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Catch the Conversation
Catch the Conversation

Effective social listening can affect everything from enrollment to the value of your institutional brand

By Theresa Walker


AAd Goudappel

"If there is a God, someone … anyone … will bring me some toilet paper in the 1st floor library bathroom handicap stall @ULLafayette."

Amy Windsor, social media strategist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, saw that tweet soon after a student posted it one morning in March 2016. She called the library to arrange a special delivery to the men's bathroom. Two minutes after the original tweet, Windsor responded from the @ULLafayette Twitter account: "We're on it. Help is on the way!"

"That's my favorite fun example of the power of Twitter. I saved that guy," she says, laughing. Social listening, however, can also be a serious matter for institutions. Understanding what people are saying about your institution can affect your brand as well as its bottom line.

With the near collapse of Yik Yak, an app that had been beloved by college students (and often reviled by campus leaders) because it allowed them to post anonymously, Windsor says that listening to Twitter often gives her the best idea of what students are concerned about, even if the university isn't tagged in the tweets. "It's interesting what information you can turn up," she says. For instance, when she sees an unenthusiastic comment that does mention the university, she'll sift through the person's previous posts and sometimes uncover other conversations students are having about the institution without using its name. "It can give you a window into what people are thinking and feeling," she says, such as her observation that final exams in December 2016 were more stressful than usual.

Complaints about campus Wi-Fi and questions about financial aid are perennial topics, both of which highlight an essential use for social listening: customer service. Windsor, for instance, collected as many tweets as she could find in which students described connectivity issues and sent the list to the IT department. She urges students who mention Wi-Fi issues on social media to also contact the IT desk to make them aware of the complaints. And she sends financial aid questions to the vice president of enrollment management services so that the office can see what students are asking.

"I'm not equipped to answer a lot of those questions, but before the semester starts, many students are looking for help on these issues before they're actually on campus," she says. "The more evidence I can provide about the information students are looking for and when, the more likely the [financial aid] office will be able to add resources at these times."

Windsor is the sole full-time employee overseeing social media at UL-Lafayette, though a graduate student works with her 20 hours a week. She uses Sprout Social to manage the university's social channels but typically relies on TweetDeck for her Twitter listening.

"Watching and knowing what is important to students helps guide decisions on what we promote and helps inform and alert other areas of the university to what's on students' minds," Windsor says. "Because we speak for the university on these platforms, we have the power to bring attention to issues."

That's where the real power of social listening lies, says Liz Gross, a social media and market research strategist at Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation.

"Identifying complaints is one of the largest areas of opportunity," Gross says, citing marketing consultant Jay Baer's latest book, Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Working with Edison Research, the best-selling author found that most people don't expect companies to respond when they complain about them on social media—but if a company does reach out, people are nearly twice as likely to advocate for it afterward, regardless of whether their issue was resolved. That's why Gross says that "every complaint is a gift."

"I would prioritize responding to complaints and questions over responding to people who are singing your praises and giving you shoutouts," she says. "The folks with complaints need the fastest response. They don't necessarily need a fix, but they do need attention. You can give them that on social quickly and with little effort, which can boost their impression of your institution."

Getting the bigger picture

Social listening involves searching the never-ending stream of online conversations for comments that relate to your brand.

"People talk about campuses all the time—much more than they actually talk to campuses," says Gross, who began her career working in marketing and student affairs on university campuses. "The key value in social listening is finding when people are talking about you, not to you, and using that to inform your communication strategies, find customer service opportunities, and be a part of the online conversation that is increasingly becoming such a trusted resource for people."

A social listening operation encompasses much more than Twitter, Facebook, and your institution's other social accounts. According to Sprout Social, 30 percent of tweets that mention a brand don't include its Twitter handle, and only 9 percent of tweets are directed at brands. Yet many institutions are not equipped to catch the conversation beyond what's happening on their own social channels. There's a much wider world of social conversation on blogs, discussion forums, and websites such as Reddit.

"There are more than 80 million online sources where people are sharing their opinions publicly," according to Gross, who teaches the Higher Ed Experts online certificate course Social Media Measurement for Higher Ed. "It's a treasure trove of ‘voice of customer' information and opportunities to have positive interactions with your audience. When people hear ‘social listening,' they tend to automatically think about the social channels their institutions are already on, but it's those channels plus everywhere you aren't but your audience is. It's a really big umbrella."

Many campuses have invested in social media management tools such as Sprout Social because they recognize the importance of monitoring social conversations. But, Gross says, many institutions are typically grabbing just the low-hanging fruit. "If you're only monitoring your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, there's a good chance that you're missing more than half of your potential engagement opportunities with your community," she says. "We're definitely in the education phase about this for higher education."

A team approach to listening and customer service

"There's a huge gap between what an institution's target audiences, particularly potential students, are saying and what institutions are listening to," says Rob Speekenbrink, co-founder of NosCura, an online communications consultancy launched in the Netherlands in 2015. "They need to understand what this group is talking about, where they're having those conversations, and be able to interact with them on the channels they're using."

