Universal Analytics: A game changer for higher ed?

Learn what every higher ed digital analytics professional will soon be talking about.

Not long ago, I asked presenters at the Higher Ed Analytics Conference what the next “big thing” would be. Their answer? Universal Analytics, or UA.

Philippe Taza, of the Montreal-based digital marketing agency Higher Ed Marketing, explained that tracking a visitor across multiple devices would be both important and desirable—something UA will make possible. Alan Etkin, project and web analytics manager at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and digital analytics consultant for Noel-Levitz, agreed. The implementation of UA with Google’s tag management system will be a priority for his school in the coming months. Shelby Thayer, director of web strategy and CRM at Penn State Outreach and Online Education, also said UA will play an important role in higher education.

As Google explains on its website (http://tiny.cc/UniversalAnalytics), the goal of UA is to help you get a better understanding of how visitors interact with your online content.

Some institutions, including Penn State, and Lehigh University and the University of Scranton, also in Pennsylvania, have already switched to UA. At Eastern Kentucky University, the UA code is run in parallel with the classic version of Google Analytics. However, most early adopters haven’t yet implemented anything that couldn’t be done with the original Google Analytics. As usual in higher education, it’s a process.

What is UA? Why should you care?

According to my 2012 State of Higher Ed Analytics Survey (http://tiny.cc/AnalyticsSurvey), 97 percent of institutions use Google Analytics to track and measure web data, so any big change is a big deal. But the Universal Analytics “upgrade,” introduced in 2012, will become the only solution supported by Google within two years.

This improved version offers new features that change how data is collected and organized. “On the surface, UA will continue to work like Google Analytics. Under the hood, however, UA is a totally reengineered analytics platform that expands capabilities to an unprecedented level,” says Stephane Hamel, director of Innovation at Cardinal Path, a web analytics consultancy. Hamel, who also teaches a graduate course on digital analytics at Laval University in Quebec, thinks UA will redefine digital analytics practice in three ways.

First, by shifting from “visitors and visits” to “users across devices,” UA will help institutions get the whole picture of their digital interactions with students—through all devices: computers, tablets, smartphones and others. “Once you can authenticate a user (via a student ID for example), you can gain a single view of your students,” Hamel says.

Second, UA will let institutions create their own dimensions and metrics, literally extending and customizing the kind of attributes that can be tracked, measured and analyzed. “You could add meta-info about programs and courses to reveal affinities, or conduct advanced cohort analysis to understand the factors leading to students dropping from a program,” says Hamel.

Finally, the “measurement protocol” introduced with UA promises to bridge the online and offline environments, opening a world of possibilities when it comes to tracking, measuring and understanding interactions with students and other constituencies—online and on-site.

Prospective student payoff

It also is possible to integrate other kinds of data streams in UA. As long as interactions can be captured by a device or unique ID associated to a given user, you can feed the resulting data to your Universal Analytics account. This means that you now have access to a platform that can help better follow, analyze and understand how your online calls-to-action are carried over in the real world. Hamel believes that students’ cards—often scanned when labs, library or sporting resources are accessed—can become an insightful data source for Universal Analytics.

Now, imagine if you were to give a “VIP card” to prospective students who expressed interest online that they could use when they visit campus, and then register and later attend your school until they graduate. You could gain wonderful insights on prospective, current and past student populations—as well as forecast future trends via some predictive analytics. Now do you see the potential?

Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of www.higheredexperts.com.


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