Social Listening for Program Research

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What if you could measure your brand and reputation to better engage with key audiences through data derived from online public conversations?

Dr. Liz Gross, CEO at Campus Sonar, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about how social listening can be utilized beyond mere brand monitoring exercises, including sophisticated programmatic research.

What Is Social Listening?

Social listening is a research method similar to archival ethnography, which at some point people started calling netnography. In this method, you position the researcher within an archival environment so they can gain the cultural perspective of those who are responsible for the creation, collection, care, and use of those records. 

Two examples of archival ethnography:

  1. Hamilton the musical came from looking at papers and biographies to understand Hamilton’s motivations and relationships.
  2. The Crown is doing something similar to that in terms of the royal family of Britain.

In social listening, the records are online social data. The opportunity is huge because there are trillions of posts from over 100 million unique data sources that can be analyzed. Then researchers and strategists tell the story of what was said online in relation to strategic objectives of the organization that’s conducting the research.

Social Listening for Programmatic Research

Let’s say a school is trying to grow an undergrad nursing program. How would Campus Sonar handle that request?

“First we would talk through your existing goals and strategies,” Liz said. “We want to make sure this research is useful and actionable.” 

Do you want to win more applicants from your direct competitors? Attract new students from your current recruitment area? Expand your recruitment area? Increase applications? 

Then, Campus Sonar would want to understand your current strategies. Do you generate leads mostly through inbound marketing? Or are you working through traditional list buys? 

Let’s say you want to increase applications from anywhere in the country. You already have a functioning website and a basic social media presence to build from. Knowing all of that, Liz could scope a project that seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. Where do students talk online about nursing programs? 
  2. How do prospective students talk about nursing programs? 
  3. What can we learn from the general topic analysis of prospective students asking about nursing? 
  4. What questions do prospective undergraduate nursing students ask their peers when they’re deciding to apply to college? 
  5. What do current nursing students say they like or dislike about their programs?
  6. How is your institution represented in these conversations? 
  7. What are the top 10 institutions named in these conversations? How do they relate to yours? 

The opportunities are endless.

Where Are Prospective Student’s Online Conversations Happening?

In January, 2020, which feels like a decade ago now, Campus Sonar released a study that looked at three years of online conversation about the admissions process. They found that 11% of conversations about college admissions happened on forums. More recently, that number has increased. A lot. They’ll let us know how much in February. 

These conversations are happening on Reddit, Student Doctor Network,, and Law School Life, and your social media monitoring platform isn’t catching it at all. The information is, however, coming through in social listening software.

What Can You Do With What You Learn from Social Listening?

“We tend to see categories of actionability,” Liz said, “but the specific ways to take action are always unique.” 

Some of those categories focus on recruitment and yield communications, particularly email, to answer specific questions for the right type of student at the right time. You know they’re already asking these questions of their peers. 

You can also use what you learn to activate student advocates who can provide authentic, yet authoritative responses, where these students are asking questions. Often prospective learners are asking questions in spaces that are meant to be informal and aren’t places where they want to see campus experts. But if you’ve got student ambassadors or alumni whom you trust to represent your institution well, you can tap them to answer questions.

One other thing you’ll learn is what students like about you. It might surprise you what people think is the most attractive part of a program. Then you can make sure it gets integrated into materials, even if it’s not flashy marketing content. 

How to Get Started in Social Listening

Take advantage of our free resources from Campus Sonar to help you make your case,” Liz said. “We have a free newsletter, free blog, free books. Check out all that stuff, and find one or two use cases that make the most sense for your institution.”

Tactically, you just want to get your hands dirty. Doing research on the scale that I talked about requires some enterprise level software, but at the very least you can start searching for names of your campus and marquee programs on Reddit and YouTube to see if anything comes up that you’ve been previously blind to. 

“If you want to know about social listening and higher ed,” Liz said, “go to Campus Sonar. You’re not going to be immediately replied to with a sales pitch. We’ve got tons of resources for you.”


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Liz Gross of Campus Sonar. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.