The Influence of Social Media and Higher Ed Trends on Social Listening

The Tree within the Forest

Some things are meant to be left alone—unchanged and unchallenged. Social listening is definitely not one of those things.

Evolution is a significant aspect of social listening because of changing language and evolving behaviors that directly impact online presence. Language and behavior—how people talk online and the platforms they access—aren’t static, so any type of research or analysis that depends on ever-evolving aspects of human nature, must be dynamic and agile enough to match these changes step-for-step. Trends observed in social media and higher education, trends that make up a larger context in which online conversations occur, must be translated into the approaches to social listening used in the service of higher education.

Thinking of it this way, it’s less about the tree and more about the forest. The tree and forest image holds true for social listening. As analysts we sit at the base of a tree (the social listening project, topic, and/or client) and watch it grow and change while observing the surrounding trees.

Let’s dig into how observations of the other trees impact how, as analysts, we see the tree that we're leaning against. Less poetically: Let’s look at how trends in social media and higher education, specifically language and platform usage, produce the context in which we analyze and interpret social listening data.

How Trees Grow: The Evolution of Language

Blog_5-20_graphicWe've described how our trusty Sonarian Senses can lead to query updates that make a huge difference in our client work. In the post we talk about how the language used to describe an emerging crisis changed rapidly. We were on top of the shift in language because we knew we’d have to look beyond the statement that ignited the crisis (the tree) to how that statement rippled into the online community (the forest). Our research of the crisis and our extensive reading of related news articles drove changes to the query that ultimately captured more mentions and the language about the crisis evolved. 

Similarly, our COVID-19 briefings are another great case study in the evolution of language. Every day we identify relevant trending hashtags on Twitter, pinpoint common misspellings, and stay in touch with how different generations refer to the virus: coronavirus, caronavirus, covid-19, the rona, etc., etc., etc.

If we were hyper-focused on “coronavirus,” we’d miss a lot of conversations that talk about the same topic, but use different words or phrases to describe the same thing. This limited view could result in an analysis of not only a smaller and more limited dataset, but one that emerges from a particular group of people who use “coronavirus” instead of a misspelling or a nickname. With an expanded dataset, analysts have a complete view of the conversations among everyone and can give more targeted and relevant insights to the phenomenon as a whole. One may refer to a tree as a balsam tree, someone else a balsam fir. Both are correct and equally important.

What Kinds of Trees Grow Where: Online Conversation Platforms

Let’s move past the language piece—beyond the nuts and bolts of running a query and capturing relevant mentions. Another question we ask ourselves is “Where do we look?” Where do we shine our flashlights or focus our binoculars in the forest? Missing something because we aren’t looking is pretty problematic.


Social listening in and of itself allows us to investigate who spends time on which sites and what content they post and share. That, along with generally understanding social media use demographics thanks to secondary sources and our own research, ensures that the data observations and subsequent insights we deliver to clients represent how the proverbial tree fits in the forest. 

Consider an Example

We know that prospective students spend time on YouTube investigating colleges they may want to attend. If analysts investigate good old Gross U and realize there's no YouTube presence (official or influencer-based), there’s an obvious disconnect between prospective students and Gross U. Recognizing this, our recommendation would be for Gross U to get themselves on YouTube! Thus, a combination of secondary source data on social media trends and our own social listening resulted in an actionable social media strategy recommendation.

Finally, we're obligated to talk about Reddit and TikTok because we’ve examined what the platforms represent for our clients. Knowing that different demographic makeups are active on certain sites or log into new platforms or use platforms in unique ways relevant to higher education broadens the scope of social listening from the focus on social media and news articles to also include up-and-coming platforms that are used at increasing rates and in novel ways. 

Vantage Point: What Do We See and Why Do We See it that Way?

The change and context we’re talking about is a significant part of the social listening arsenal. It sets social listening apart from monitoring and sets humans apart from artificial intelligence.

Taking the trends and corresponding context together, we adapt our social listening approach to each unique client project. Based on our research and understanding of language and platform trends, changes, and context, we deliver personalized insights grounded in data and based on the reality of the client and the current online culture.

It sounds impressive, and it is. But.

Part of any research worth its salt means acknowledging its limitations. While social listening taps into previously inaccessible areas of social conversations, there are challenges the approach faces. For example, the sites and types of accounts our social listening software can access. There’s a weakness in the inability to generalize social listening findings, especially when there are swaths of people who don’t have internet access. There are also the challenges inherent with who uses which platforms for what reason. The details play into the larger story the data tells us.

It helps to know what we don’t know.

By acknowledging what we don’t know, we can more certainly say what we do know and what that means for our client or for the topic at hand. We can situate our findings within the authenticity of the online community. On the other hand, we can identify what sites social listening doesn’t cover and explore how to manually investigate those sites or supplement what we do know with other types of data. 

The Role of the Arborist … er Analyst

In some ways, it’s like every social listening project we start at Campus Sonar includes a walk in the woods to get a lay of land … a view of the trees beyond the one we’re leaning against.

Language changes. Online behavior morphs. New online platforms emerge. Old platforms are discarded. Perhaps some common characteristic leads one group of people to one platform for one purpose, while a different platform calls to a different group with a different defining characteristic. 

The world is fluid and so must be our approach to understanding it. That’s why we pay attention to trends in social media and higher education: so we can properly inform our approach to social listening to accurately represent what is happening in the world. This post specifically looked at the importance of language and platform use, but there are many trends that come into play (or that will come into play). Access, privacy, politics, influencers—these are all trends worth noting.

As analysts, we're ever-vigilant, continuing to observe the forest and the trees, with our observations of one or the other ever informing what we know or think we know.

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