The Differences between Historical & Ongoing Social Listening

Sonarian capabilities differ based on historical and ongoing social listening. That doesn’t necessarily make one approach better than the other. 

When you think about social listening, what do you envision? If you’re like most people, you probably think of the process of capturing online mentions of your brand. 

But why are you capturing that conversation? What do you hope to learn? 

Social listening is a theoretically simple activity that can be applied with an immense level of nuance and complexity depending on your goals. How much conversation do you need to confidently answer the question that’s keeping you up at night? Do you need to make decisions in real-time or understand long-term trends? 

At Campus Sonar, we work with campuses on historical research projects and ongoing social listening partnerships. Understanding the differences between historical and ongoing social listening is important. From a technical perspective, there are data collection ramifications. From a strategic perspective, each approach is best suited to different goals. And ultimately, your social listening superpower is combining them together.  

Historical Social Listening

Historical social listening is the process of collecting publicly available online conversation from a previous time period. How far back you capture conversation depends on the conversation you’re looking for and how much you need to collect. At Campus Sonar, we’ve completed projects that collect as little as a few months of conversation or as many as three years. 

Data Collection

When conducting historical listening, there are a few limitations in terms of what data can be collected. Coverage on news sites, forums, and blogs is robust; the enterprise social listening software Sonarians use crawls more than 100 million data sources and 1.4 trillion individual posts. That’s a lot of conversation! 

The primary limitations with historical social listening are related to social channels. Twitter, the most public social network, allows for the collection of all historical data that is publicly available and hasn’t been deleted. Other networks aren’t as open. On Facebook and Linkedin, for example, there is very little to no historical data collection. YouTube doesn’t offer a direct connection between social listening software and its API, but third-party connections offer limited historical coverage. On Instagram, owned by Facebook, historical coverage is limited to content published by your own brand, as well as comments and replies on that content. 

On one hand, the access limitations are an important consideration; between one-third and one-half of all social conversation comes from accounts other than your own, and if you’re not seeing that earned conversation from key platforms, you’re missing out on potentially valuable insights. On the other hand, you don’t need to see conversation from every platform, network, or website to make meaningful decisions about your brand, audience, or research topic, thanks to something called social media reciprocity. Research by Hootsuite and Pew Research Center shows that individuals on a particular social network are often active on others. In Hootsuite’s research, for example, 87% of Twitter users also use Facebook, 86% also use Instagram, and 42% also use TikTok. In the opposite direction, 60% of Instagram users, 53% of Facebook users, and 63% of TikTok users also use Twitter. Therefore, trends uncovered through historical social listening analysis, while not drawn from every network, are likely representative of trends within conversation on all social channels because of this user reciprocity.

Ideal Use Cases

The primary benefit of historical social listening is the large, and at times overwhelmingly large, data set that is instantly available for analysis. For one large, land-grant campus in the midwest, we found 1.2 million mentions about their campus across social, blogs, news, and forums in a single calendar year. Of that conversation, 87% came from accounts other than their own. That’s a robust data set, gathered in a matter of weeks, with which to make strategic decisions. At Campus Sonar, we take this one step further by comparing a client’s historical data to industry benchmarks, which we gather as part of our industry and client research.

Historical analysis is also ideal when you’re looking to learn more about a niche topic. That might be a more specific audience, like non-traditional students, a particular type of program, like a new graduate degree in sustainability, or a combination of the two. 

“Which campuses are most commonly mentioned by career transitioners considering an online graduate degree in sustainability, and how can we best position our new offering within that competitive set?” 

For a college unit within a midwest land-grant campus (different than the one previously mentioned), we focused more specifically on conversation from prospective and admitted students about a particular academic area. We found ~13,000 contextually rich, first-person mentions on Twitter, Reddit, and College Confidential over the course of two years. Our data revealed the most common campuses mentioned, how conversation changed when students flipped from prospective to admitted, and language trends that could improve their SEO and user experience. 

The ability to capture multiple years of conversation about a given campus or topic, without waiting that same number of years for the conversation to develop, is historical analysis’ superpower. 


