Social Listening in Higher Ed

“Brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”
—Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap


Whether it’s in your job description or not, you’re concerned with the perception of your campus brand. But far too often, particularly when it comes to social media, there’s a ton of attention on content from your campus (i.e., what you post on your own accounts), and not nearly enough on the conversation about your campus, from other people and organizations. Even though what’s said about you is what ultimately defines your campus brand. The value of a brand comes down to whether people trust it. But you, as an official campus representative, may not be the most trustworthy source to those who are developing opinions of your campus. Why?

Because “a person like me” is historically at or near the top of the list as one of the most trustworthy people according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. This response has held strong for more than 15 years, when it first emerged in 2006.

And this all makes sense. Think about the last purchase you made. Whether it was a candle, skincare product, tickets to a play, or a new car, you probably made that purchase either on the recommendation of someone you know or with the assistance of online reviews. Because regardless of the brand's marketing, you wanted to know what other, real-life people like you had to say about it.

The information that comes from “unofficial” sources like social media, blogs, forums, and news sites makes up roughly 70% of online conversation about your campus. Social listening focuses on what people say online in those public spaces, and how understanding the perceptions formed about your campus from that conversation makes your campus strategy more effective.

What Is Social Listening?

Most campuses conduct social media monitoring—watching for posts to their Facebook page, or for someone to tag them on Twitter or Instagram. This is important work, but it’s akin to checking email or responding when someone calls your name on the street. To not do it is bad business and just plain rude. 

Social listening is searching the public social web for mentions or conversations of interest to you. It’s the digital equivalent of knowing what students say when they walk through campus, overhearing conversations among attendees at campus events, tagging along with alumni as they discuss their experience with friends at a party, or joining the family around the dinner table. It’s the ability to know when and how people talk about you publicly, rather than talking to you. 

Unless you’re gathering everything said about you online, in every place you can realistically access the data, you’re not engaging in social listening.

Types of Social Listening

Social listening collects data unobtrusively, without putting participants in a sterile research setting as with interviews, surveys, or focus groups. This creates an environment of increased authenticity and openness, offering you that view into real life experiences. Campus Sonar Founder and CEO Liz Gross likes to say that social listening is an always-on focus group that can help us answer almost any question at any time. 

Manual Social Listening

Manual social listening is using free or freemium tools like the search functionality built into Twitter or Reddit to find plain text mentions of your campus that don’t tag you, one at a time. You’ll find a few more mentions than social media monitoring, but will still only see a small portion of the conversation that’s actually out there and may spend extra time combing through the mentions you do find to ensure they’re relevant. If you want to dip your toes in the social listening water, try our cheat sheet.

Strategic Social Listening

Strategic social listening is gathering all of the publicly available online conversation relevant to you—regardless of platform—then transcribing, sorting, and analyzing it to provide your campus with the insights it needs to support data-driven, audience-centric strategies. 

This requires software (like Sprinklr, Brandwatch, NetbaseQuid) and human expertise (or an expert partner like Campus Sonar). Because it involves the collection and analysis of data to answer specific questions, it’s a method of research with two approaches to data collection.

  • Historical: The process of collecting publicly available online conversation from a previous time period. The primary benefit is the large, and at times overwhelmingly large, data set that is instantly available for analysis. It’s also valuable when you’re looking to learn more about a niche topic.
  • Ongoing: The process of collecting publicly available online conversation as it happens. It’s ideal if you’re present- or future-focused and more concerned about investing in long-term insights while benefiting from increased agility in the short-term, such as engaging with key audience groups, effectively managing crisis situations, or making strategic decisions with confidence by understanding the conversation around a particular aspect of your campus.

Data-Informed Marketing

Social media monitoring is a must in today’s world, but it’s also a reactive strategy. By simply monitoring, the best you can do is react to the online conversation you see about your campus, possibly in real-time, but possibly not. It requires manual work to find and sift through your conversation. And often that work is limited to what one to a few people (if you have a large social media team) can accomplish. 

But social listening is a proactive strategy that combines monitoring and strategy. It’s a stronger commitment to finding and using insights from your campus conversation like trends and themes, year-over-year analysis, or comparisons to industry benchmarks to influence your campus strategies for marketing, recruitment, fundraising and alumni development, and more. 

Benefits of Social Listening

Social listening uses observations from online conversation research to drive insights about your campus or topic. It allows you to understand:

Who contributes to the conversation about your campus—Students, parents, prospects, alumni, other key individuals.

Allows you to create or confirm audience segmentation for better understanding and greater visibility into engagement opportunities with these groups.

What they talk about—The topics and hashtags they use.

Informs the topics your audiences care about and guides your brand messaging.

When they talk about it—if there are patterns to the conversation.

Informs when you could post more owned content (e.g., during times of lower conversation volume) or when to expect more engagement (e.g., times when your audience is more engaged with a topic).
Where they talk about it—social media, news sites, forums, blogs.
Encourages strategic communication and engagement on the platforms where your specific audiences are, and are at their most comfortable.
How they talk about it—the sentiment and emotion they share.
 Indicates how your audience might react to events, content, or activities.

Understanding these observations about your campus allows you to turn them into actions.

Higher Ed Outcomes

These actions lead to more direct outcomes that align with your specific campus goals.

  • Monitor your brand. Understand the public narrative about your campus and track key metrics to manage your brand as an asset. 
  • Crisis management. Know when a crisis is on the horizon and monitor the issue to inform your response, ensure campus safety, and mitigate brand impact.
  • Engage with your audience. Capture high-value conversations you’re likely missing and optimize your social strategy to engage with humans in a way that’s relevant to your strategic goals. 
  • Create better content. Use audience insights to inform messaging and drive content that resonates with your audiences.
  • Learn from competitors. Gather and analyze information about peers to inform your own positioning and strengthen your differentiators.

Social Listening at Work

We sometimes spot campuses winning at social listening, finding situations to listen to their audiences and engage. During the pandemic, there were some bright spots with campuses who used the situation to listen to their audiences and engage, with positive results. 

Screenshot of twitter thread from a prospective student at Purdue University who's family organized a DYI campus tour, along with responses from the campus, school of nursing, and dean of nursing

DYI Purdue Campus Tour

Prospective student Hailey was scheduled to tour Purdue University, but … pandemic. Instead, her family created a surprise DYI campus tour at home. Hailey posted it to Twitter and her post went somewhat viral. 

The Response

Then the snowball really started rolling. Alumni chimed in, parents of students responded. They all told Hailey she didn’t need a tour to know this was the best decision she could make. Administrators who didn’t even work at Purdue anymore offered guided tours. People shared photos of game days and other student experiences. 

It was a feel good moment, where the Purdue community came together with a sense of belonging and authenticity that no marketing campaign could ever even think of reaching. And it all started because Purdue was listening. 

The Power of a Partner

Social listening is something you can tackle on your own or using software as part of your tech stack. As we shared, manual social listening is one way to start listening to your audience. But the real value comes with adding a human, whether this is someone you hire for your team or partner with Campus Sonar. The greatest value is in the combination of software and humans.

If you partner with us, we are the power that allows you to fuel your initiatives, leaving you to focus on turning strategy into action. If you’re thinking of switching from software to Sonarians, read about the criteria our clients considered, and what ultimately convinced them to make the switch or adapt their strategy. 

Download our playbook to learn more about using social listening to reach your campus goals and see how four clients use it in their strategy.

Download the Playbook