The Real Cost (and Value) of Crisis Social Listening in Higher Education

The report that Michigan State University paid an agency over half a million dollars to monitor social media in January during the Larry Nassar trial provoked a lot of conversation within higher education and the general public. Topics include whether universities should be engaging in social listening, if it constituted “spying” on the victims that were testifying at Nassar’s trial, and if the expenses were appropriate. I’ll dive into each of these topics in this article. It’s worth mentioning up front that even the headline was misleading. Spoiler alert: Michigan State University (MSU) did not pay $500,000 for a month of social media monitoring.

Social Listening in a Crisis Is Smart Management Strategy

Should universities invest in social listening during a crisis? Yes. Erin Hennessy, Vice President of TVP Communications, identifies the value of social media in communications strategy, both before and during a crisis:

“Social media is one of the most important tools we have to engage with our varied—and often far-flung—audiences. Any institution that is not engaged in strategic, consistent, and aggressive listening is missing perhaps the most valuable part of what social media can do for us. Whether it's becoming aware of a problem before it becomes a crisis, tracking which messages resonate and which fall flat, or just building a better understanding of who our audiences are and what they want from us, social monitoring provides the best real-time answers to all our burning questions. Too often, colleges and universities wait until they're in crisis to pay attention to social media monitoring, but the savviest institutions understand that there's something to be learned every day through thoughtful, targeted, and sustained listening.”

—Erin Hennessy, Vice President, TVP Communications

There’s very little room for criticism of social listening—it’s terrifying for modern communication professionals to not be intimately familiar with online conversation, especially in a crisis. In the last year, for example, incidents at United Airlines (a passenger dragged off an overbooked flight and the death of a beloved pet forced to be placed in an overhead bin) were shared, tweeted, and re-tweeted across social media channels. It’s clear that the general public knows online conversation matters, as the social media chatter around United Airlines impacted the airline’s brand, reputation, and revenue.

Simon Barker, Managing Partner at Blue Moon Consulting Group, sees social listening as a key input into decision making in a crisis:

“Reputational risk is created when there is a disconnect between the decisions an administration takes and what stakeholders expect. Social media listening can be a useful tool to understand stakeholder expectations. But its real strategic value is when those insights are brought back to the decision-making table, to inform and alter the approach the institution needs to take. Spending a lot on “listening” without, apparently, actually “listening” is the challenge here.”

—Simon Barker, Managing Partner, Blue Moon Consulting Group

There are several strategic implications for colleges and universities who engage in social listening during a crisis.

  • Better understanding of the full scope of the conversation and whether your institution is synonymous with the crisis, or just a secondary actor.
  • Quick determination of a shift in conversation sentiment—and ability to compare the sentiment of the general public to the media reporting on the crisis.
  • Thorough analysis of the top messages individuals are sharing online, which can aid in identifying messaging strategies and threats to campus safety.
  • Accurate identification of any misinformation or questions to address swiftly on official communication channels.
  • Strategic outreach to media contacts, by identifying which news pieces have the largest impact on the online conversation.
  • Thoughtful identification of online influencers (who you may want to reach out to individually), as well as any non-human elements of the conversation (e.g., bots, fake accounts).

Is Social Listening Spying?

Analysts, marketers, or other communication professionals perform social listening (a form of primary research) to gather publicly available online content from both individuals and groups.

Copy editors use a variety of words and phrases to describe social listening in their headlines: spy, keep tabs on, monitor, track. When these are used, I imagine readers think of covert operatives unearthing personal secrets. But that’s not how social listening works. While social listening aligns with the definition of spying in the dictionary (collecting information about something to use in deciding how to act), it doesn’t mean spying to uncover secrets. The information gathered through social listening is no different than what would be learned from following a user on Twitter, searching a hashtag, or participating in online blogs and forums.

Organizations use social listening data to draw inferences about what an audience thinks, feels, and communicates about a specific topic, event, product, or service. Often, this is exactly the type of strategy that consumers demand from businesses in order to enjoy personalized experiences from brands—for example, meal delivery services or relevant media recommendations.

Truly, the act of social listening as a research method to gather publicly available online content is benign. When we use words and phrases like spying or keeping tabs on, we’re ascribing intent to the practice without a full understanding of the context in which it’s being used. In this light, it’s fair to argue that the criticism directed at MSU for engaging in social listening reflects a lack of understanding of the role online conversation insights play for modern communication professionals. Heather Swain, Vice President for Communications and Brand Strategy at MSU, makes this crystal clear:

Weber Shandwick was engaged to provide full crisis communications support for the Larry Nassar matter, and the majority of their work was crisis counsel and communications support to address the tragedy. They were not hired to monitor victims' social media accounts. As is standard in crisis management, they monitored and analyzed traditional media and publicly available social media mentioning their client and the tragedy, including statements made online by the survivors. The survivors were and continue to be critical voices in the conversation.

