Using Online Conversation Benchmarks: Conversation Volume

An institution’s online conversation volume is an indication of how many people are talking about it. Once you know the conversation volume for your institution, you can segment it to see who is talking about you, what they’re talking about, and where they’re talking. All of this helps you better understand the conversation about your institutional brand and create a strategy that resonates with your audiences.

In 2019 Online Conversation Benchmarks for Higher Education: A Campus Sonar Social Listening Study, we researched and evaluated one year of historical online conversation data for 65 higher education institutions. Campus Sonar Social Media Data Analysts assessed the institutions against 52 metrics that you can use to compare your institution against similar institutions.

One of the metrics we assessed was conversation volume. Let’s examine what we found out and how we segmented the conversations.

Total Annual Conversation Volume

An institution’s annual conversation volume is the online conversation averaged over a 12-month period. Our sample contained online conversation from August 2017 to July 2018. We found that the conversation volume ranged from 21 mentions to about 9 million mentions, with a median of 3,509 mentions.


Athletics is not included in the conversation volume because not all institutions in our sample had an athletic program and not all campus staff are interested in conversation about athletics. Removing athletics-related conversation from our initial analysis allowed us to better represent conversation across all U.S. higher education institutions.

After we removed the athletics conversation and analyzed the total conversation volume, we broke it down by a few institutional characteristics. We calculated the average and median value for each metric across the sample. When the median is within plus or minus 10 percentage points of the average, the average value is used. If the median value is greater than plus or minus 10 percentage points of the average, the median value is used instead.

Conversation Volume by Institution Control

Total sample size: 12 public institutions, 38 private nonprofit institutions, and 15 private for-profit institutions.

  • Public: Median of 20,260
  • Private Nonprofit: Median of 4,164
  • Private For-profit: Median of 670

Average Increase after Adding Athletics to the Conversation Volume

  • Public: 200%
  • Private Nonprofit: 162%
  • Private For-profit: 27%

Adding athletics to the analysis changes the conversation—increasing the total volume for the sample by 236 percent on average.


Conversation Volume by Enrollment Size

Total sample size: nine exclusively graduate institutions, 19 very small, 13 small, nine medium, and six large institutions.

  • Exclusively Graduate: Median of 1,811
  • Very Small: Median of 1,386
  • Small: Median of 5,318
  • Medium: Median of 10,784
  • Large: Median of 188,357

Average Increase after Adding Athletics to the Conversation Volume

  • Exclusively Graduate: 0% (No athletic affiliation.)
  • Very Small: 0%
  • Small: 186%
  • Medium: 117%
  • Large: 144%

callout-sonarInstitutional Insights

Analyzing the conversation volume tells us a few things.

  • Large doctoral institutions, such as Harvard, have the most online mentions compared to other institution types.
  • Private institutions with enrollment under 1,000 typically collect less than 10,000 mentions annually—regardless of the degree or educational focus of the institution.
    • This range is most likely a combination of resources (larger institutions have more resources to create online content) and audience size (larger institutions and public institutions have larger student/alumni/community populations who are likely to talk about the institution).
    • Social listening software is a large expense for smaller institutions, relative to the number of mentions—they would need to spend a minimum of $15,000 to collect these mentions, let alone the time and expertise to analyze them for relevant insights. However, the potential value of strategic social listening for these institutions is immense.
      • Admitted students talk about their decision process online, but often without tagging the institution. They’re getting advice from strangers on the internet and using that to make their college choice. Social listening can identify the opportunities for campus staff or other trusted experts to be involved in those conversations.
      • Alumni and advancement professionals can gather intelligence about alumni activities and accomplishments to inform genuine relationship-building strategies that will have long-term payoff in the form of increased alumni engagement and giving.

With the increase in the athletics conversation, we found:

  • Athletics doesn’t drive the conversation at larger institutions, but it does have an impact on smaller institutions.
    • For Division III or other affiliated institutions, the audience’s personal connection to an athlete (e.g., a family member or the only person from a small town to play at the collegiate level) is more important than performance or national recognition. These institutions should share more athlete profiles, stories celebrating their ability to play in college while also focusing on a well-rounded liberal arts education, or the bonds that athletics help a student form with their peers and the institution.

Once you have an idea of your conversation volume, you can determine real-world outcomes and impacts for your brand.

  • Monitor the change in volume and sentiment of online conversation specific to your brand.
  • Determine if your non-athletics conversation is aligned with your desired campus brand.
  • Ultimately use the data to create a reputation management strategy.

Monthly Conversation Volume

Monthly, the conversation volume for the same sample ranged from 2 to 750,000 with a median of 292 mentions. The most online conversation happening during the spring (April, February, and May) and least conversation happening in the summer and the end of the calendar year (July, August, and December/June).

Monthly Mentions

Most Conversations Months

Most conversation Months


Least Conversation Months

Least conversation months

callout-sonarInstitutional Insights

The monthly conversation volume had a clear seasonal trend, with dips and peaks that align with on-campus breaks for institutions that follow a traditional semester schedule. There were dips in the summer and December and peaks in spring. But is this what you expect or want from your conversation? Developing a content strategy for the months when the conversation dips might increase your conversation and engagement. Consider if it’s feasible for staff to build out content for the lulls so your accounts continue to be active. This might give the school a competitive edge.

Discover More Institutional Insights

To learn more about the benchmarks you can use to define your institution’s online conversation behavior, download our report. Then watch our blog and newsletter for updates about the research and specific case studies.

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The post Using Online Conversation Benchmarks: Conversation Volume originally appeared on the Campus Sonar Brain Waves blog.