In 2013, while working at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Speekenbrink and his NosCura cofounder Karlijn de Wit piloted a project that transformed the institution's approach to listening and engaging with its audiences. The effort broke down social media silos by creating a 10-student webcare team that addressed questions and complaints across the university and its departments. (In Western Europe, listening to your audiences and providing customer service through social and online channels is known as webcare.)

Team member selection was key. Students applied for the positions with their curriculum vitae and a motivation letter. Speekenbrink and de Wit evaluated applicants by meeting with them in group sessions during which they assessed candidates' customer service instincts and social media skills by asking how they would respond to real questions and comments. Speekenbrink and de Wit also asked each person to create a social media plan around an event, such as alumni day, in 45 minutes and present it to the group. Once team members were in place, they met biweekly to review interactions and discuss different approaches to responses.

Within a month, de Wit and Speekenbrink demonstrated to TU Delft leaders that the system worked. The webcare team was answering more queries and responding more quickly, to the satisfaction of its audiences. The effort shifted the focus toward customer service by prioritizing the experience of the person asking the question. Rather than referring a prospective student to another university department, the webcare team maintains responsibility for promptly responding to inquiries, keeping questioners updated about the status of an answer, and resolving questions. The webcare team is available to answer inquiries from 9 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, including through the mobile messaging service WhatsApp, which integrates with the enterprise-level social listening software TU Delft uses.

In the years since, the volume of questions has continued to grow, as has interest in TU Delft. Speekenbrink and de Wit have dubbed the approach the golden triangle of online communication, a model some other European institutions are adopting. "But there's no single model that will fit all universities," de Wit notes. "Institutions should adapt what makes sense for them."

In the U.S., social media professionals often look for job candidates with a customer service background when they recruit student interns or hire employees. At Midwestern State University in Texas, Social Media Coordinator AJ Lopez scans applicants' resumes for retail experience.

"In interviews, we want to learn how they go about finding answers to questions," he says. "We want them to break down their thought process and see how their approach fits with ours. We want people who will go the distance to find answers."

Tim Nekritz, director of digital communications at the State University of New York at Oswego, values the experience and lessons he learned from his time working in customer service positions.

"There aren't enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do on social media," Nekritz says. "You can't solve everyone's problems, but considering their perspective is important. And when you get something that you can solve, such as issues with technology, it's great."

While prospective students are an important customer service audience for institutions, Nekritz notes the importance of paying attention to current students. His student social media team works to answer their questions and anticipate issues. They may produce a blog post or video to address a specific topic. (There are also years' worth of episodes of the campus video series Alyssa Explains It All, which offers a student's perspective on how to prepare for and navigate life on campus.) In summer 2016, the team held its first Facebook Live Q&A for admitted students, who are also active in their respective "Class of" groups on the platform.

"We always look at whom we are serving well and whom we could be serving better," Nekritz says. This includes not only surveying and speaking to students to learn what information they want and where they would like to see it but also noting what questions parents are asking on the university's main Facebook page.

Nekritz recognizes the importance of social listening, but he's also mindful of the financial and human resources needed to capture what people are saying about an institution across social and online channels. Gross, however, looks at the issue another way: Missing out on discussions adds up. 

"If you uncover a conversation about a student who is thinking of enrolling or discover a comment from a student who is thinking of leaving, and you can make the connection that matters, your return on investment is multiple years of tuition," Gross says. "That's a much higher ROI than you're going to get in any other industry. You have a critical opportunity to impact individual decisions in the medium where people are looking to be influenced."

Share what social listening can do

To gain support for investment in tools necessary to monitor digital conversations, demonstrate the success you've already had with your listening and share it widely.

De Wit recommends disclosing the volume of questions and complaints the institution receives and the outcomes from the social media team's interactions with audience members. In addition, Speekenbrink suggests celebrating the team's accomplishments in places that other colleagues and campus leaders will see them.

"If there's an internal staff e-newsletter, use that," he says. "The people you need as advocates for your program are typically not active on the channels where these conversations are happening, so you have to highlight your successes on the platform the leaders are on."

In addition, de Wit advises showing how these interactions relate to the goals and objectives of various departments and the university as a whole. "Make it absolutely clear why social listening and customer service are important and why the need for it will only grow," she says.

Another way powerful social listening tools can prove their value: Campuses can identify and understand an emerging crisis before it erupts by providing a data-based assessment of conversations happening in near real time.

If a high-profile alumnus calls the president's office upset about something he's seen online, social listening tools such as Brandwatch, Spredfast, Synthesio, and Crimson Hexagon can help an office immediately quantify the conversation, Gross says. "Are he and a small circle of friends the only ones talking about the issue? Or is this a conversation that's spreading across multiple circles of influence and media outlets?" Social listening can help differentiate minor problems from major reputational issues and provide examples of what people are discussing and how.

"If you can let leaders know what concerns will be coming across their desks before a reporter calls, how much is that worth to your institution?" Gross asks.

About the Author Theresa Walker Theresa Walker

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.




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