How Owned vs. Earned Conversation Analysis Informs Content Strategy

In higher ed (like every other industry), brand management is one of a campus’s top priorities. With social media molding the public’s perception of your brand, it’s your job to stay on top of your reputation—creating content that contributes to the conversation and aligns with your strategic goals. 

How do you know you’re doing that? First you need to understand the conversation about your brand using three key metrics: share of voice, owned vs. earned conversation, and brand attribute conversation. We’re diving into owned vs. earned conversation, and you can find more details and case studies in The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook.

What Is Content Strategy?

Kristina Halvorson, the goddess of content strategy, provides a definition in Content Strategy for the Web.

“Content strategy guides your plan for the creation, delivery, and governance of content.”

Examples of it in action include your content matrix (i.e., the topics and desired mix of content you create) and your editorial calendar (i.e., who publishes content and when they publish it). While content governance is beyond this article, the creation and delivery of content—in particular, social media content—can and should be informed by social listening insights. 

Owned and Earned Conversation

One of the insights informing your content strategy is an understanding of your owned and earned conversation.

  • Owned conversation is everything your organization says online, which is the content created by branded social media accounts and websites. It also includes shares (or amplification) of this content by others. 
  • Earned conversation is content created about your organization that originates from non-branded sources (e.g., personal social media accounts, journalists, blogs, and forums). This includes conversation individuals have with your branded social media accounts (i.e., replies and comments).

We segment owned and earned conversation, categorizing every mention or share of content from campus accounts as owned and all other mentions as earned. This allows us to analyze top topics, emerging topic trends, and audience behavior to identify differences between owned and earned conversation, and ultimately inform content strategy. 

Top Topics

One illuminating use of owned and earned conversation is to compare the top topics of owned social media posts with the top topics of earned online conversation. This can often identify subjects that your community is talking about that you’re not currently covering in your online channels. On the flip side, some of your most commonly used phrases may not be repeated by your audience, suggesting they’re not resonating.

The word cloud illustrates the top topics of owned conversation from six months of posts (July 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020) from the main social media accounts of Lehigh University, a medium-sized private campus in Pennsylvania (Campus Sonar hasn’t worked with Lehigh; we’re just using their conversation as an example). 

Top Owned Topics

Top owned topics for six months of conversation for Lehigh University

The owned conversation shows many campus- and community-specific phrases, which is great brand messaging. Many of the topics also relate to the start of a new academic year, with a focus on health, academic calendar, and financial aid. 

Academics and faculty are another theme we see in both owned and earned conversations. A number of topics are focused on hiring for faculty, indicating that Lehigh’s audience is excited about research opportunities. A content opportunity might be to use their owned channels to generate the same excitement over research opportunities that we see on earned channels.  

Top Earned Topics

Top earned topics for six months of conversation for Lehigh University

Trending Topics

For up-to-the minute relevancy, it’s valuable to examine the difference between owned and earned conversation’s trending topics. When you know what topics are trending or fading for your audience, you can spot areas of concern, relevant memes, resurfacing evergreen content, or even unexpected earned media. 

The owned trending topics chart shows how the conversation shifts from topics about fall semester, beginning of the year concerns, and health/COVID updates, then fades to more mid-year topics. Consider ways to refresh your owned content as the semester progresses to keep current students engaged in on-campus programming like homecoming, guest speakers, and other events—don’t miss opportunities to support their mental health and wellness, too, especially as midterm exams approach. 

Owned Trending Topics

Owned trending topics for six months of conversation for Lehigh University

The earned trending topics chart focuses heavily on the open positions on campus and other trending news stories featuring Lehigh community members.

Earned Trending Topics

Earned trending topics for six months of conversation for Lehigh University

Audience Behavior

The behavior differential between owned and earned conversation can also help you derive valuable insights. For example, looking at the volume of conversation at different hours of the day could identify opportunities for increased reach and engagement with owned content, such as determining when to have staff available to engage and when to dial back on posting. 

The example from Lehigh charts their audience behavior within a six-month period by hour of the day. Their conversation tracks fairly well with their audience, except for the late morning. Lehigh is posting the most owned content at 9:00 a.m., while their audience is most active from noon to 1:00 p.m. 

Tracking behavior can give you insight into general habits, but it’s important to consider how this may differ depending on the size of your campus or even where the majority of your audience is located across the U.S. (i.e., 2:00 p.m. ET isn’t 2:00 p.m. everywhere). 

If you cross reference your audience behavior data you can also figure out if timing has less of an impact than many people think. And if timing isn’t as critical, what does that mean for your strategy and team?

Audience behavior for a six month period by hour of the day for Lehigh University

Content that Resonates with Your Audience

These examples illustrate how social listening enables you to gain a clear understanding of what the general population is saying about your campus, which influences others’ view of your campus brand. 

By listening to your audience and creating content that resonates with them, your earned conversation will follow—creating a reputation management strategy that works. Learn more about share of voice and brand management, and for insights and strategy on the regular, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

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