How Social Listening Can Benefit Your Content Marketing

Here at SimpsonScarborough, we are increasingly adding social media audits and social listening trends analyses to our work with colleges and universities to help them develop and amplify more impactful marketing content. One of our key partners is Campus Sonar, a firm that assists institutions in leveraging social intelligence in their marketing and branding efforts. This month, we are sharing some strategic insights from Campus Sonar’s Steve App on why higher ed institutions need social listening, and how they can get started.

In light of shifting demographics in higher education, marketers are increasingly asked to reach and influence new types of prospective students—students difficult to reach using traditional higher education marketing tactics *cough* list buying *cough.*

Using social listening can provide campuses developing content strategy with a goldmine of content ideas. The information obtained is authentic—these ideas are not self-reported through formal, controlled environments—and relevant, since the data collected is happening in real-life and real-time. So how can you use social listening to gain insights?

Where to Listen

You need to look where the public conversation is happening. That leaves out Facebook (which is restricting its data access more and more) and Snapchat. Twitter and Instagram are excellent sources, but don’t discount discussion forums and Reddit—these can be gold mines of online conversations, because people who feel really strongly about a topic tend to congregate in niche spaces. This is where software comes in handy. It’s technically possible for you to find and cruise the Reddit threads and message boards that cover your topic in-depth, but it’s hardly as efficient as software.

How to Listen

If you’re doing content marketing correctly, two things are top of mind: an audience and a topic (or a few topics). These are key when you consider where to look for conversations to mine for intelligence.

Think about your audience, and get specific. How old are they? What is their profession or student status? Does their location matter? Use this information to identify social media profiles (likely on Twitter or Instagram) that meet these characteristics (yes, there is software for that). Now, “listen” to their public online conversations as if it’s your private, always-on focus group. Identify trending content, influencers, and questions that pop up. Questions are key. You want to find the questions everyone is asking and answer them. Along the way, you may also learn what emoji are popular, what they tend to binge on Netflix, and what entertainers are popular. You can weave this into your content marketing to become hyper-relevant to the audience.

Alternately (and this is easier), focus on a topic. Think about the way people talk about that topic and develop some words and phrases for a search query. Then, using your software (if you’re giving this a spin for the first time, use an advanced Twitter search), search for conversations on the topic. Guess what? You’re still looking for questions. But you can also look for keywords and phrases that your audience uses and adapt your voice and tone to complement (not match) them. The React team at Brandwatch, a social listening software company, is really good at this. Check out their analysis of A-Level Results Day in the UK, trends in food, and why women love true-crime podcasts. To super-power your topic research, mash up your social listening data with online search data, like the React team did with UK student debt.

One really useful and easy place to look is conference hashtags surrounding events focusing on your topic and attracting your target audience. You can quickly find ideas that resonate and questions that remain unanswered. Amplify the ideas and get to work answering the remaining questions (assuming that’s within your area of expertise). This is particularly helpful when you’re recruiting working adults who already have affinity to professional organizations with associated public conference discussions.

Segment to Make Sense of What You Find

You control your segmentation. You likely have some sort of a taxonomy or categorization system in your content strategy already—so use it! Some of the segmentation we use when helping colleges and universities is:

  • Enrollment-related conversation to find the questions that students and their families have about applying/visiting/attending the campus
  • Alumni-related conversation to understand how alumni are honored, what fields they work in, and if they’re even talking about their alma mater
  • Athletics-related conversation because frankly, for most of our client’s content strategy projects, the conversation about athletics is irrelevant so we filter it out.

Recently, one of our analysts investigated conversation around a professional development conference, and her segmentation included:

  • Conference tracks
  • Presenters vs attendees
  • Topics of conversation: Inspiration/Encouragement, Food, Travel, Networking, Social Media, Reflections of Revelry

She created this segmentation based on themes she saw in the data. The insights in these segmented conversations could drive content strategy for a variety of authors and purposes (i.e., the travel bureau of the next conference location, area restaurants, conference planners, or vendors marketing to this audience). The segmentation you use should clearly relate to your goals.

Tie it All Together

Of course, social listening won’t just help you uncover relevant content topics and audience questions; it will help you amplify the content. As you conduct your research, pay attention to the influencers within a target audience or relevant topic. After publishing your content, use these insights to conduct a personalized outreach campaign, increasing your odds of scoring highly influential social mentions and inbound links, which are golden tickets for your organic search rankings. You can also spot any public shares (even the subtweets) of your content to better understand who finds value in it. Social listening and content marketing feed off each other in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

Stephen App is Campus Sonar’s Account Executive. He leads the company’s business development efforts, working with campus professionals to identify appropriate social listening programs that will help meet strategic institutional goals. This article is excerpted from a longer piece on content marketing, co-authored with Liz Gross, Ph.D., which was originally posted on the Campus Sonar blog in late 2018. An amateur runner and professional donut connoisseur, you can often find Steve on Twitter staunchly defending the Oxford comma. 

Reaching Gen Z, Part 1: Paid Media Strategy

Gen Z is the most recent generation headed to college, and just to keep you on your toes, they bring their own particular set of values, beliefs, and preferences to the college-search process—including how they use and consume digital media.

Gen Z is often described as the first digital-native generation, meaning that while Millennials grew up during the introduction of digital technologies, Gen Z was born with all of it at their fingertips. Think about it: Kids born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s have never known life without cell phones and the Internet. This shapes the way they understand and interact with the world, for better or for worse.

Higher ed marketers, who may feel they’ve just got the hang of the Millennials, must now adapt to a whole new generation. First stop: Revisit your paid media strategies. Here are three tips for ensuring you’re maximizing your digital efforts to reach—and resonate—with your Gen Z prospects.

  1. Make it relevant and personal: Long gone are the days where you could blast thousands of people with one message. Because they grew up during the early days of display advertising, Gen Zers are discerning consumers. They can spot a generic ad from a mile away, and they prefer—if not demand—relevancy and personalization. Ideas: Segment your prospects by academic or extracurricular interests in order to effectively communicate the benefits of your institution. From an owned-media perspective, create Snapchat filters for events like open houses and preview days, or compile tailor-made Spotify playlists for different types of communication in order to create a connection with your prospects.
  2. Serve bite-sized information: There is a negative stereotype that Gen Z has short attention spans; however, the exact opposite is true. They take the time to pay attention when it’s relevant for them (see bullet no. 1). They are experts at sorting through information quickly to deem what is most important to them. Get on their good side by making their vetting process easier. Ideas: Whether it’s a :15 second pre-roll video or ads on Snapchat, make top-of-funnel communications about the benefits of your brand short, concise, and to the point. Then, as your prospects learn more about you and begin to express interest and engage, they will start wanting more information and be willing to spend more time with it.
  3. Multi-platform campaigns win: It’s been said that Gen Z is the best generation at multi-tasking. At any given moment, they can be watching TV while doing homework on their laptop and snapchatting a friend on their cell phone. It’s vital to diversify your media mix so your brand is not appearing only on one type of medium. Ideas: Consider including ads through online streaming services, and make sure your programmatic digital buy incorporates mobile ads and optimizes to the best-performing channels. The more platforms you appear on, the higher chance your message will be seen and resonate.

Above all, just be human. All paid media efforts, and even larger marketing initiatives, will be more effective if you humanize your institution through your brand. In order to win the trust of Gen Z, be honest about your institution’s culture and personality. Find authentic ways to evoke emotion through your paid media and marketing strategies that align with your prospect’s values and motivations.


Finding the “What Else” that Really Drives Your Brand

When we kick off any new branding initiative, our SimpsonScarborough team always starts by spending several days on a campus, meeting with faculty, staff, administrators and students and asking them to share what is distinctive about their institution, what they see as its strengths and weaknesses, and how it is relevant to its constituents. The goal is to find the strongest strands that weave together the fabric of the institutional brand. The discussions often go like this:

“What is something distinctive about your institution?”
“I would have to say it’s our robust study abroad program. More than half of students participate!” 

“What are your institution’s biggest strengths?”
“Our small class size really allows our faculty and students to build close relationships.”

“What makes your institution relevant?”
“Definitely our high placement rate. Ninety-some percent of our students are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.”

People almost always resort to talking about institutional attributes: high job and graduate school placement rates, strong student-faculty relationships, small class sizes, affordable tuition, and beautiful campuses, to name a few. Even though these attributes, and others like them, are important aspects of an institution, they unfortunately don’t do much to communicate its brand.

