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Guest Post: The Case for Strategic Social Listening in Higher Education

Higher education market insights specialist Liz Gross explains how social listening can be a strategic tool in reputation management, recruitment, and competitive positioning.

When you think of social media in higher education, what comes to mind? Facebook pages and groups, Twitter hashtags, student Instagram takeovers, the rise of Snapchat, and the fall of Yik Yak? While many campuses use social media as an outbound communication tool, few recognize the importance of social media and other online conversations as a strategic input to high-priority functions like reputation management, recruitment, and competitive positioning. Gartner Inc., a leading research and advisory company, named social listening one of the top technology trends impacting higher education in both 2016 and 2017. In February 2016, they noted that although social listening has a potential to play a significant role across the entire student journey, most institutions are at very low maturity levels with social listening tools.

In the age of fake news, live online video, and citizens as spokespeople, having a system in place to capture online conversations of interest to your campus and translate them into actionable insights is extremely valuable. Social listening is the key to unlocking these insights.

Social Listening Powers Reputation Management Strategy

In higher education, reputation is paramount. College and university reputations have long been built on rankings and rhetoric. Campuses, programs, and faculty are ranked in high-profile publications—everything from U.S. News and World Report to RateMyProfessors. Journalists regularly report about the cost of tuition, the quality of dining food, and the value of the liberal arts. While administrators are still concerned with rankings and coverage of campus by the local and national news media, the general public is basing their opinion on new data sources.

The concept of campus reputation is changing. No longer the purview of publishers and news media, in 2017 your reputation is in the hands of the general public. It’s what is said about you, not to you, that affects your reputation—for better or for worse. Prospective students and alumni still discuss their thoughts about college around the dinner table, but they have connected devices at the ready. Siri and Alexa are poised to answer their questions about your institution. And they have confidence in her—6 in 10 people trust search engines over human editors.

When you ask Google about an institution, the long-trusted rankings and news outlets don’t always make it to the top of a search. The seeker may find a blog post, podcast, or Reddit thread, because that’s what they want. In 2017, the general public considers someone like themselves to be just as credible a spokesperson as your top faculty members. Is a Google search result or Facebook newsfeed more influential with prospective students and their families than U.S. News and World Report? For a growing number of individuals, the answer is yes. Social listening enables you to gain a clear understanding of what the general population is saying about your campus, which influences others’ view of your campus reputation. By tracking changes over time in relation to your efforts to modify or improve campus reputation, you’ll have a reputation management strategy that works when the crowd overpowers the voice of rankings and journalists.

Social Listening Identifies and Supports Stealth Applicants

Recruitment has always been a top priority, and it’s getting harder. Small campuses often need to go the extra mile to hit their application and enrollment targets. This is especially difficult when a significant portion of applications are received from stealth applicants. Without prior contact, those students can’t be nurtured through the enrollment funnel—or can they? What if your admissions team was able to find and participate in conversations with potential stealth applicants on Reddit, discussion forums, question/answer sites, and Twitter? In an effort to seek advice from people like them, prospective students are engaging in conversations on these platforms to learn about campuses so they don’t have to speak to admissions representatives. Social listening supports a highly personalized recruitment strategy that casts a wide net across the entire internet, enabling small institutions to compete with larger campuses (with more marketing dollars) by identifying only the conversations that matter to them.

Social Listening Automates Competitive Intelligence

As higher education gets more competitive, it’s important for an institution to know its competitors almost as well as it knows itself. How well do you identify how conversation about your campus among the general public compares to conversation about your competitors around key topics such as employability, student success, tuition, and academic quality or prestige? Are you instantly alerted when the conversation changes to indicate that a competitor is launching a new promotion or recruitment strategy, announcing a new academic program, or participating in a key community initiative? Are you plugged into what the general public has to say in response to these things? Social listening allows for this intelligence to be automated, both in-the-moment and by analyzing conversations that occurred in the past, and benchmarked for quick comparison to competitors.

Social Listening Is Real Life, Transcribed

There is no longer much of a difference between the real world and what we do online. The internet is real life. Social listening is real life, transcribed, sorted, and analyzed to provide your institution with the insights it needs to support data-driven strategies. Smart campuses are starting to analyze this data to surface intelligence of strategic value to reputation management, recruitment, and competitive positioning. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, take a look at the slides and recap from a talk I gave with a colleague at the 2016 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education.

Liz Gross is the Market Insights Manager at the loan servicing affiliate of Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation. For 50 years, Great Lakes has helped make college a reality for students, supporting them before, during and after college. Liz advocates a data-driven approach to marketing and communications and speaks frequently at national conferences. Find her on Twitter: @LizGross144