Presidents and Boards Need Social Intelligence

You’ve been giving your president and board the wrong information from social media, and you need to fix it as soon as possible. I’ve spent the last few weeks listening carefully to trustees, current and former presidents, and the people who advise them. These were positive conversations, but they revealed a huge gap. One former president put it plainly.

“Social intelligence sounds like an oxymoron. As president, everything I was shown from social media was terrible. There was nothing systematic or intelligent about it.”

According to the Social Intelligence Lab, social intelligence is the strategic use of social media and online conversation data to answer complex questions. It uses social, behavioral, and emotional signals within the data to find the right way forward. It’s a form of market research, using the internet as an always-on focus group. It’s not followers, reach, and engagement rate. Here are some questions you can answer for presidents and boards in higher education.

What’s our current level of reputational risk?

Sentiment of earned conversation is one of the reputation measures used in board reporting for Duquesne, to support data-driven decision making in times of concern. They also used it to highlight the impact of March Madness on brand awareness. As leaders make tough calls to right-size academic programs to meet market needs, analyzing sentiment in the moment and compared to previous time periods gives boards confidence they understand public perception.

Is our marketplace perception aligned with our strategic priorities?

Organic, unprompted conversation about your organization supports a more nuanced environmental scan than surveys with pointed questions or hand-picked focus groups. The University of Arkansas–Fort Smith and Utah Valley University leadership understand word-of-mouth conversation, news coverage, and the campus’s own content through the lens of strategic plan or brand messaging pillars. They see what strategically-aligned stories are taking off with their audiences, or diagnose the need to communicate better about university impact and community engagement.

Where is the market moving, and how can we transform to serve it?

Social intelligence offers the ability to look back in time while simultaneously assessing the current state, so you can anticipate trends and be future-focused. The Society for College and University Planning is listening to conversations about and from college planners to support organizational transformation as they serve the next generation of members. They’re also conducting ground-breaking research into the first-person narratives about DEIB in higher education to arm their members with strategies and tools for inclusive planning (I’m looking forward to debuting that research with SCUP President Mike Moss at a presidential roundtable this summer). 

Campuses use social intelligence for a competitive advantage as they develop academic programs and explore adjacent markets. National organizations and policymakers are leveraging social intelligence to quantify changing consumer behavior and preferences while extracting qualitative insights and personal narratives to inform storytelling and fundraising.

How can we rebuild the public’s trust in higher education?

More surveys about declining public confidence in higher ed aren’t helping us solve the problem. We used social intelligence to explore the gap between trust and value from 13,000 organic conversations about the role, worth, and ROI of college in the last six months of 2023 and determine what leaders can do to rebuild trust. We learned:

  • Only 7% of conversations on the topic were positive.
  • Despite a lack of positivity, people identified undisputable advantages and unmatched opportunities of college.
  • In nearly half of conversations, they offered caveats that represented barriers to fulfilling the promise of higher education.
  • Leaders must adjust the way we communicate about processes, outcomes, and preparation to better connect with the value the public wants to see in higher education.

Rebuilding Public Trust in Higher Education: A Social Intelligence ReportYou should use this report with your cabinet and board. Download or email the ready-to-print Rebuilding Public Trust in Higher Education: A Social Intelligence Report. If you’d like us to present the research in a 20–30 minute executive briefing, we’re happy to do so. We’re hosting a virtual roundtable discussion on April 15. I’m engaging dozens of higher ed association leaders in this research in May, and look forward to doing so in other settings.

Social intelligence not only answers key organizational questions—it prompts audience-centric conversations with leaders who are primarily tasked with serving students. It puts student voices front and center—all types of students. Airlines, hotels, banks, movie production companies, and consumer packaged goods have used social intelligence to make business decisions for over a decade. Higher education can’t afford to fall further behind. I’m committed to ensuring we don’t.