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What's Normal? Benchmarking Higher Ed Social Media

We’re kicking off 2021 with a new way to approach data and analysis in higher education. STREAM is our new membership service that unites social listening research, digestible insights, and a private community of like-minded peers. Members are empowered to make informed, timely decisions based on social listening data and research addressing core areas of higher education like:

  • Recruitment and yield
  • Reputation and branding
  • Alumni engagement and fundraising

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Since this is new for us, we wanted to give you a peek inside what you’ll receive as a STREAM member. Our first report is Social Listening Benchmarks for Higher Education: January 2021. It’s intended to support you in analyzing your campus’s online conversation behavior against a comparable sample. The report covers online conversation trends in higher education and institutional benchmarks by enrollment size and type. But we also looked at where these conversations were happening—what were the sources of the conversations? It’s important to understand where your annual conversation occurs. It informs where to invest your time and effort, and guides your overall content strategy. 

Over the next month on the blog we’re going to dive deeper into two content sources (social media and news) to give you an idea of the depth of analysis and insight you’ll find as a STREAM member.

Social Media Conversation

We shared in Social Listening Benchmarks for Higher Education: January 2021 (for members only) that the internet is real life. Social media is how your key audiences and communities share their lives, offering you an opportunity to learn more about who they are, what they care about, and how they feel. And most importantly for you—how they feel about your campus.

In the report, we analyzed six conversation sources. Social media drives the largest amount of online conversation at an average of 73%. This conversation includes mentions from Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Twitter is by far the largest data source our social listening software collects, with very few mentions from Instagram and YouTube due to platform and privacy restrictions. Due to the number of users who use both Twitter and other social media sites, findings from Twitter can be considered characteristic of all social media sites. 

Conversation Volume: How Many People Are Talking

Social media mentions were 64% to 88% of total annual online conversation for the middle range of our sample. If your campus’s social media mention volume is in this range, it’s considered typical.

Takeaway: Knowing these ranges helps you monitor conversations to find where they’re likely to occur online. Once you learn where mentions of your campus occur you can further analyze how audiences differ on each platform and the best way to communicate with different users. 

Sentiment: How People Feel When They’re Talking

Social media generates a lot of conversation overall and is the source of the most positive conversation. It’s also the source of the most earned conversation (people talking about your campus) compared to other sources.

We found that social media mentions were the least negative of the content sources—likely a surprise to campus social media managers who respond to these mentions. When your campus’s negative sentiment seems higher than usual, take a step back for a broader view of your conversation with the goal of quantifying conversation sentiment or gaining additional perspective.

Of total social media mentions, positive mentions ranged from 22% to 35% with a median of 28%. The median of negative social media mention was 3%. The biggest range was with neutral mentions, which were between 0% and 87%, with a median of 68%. If your conversation aligns with these ranges, it’s normal.

Takeaway: The general positivity of social channels allows you to leverage them and use the content you see as a barometer for how your audience feels. You can expect some negativity, but if there’s a significant and persistent shift toward negative sentiment in social conversation it should serve as a warning, indicating that a crisis could be on the horizon.

Owned vs. Earned Conversation: Who’s Talking about You

Social media mentions represent the largest share of conversation for owned and earned audiences. The middle of owned social media mentions fell between 17% and 48% and between 31% and 48% for earned social media mentions. If your campus falls within these ranges, your owned and earned conversation is normal. 

The range for owned conversation volume around the median was far wider than the range for earned conversation (by nearly double). This indicates much less consistency in how campuses approach their owned content, and potentially illustrates the impact of earning high rates of retweets and shares, which boosts a campus’s owned conversation percentage. While earned conversation volume was predictable based on campus enrollment, program type, or control, the amount of owned conversation varied greatly by campus. This makes sense as each campus social media program is unique, and has different goals, strategies, and resources. 

Takeaway: It's helpful to see how your owned conversation stacks up against other campuses, but a better benchmark may be understanding how your earned conversation compares, and whether or not your campus generates social media conversation and brand engagement at levels comparable to your peers.

Owned Social Media Accounts

It was also valuable to analyze the number of owned accounts for campuses that publish social media content. In our sample, the smaller the institution, the more variation there was in the number of owned accounts. Larger schools appeared to have more uniformity in the number of owned accounts by their enrollment size. The middle 50% of owned social media accounts by institution size are:

  • Very small institutions is between 3 and 17 accounts
  • Small institutions is between 19 and 46 accounts
  • Medium institutions is between 30 and 78 accounts
  • Large institutions is between 86 and 188 accounts

The nature of larger institutions typically means they have more financial and human resources to create and support owned social media accounts.

