An Introduction to Social Listening for Schools
Date posted: July 10, 2019
Do you know what people are saying about your school online? How do they feel about your main competitors? What are their general feelings about institutions like yours, the value of the qualifications you offer, or the industries and sectors your courses relate to?
To answer these kinds of questions, marketing professionals frequently employ a strategic approach known as ‘social listening’. The idea is to monitor several different kinds of interactions, conversations, and trends across a broad range of channels, and use this data to identify actionable improvements.
When done on either a small or large scale, social listening can lead schools to make significant changes to their student recruitment strategies, digital marketing tactics, and even occasionally their programs, courses, and support services.
Keep reading to learn more about how social listening works, and how you can get started.
What’s the Difference Between Social Listening and Social Media Monitoring?
The terms social listening and social monitoring are often confused or used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two. Social media monitoring for schools would typically involve tracking mentions of your institution, as well as responding to any comments or interactions from online users on top social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
All of these elements are part of social listening, too, but there is lot more to it than that. For a start, social listening can involve not only tracking your own online presence, but that of your competitors, as well as topics related to the education sector, or specific industries your courses relate to. For example, a hospitality school might keep an eye on the latest trends and developments in the tourism industry.
Example: Eton College, a tourism and hospitality school in Vancouver, regularly posts about new developments in the sector on Facebook. This kind of content is a good example of what social listening might bring to your attention.
Despite its name, social listening also often extends beyond social networks, with your email inbox, review sites, website comment sections, forums and other online spaces all possibly offering valuable information about the attitudes, wants, and needs of your target audience.
Perhaps most importantly, social listening is a far more proactive approach than social media monitoring. Rather than simply responding to online conversations, schools who practice social listening will analyze what they learn, and use that information to adjust their strategies, branding, and services.
Jenn Chen of Sprout Social summed up the difference between the two approaches in simple terms. “(Social) listening is not seeing a private message come in and responding to it. It’s noticing that three private messages from three different people about the same topic arrived. And then informing the best department about it.” By approaching things in this way, your school can gain far more lasting value from all the information you gather.
What to Look for in Social Listening for Schools
There are many reasons why social listening could be an interesting approach for your school to take. Whether you’re working for a university, college, language school, or any other kind of institution, the general online conversation can provide insights into your audience’s attitudes, the reputations of you and your competitors, and the general outlook of wider education sectors, industries, and even local economies.
Here are a few areas your school might want to focus on.
Public Perception of Your School
What is the general attitude of people online towards your school? Do they tend to speak about it positively or negatively? Is it well known, or does it seem like relatively few people have heard of it? Are there any misconceptions that you feel people might have?
When working inside an organization, it can be natural for your view of how you are seen by the outside world to be skewed somewhat. Monitoring mentions of your school on social media, reviews, and even press articles can all give you a flavour of your wider reputation, and help to adjust your messaging in such a way as to capitalize on any strategic advantages you may have in this regard, or correct any negative perceptions.
On a more practical level, you can evaluate what prospects, students, parents and graduates have to say about your online presence, admissions process, courses, and services, and use this feedback to drive positive change within your team.
Your Competitors’ Reputations
In addition to tracking your own school’s online presence, you should also pay attention to that of your competitors. Look at their visibility, the amount of engagement they generate, and what sort of reputation they appear to have.
This can be especially important in social listening for schools because education is something of a niche sector. Your school is unlikely to generate the same amount of interest, buzz, and advocacy of a celebrity, popular TV show, or Fortune 500 company, nor should you expect it to. By comparing yourself to your competitors, however, you can establish a baseline for success that your school can work towards.
For example, if you are working for a private K-12 school, and a nearby school of a similar size and resources seems to generate more positive feedback and conversation online, you can reasonably assume that your institution is lagging behind, and take steps to try and level the playing field.
General Sentiment Towards Education
You should also consider the general attitudes of people online towards the kinds of programs, courses, and qualifications you offer. MBA programs, for instance, generate a lot of conversation across various channels, with many prospective students discussing the value of the qualification, the best schools to attend, and how to maximize the benefits of the degree.
Example: Articles which discuss the value of MBA degrees are commonplace across many mainstream publications which cover business and finance matters, like Investopedia. These kinds of articles can be crucial in guiding the decision-making of prospective students, and business schools would be wise to pay close attention to this sort of coverage.
As mentioned before, social listening can also be very valuable in helping you to keep track of the latest trends and developments in the wider industries that relate to your programs. If your courses are designed to prepare students for specific careers, economic upturns and downturns might have an impact on the future prospects of your graduates, in turn affecting how likely prospective students are to consider pursuing their studies.
Similarly, new developments and trends in certain sectors might change how your school is perceived. A course related to social media marketing, for example, might be viewed as less relevant if the syllabus is out of date or doesn’t account for more recent developments in the sphere, such as the rise of the stories format.
By keeping your ear to the ground about what’s happening in the industries you serve, you are less likely to be caught off guard by game-changing shifts and developments.
Where Should Your School be Listening?
Opinions are everywhere online. Whether they are commenting on a story, posting about a topic in a discussion forum, sending a direct message to an organization, leaving a review, or simply liking a social media post, users are constantly communicating what they think about any number of things.
So, where do you find the information that is most relevant to your school? This will largely depend on the makeup of your target audience and wider community, as well your school’s overall size, visibility and reputation. However, here are a few suggestions of platforms you might consider actively monitoring, and what you can look for.
Twitter– Due to its focus on trending topics, Twitter is often seen as the gold standard for social listening. Your school can track trending hashtags and topics, mentions of your institution and its competitors, and even relevant influencers, as well as your own engagement metrics.