We refer to key institutional attributes as foundational elements of a brand — the building blocks of the college’s or university’s offerings. For prospective students, their parents, and high school counselors, these foundational attributes are table stakes. Through a Google search, they can determine which schools have the baseline attributes that are important to them. Then they start asking, What else? It’s the “what else” that forms the heart of your brand. It might be a standout program, a unifying institutional personality, an overarching philosophy that drives your people and programs — or a rich combination of all three. When we conduct discovery sessions and research, we are trying to find your “what else.” Two factors help define a successful brand pillar or position:

  • It is differentiating. Your class sizes may be small; your student-faculty relationships may be strong; your placement rates may be high, but many institutions (including your competitors) can also claim the same things. To all the small schools thinking, “But we actually have a low student-to-faculty ratio,” the large public down the road is still talking about meaningful faculty-student interaction, just with a different proof point. Your brand messages should speak to the things that you do differently or better than your competitors.
  • It is emotion-driven. Your brand should build an emotional connection to the audiences you are trying to reach. As much as you might want your 10:1 student-faculty ratio to resonate in the hearts of your prospective students, it just doesn’t. Rather, audiences are drawn to brand messaging that inspires, excites, or strikes them — ideas like providing students opportunities to move up in the world, fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service, empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about strong attributes. Instead, start thinking about the benefits that students and others derive from them. “Empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could” is possible because of your small class sizes and strong student-faculty relationships. “Providing students opportunities to move up in the world” is possible because you are affordable and accessible. “Fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service” is possible because of your robust internship, study abroad, and community service programs.

Because it’s so common to fall back on attributes, we have been changing the way we ask people to talk about their institutions. We ask questions like, “What kinds of behaviors and attitudes are encouraged here? What is discouraged?” We ask people to share their most meaningful moments as a student or professor and other questions that are personal and transcend the transactional (see more on this idea in a blog post earlier this year from my colleague Kristen Creighton).

Bottom line: In a competitive market, you can’t rely on strong yet non-differentiating attributes to drive your brand; you must unearth the bigger-picture benefits that speak to your audiences’ aspirations and drive their loyalty to your institution.

What Type of Marketer are You?

Not all higher ed marketers are created equal. Four main types exist today, and each can be identified by reporting structure, KPIs, relationships, and the tactical approaches they employ. While many will be a blend of two or more of the types described below, one is likely dominant.  I hope these descriptions propel you to consider which type of marketer you want—or need—to be.

The Public Relations Marketer is head of what was formerly called the news bureau. Prior to taking this position, he was a journalist for the largest newspaper in town. His primary goal is to secure local, regional, and national media coverage for his university, the latter being the holy grail. An important part of his role is issues management and responding to crises. He reports to either the Provost or VP of University Relations, and PRSA is his professional association. Staff salaries, which consist mostly of former journalists and media relations professionals, account for a majority of his small budget. The image and reputation of the university—and the success of his office—is driven primarily by the press coverage the institution is able to generate.

Pros: His team has strong connections to the media and perform well in a crisis. The university president, board, and faculty praise the department for extensive media coverage.

Cons: The marketing function is weak because it is focused more on tactics than strategy. The reliance on media placements to measure performance means the Public Relations Marketer’s success is dependent on an often fickle press. The University’s brand strategy isn’t data-driven nor documented.

The Fundraising Marketer spends most of her time supporting the institution’s alumni relations and fundraising efforts. Before joining the college, she was head of marketing for a regional non-profit. She reports to the VP of Advancement, and her KPIs are related to engagement and giving. Most of her budget is spent on the alumni magazine. She is an active member of the committee that plans her CASE district’s annual conference. At her college, the marketing effort is siloed, with the enrollment management office managing recruitment marketing and other academic and administrative units in charge of their own efforts. While she spends her time on alumni relations and fundraising, she may have little direct influence on annual giving campaigns or strategies.

Pros: The impact of the Fundraising Marketer’s work is measured in dollars raised, number of new donors, event attendance, and other clear metrics and plays a critical role engaging several important audiences for reputation building.

Cons: This model is becoming obsolete because it’s not efficient. There is a weak or non-existent institutional brand strategy, leading to disorganization and inconsistent messaging across campus. Producing the magazine four times a year is taxing on the staff and soaks up a third of the Fundraising Marketer’s budget, leaving too little room for admissions marketing and reputation building.

The Recruitment Marketer works at the same institution as the Fundraising Marketer. The two are peers, but they rarely meet or talk; their efforts are not integrated. He spends a great deal of time working on recruitment communications, managing the ASQ, and leading the institution’s CRM system. Accordingly, a large portion of his budget is spent on SEARCH and printed recruitment materials and his KPIs are related to inquiry generation and ultimately enrollment. He reports to the VP of Enrollment Management and his professional organization is NACAC. “Communications” is handled by a separate office housed in Advancement.

