Whether you’re a social media pro in an enterprise environment or an aspiring thought leader sharing your work with the world via Twitter, chances are you’ve engaged in a form of social listening.
Social listening involves all of the actions on social that don’t involve directly posting your own content—such as searching hashtags, identifying influencers, or even running a simple keyword search for your brand or organization. This is a powerful tool, but it becomes even more powerful when the scope expands beyond simply what people say to you. Instead, institutions need to expand to searching for what people say about us to their own audiences. Technology allows us to capture these conversations—that may never directly tag our accounts or use a preferred hashtag—to identify valuable data our institutions clamor for.
The use cases for social listening in higher ed are numerous: finding prospective students, potential donors, identifying meaningful user-generated content, and even determining competitive share of voice. At Boston University, we’ve seen an incredible use for the technology for crisis detection and mitigation. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.
The Case for Social Listening in Crisis Communication
Social listening has been an indispensable piece of our crisis communication toolkit. How does it work? First, it’s a huge aid in our efforts to identify potential crises and risks, both physical and reputational. Because social media is often ground-zero for breaking news, social listening identifies these risks before mentions pour into your inbox or your phones start ringing. Second, once a crisis breaks, the ability to view aggregate data specifically on that topic can help us determine the extent of the crisis. For example, what’s the volume of the conversation? What are the most frequently associated words and phrases? Which social network or source is driving the conversation? Who in those communities is talking about it most frequently and who has the largest audience? Any of these data points may help you identify where to focus your efforts. Additionally, while a crisis often feels terrible to the social media managers or leadership immersed in it, having this data at your fingertips can show that the chatter may not be as widespread as it seems from looking at your Twitter mentions.
#ProTips to Execute:
- Get Creative: The first step in any social listening strategy is to create listening topics for any type of crisis imaginable using dozens of terms/phrases that might naturally occur in posts. Currently, at BU we have social listening set up for physical locations on campus and terms like “explosion” or “accident” as well as events we should know about like “protests” or even aggressive words such as “threaten.” What’s key here is that we work closely with stakeholders across campus, from the campus police department to the dean of students, to identify the appropriate keywords. Using social listening, we can alert our colleagues in advance if a crisis is brewing.
- Know Where to Search: In terms of where to search, the “social” in social listening is really a misnomer; while our listening tool does search public (keyword) posts on the major social networks, it’s also scanning blogs, forums, video comments, and major news sites among other sources across the web. The public part is important; it means there’s still a manual process required for identifying crises. For example, if a student posts a concerning photo on their private Facebook account, this content won’t be picked up by social listening.
- Take Advantage of Automation: If your social listening tool provides an option to automate, make use of it! Currently, we use automation to alert key staff members when a given volume threshold of messages is met. For example, if five messages come in within an hour—from any source—that trigger the parameters of what we deem to be in the “crisis” category, we’re immediately notified via email. This allows for a quick response, especially in off-hours. During a crisis, when time is precious, it can even provide you the bit of extra time you need to prepare a response to both the media and your social audiences.
- Refine your Queries: It’s important to regularly dig into the data to refine your social listening searches to deliver better results. For example, at BU, we see a lot of mentions triggering our “crisis” keywords related to the degenerative brain disease CTE. It’s a research focus area for the university and commonly associated with several of these “crisis” terms since it leads to brain damage and death. We’ve worked to better refine our listening queries so mentions that include those words and CTE are removed from the crisis topics list.
- Bust Down Silos: While social listening often falls to the social team, there are insights within the data that can inform work happening across the university. The greater buy-in you can get from internal stakeholders, the more relevant and meaningful the listening data becomes. Take advantage of the institutional knowledge that exists within pockets of the university to better refine your listening queries and form partnerships so you stay informed when things begin to bubble up.
- Dig Into the Data: After the dust settles, take a look back at what the data tells you. Are there frequently used terms surrounding the crisis you’d want to add to your social listening search? Did you notice a drop in negative mentions following a statement you released? What can the data tell you about how the event unfolded—and how you responded—so you can improve the next time a crisis hits? For example, in September of 2018, a fire broke out in an on-campus apartment at BU at roughly 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday. While a crisis of this nature is first routed through the fire department and emergency personnel, it was a great learning experience when we realized the word “fire” wasn’t one of the terms included in our social listening search!
Ultimately, social listening provides a more robust view at the conversations surrounding a social media crisis and can alert you in near-real time to issues to watch. Overall, our data indicates that roughly 2% of all conversations about the university directly mention us. If we aren’t listening on social media, but solely monitoring our inboxes, we’re missing out on 98% of the stories/complaints/concerns/praise our institutions want to hear! In a world where the news cycle is 24/7 and crises evolve rapidly, that information becomes even more powerful.
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