Example: Try searching relevant hashtags for your sector on Twitter from time to time, such as #StudyEnglish for language schools. The results can give you some interesting ideas.
Facebook– You can track reactions, comments, and mentions of your school and its competitors, and any other relevant topics across the platform, as well the content of any direct messages and reviews you receive.
Instagram– While it is a lot more visual than other platforms, Instagram is still a good place to monitor the sentiment of your audience. Through posts, comments, hashtags, and direct messages, many users of the site engage directly with brands.
Example: Instagram comments can offer a window into public perception of your school. Duke University can feel very positive about the comments on this post.
LinkedIn- For schools at a certain level, and particularly those who may be focused on trends in specific professions or industries, LinkedIn is definitely a good place to keep your finger on the pulse. Frequent users often share news and views from the cutting edge of their industry, much of which might be worth investigating.
Example: The ‘Today’s news and views’ section on LinkedIn often throws up interesting topical content that could be relevant to your school.
Reddit- Calling itself the ‘front page of the internet’, and viewed as the most efficient viral engine in the world, Reddit attracts 542 million monthly visitors to talk about anything and everything. While the forum’s users are notoriously negative towards marketing and branded content, this can actually be an advantage when it comes to social listening in education, as Reddit’s boards are trusted by many for the honest, unbiased natures of their opinions.
You will likely find numerous subreddit sections which are relevant to your institution type, subject area, location or other relevant topics from which you can glean some insight into your audience’s attitudes. If your school is large or well-known enough, there may even be subreddits dedicated to it.
Example: The unofficial subreddit of Georgetown University. These questions from incoming freshman are a good example of the valuable insights the platform can offer.
Tumblr- A different kind of discussion forum and a lighter alternative to Reddit, Tumblr can nonetheless provide some great insights you won’t find elsewhere. Your team can search relevant keywords around topics that matter to you, and even follow specific topics or individual bloggers.
Quora- Fast becoming a valuable marketing tool in its own right, what sets Quora apart is its unique Q&A style. Users pose open questions to the forum, and others provide in-depth answers, with the best upvoted by other readers so that they appear most prominently. Quora users tend to be well-educated and have well-informed opinions, so following some relevant topic areas and questions could be particularly eye-opening for your school.
Reviews- Possibly one of the most visible and important social listening sources available on the net, online reviews and recommendations from Google and Facebook, as well as dedicated sites like Yelp, will all offer very direct feedback from your school’s community. Monitoring and responding appropriately to both good and bad reviews can be crucial for schools.
Your school may not need to pay close attention to all of these sources, and much will depend on your specific goals and what you hope to achieve from social listening. However, each could help you to accumulate a wealth of valuable data to be put into action.
Social Monitoring and Listening Tools Your School Can Use
There are a number of tools you can use to engage in social listening, ranging from the simple to the complex. A good starting point is the native analytics tools of various social platforms. For instance, Facebook Insights will allow you to generally gauge the positive versus negative feedback that your posts are receiving. The Pages to Watch feature is also very useful for social listening, as it allows you to keep track of your closest competitors, and view data on the engagement they are receiving. Another great native social listening tool is Tweetdeck, which Twitter users can use to track specific trends, hashtags, and mentions of relevant topics.
Some CRM and marketing automation platforms also offer tools for social media monitoring and listening that can help you track activities across specific websites.
Example: Here at HEM, we use HubSpot to track hashtags related to digital marketing and education.
These will often vary in capability and integrations depending on your provider and specific package. Some platforms just offer more basic monitoring tools while others, like Salesforce, provide more sophisticated capabilities like sentiment analysis and customizable topic profile dashboards. Similar social listening features are also available in social media management platforms like Hootsuite and Sprout Social.
While some of the more advanced tools can be useful, they are arguably something of a luxury for most schools, and may not justify their cost in the value they provide. Taking a more simple, practical approach to social listening could be just as fruitful for your school, without having to make a huge dent in your budget.
Putting Social Listening into Action in Your Student Recruitment Efforts
What you do with the information your school gets from social listening will largely depend on what you learn.
Some information might be used to drive internal improvements. Monitoring your competitors’ social media presence might lead to you changing your posting strategy. Tracking discussions about your institution or sector might uncover surprising information about the demographics of your audience, and lead you to refine your personas or key messages. Evaluating your online feedback might even lead to a change in one of your school’s policies or a service you offer, should your school determine that you are not meeting the needs of your typical students.
In other cases, you may want to join the conversation, or to engage and respond with both satisfied and dissatisfied members of your audience. Whether this is appropriate will depend on what channel you are dealing with. Responding to negative reviews for instance, can create a very good impression of your school, showing your audience that you take their concerns seriously. Likewise, having one of your staff offer an expert opinion on Quora about a topic related to your sector can be well-received, provided it is unbiased, articulated well and not overtly promotional.
Example: University of Minnesota Professor William Beeman regularly takes time to offer advice to Quora users in the college and university admissions section of the forum.
On the other hand, certain online spaces may not welcome direct communications from brands, and you may be better off simply monitoring sentiment about your school on these sites, rather than actually trying to respond.
Insights you gain from tracking topics can also be used to generate content ideas for your school, such as interesting blogs posts or videos. By keeping your ear to the ground, you can ensure your institution comes across as a thought leader that is in the know about the latest cutting-edge developments.
However you choose to address your findings, the most important thing is that you are proactive in using social listening to drive improvements. This is what distinguishes social listening from more reactive social monitoring, and what makes it such a valuable tool for schools looking to enhance their reputation online.