Nerding Out: Campus Social Listening Research

Nerdiness is part of Campus Sonar culture. So is innovation.

This post is the ka-boom of when these two concepts come together and use social listening as an approach to answer specific questions you have about your campus. Targeted analysis is a research approach that looks for the answers to a specific set of questions, resulting in an in-depth understanding of online mentions or conversation. In other words, we look for answers to our questions in how people talk about the target topic online. We look at each instance of that topic emerging (on blogs, forums, in the news, on social, etc.), and we analyze those conversations.

We jump at the opportunity to answer specific research questions using social listening. Furthermore, as research methods junkies, we're constantly looking for novel ways to answer questions using innovative data techniques and underused data sources. Social listening and the kerbillions of social media posts ripe for online research harvest check all of those boxes for me.

The Background

A small liberal arts college planned to roll out a new curricular initiative. As one of our clients, they contacted us to conduct social listening on prospective college students—how they talked about the purpose of college and their post-graduation working lives, and college graduates—how they discussed the role college played in their lives. We know that loads of research on these topics already exists, but the results of this study would inform messaging and marketing surrounding the new initiative, and the client wanted to connect with students in a grounded and organic way, disassociated from academic jargon. 

The Research

To keep the research in line with the client’s goals, we focused on one significant corner of the internet rife with conversations on these topics: forums. Our initial online investigations suggested an extremely high level of conversation volume on forums, which led us to sample conversation from Reddit and College Confidential because we know those are popular forums where prospective students and college graduates could congregate to talk about their experiences. Overall, Reddit ended up being the primary data source with only a few mentions for analysis coming from College Confidential. 

Amanda analyzes conversation from Reddit and other forums

You may wonder how we isolated these very specific types of conversation that would answer our client’s pressing questions. It was a head scratcher, but in the best way possible. We started by writing a query that captured all mentions related to college and career on these sites. This provided a solid foundation of data within which to work. Then we wrote rules to segment mentions that originated from prospective students and college graduates using specific pronouns and verbs aligning with a student looking towards attending college or looking back on graduating. In addition, we crafted rules isolating mentions about the purpose of college, post-graduation plans, and how college was reflected on post-graduation. By cross-examining these rules within the larger query, we answered those fascinating (but tricky) questions put forth by the client.

The result was social listening magic.

The Data

As data streamed in, we spent hours manually combing through data to ensure it was relevant to our needs, that posts or accounts weren’t deleted, and that sentiment was correctly categorized. Ah, the value of human analysts (spoiler alert: software alone can’t do this)! 

In the end, there was a smaller data pool than hoped for, but the smaller volume made it possible for us to conduct a mention-by-mention qualitative thematic analysis on the mentions. Yay! But what in the world does that actually mean? The thematic analysis in this case meant reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading all of the mentions for each research question, inductively drawing connections, patterns, and trends in what words were used and the meaning behind each post within each research question. After gaining a deeper understanding of the mentions, the language, and their meaning, we categorized the mentions into buckets of topics (or themes).

Reed, Amanda, and Sarah observe dataOur analysis generally relies on mostly quantitative metrics provided in our social listening software (we still looked at volume, sentiment, emotion, mention type, top topics, and trending topics for this analysis), but with the thematic analysis layered on top, the quantitative findings were uniquely contextualized. 

It’s best to limit ourselves to three key findings, because we could go on forever about the awesomeness and informative nature of this targeted research project. So what did we find? Buckle up.

Key Finding 1

We learned how prospective students engage their online communities to make decisions about college and careers. We even learned what they hoped for, what they were afraid of, and we saw distinct opinions on the purpose of a college education that were vital to informing our client’s approach to marketing and communication.

Key Finding 2

Similarly, we saw that prospective students sought guidance from their online communities about their future work. Specific topics emerged in online conversations, and a more complete picture of the prospective college student on the cusp of starting their college journey but looking beyond graduation emerged. Importantly, we got a peek at their future goals.

Key Finding 3

College graduate conversations were a different animal in the forums. We saw some interesting patterns regarding what they talked about and how they talked about the role college played in their lives. We saw the good and bad reflections of college graduates looking back on what they gained or lost.

Whew. There’s so much more, but we'll stop there. But can you imagine what your school could do with information like this?!?

So what did this mean for our client? Well … we distilled specific action items they could use in their marketing and communications for this curricular change. The action items grew from the seeds of organic conversations occurring and being nurtured online. These conversations happen every second of every day, but colleges and universities don’t often have the capacity to target, identify, analyze, and make meaning of them. 

We can, we do, and we love it.

In an organization consisting primarily of expert nerds, we want to answer ALL of the questions at Campus Sonar. What’s keeping you up at night? We can and genuinely want to deliver the answers you seek.

Subscribe to the Newsletter