—Heather Swain, Vice President for Communications and Brand Strategy, Michigan State University

Understanding the Cost of Social Listening in a Crisis

Headlines highlight the $500,000 price tag MSU shouldered for a month of social listening. This is not accurate. The agency confirmed that the work they billed wasn’t limited to social listening; it was part of a larger crisis counseling engagement. It’s also important to note that the agency was retained by MSU’s outside counsel, not the campus Communications and Brand Strategy office. I suspect a communications professional would be more likely to balk at the price tag or hourly rate than a lawyer would.

I fear our industry may start believing social listening comes with a $500,000 price tag. Yes, that is too much. Other firms agree that this cost is far too high. Matt Friedman from Tanner Friedman wrote, “There are shortcuts, via software, to help ethical firms do the work very time efficiently. This work not only could have been done at a small fraction of the cost, it should have been done that way, by a small fraction of the people for a small fraction of the time.”

So, what should social listening in this situation have cost? I’ll break my estimate down into software and human resources.

Software Costs

Based on the emails published in the Lansing State Journal, it appears that a high-volume news day produced about 15,000 online mentions. We can conservatively assume there were 500,000 mentions in one month around this controversy. Our monthly cost to find and record those mentions with enterprise-level software (assuming text-only searching) is about $2,000. You can expect a firm to mark that up somewhat, or for other software to cost a bit more. Let’s go big and assume that the base materials cost for this work was $5,000.

Human Resources

The agency billed 1,440 hours of work in one month across 18 different employees. I don’t have access to the breakdown of roles involved, but I know from experience that the social listening work could be done with 1-2 qualified staff members, maybe with occasional help from a senior advisor. My very conservative estimate is that they would contribute 60 hours per week for an effort of this size, although I believe it would actually be less. In one month, perhaps 250 hours would be dedicated to social listening. Specialized employees deserve a premium for their work, so I expect an agency with low overhead to bill this talent at $150 to $300 per hour. This means a ballpark monthly estimate for human resources would be $37,500 to $75,000.

How We Would Have Quoted It

Campus Sonar specializes in social listening and higher education. We partner with campuses in crisis to quickly implement social listening and associated consulting, often working in partnership with other crisis counsel specialists. Rather than charging a retainer and an hourly rate, we provide all-inclusive quotes for our clients so they can determine if our rate matches the value they will receive from the service, without worrying about unexpected bills for hourly rates.

Based on the assumptions I’ve detailed in this article, if Campus Sonar quoted social listening support for the Nassar tragedy, it would have been about $5,000 for the initial setup/consultation, and then $10,000 per week, which is in the high range of our $2,000 to $10,000+ weekly fee for social listening crisis or issue management work. We would have provided reports similar to what I saw in the Lansing State Journal screenshots, and included suggestions related to communication strategy as well as high-level insights that could be passed directly to decision makers.

When you partner with Campus Sonar, or another agency for social listening in a crisis situation, you’re paying for quite a few things—make sure you get them all.

  • Access to enterprise-level software and customized online dashboards when you need it.
  • The dedicated time of a highly qualified analyst who can easily sift through tens of thousands of mentions each day.
  • Regular insights providing some quantitative context to a highly qualitative reputation management issue.
  • Peace of mind that someone is handling the monitoring and analysis while you attend to other things on campus.

For years, higher education professionals have underestimated the price of social listening. I hope the MSU headlines don’t make the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. Whether conducted in-house or with a partner, a comprehensive social listening program can be supported for an annual investment of $50,000 to $250,000, depending on the size of the institution and its corresponding online conversation.


Should MSU and other universities invest in social listening? Yes. Is social listening spying? Only in the literal sense of the word—there are no secrets uncovered. Should it cost $500,000 per month to conduct comprehensive crisis social listening? Nope.

This is not an issue related specifically to MSU. Most campus communication leaders are reading these reports and wondering, “What if this was me?” Mike Horn, Senior Director for Marketing and Communications at the Terry College of Business, sums it up nicely:

“Social media listening is becoming more critical every day. All higher education institutions must protect and bolster their reputation to attract the best students and faculty and seek funding. Today's society is more prepared than ever before to hold universities accountable for their actions. In the past decade, higher education has provided several very public examples of what can go wrong if you don't get on top of a bad story. It's clear that in 2018 and beyond, all large universities need to have social media savvy public relations support and expertise, either in-house or with an external partner.”

—Mike Horn, Senior Director for Marketing and Communications, Terry College of Business

If all this is new to you, download The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook to learn the basics of social listening, key crisis metrics, and more.

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The post The Real Cost (and Value) of Crisis Social Listening in Higher Education originally appeared on the Campus Sonar Brain Waves blog.

This post was updated on March 31 at 9:06 a.m. CST to include a quote from Heather Swain.

Thoughts From Elsewhere

Here is some additional commentary on the issue that caught my eye: