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Why Social Listening Matters For Universities and How To Do It

Why Social Listening Matters For Universities and How To Do It

By Steve Pogue

Hot new marketing buzzword alert: social listening.

Put simply, it’s the act of listening to what people are saying about you on social media. That’s right—it’s not just keeping track of what people are saying to your school, but also listening to what they’re saying about your school.

Let’s talk more about what social listening entails, why you should be doing it, and how to get started.

What Is Higher-Ed Social Listening?

There’s a bit more to it than keeping track of what people on Twitter are saying in your @ mentions. Let’s take a deep dive.

so·cial lis·ten·ing, noun

Hootsuite defines social listening as:

…the process of monitoring social media channels for mentions of your brand, competitors, product, and any other ideas or themes that are relevant to your business.

Nailed it, Hootsuite.

But social listening doesn’t stop there. It’s also about collecting this info in an organized manner and figuring out how you can use it to tailor your marketing strategy to different target groups of prospective students. If I had to break it into 3 steps, I’d say social listening as an all-inclusive process is:

  1. Listening to what people are saying about you on social media;
  2. Acting on this information to improve your targeting/branding strategies;
  3. Listening for feedback to these changes and repeating the cycle all over again.

It’s a continuous process of trial and error, of listening and recalibrating your brand to be something your prospective student is looking for.

Is it like social media monitoring?

It kind of sounds the same, so is it? Sort of. But not really.

Here’s an extreme simplification of the difference: when you monitor social media, you’re listening out for what people are saying to you. Think: when people @ mention you on Twitter, when people comment on your Instagram post, when people like or comment on your university’s Facebook page status. This is just plain being a responsible social media user and being responsive to your engagers.

When you’re social listening, you’re also listening out for what people are saying about you. Did you catch that small difference? About you, not at you. It takes a bit more digging and can uncover a lot more about your target audience’s perspective of you than simply staying on top of your @ mentions.

Because there won’t always be a @ tag involved—sometimes you’ll get what I like to call a non-@ mention. There won’t always be a university-related hashtag involved. You’ll have to dig deeper than that.

Why It Matters

Why should we bother to do it at all, especially since it’ll likely cost us a bit more time and money?

  1. The paradigm for social influence has shifted.

Millennials and Gen Zers don’t care so much about TV ads and celebrity spokespeople anymore; they’re putting more stock than ever into the opinions of people on the internet, especially social influencers.

So if your prospects are listening to what people on the internet are saying about you, shouldn’t you be listening, too?

Social listening clues you into not just what people are saying about you, but to what everyone else is hearing about you. And that matters. Knowing what others are reading about your university lets you know where you stand in the eyes of an influencer’s audience.

  1. Get a leg up on crisis/reputation management.

Listening, learning, and responding in a crisis is key for surviving bad press and negative engagement online.

Knowing what your prospects are saying about your university during a time of crisis can help you understand their concerns—concerns that might prevent them from attending or returning to your school in the fall, and concerns that could be addressed and managed in a way that helps rebuild trust after a crisis.

  1. Get to know your prospective students better.

If I tweet something about your university that goes a little something like this:

Kinda want to apply to Clemson for the football scene but also kinda don’t want to go to a mediocre business school 🏈🤔

…would you want to know about it? Wouldn’t you want to be aware of my preconceived notions about Clemson’s football scene and business program so you could address them—either directly or in future marketing efforts?

Here’s what we know so far: this tweet author 1) loves football, 2) is interested in business, 3) is torn about attending Clemson (because she thinks the business school isn’t quite up to par). And this information is gold for recruitment marketing strategy.

What the author of a tweet like that doesn’t know is that Clemson University’s business program is actually ranked #1 in the state of South Carolina, something a lot of people don’t know. But a tweet like that is still valid, because it gives us the über-valuable knowledge that we’re not talking enough about how good our business school is yet. Aren’t you glad we took the time to listen?

  1. Gauge your success in marketing campaigns.

Similarly to crisis management, social listening clues you in on what your prospects are saying about your every marketing move. Which is like, instant feedback. Which is pretty much worth gold.

If a campaign of yours is being received very poorly, wouldn’t you want to know as soon as possible? I’m sure University of California found social listening invaluable to them before making the big move to a new logo that internet users said looked like a flushing toilet. And I’m sure BI Norwegian loved the positive feedback they got on their Flying Start campaign.

Whether it’s negative or positive feedback, it’s info you can use to self-correct (if the campaign was a miss) and keep in your back pocket for your next campaign.

  1. Discover pain points.

If you saw my hypothetical tweet above, you’d know that one of my pain points is finding out a lot of local business schools don’t live up to my standards.

If you saw a tweet from a current student complaining of how the dining hall always runs out of toppings at the pizza bar too fast, you’d know that that student is frustrated with the dining hall situation.

If you’re actively social listening, you’ll know what your students’ and prospective students’ pain points are, and that’s the first step in addressing them in your marketing efforts and in your student communications.

  1. Find influencers.

Social listening is HUGE in finding your  . If there’s a famous YouTuber that’s coming of college age in your state, you need to know about them. You need to know where they’re shopping for colleges and if they’ve talked about you at all on social media.

Likewise, socially listening in on your current students will give you an idea of who already attends your school and has influence, a situation ripe for a mutually beneficial relationship with that student. Knowing potential advocates gives you a huge leg up on influencer marketing, and social listening is the first step.

Social Listening Best Practices

It’s not hard to get started! Keep these tips in mind while you’re dipping your toe into social listening; then once you’re up for it, you might want to think about hiring someone (or some company/tool) to do all the social listening work for you.

  1. Where matters just as much as what.

Or, where your audience is speaking about you is just as important as what they’re saying. Maybe they’re on Instagram, but not Facebook. Maybe they’re on Twitter, but not LinkedIn. Do they ever talk about you on Periscope? Or maybe even Pinterest?

Where your students/prospects are talking about you could be almost as revealing as what they’re saying. If they’re talking about you on Periscope rather than Twitter, it could be a sign that they’re the kind of people who are out and about, getting into all sorts of activities, and wanting to get it all on video. Read: extroverted. That’s valuable info to know.

  1. Don’t just “social listen” in on yourself—listen in on the competition, too.

What are people saying about your rival school? It could be just as revealing as what your prospects are saying about you.

If you know your rival school’s freshmen are complaining about how hard it is to talk to an advisor, and you also know that your school is great about making sure freshmen get all the advising time they need, you should definitely be using this knowledge to your advantage in your marketing campaign. Now, just because you listened, you know what struggles freshmen face, and you know those struggles need to be addressed in your comms and marketing.

  1. Benchmark for normal.

If you get 100 non-@ mentions on Twitter a day for a month, and then one day you suddenly get 200 non-@ mentions, you know something’s up. Is it good press, or bad press? That’s what you need to stay on top of, and knowing what your normal is and using it as a benchmark to identify surges in social media attention will help you get there.

  1. Collect that data.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy—it could even just be a spreadsheet. How many times were you mentioned on Twitter this week? How many likes and retweets? How many people engaged with your Facebook page? Beginning to collect allllll this date is the start of a healthy social listening habit.

  1. Analyze it.

Which of your school’s posts are most liked/most engaged with? What is the most popular context for people non-@ mentioning you on Twitter? Is it all regarding last weekend’s football game, or are there some prospective students in there wondering aloud about what school they should attend in the fall?

Once you’ve got all his info in the same spot, you should be able to glean some market knowledge from them.

Too Much Work? Finding the Right Vendor To Do it For You

If it sounds like it’s a lot of work, that’s because it is. You can use Twitter and Facebook Analytics to help decode engagement on these platforms—they’re free and they’re a huge help in social listening. helps you track what prospects are saying on social media. Sprout Social tracks predetermined keywords, hashtags, and mentions for you. If you use an app like Gleam to help run raffles and other marketing campaigns, you’ll be able to use their built-in tools for invaluable feedback on engagement in your marketing efforts.

Are You Listening?

Do you know what your students are saying about you? Your prospective students? Their parents?

If you don’t, you’re missing out. You’re missing out on endless chances to address pain points, to build relationships with influencers, and to get to know your people. You’re missing out on a chance to show your people that you’re their solution.

How will you listen in this week?

Steve Pogue is the Marketing Operations Manager at Workzone. He writes about project management tips and the buying process. When not at Workzone, you can find him playing vintage base ball or relaxing with his family at home.