming to be the first Australian tertiary institution to launch its own social media command centre as it seeks to bring digital into the heart of customer and community interaction.

The Social Media Command and Innovation Centre (SMCIC) represents more than 18 months’ work to embrace social as an integrated business tool and adopt a digital-first strategy, said executive director of marketing, Andrea Turley.

Deakin has been working in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers on the project, and has rolled out SDL’s social listening and management platform. The university maintains four campuses and has 50,000 students.

The ambition is to enhance customer experience, drive customer advocacy and support decision making using real-time digital insights.

“Our customer has changed; it’s about understanding they are always connected, and that we have to engage with them that way,” Turley told attendees at the SDL Innovate event in Sydney.

“This poses great opportunities as well as challenges. Customers are incredibly well informed and often faster than the business around what’s happening. And they have great choice: The university sector is about to potentially undergo significant changes to our funding and the way our business model looks and choice is a big part of what customers are experiencing.”

The command centre, which was officially unveiled in May, acts as a “change agent” by providing a social centre of excellence and training capabilities, the CMO said.

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But it was an industrial action incident 12 months ago that really taught the university about social media’s impact. The staff action threatened to deprive graduating students across several Australian universities of their final results.

Turley said up to 70 per cent of Deakin’s students were faced with either partial results, or none at all. They immediately began jumping on social channels to express their outrage. Nearly 1000 comments were posted on social channels within hours of news of the incident, compared to just two phone calls.

Working in partnership with the call centre, Deakin’s marketing and social teams compiled responses to potential questions and concerns in a bid to minimise the crisis. Turley said 15 social and call centre employees were ready when complaints kicked off at 6pm.

“We knew we had to respond quickly and that we couldn’t solve the problem,” she explained. “But we needed to try and placate people and turn negativity to a neutral state.”

The social team worked on responding to comments within five minutes. Responses included apologising and referring students to information emails and FAQs, and stressing that it was circumstance rather than the business’ fault.

Turley said it led to peer-to-peer engagement and help diffuse anger against Deakin.

“The immediacy, tone and how we engaged was key in changing what could have been a PR nightmare into something neutral and almost advocacy,” she said. “If we had come into that situation at 9am the next day, it would have been a furore.”

Bringing in the voice of the customer

According to Turley, Deakin’s social push is part of the university’s ambitious strategic plan to “live the future and drive the digital frontier”.

The first step was recognising traditional year-on-year student recruitment no longer matched the way students choose universities and courses. Instead, prospects are engaged in a highly non-linear journey, PwC senior manager, Ahmet Ozman, said during the presentation.

Deakin executives were then shown customer insights from both the university’s owned social channels, as well as third-party sites and posts. It helped that social commentary matched insights gleaned from a $200,000 piece of brand research undertaken at the same time, Turling said.

“It has been really interesting introducing ‘customer’ into our vocabulary,” she continued. “It has been a huge part of this business journey with social media, as has sharing how we can now get access to our customers both as a push and pull method to inform our business strategy.”

Another step forward has been banning ‘campaign’ from the marketing team’s terminology, Turling said. “We used to do splashes in market… but we recognise now the customer journey is longer than that and always on,” she said.

The change is being reflected in marketing media spend. Previously, Deakin was spending 80 per cent of its budget on traditional channels. Today, digital represents 90 per cent. Turling also cited a significant shift in staffing towards more digital engagement and content marketing skills, with about 75 per cent of the team new recruits.

“Social media teams don’t work 9 to 5… we know people check social first thing in the morning and in the evening,” Turling said, adding that Deakin works to respond to any social inquiry within two hours. “We had to rethink business models on how to engage.”

Turling compared the rise of social to the introduction of the telephone and said it’s now core to business.

“Yes, social is being championed by the marketing area but it’s a whole-of-business tool and part of our strategy,” she said. “Many brands are getting good at pushing messages out with social, but the piece that’s missing is the powerful insights you can gain from social media tools.”

Measuring social

One big challenge many marketers face is turning social engagement into quantifiable commercial returns. As well as rolling out a social dashboard, Ozman said Deakin is measuring KPIs month to month and pushing those out across the organisation to drive transparency.

In the past year, Deakin has chalked up 257 per cent growth year-on-year for brand awareness on Facebook, with a 1396 per cent increase in engagement, while Twitter brand awareness is up 291 per cent. Deakin has 140,000 Facebook fans, up from 19,000 two years ago – an indication of the growth, Turley said.

Deakin also has a 32 per cent share of voice in the university sector in Australia and is well ahead of its next Australian university competitor, who has just 6 per cent, she claimed.

Read more: Optus claims world-first with Facebook trending campaign launching pre-paid offer

Most importantly, domestic enrolments have leapt up 39 per cent year-on-year, while international enrolments are up 9 per cent, much higher than the industry growth rate, Ozman said.

Deakin is now looking at how to use digital to drive further innovate the way the organisation engages. The university is also planning to trial iBeacon technology across its campuses as a way of bringing together insights into the physical, social and online behaviour of its customers, Ozman said.

“It’s about moving to a single view of the customer,” he said.

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