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Published March 4th 2019

Interview: Campus Sonar Founder Liz Gross on Social’s Role in Identity, Engagement, and Crisis in Higher Ed

Campus Sonar’s founder and CEO Liz Gross has always worked in higher education, and she’s built a business around helping institutions get to grips with the opportunities social listening can bring.

“It’s only just started to take hold that social listening isn’t just something you do to get better at social media. It is a business intelligence function,” says Liz.

She’s been trying to explain this to higher education institutions for years, and the feedback she got inspired her to create Campus Sonar.

“In my spare time I’d go to conferences and try to inspire campuses to use social listening as a way to gather intelligence that informs not only your standard marketing and communications functions but also things like recruitment and retention and alumni engagement and fundraising.”

“The feedback I was getting was that people wanted to do that and it sounded really cool, but particularly with a very small college campus it might be cost prohibitive and they might not have anyone who knows how to do it,” Liz says. “So that’s how we ended up starting a business that very specifically does social listening for higher ed.”

Campus Sonar regularly releases industry reports, and they’re committed to supporting campuses of all sizes getting the most from social. I’m keen to ask her about some of the juicy higher education use cases like crisis tracking and communication, as well as engaging with students who have grown up with meme culture.

Crisis on campus

“A crisis is when a campus really starts to understand how important social is,” Liz says. “I think that honestly for a lot of campuses crisis monitoring and crisis detection is what really gets them interested in social listening, and it’s often a top of mind use case for them.”

Crisis detection might not be a top of mind use cases for every organization interested in social listening, but it’s easy to see why educational institutions need to be aware and in control of developing issues – especially when they can occur pretty regularly.

Crises on campus can start as all sorts of things, from the obvious, like violent incidents, through to weather conditions. Liz gives the example of stray cows (or bulls) ending up on campuses and causing safety issues (a surprisingly common occurrence – just type “cow on campus” into Twitter).

“What surprises me is every single social media manager you talk to has had the experience, because it’s something that happens on a regular basis, and very few of them have received any sort of official training in how to handle it.”

Something that the prevalence of crises has prompted is an organic community of campus social media managers who have connected and started to learn from each other, using hashtags and Slack channels to supplement a lack of external resources that can help them do their jobs better.

“They often find themselves being the only person supporting the campus on social media in a time of crisis,” Liz says.

How do you do, fellow kids?

I hear a lot about brands treading a delicate line between engaging appropriately in informal meme culture and completely destroying their reputation. I imagine that this is an even more difficult conundrum for universities – their students speak the language of Twitter, yet the institution needs to square that with not compromising on their studious reputation. It could go wrong quite quickly.

“It’s the campuses that are completely out of touch with who they really are and how people see them that will try to do funny memes and just look silly.”

Luckily, Liz has some examples of institutions that are doing this really well.

For example, the University of Central Arkansas wanted to provide their students with quality GIF content that respected copyright and promoted the brand. “They identified the most popular gifs used among their students and had the campus mascot and their president enact them all. They created their own GiF library.”

The University of Florida used a similar tactic – in a video that welcomed students back to campus their president (purposefully) awkwardly reenacting popular YouTube videos. In both these cases, the president comes across as approachable and willing to get involved, without compromising the serious reputation of the overall institution.

Another example of great online practice comes from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Liz tells me (a clueless Brit), “the students who go there are nerds. The nerdiest of nerds. And they get that.” Knowing that the students they attract are nerds, and that nerds tend to hang out on Reddit, RIT has done some great work on there.

“Most campuses are terrified of Reddit. But their social team knows what it is to be an RIT tiger and how do that on the internet,” Liz says.

A developing field

Higher education institutions are getting better at social, but they’re not perfect.

“It comes down to really being audience focused and understanding what a prospective student, their family member, or an alumnus, is looking for from an institution. How do they actually want them to be involved in the conversation? And then serving that need.”

Instead of blasting messages out, Liz says, universities should be engaging in real conversations.

“I think the trap that campuses fell into for a long time was using social media as a bulletin board and an outlet for press releases,” she explains.

Things have come a long way in the last few years as campuses have begun to dedicate talent to social media management roles.

However, often professionals in those roles can struggle to be seen as an expert.

“I’m a firm believer that more campus leaders should just listen to what their social media managers say in terms of what they need to do on social.”

Big thanks to Liz for taking the time to speak with us. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

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