At Campus Sonar, we offer two approaches to social listening. With our Brand Diagnostic service, we analyze up to three years of historical conversation to provide you a deep understanding of the conversation and sentiment surrounding your campus. If you’re looking to ensure marketing, enrollment, and fundraising campaigns are deployed effectively and optimized to reach your target audiences, a Brand Diagnostic is your ideal approach. 

For more niche research needs, we offer a Targeted Analysis service. This answers the most critical questions you have about your campus. Is our brand messaging resonating? How are our current brand pillars performing? Is our new program or initiative succeeding? What fundraising messages will resonate with donors? If you’re undertaking brand research, evaluating or deploying brand or fundraising campaigns, undergoing leadership changes, or experiencing enrollment hardships, a Targeted Analysis can often answer the questions keeping you up at night.

Ongoing Social Listening

Ongoing social listening is the process of collecting publicly available online conversation as it happens. Ongoing social listening provides the same structure to your social conversation as historical analysis, but allows you to see more of that conversation and take action on individual mentions in a way that’s just not possible with historical listening. 

Data Collection

From a data collection standpoint, ongoing social listening provides a few marked improvements over a historical approach. For news sites, forums, and blogs, ongoing social listening allows us to request certain pages be added to our software crawlers, ensuring we capture additional, relevant conversation moving forward that wasn’t available to us in the past. For one client, that meant adding conversation from an anonymous location-based platform called Jodel.

The main access benefit in ongoing social listening comes in the form of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube access. 

  • With Instagram, we’re able to increase coverage by tracking owned Business accounts, including posts, comments, and replies, as well as posts by non-owned accounts and any posts or comments that include specific hashtags. 
  • On Facebook, ongoing social listening allows us to incorporate conversation from owned pages, including posts and comments. 
  • On YouTube, we have the ability to request that specific channels, like an official student vlog channel or known student influencer, are covered before we run a query.

These improvements are incremental gains on their own, but combined, they create a noticeably more comprehensive data set. And while even ongoing social listening leaves some corners of the internet uncovered—in the case of Facebook groups, maybe that’s a good thing—the improved coverage means you can feel confident that you have a steady pulse on your campus’s online conversation.  

Ideal Use Cases

Ongoing social listening is ideal if you’re present- or future-focused. That is, you’re less concerned about historical conversation and events, and more concerned about investing in long-term insights while benefiting from increased agility in the short-term. 

Trendspotting takes longer to develop with an ongoing approach, but like other types of investments, the payoff grows exponentially over time. With historical listening, you’re capped at three years of data analysis without having to sample your conversation. With ongoing, however, the longer you listen, the more effective your trendspotting becomes. As your data set grows—five years or ten years down the road—you’ll be able 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. 

While long-term trends develop, ongoing listening allows your team to take action on conversation insights in real time. Taking action might mean engaging with key audience groups, effectively managing crisis situations, or making strategic decisions with confidence by understanding the conversation around a particular aspect of your campus.  

Brigham Young University used social listening to better understand student chatter around an important topic on campus, pausing all content publication for a week so they could dedicate their time to understanding their audience. They used insights from social listening to inform productive conversations moving forward. 

Another client is using social listening to compare campus conversation to a list of competitors, giving them valuable metrics to measure progress against a key part of their strategic plan. One client, a state system of higher education, uses social listening to track conversation about each member campus, helping them understand each campus’s share of voice within the system, the unique nature of each campus’s conversation, and when to offer support in times of crisis.   

If the ability to instantly capture multiple years of conversation is historical analysis’ superpower, agility is the equivalent for ongoing listening. Because you’re listening in real time, your approach can change alongside your priorities or conversation. You’re never locked into any one view or query.  

The Power of Pairing

While there’s no right or wrong way to approach social listening, there is an ideal scenario, and that’s the combination of the two. A two or three-year historical analysis, paired with ongoing listening can allow for instantaneous benchmarks and reputation management, and provide the long-term trendspotting that would otherwise take years to develop. When we conducted a three-year historical analysis for La Salle University, we used key findings to inform our ongoing social listening segmentation, making it easy for them to continue tracking priority topics surfaced from prior conversation.

If this piques your interest, learn more about pairing historical and ongoing social listening with a Strategic Partnership. We share examples of ways campuses use this service in a blog post series. If you have specific questions, get in touch with 

Read Our Blog Post Series