Social Listening Trends for Higher Ed

With social listening you collect the conversation as it happens, offering opportunities to understand what’s happening now so you can make changes for the future. But the real power comes with the ongoing analysis and context that allows you to better understand your baseline conversation and create personal benchmarks, track seasonal changes, evaluate the effects of crises, and measure the impact of new campaigns. 

We do ongoing social listening for our strategic partners, but also the higher ed industry. (Psst: STREAM members know what we’re talking about.) And we recently dove into three years of that data, exploring the multi-year trends we’ve captured along the way. 

With a challenge like the pandemic included in this analysis time frame, it’s easy to get caught up looking through a singular lens and concentrate on short-term side effects. But when we zoom out and look at the larger context, we find trends regarding online conversation in higher ed that started well before the pandemic upended the industry. 

Here are three metrics you can use to compare your campus’s marketing metrics from 2021 to 2020, and to the rest of the industry. 

Conversation Volume Fell

Overall conversation volume is the measure of all conversation about a campus, owned and earned, across all content sources, including athletics. Measuring overall conversation gives you a starting point to evaluate whether your campus conversation compares with campuses similar to yours. When you evaluate your own conversation against these benchmarks, you’ll start to see the trends and characteristics that make your campus conversation unique.

Conversation volume was falling before March 2020, but during the pandemic it plummeted—by 41%. 

Surprising, right? The intensity of conversations social media managers faced in 2020 probably made it feel like there was more conversation than ever before. In fact, it’s something that West Virginia University explored in multiple surveys of higher ed social media managers. In a special event webinar with us, WVU shared the results of their 2021 survey, exploring the crucial role social media managers play every day, and even more so during the pandemic, and how to take care of these experts on campus. 

Athletics Adds to the Drop

Campuses with athletic programs saw an even steeper drop in conversation—65% between fall 2018 and fall 2020. Athletics drives conversation for campuses and the postponement or cancelation of games and limited recruiting visits during 2020 contributed to the drop in conversation volume. 

Athletics, regardless of your division or association, contributes to everything from recruitment to philanthropy to community relations. All while impacting your brand perception. Without it, you lose critical awareness with those key audiences and making your class or raising money without that awareness while also balancing your budget is an added challenge.

Opportunity to Recover Trust

In 2019—the year before the pandemic—Gallup said the public perception of higher ed declined more than any other industry they track. It certainly hasn’t rebounded since. 

But incredible things happen across campuses every day. Telling these stories helps build relationships and rebuild trust. Andy Fuller, Notre Dame, recently wrote “people will read or watch or listen to what interests them, and sometimes it originates with a university…. We need to do more to influence public opinion, and authentic storytelling can be an effective tool in that work.”

Campuses who tell brand-aligned stories will recover mindshare and visibility in online conversation and push back on the declining trust in higher ed. 

Sentiment Shifted

Sentiment is a barometer of how a community feels about your campus. Understanding the nuances associated with positive, negative, and neutral conversation is critical for campuses to better plan, prepare, and respond to all kinds of situations and conversation topics.

When comparing the 2018–2019 academic year to the most recent fall and spring semesters, the portion of the conversation that was neutral, positive, and negative stayed roughly the same. But sentiment shifted during the pandemic. 

  • Negative conversation doubled to 8%.
  • Positive conversation dropped by two thirds to 8%.
  • Neutral conversation increased. 

Opportunity to Impact Brand Perception

When we segmented the conversation to look at the conversation directly from first-person audiences (students, prospective students, their families, and alumni), the shifts in sentiment were more pronounced. Neutral and negative conversation was roughly equal at 40–41%, with the remaining conversation (19%) positive. This shows that individuals directly affected by the pandemic were more likely to have emotionally charged conversations online, whether positive or negative.

Messages with strong positive or negative feelings about your campus are most likely to be remembered by the people who see them. You can impact your brand perception by identifying and capitalizing on the messages to increase positive mentions and minimize negative ones.

Owned vs. Earned Is Flipping

Owned vs. earned conversation is the portion of the online conversation generated by campus-affiliated accounts compared to others.

  • Owned conversation is generated by accounts affiliated with a campus such as the campus’s official social media account, athletics program, or educational department page. Retweets of owned accounts are measured as owned conversation.
  • Earned conversation is generated by those without a direct relationship to the campus, such as student-run clubs and organizations (e.g., Greek life), or others creating content about your campus.

Since we started our research, we’ve seen that most conversation about campuses is earned, which aligns with the idea that your brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what they (your audience) says it is. 

A few years ago, about two thirds of conversation about campuses was earned. Values always vary within a range, but posts from non-campus accounts were generally always more than half of a campus’s conversation.

In 2020, we saw a fluctuation in the data—not a trend yet, but owned conversation decreased as a proportion of conversations about campuses. With fresh data from spring 2021, the trend is more clear. As a portion of total conversation about campuses, owned conversation is now just 25%. For every piece of content published by anyone on campus with a branded account, three additional pieces you have no control over are published elsewhere.

It’s unclear right now if this dip is due to an intentional decline in content production, staffing challenges, or a change in the amount of content non-campus entities are producing.

Get Even More in Our Free Playbook

This is a high-level look at the industry-level benchmarks and insights we share in our free playbook: Exploring Multi-Year Trends in Higher Ed Conversation. It includes detailed insights and actions for your campus along with: 

  • Workbook-style questions to guide your thinking.
  • Recommendations for how to draw connections between the trends and your work on campus.
  • Actionable ways you might respond to the data and impact key campus outcomes.
  • Key takeaways and opportunities to put space between you and your competitors.

Download the Playbook