Social Media Analytics Measures ROI for Commencement Speakers

Universities can measure the success of their speakers over social media

Marking the moment when college graduates receive their degrees, commencement ceremonies are much-anticipated events. Attended by students, professors, parents, siblings, grandmas and grandpas, and many others, colleges and universities take great pains to make sure that their ceremonies meet the expectations of all of their attendees. As university budgets become tighter and social media extends access to these events to people across the globe, there is more pressure than ever to generate positive conversation on and offline.

While plenty of graduates have been Tweeting about graduation day weather, outfits, and celebrations, they have also been Tweeting about another very important element of commencement, the speaker. Each year, schools select an individual to speak to graduates and their guests about the challenges and opportunities that await them on the next stage of their journey. This individual may be an alumnae, a celebrity, a politician, or another notable figure. Selecting the right speaker can have many positive payoffs including positive conversation that promotes future giving from graduates. However, schools also face many constraints. While hiring celebrities may generate the most discussion, they often require a substantial speaker’s fee. Figures who may be or say something controversial may also harm university donations and identity. In reality, conversations are generally composed of a mix of positive and negative comments. The key for universities is to maximize positive conversation.


In order to analyze how the selection of the commencement speaker influences conversation, we will look at two different speakers. The University of Houston selected Matthew McConaughey, a popular actor who has recently been in the news for appearances in new movies and commercials. In contrast, Tufts University selected Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, who is revered by some as one of the most powerful women in U.S. politics.
When looking at buzz surrounding the announcement, it appears as though McConaughey is the clear winner. Over 2k Tweets were written when it was announced that he would give the commencement address at University of Houston, while only 9 Tweets were written about Madeleine Albright.
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This trend mirrors the conversation that took place during commencement. McConaughey’s addresses garnered the university over 3k Tweets over graduation weekend, while Tufts earned just over 300 Tweets during the same time period. Not surprisingly, the significant difference in volume influenced potential impressions. From 26 million total potential impressions to just 2 million total potential impressions, it appears as though more alumni and future students are reached with a celebrity commencement speaker.
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However, when determining the return on investment for your commencement speaker, it is vital to dig deeper than volume comparisons. For instance, Auto Sentiment provides a useful tool for comparing the proportion of positive, negative, and neutral Tweets in both conversations. Although fewer Tweets were written about Madeleine Albright, 23% of the conversation discussing her speech was positive compared to only 15% of the conversation talking about McConaughey’s address. Although the difference is not shocking, it suggests that a more in-depth analysis may highlight other differences between these two addresses.
It is clear that not all of the McConaughey conversation may have been positive after looking at the Word Clouds for each commencement speaker. The conversation surrounding Madeleine Albright is represented by words such as work, dream, and achieve, which are often seen in commencement addresses. Words specific to her address and Tufts University also appear including activism, inequality, and #nocutsfortufts. While not all alumni and students may have been thrilled by her call to social justice, it is clear that the conversation focused on graduation and issues faced by the university.
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In contrast, the conversation surrounding McConaughey is represented by the expected advice, truths, and life, as well as words representing another topic, his speaking fee. A significant amount of the McConaughey conversation is focused on this fee including top influencers on Twitter. Words associated with the cost of hiring him, which is roughly $135,000, is clearly a popular topic of conversation. Looking at top Retweets and top influencers, it appears as though a significant portion of the conversation was focused on the fee.


While it appears as though hiring a celebrity paid off for University of Houston, the high price may be just the problem. Comprehensive social media analytics expose the volume, sentiment, and content of two conversations. While it is clear that McConaughey positively influenced the volume of conversation surrounding the University of Houston commencement, it unclear how beneficial that conversation actually was. With a higher proportion of positive Tweets and a more focused conversation, it appears as though the Madeleine Albright may be more valuable although smaller. In short, when competing for funding from alumni, it is vital to make sure your donors are happy about where their money is going.

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