Teaching Social Listening in Higher Education

I’m teaching a new class dedicated to social listening this semester in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations, and Media Design at the University of Colorado Boulder. Recently I was asked, "Why so narrow of a focus?”

The answer depends on how you define social listening. If your definition of social listening is just finding @ mentions then, yes, it’s too narrow. But if your definition includes going deeper to find any or all of the following, then, no, it’s far from too narrow.

A brand must have the following key ingredients in their symbiotic relationship with consumers that continues to evolve through social media. 

  • Valuable insights that align audience needs and brand goals.
  • Opportunities to deepen relationships through authentic engagement and personalized content.
  • Intelligence about your brand reputation, industry trends, and competitor activity.
  • Issues before they become crises.
  • Ideas on new products or services.

A version of “humanize the brand” is included in almost all marketing guidance for 2019. Fast Company goes as far as to say brands need to make 2019 their most human year ever. I think it’s safe to say being more human is a big deal and brands need as much help in this area as possible.

As in all relationships, there are two main parts—doing and learning. I think there are many great classes focusing on the doing pieces of social media from brands in areas like creative, paid advertising, use of new platform functionality, storytelling, and beyond. But there’s an opportunity in higher education to offer students more around brand learning. This is where dedicated social listening classes come in.

At its core, social listening is a research skill that takes time and practice to hone. An article that I have long felt frames this the best is from a 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR)To Get More Out of Social Media, Think Like an Anthropologist.

"To leverage social media for customer insight move beyond the science of data management to the art of interpretation, embrace the context offered in qualitative commentaries, and don’t delegate social listening to the marketing department.”

I prefer to tweak the above quote to say “complement the science of data with the art of interpretation…” as I think both are needed. This hybrid is how the class I teach on social listening is structured.


If you recognize the areas in the center circle of this diagram, cheers to you as you probably read The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook. Campus Sonar’s great guide and a few other resources inspired me as I built my approach to this course.

I’m only seven weeks into the 15-week class, so I don’t know the outcome, but I already feel confident about this model overall. We’re just about finished with the first section on Input. I took the class through understanding brand purpose, crafting hypotheses around that purpose, then testing via Boolean queries. I don’t think all the students loved the simple/complex duality of Boolean operators but from their work I see a growing appreciation for the components of better questions brands can be asking—context, precision, and looking between the lines of conversations to explore the unknown. This section sets them up well for the Analysis phase where we start larger projects finding patterns and trends around reputation and audience.

The semester will wrap up with Impact, the most important part for learning and grading, where the students will synthesize their discoveries into interpretations that will mean something to managers (especially those who don’t “get” social media) and progress the goals of the brand (going full circle back to day one about purpose). No vanity metrics without interpretation will be allowed at this point. We’ll also spend time covering how social listening can lead to personalized content and relevant dialogue.

All of the topics focus on the central foundation of the class—ethics. We regularly cover the “we can do X, but should we?” aspect of social media in all case studies and capabilities. I think this foundation is critically needed in social media and it is really awesome to talk through with students.

Last fall I attended the first ever ListenUp EDU—I highly recommend attending this April if you can. The conference enables speakers and attendees to really "explore how a culture of listening, service, and trust-building can make us better at what we do.” At this conference you’ll see a key part emphasized—culture—and a key part de-emphasized—the singular focus on social media and marketing. Like the quote from the HBR article said almost three years ago, social listening needs to branch out (in a coordinated way) to more departments and roles. Some of the students in my class may not do social listening themselves, but they’ll certainly work with people who do. Knowing how social listening works and how to interpret the results significantly improves the campaigns they build.

The Cluetrain Manifesto stated that “markets are conversations” back in 1999. That same 2016 HBR article stated, "Social listening competency will be critical to competitive advantage in the digital age.” All of the happenings of 2018 (data privacy, ad blockers, fake news, etc.) set the stage for 2019 to be the year social intelligence grows up, says Dr. Jillian Ney of the Social Intelligence Lab (SILab). Social listening is called out more in “skills to have” professional surveys and the major mergers in social listening-related platforms from late 2018 show something big is going on.

If brands really want to be more human, they’re going to have to get better at listening to learn. The need for more skilled employees in social listening has been a long time coming and I can’t think of a better time than now for dedicated social listening classes to help make that happen.