Tartan Datascapes November 2021: A Conversation with CJ Tompkins of University Communications & Marketing

Image of laptop with graphs.

We’re starting to hit the final stretch of the semester, and if you’re like me, you may be feeling quite exhausted. Now, part of that might just be that I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley and staying up later than I should, but that’s a topic for another day. As seasoned readers will know (and if you’re new here, welcome! It’s fantastic to have you!), as a part of the Tartan Datascapes universe I like to speak with different members of our CMU community to learn more about the unique ways they engage with data. Today, I’d like to highlight a staff member here who uses an interesting variety of data sources to help inform unique and engaging experiences at CMU. For the November Tartan Datascapes, I was fortunate to sit down with CJ Tompkins, Senior Marketing Analyst for University Communications & Marketing here at CMU, and chat about the fascinating world of data that she encounters in her role, and how marketing data often entails much more than we assume! So, sit back, relax, and let’s dive in!

There’s something amazing that can happen when taking raw data, analyzing it, and using it to tell interesting stories and make insights about the world around us. CJ’s role as Senior Marketing Analyst is to do exactly that! At the crux of her job, she is tasked with maximizing the University’s marketing efforts through collecting and analyzing data and turning it into actionable insights. When many of us think of data used in marketing, we may think of purely digital and quantitative sources such as website analytics and webpage click rates. While these certainly come into play in CJ’s role, in many aspects of her job, she comes into contact with data that may be a bit more difficult to quantify. I spoke with CJ about two of the many elements of her job to better understand the world of data that she encounters on a daily basis: measuring the impact of student tours, and understanding the reach and impact of COVID-19 communications on campus.

CMU offers tours to prospective students and their families as a way to better understand the campus environment and the student experience. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, these tours were offered in-person and CJ’s department collected data from these tours (including the number of registrants, feedback from tour participants, etc.) to measure their impact and use the findings to help inform the creation of more engaging experiences for those visiting our campus. Then, student tours went completely virtual in Spring 2020 in a quick (and often stressful!) transition that was demanded by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did help from a data perspective when CJ began her role at the beginning of the pandemic: the online platforms hosting these virtual tours produce a great deal of additional useful data, such as the student’s location (as virtual tours allowed for more student participation from those who normally couldn’t make it to campus), poll engagement, and what questions the students were asking, all data sources that help CJ further understand the impact of these tours and help plan for their future. Right now, CJ is still exploring what data (whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual) is important for understanding the impact of these tours and learning how to best collect it in a meaningful way.

As a second topic of conversation with CJ, we explored the data that she encounters in her role which may be more difficult to quantify and often requires a holistic approach to understanding how all the data fits together to tell a story. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, CJ’s department was interested in understanding if members of our campus community were seeing the University’s signage and messages related to COVID-19 health and safety measures. Without being able to directly knock on people’s doors and ask them if they’ve seen the content, it’s hard to know exactly the impact and requires some inference (using logical reasoning based on the information you do have). So, CJ strategized on how this impact could be inferred, primarily from looking at when messages from the University were released regarding COVID-19, and comparing that to website traffic:

“If we send out a communication about something, we can’t know that people are engaging with that deeply, but we can see a spike in traffic on the website. It’s always difficult to measure; we can’t have exacts, but we do our best to use all this to identify if we want to change something we’re doing. If we aren’t seeing a lot of traffic on our site with a message, we can also use that to pivot in a new direction.”

To me, it was fascinating to hear CJ describe this process of inference in understanding and analyzing data from different sources to help tell a story, as my own research often entails the same exact process! Even if we aren’t able to collect all the data we’d like to, we can often use the data we have to make reasonable inferences about a certain situation/topic/etc. and use that to inform our next steps.

Now, because I’m me and this is Tartan Datascapes, I had to ask CJ about data management. And, I’m thrilled to share that CJ has some pretty fascinating data management techniques and processes that she uses throughout the course of her role!

When working in marketing, it is common to have a lot of ongoing projects that take place over consecutive years, such as student tours and social media campaigns. In her workflow, CJ builds in time for regularly looking at the data she has for each year and using an R script to clean up the data and make sure everything is tidy and organized. This is an excellent strategy, and by building in time in your workflow that is specifically dedicated to data tidying, it’s more likely that you’ll stick with it, just like CJ. She also utilizes good file naming schemes to keep track of different versions of the data, and keeps original copies of the raw data on hand in case any of the analyzed secondary data needs to be re-run or any of the data is lost.

As I often note in this blog, CJ reflected that the idea of data management is easy, but the reality is a lot harder! And, as your data becomes more complex, it can get more difficult to manage. In CJ’s case, it can be hard to understand how to manage and compare student tour data across multiple years, particularly when the formats of these tours have changed from purely in-person, to virtual, and now to hybrid. As CJ notes, “How do you compare apples to oranges?” As difficult as this is, after my conversation with CJ where I learned all about the different ways she works with and manages data, I’m confident that she’s using this data to help inform more engaging and impactful experiences on our campus!

I hope you enjoyed this conversation with a member of our CMU community who is engaging with data in unique ways to help inform better experiences on our campus! As always, if you are a student, staff, or faculty member at CMU who works with data and would like to be featured in Tartan Datascapes, you can always submit your information to our webform and we’ll start the conversation!

by Hannah Gunderman, Data, Gaming, and Popular Culture Librarian

Feature image by Carlos Muza on Unsplash