Universal Mentors Association

Campus Sonar CEO on how higher ed marketers can harness social trends


In the quest to leverage social media to engage students and build campus brands, most marketing and enrollment teams focus on platforms—specifically the small slice of the platforms where they can stake their claim with official accounts. Whether a campus has one or 100 accounts (it’s often much more), time and effort are dedicated to feeding the content beast and shifting tactics to appease the algorithm (more images! vertical video! live video! hashtags—wait—no hashtags). Success is measured by platform metrics like followers, reach, engagement rate—metrics that don’t have a correlation to institutional or student outcomes.

Forward-thinking higher ed leaders shift their attention to their earned audience and the actionable insights they can uncover with social listening. With good reason—most of the conversation is happening around you, not with you. This mirrors what leaders in health care, entertainment and hospitality have known for over a decade. It’s time for higher education to catch up, and the path is clear.

Three trends are consistent across five years of social listening research about four-year colleges and universities.

  • The conversation about institutions is increasing (or, at least, the conversation we can listen to while respecting data privacy).
  • Earned conversation (what other people say about the brand) dominates owned conversation three to one.
  • The sentiment of online conversation about institutions is largely neutral.

Despite their consistency, most campuses still aren’t incorporating the strategies these trends suggest to improve outcomes. I wonder what barriers are blocking the shift. Are leaders tied to vanity metrics? Is shifting focus to audiences a daunting task during high levels of executive and staff turnover? Is strategic thinking looking more like Blockbuster than Netflix?

New Marketing Strategies That Center Your Audience

  • Capture value from earned conversation to demonstrate educational outcomes.

Most of the online conversation about your alumni—who are the best demonstration of the value and ROI of your educational offerings—is earned. Although you can and should share more about your alumni, right now the majority of those online mentions are from earned sources. The bigger your institution, the more earned alumni conversation you can expect.

Stand out from your competition by amplifying more alumni stories that convey educational outcomes for prospective and current students. This isn’t just an opportunity for large campuses. The smaller an institution, the more likely they’ll have more positive alumni conversations.

  • Shift a neutral conversation to positive by engaging with earned audiences.

Despite the prevailing narrative that the public doesn’t feel as positive about higher ed as they did in the past, the online sentiment of conversation about specific institutions has remained consistent and about 70 percent neutral. Although we have a lot to conquer as an industry related to public trust, individual campuses can move the needle more quickly than an entire industry will be able to rehabilitate its image. You don’t even need to turn negative to positive; simply lean into the vast amount of neutral conversation.

Athletics has the highest levels of positive sentiment, particularly in earned conversation. Build on it. Allow your athletics boost to go further for your brand by responding, resharing and amplifying emotive user-generated content that arises in organic conversation.

Beyond athletics, prioritize engagement with your audience and lean into emotive content. Although many higher ed marketers were trained as journalists, brand and relationship building is not an activity that benefits from neutrality. Emotions are a cornerstone to connection. Adjust the language and lens of your content so it resonates at an emotional level, not just intellectually.

  • Apply insights derived from forum conversations to improve connections with prospective students online and off.

Students and their families discuss the college search and experience in detail on forums, with Reddit, College Confidential and Student Doctor the most popular. While it may not be the best place to directly engage (student and alumni ambassadors are a better fit for forum culture), enrollment marketers should use forums to learn how decisions are made about application and attendance and how the yield experience is perceived by students and ultimately align communication and connection points with what students are prioritizing in the process.

Do More, Say Less: Prioritize Relationships Over Algorithms

Listening more and talking less is key to building trust. This also applies to social media content. Research suggests that most campuses, especially the smallest, are better served by shifting their attention to engagement with their audiences via earned conversation (supported by social listening), rather than spending the majority of their time creating content. Additionally, listening to earned audiences will produce insights that inform both one-to-one and one-to-many communication, with a personalized touch. Centering your strategies on audience insights, rather than platform algorithms, will grow awareness, support enrollment efforts and highlight educational outcomes.


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