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The Next Wave of Market Intelligence: Social Listening

Finding and analyzing online conversations to develop data-informed strategies

(The following blog was written by Liz Gross. Liz is the Market Insights Manager at the loan servicing affiliate of Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and was a speaker at the 2017 Carnegie Conference. Find her on Twitter @LizGross144.)

Indulge me, for a minute, while I paint a picture of a data-driven marketer’s paradise. Imagine a persistent focus group of all the right audience segments sitting outside your office, with no prompting needed for rich discussion. You have instant access to longitudinal data about your customers’ emotions, opinions, and intent at the push of a button. Top it off with the ability to integrate quantitative data into these rich, qualitative datasets to examine growth trends. This isn’t just a pretty picture; this is what you get when you use social listening for market intelligence.

In this age of data-driven marketing, market research is essential to understanding the audiences you’re communicating with. In higher education, we conduct market research to help us develop new programs, inform our content or brand strategy, measure brand awareness, and guide our approach to fundraising. Whether in the form of interviews, focus groups, or surveys, traditional market research produces valuable market intelligence. Unfortunately, it can also take a long time to complete and can be very costly. But new technology and research techniques offer additional opportunities for market research. Today, I’d like to tell you a little more about social listening as a market research tool.

Benefits

There are some compelling benefits to adding social listening to your market intelligence tool kit.

  • Fast: A skilled analyst with the right tools can go from research question to insights in days, not months.
  • Flexible: Data collection happens instantly, so you can change your approach and gather more data.
  • Longitudinal: Conduct a trend analysis or benchmarking study without waiting months or years, and then use the same research method to track changes as they happen.
  • Mixed methodology: Quantitative and qualitative data can be combined.

Practical Applications

Social listening can be a stand-alone research method, or it can be used to conduct exploratory research to inform more traditional methods. For example, you may analyze the conversation about “college search” to determine what concerns students and parents have and what terminology they are using. Results guide questions for a focus group or specific words to use in a survey.

The research analysts at Brandwatch, a social intelligence solutions provider, studied this topic. Using social data collected over a year, they analyzed conversations from prospective students demonstrating intent to apply to or attend one of the top 20 UK universities. With approximately 400 conversations per week, they had plenty of data to work with. Here are some of their research questions:

  • What do prospective students talk about?
  • What concerns and worries do these prospective students have?
  • When and where do they have these conversations?

With a dataset approaching 20,000 conversations, they used qualitative research methods to identify emerging themes, including entry requirements, finance, and personal statement. Automated rules and tags allowed for sorting themes by frequency (shown in the chart below).

To learn more about these categories, they visualized the topics in a word cloud, with color-coding based on positive, neutral, or negative sentiments. The following graphic shows the types of conversations that were occurring about entry requirements.

For the more quantitative minded, the same data can be viewed as a table or line graph, or even as a growth chart to determine what topics are emerging and timely and what topics are fading.

The results of this analysis may inform a traditional research project, or they could be used right away to inform the content strategy for the admission office. Students speak positively about the day they receive results from their A-level exams, so a campus could create some branded content to help them celebrate getting their results. To address questions about finances and personal statement requirements, the marketing team might update the website and other content to more specifically address some of the concerns students are expressing.

Another actionable outcome of this research could be an improved social media engagement strategy for the admission office. While the Student Room and Twitter were the top two sites for these sorts of conversations, other sources popped up as well, including the forums on moneysavingexperts.com and thegradcafe.com. Armed with this information, admission counselors could actively participate in those forums and increase their engagement levels with prospective students.

Additional Possibilities

The utility of social listening for market insights extends to many areas of the campus, including enrollment management, marketing and communications, academic programs, and alumni relations/advancement. Here are just a few examples of potential research questions social listening analysis could answer:

  • When in the application cycle are prospective students most likely to share their experience on social media? What prompts their sharing?
  • How do high school students and their parents perceive the liberal arts?
  • What are the prevailing topics of conversation in the state about the community college system?
  • What are the positive and negative opinions expressed by prospective, current, and past students of online master’s degree programs about their educational experiences?
  • What thoughts, feelings, and emotions do alumni associate with our university?

Campuses that embrace this new research technique will be on their way to faster insights about their audiences that will empower them to develop data-informed strategies.


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