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Enhancing Students’ Higher Education Experience Using Social Listening

What are those kids up to nowadays? As it turns out, social listening offers a solution to universities looking to better understand the student body, address crises in a more sensitive manner, and better assess the competition.

Editor’s Note: The world of higher education marketing has changed dramatically since I was applying to university in antediluvian times. Where once colleges marketed themselves mainly by mailing out thick brochures to prospective students who wrote to them for information, there are now sophisticated systems that tap into the needs of prospective students and parents. It is like night and day, and when my children were applying, I could “see” the research must have been done to craft specific messages. As research has changed in most categories because of technology and new information sources available, Amanda Jeppson describes how universities can use social media analysis in research on prospective students, current students, and alumni. A really interesting read.


Social listening is a keystone of marketing today. According to social intelligence company Brandwatch, social listening is the process of amassing data from public online platforms on a particular topic, analyzing that data, and identifying strategic insights.

Monitoring social media accounts, news, forums, blogs, videos, images, and other websites for online conversations about a company’s brand gives the marketing team an exclusive awareness of the industry and current and potential customers. By seeing those conversations, the marketing team knows the consumer more deeply, tapping into values, likes, dislikes, and other aspects of their lives.

With this intimate knowledge of their consumers, companies provide personalized and superior customer experience. This is increasingly important, as today’s consumers patronize businesses that align with their values and provide a personal experience.

But…What if the product is higher education and the consumers are students?

Social Listening in Higher Education & Why It Matters

When college staff wonders about the student/alumni perspective on certain topics or how the college experience can be improved, they ask directly. They facilitate focus groups, conduct interviews, or deploy surveys. These aren’t bad approaches but think about how much knowledge exists online where many students broadcast their lives, unfiltered! What could it mean to tap into that almost limitless dataset?

By using social listening (perhaps in addition to traditional methods), college staff is more adaptive and interactive with students/alumni as they encounter discussions about the college instantly, unredacted, and in the wild. The opportunities and insights social listening surfaces allow colleges to provide real-time customer service to students/alumni. Further, having a finger on the pulse of the college’s online conversation means very little should surprise staff; constant monitoring and responsiveness of social listening can prevent a small issue from turning into a campus-wide PR disaster.

The unique insights social listening generates means more agile responses to address problems and amplify successes. Read a better customer experience for students and alumni.

Let’s Talk Specifics: The “How” of Social Listening in Higher Education

Social media can be used in many ways to support higher education efforts: to better understand students/alumni, to actively respond to engagement opportunities, to investigate the competition, or to identify and respond to campus crises, to name a few. Successfully using social listening in these ways improves students’ higher education experience and alumni’s continued experience with their colleagues.

According to a study by The New York Times, “The Psychology of Sharing, Why do People Share Online,” more than 60% of people share on social media to define themselves and what they care about. Through social listening, colleges can learn more about prospective students, current students, or alumni by investigating what they discuss online. Do they talk politics? Are they interested in innovation? Are they focused on entertainment? Marketers can use this insight to tailor messaging to targeted groups, showing them that their college is listening, knows, and cares about them as individuals.

  1. There are many opportunities for colleges to engage in conversations about their school. We already know students who follow campus social media accounts perceive a higher-quality relationship with their college (Clark, Fine, & Scheuer, 2016), so imagine a world where colleges also respond to followers. Some social media mentions of the college are explicit—the mention includes a direct @ mention to an official account. But other mentions are silent and don’t link directly. Engagement opportunities arise on a daily basis—explicitly and silently—and responding to them keeps a college visible, connected, and makes current consumers (or potential consumers) heard. It might be as simple as addressing a student’s concern, welcoming a prospective student to a college tour, congratulating an alum on an exciting career change, or even providing light-hearted responses to mentions poking fun at the school. Taking advantage of these opportunities gives a college and its digital footprint more personality and presence.
  2. Colleges can leverage social listening to learn from their competitors and improve. Every school has competition and room to grow. In a Brandwatch article on marketing tips, Kit Smith shared how Cintas leans on social listening to learn from competitor mistakes. Similarly, social listening can help colleges and universities understand what is working (or not) for competing colleges and their students and alumni. With this, colleges can improve the higher education experience for their current students, perhaps pick up more students for next year’s enrollment, and maybe even increase alumni giving. By listening to the competition and what others say about them, a school can pivot to meet the needs of students and alumni.
  3. When a crisis hits, social media allows colleges to respond in a timely and sensitive manner. In his article Turning Social Data into Actionable Business Results, Brian Honigman describes how ConAgra had declining sales and sentiment after removing the pop-top lids from Chef Boyardee products. Social listening saved the brand by catalyzing the re-introduction of pop-tops and a crowd-sourced label. Likewise, when something goes wrong on a college campus (and something will go wrong), social listening provides insights into the ripple effect that flashpoint has on prospective and current students, and alumni, thus allowing the college to get ahead of a potential disaster. A school can tailor their responses to address specific concerns raised by constituents and appropriately respond to highly impactful mentions to address the issue and maintain a sense of the school’s values. Despite the crisis occurring, a college can still save its reputation and provide its constituents relief. As stated earlier, consumers stick with companies that align with their values—responding to a crisis is the perfect time for a college to show this.

The Bottom Line

Overall, social listening is good for students/alumni and for a college campus that wants to stay competitive. Think of it this way—the connection made with a prospective student could be the difference between them picking one college over another. Engaging with a current student over an issue they identified with their college may mean that student stays for another year instead of transferring. Maintaining meaningful connections with alumni might inspire increased giving and engagement.

It is not enough to just listen; colleges must also do. By listening, reflecting, and identifying strategic action moving forward, students’ college experiences can be tailored and improved and meaningful connections with alumni maintained.

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Amanda Jeppson

Amanda Jeppson

Social Media Data Analyst, Campus Sonar