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Using Online Conversation Benchmarks: The Authors behind the Conversation

“Our campus is small; there’s no way there’s enough conversation about us to justify investing time or money in it.”

“We don’t do much on social media, so there’s no use in thinking about social listening.”

These are common statements I hear at conferences, and it’s so hard for me to not immediately jump on my soapbox and start preaching. I know in my gut that most campuses can gain valuable strategic insights from understanding their online conversation, and that conversation is happening with or without an investment in social media from the campus.


This was on my mind as I looked into the data we collected around the number of authors involved in conversations about campuses as part of our 2019 Online Conversation Benchmarks for Higher Education report.

Authors are individual contributors across any public, online conversation platform.Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, when we talk about “authors,” we’re referring to
individual contributors to public, online conversation. An author could be an individual’s or organization’s account on Twitter or Instagram, the publisher or commenter on a blog, user accounts on forums like Reddit, or journalists on online news sites. Authors are our best approximation of the number of humans contributing to conversation on a topic. So when you look at author data, imagine the humans behind the numbers. They’re who you’re ultimately trying to understand to inform your campus strategies.

Analysis is looking for patterns. (Yes, the author and conversation volume data discussed here excludes athletics.) When I looked at the unique authors data visualization in our report, I knew there had to be more to the story. The range is enormous—what does it mean for different school types? What does that median of 843 authors mean in the context of the overall conversation about the institution? What can institutions with below-average author participation expect to gain from analyzing their online conversation? It was time for a deep dive into online conversation research.

The number of unique authors generating online conversation annually ranged from approximately 10 to 1,087,445, with a median value of 843 authors per year.

Deep Dive: The Relationship between Authors and Mentions

While this range is helpful and important for us to report to the industry, it doesn’t tell us how many authors any particular campus can expect to contribute to their online conversation, or what the relationship is between unique authors and total conversation. So I dove into the benchmarks. (You’ve read the second half of the report where we break this data down by institutional characteristic, right? It starts on page 21.) And, I made a surprising discovery.

No matter the size, type, or control of your institution, there is a consistent relationship between the number of authors and the number of mentions of an institution. Whether small, large, graduate, undergraduate, faith-based, or health-focused, most campuses can expect to see between 6 and 10 mentions per author. 

The exception is public doctoral institutions who see quite a few more mentions per author. You can find the full list of author benchmarks in the following table, with the newly calculated mentions per author metric. In our data set, large institutions (10,000+ students) and very small institutions (less than 1,000 students) each saw about nine mentions per author. The total annual conversation volume is over 135x higher for large institutions, but each human talking about the very small institutions is just as important.

So yes, larger campuses have more conversation than smaller campuses, and public institutions (which are often larger) have more conversation than private institutions. But it’s not because their students and constituents talk more; they just have a larger audience. 

callout-sonarIf I told you that 800 people were willing to provide insight into the experience at your campus of 1,500 students on an on-going basis, would you turn down that opportunity because you know the campus with 35,000 students down the road was able to get feedback from 19,000 people?

The contributions individuals make to the conversation about higher education institutions seems consistent regardless of size or institutional focus. In aggregate, they can help you understand your brand, the student experience, or how alumni feel. At the individual level, you can increase your ability to support student mental health, or help a student see the financial potential of the talent they’ve developed in your fine arts program. Even the smallest campus will see dozens of audience research opportunities every year, if they just listen.

Institution Characteristic Median Unique Authors Median Annual Conversation Volume Mentions Per Author
Public  625  20,260 32.42 
Private Nonprofit 425  4,164  9.80 
Private For-Profit 76  670  8.16 
Exclusively Grad  206 1,811  8.79 
Very Small (Less than 1,000) 152  1,386  9.12 
Small (1,000-2,999) 850  5,318  6.26 
Medium (3,000-9,999) 1,427  10,784  7.56 
Large (10,000+) 19,681  188,357  9.57 
Program Type
Art/Music/Design  244 1,811  7.42
BA: Art/Science, Diverse, BA/Associates   409 3,509  8.58 
Professional: Business, Law, Technology, Other  209 1,386  6.63 
Doctoral 13,323  181,149  13.60 
Faith 151  1,466  9.70 
Masters 566  5,655  10 .00
Health 91  811  8.91 

For a full description of how these characteristics are defined and how the metrics were calculated, read the methodology appendix, which starts on page 28 of the 2019 Online Conversation Benchmarks for Higher Education report.

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

Liz Gross

Liz Gross is the founder and CEO of Campus Sonar. A recognized expert, data-driven marketer, and higher education researcher, Liz specializes in creating entrepreneurial social media strategies in higher education. She is an award-winning speaker, author, and strategist who was named a 2018 Mover and Shaker by Social Shake-Up Show and a finalist on GreenBook’s 2019 GRIT Future List. Liz has more than 15 years’ experience in higher ed and strategic social listening programs. She received a Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University, a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership from Marquette University, and a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.


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