How Social Listening Can Benefit Your Content Marketing

Social listening can provide marketers with the real-time audience sentiment they need to deliver powerful, relevant content. Read more to learn how.

By: Stephen App, Dr. Liz Gross

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.*

As a result, marketers are turning to content marketing, hoping to organically capture prospective student information through the use of value-based content like articles, podcasts, ebooks, and webinars.

Content marketing is fueled by audience insights, but gaining those insights through formal discovery practices can be cost prohibitive and time-consuming. Enter social listening, which can provide marketers with the real-time audience understanding they need to deliver powerful, relevant content.

But how can marketers use social listening to improve their content marketing strategy? Glad you asked.

Content Marketing Popularity

While content marketing has long been a popular tactic for organizations in B2B and B2C industries, the practice has been much slower to take hold among higher education institutions. That may be changing.

As student demographics continue to shift—several studies indicate a severe drop in traditional 18-year-old college applicants by 2032—many institutions are focusing on non-traditional undergraduate students as well as increasing enrollment in graduate, professional, and continuing education programs.

The problem with targeting these students is that common admissions tactics, such as list buying and college fairs, aren’t viable options for building a student prospect pool.

For starters, adult undergraduate students are less likely than their high school counterparts to attend college fairs or take a standardized college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT, a theme that will undoubtedly become more common as more schools become test optional.

Today, 79 percent of prospective students turn to search engines first to research their college options, according to a joint report from Wiley Education Services and Ranku. And two out of three students use search queries that are non-branded, or don’t include the name of a specific college.

At the graduate level, many programs are waiving GRE requirements. DePaul University, for example, offers over 175 graduate degree programs, many of which do not require the GRE or GMAT exam. That trend is partially fueled by recent challenges in attracting international students to the U.S. But many institutions, including highly-selective business schools, are facing a shift in demand, as more students are interested in shorter, specialized graduate programs at the expense of traditional programs, like the two-year MBA.

Of course, even for the traditional undergraduate and graduate student market, conventional marketing tactics have become less effective. Fewer students provide data when taking standardized tests and those who do provide incorrect data on important questions. If the family income is incorrect, schools might be marketing to students who aren’t actually in their target audience.

Just as importantly, students are more adept at ignoring unwanted messages and performing sophisticated independent research. Today, 79 percent of prospective students turn to search engines first to research their college options, according to a joint report from Wiley Education Services and Ranku. And two out of three students use search queries that are non-branded, or don’t include the name of a specific college. The same report claims prospective students are searching early and often, and completing 3,000+ digital touchpoints before submitting a single lead form.

In our new digital reality, the key for higher education marketers is learning how to resonate with students while ranking in Google. And while many schools optimize key web pages, like academic program pages, for SEO, leading institutions like the University of Notre Dame, University of OregonNortheastern University, and Harvard University go above and beyond by using content marketing to increase their organic inbound traffic.

Wait, What Is Content Marketing?

Naturally, the definition is different depending on who you ask. One definition that hits the mark for us defines it as “The creation and distribution of journalistic, helpful, audience-focused material that ultimately increases customer acquisition.”

There are three key phrases in this definition that are important to consider: journalistic, helpful, and audience-focused. Successful content marketing isn’t a sales pitch in disguise and it isn’t boastful in nature. It has genuine value, shared in a compelling way, and provided altruistically to your target audience (The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook is an example of content marketing). Hopefully, the content ultimately increases customer, or student, acquisition, but not in the same way a direct-response search ad or email campaign does.

The Key to Developing a Content Marketing Strategy

A successful content marketing strategy relies on audience insights. After all, if you don’t know what your audience cares about or struggles with, it’s hard to write about it.

Content marketers typically rely on formal research methods to uncover content topics. That starts with primary research, such as user surveys, focus groups, and qualitative interviews. But often, those activities are supplemented by interviews with front-facing administrators and allies, like admissions counselors, financial aid professionals, tour guides, and guidance counselors.

These primary research activities are incredibly useful in identifying core topics and questions to guide your content marketing efforts, but they also contain fundamental flaws. From selection bias to questionable sample sizes to filtered feedback and subjectivity, clean data can be hard to come by, despite your best intentions.

How to Use Social Listening for Audience Insights

Using social listening can provide you 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?

Audience Insights Research Process
The Audience Insights Research Process

Where to Listen

You need to look where the public conversation is happening. That leaves out Facebook (which recently restricted its data access even 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.

Colors of Candy Separated by Color
Make sure to segment your listening audience so as not to get overwhelmed by data.

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.

Be There When Students Search, Not Just When You Conduct “Student Search”

As content marketing becomes an increasingly effective strategy for lead generation in higher education, intimately understanding your target audiences is absolutely necessary. Going beyond the development of personas to identify specific questions and topics that your audience searches for increases the visibility of your campus in one of the most important points in the modern college search—when they type a search term in Google and hit “enter.” Using social listening to support content marketing creates a steady flow of insights, equipping you to create relevant content that attracts your audience when they’re searching for you, rather than when you’re searching for them.

This piece originally appeared on the Campus Sonar blog.

Stephen App

Stephen App

Stephen App helped pioneer the content marketing strategy at eCity Interactive, Volt’s parent company. He launched the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast (now called Higher Voltage), and built a unique community of higher ed leaders that has continued to flourish. Today he is working in new pastures at CampusSonar, and you can connect with him on Twitter @StephenApp.

Dr. Liz Gross

Dr. Liz Gross

Founding Director

Liz Gross is the founding Director of Campus Sonar. She received her Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University.

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