Owned and Earned Mention Type Breakdown

To further understand your audiences, you can examine their behavior and habits across different types of social media mentions, meaning original posts, shared or retweeted content, and comments or replies. We assessed the breakdown of owned and earned social media mentions by these types. Your conversation is normal if it falls within these ranges. 

Owned Conversation by Mention Type

  • Original posts: 30% to 66% 
  • Shared or retweeted posts: 33% to 67% 
  • Comments or replies: 1% to 2% 

Earned Conversation by Mention Type

  • Original posts: 29% to 46% 
  • Shared or retweeted posts: 27% to 54%
  • Comments or replies: 8% to 15% 

As enrollment increases, the proportion of original social media posts for owned social content decreased. Large institutions with more than 10,000 students posted between double and nine times the original social media content of medium to very small schools. But the proportion of original social media posts to all owned social media content decreased as enrollment increased. A typical range for original posts from large institutions is 21% to 33% of all owned social media content. However, the typical range for institutions with less than 10,000 students is 32% to 64% of all owned social media content.

Large institutions also have a higher proportion of shared and retweeted content compared to institutions with less than 10,000 students. 

  • Large campuses generate 64% to 77% of their owned social media content as shared or retweeted content.
  • Smaller campuses generate 33% to 66% of their owned social media content as shared or retweeted content.

We expect these ranges to be distinct for campuses with different enrollment—larger campuses usually have more owned social media accounts and more resources to support the accounts over time. It was more surprising to find that as enrollment increases, the proportion of owned social media posts decreases. 

However, there’s little social listening evidence that campuses with less than 10,000 are driving benefit by posting more original content. The typical range of earned social media content for large institutions is 38% to 49% and the range for smaller institutions is similar, 32% to 49%. This illuminates the potential value of owned comments and replies, not only for all institutions, but for smaller institutions in particular. The typical range for owned comments and replies is 1% to 2%, with little difference by enrollment size. 

Takeaway: If you work at a smaller campus (which typically develops original owned content at double the rate of larger campuses), consider putting fewer resources toward the development of owned original content and more toward audience engagement via comments and replies.

Consider These Questions for Your Campus

  • Does your campus conversation align with the social media volume benchmarks? If you’re at the high end, do you know what drives your volume up? If you’re at the low end, what opportunities exist to build out additional content and engage with your priority audiences?
  • When looking at your campus conversation volume and trends, does it follow the patterns seen in benchmarking campuses, or do unique patterns emerge? Are there campus events or other campus activities that influence these trends? How can you use your unique characteristics as a differentiator?
  • Do you have open lines of communication between your media relations and social media staff? Do you have a process in place to share information or escalate issues if they arise? 
  • Depending on your campus size, can these trends inform adjustments to your strategy that maximize your resources and brand impact?
  • Are your owned accounts actively engaging with audiences via comments and replies? If not, how might you adjust your strategy to deepen relationships with your audience?
  • How can you encourage your audience to amplify your owned content and share your messaging?

This post originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog. It features major contributions from Social Media Data Analysts Amanda Jeppson and Sarah Marks.

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Want more benchmarks so you can gauge your campus’s online conversation? Our new report, Social Listening Benchmarks for Higher Education: January 2021 gives you just that. And, as a part of our new membership service STREAM, by Campus Sonar, the report is just the beginning.

As a member, you get a year of exclusive primary research (reports), companion blog posts to help you understand key aspects of the report and how to use it, infographics of the top insights from the research, access to webinars featuring expert guests from higher ed, a peer community of fellow members, and office hours to engage with the Campus Sonar team.

Check Out STREAM Memberships

Beth Miller

Beth is Campus Sonar’s Client Success Manager. Her deep commitment to data-informed decision making is rooted in more than 20 years of professional marketing and communications experience, nearly 15 of which have been in higher education. Beth’s analytical approach to strategic and creative work that helps Campus Sonar’s clients apply the insights gleaned from data to more effectively and efficiently achieve their institutional goals. In her free time, Beth enjoys mountain biking on local trails with her husband and two children.

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