Pros: The Recruitment Marketer’s team is deeply embedded in the recruitment function and their work has a very significant impact on net tuition revenue.

Cons: His impact is limited to recruiting and admission.  He has responsibility for supporting recruitment but is unable to impact the over-arching image, reputation, and brand of the institution nor benefit from the marketing successes of the Advancement office.

The Integrated Marketer’s focus is on managing the reputation of the university among a broad array of audiences, including prospective students, alumni, donors, business leaders, recruiters, higher ed peers, guidance counselors, teachers, and the media. She reports directly to the President. She attends the AMA’s annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education and looks outside of higher ed for inspiration and new thinking. Before joining the university, she worked at a college a few states away, but before that she was an AVP of Marketing at a Fortune 1000 company. She shares KPIs with enrollment and fundraising but her real focus is on visibility and brand strength. She is responsible for developing, implementing, and managing a university-wide brand strategy that integrates marketing and communications across the institution. Her team consists of content managers, writers, designers, strategists, events managers, PR and media specialists, digital strategists, web specialists, social media managers,  videographers, and  photographers.

Pros: The Integrated Marketer’s team has the authority and responsibility to market the institution and manage its brand.

Cons: This model usually requires creating a new VP-level position and operationalizing new funding to support the marketing effort, both of which can be difficult for many presidents.

The Integrated Marketer is the most evolved of all the higher ed marketing models. It is essential to support the future of higher education; in fact, many colleges and universities are currently running searches for this position. Adoption of the Integrated Marketing role is one of the most notable changes in the higher education administration of the last decade, reflecting the slow evolution of institutions embracing the principles of integrated marketing and branding that started about 20 years ago. The industry is adapting to new ways of communicating and connecting, but there is still a long way to go.

Too often, marketing departments are viewed as the office a dean calls to produce buttons and t-shirts or invitations and press releases. Too often, marketing professionals are treated as order-takers rather than strategic partners. Too often, institutions refuse to invest in marketing at a level commensurate with the expectations of the department. Too often, faculty fail to understand why the marketing office can’t add a link to their latest book on the home page or spend more time supporting recruitment for individual programs. Too often, the marketing teams themselves have a hard time breaking from the old siloed model of marketing and doing the work of integrating people and processes around a unified strategy for the entire university.

Marketing is an essential business function for every corporation and every non-profit organization, colleges and universities included. Higher education needs to continue to elevate the role of the lead marketer and shift the institutional culture around marketing from tactical to strategic, short-term to long-term, and from siloed to integrated.

Filling the Funnel: A Case for Less

We’re facing a cliff of sorts. By the year 2025, the number of college-age students is expected to plummet like lemmings into a cold, barren sea. Many schools are already preparing by conducting research, finding ideal market positions, and launching new brands and creative—all smart, strategic initiatives. Almost always, these efforts lead to increased awareness, interest, and applications.

Schools are also adopting macro applications of the brand through large media buys, mass email campaigns, and boosted social to increase reach and eyeballs. However, in a landscape where the eyeballs may be diminishing by upwards of 500,000 prospective students nationwide (a million if we’re counting actual eyeballs), many will look at the lists they’ve bought or their online reach and try to increase those numbers for one purpose: because the math works out. More at the top yields more at the bottom. Right?

Maybe. It’s a risky effort that can be hard to justify. Try telling your VP of Enrollment that you’re going to spend time and resources identifying and then persuading a thousand people who have never heard of your institution to visit campus. The first response might be, “Great!” But the next question is the one that matters: “How many visits do you think you can get?” You probably couldn’t get a green light once you do the math and realize the ends likely won’t justify the means. At the end of the day, you’ll learn a little about all these people—but is it enough to make an impression?

Instead, focus your time and resources on getting to know your most promising prospects the most. Tell your VP that you are going to spend an entire day finding out everything you can about the family already planning to visit campus for the first time in a few weeks so you can line up meetings with the most ideal people to act as a welcoming committee. In this way, you’re creating something better than bigger top-funnel numbers: the most unforgettable first impression.

The first response might be, “Wait, what? You’re going to spend your entire day on one family?” But take a second to think about the importance of this family’s decision. Regardless of their socio-economic status, it’s enormous. Very few decisions they’ll make come with this much financial pressure. More importantly, very few decisions are attached to this much pride, passion, joy, and hope. And that, right there, is why, when you decide to spend a full day getting to know this family, it will be worth it.