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The reality of social media in 2017 is that we're beginning to see some of the effects predicted by Amara’s Law kick in. Formulated by futurist Roy Amara, the law states, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

One of the enduring arguments for investing institutional resources on social media has been that engaging with an institution’s audiences where they spend their time will pay off. Since key audiences were migrating to social channels like Facebook, institutions sought to foster engagement there by generating and promoting great content.

The counter argument has been: “Prove that it works.”

That hasn’t been easy, at least for some campus offices. On one hand, admissions and enrollment professionals have their own experience and plenty of research to validate how their prospects use social media and to demonstrate its impact. For example, in the 2017 Social Admissions report, Chegg, NRCCUA and TargetX report that one in two teen applicants use five or more social platforms in their college research.

But more proof is emerging. And it’s not just anecdotes about how people were touched by an Instagram image or a Facebook post, nor does it come from counting likes or shares. Instead, new tools allow researchers to scan thousands of posts, likes, and comment threads to gain insights that can guide strategies and result in gifts.

Insights from social listening

One approach to gaining insights from social media is though social listening.

Liz Gross, market insights manager at Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, and an expert in social listening, defines it as “searching the public social web for mentions and conversations of interest to you.” Social listening tools search thousands of posts, mentions, hashtags, comments across sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, blogs and others.

While Gross noted that social listening is particularly important in a crisis, when you can quickly learn where it started, who’s driving the conversation and what messages are resonating, she suggests other significant uses. Institutions can use the insights gained from social listening to guide a campaign, provide customer service, benchmark, measure reputation, or do market research.

“Let’s say that a university marketer is tasked with marketing a new, innovative program. Rather than spend months doing research using traditional techniques such as focus groups, interviews, and surveys to understand how consumers perceive this new degree program, or if the career it trains students for is gaining traction publicly, they can analyze conversation trends on that topic and see how it has been growing or changing over time.”
Gross pointed out a non-higher ed example of social listening posted on the Brandwatch Blog. The post illustrates how a marketer could use the increase in conversation around matcha tea (a Japanese tea that has become trendy over the past few years) to bring a product to market as interest in it was peaking.

Identifying prospects

For advancement offices, EverTrue has pioneered tools that provide insights into how alumni and donors are engaging with an institution on social media and what their activity says about their interests. The University at Buffalo closed a $1 million gift from a prospect discovered using insights derived by EverTrue’s technology.

This is particularly interesting in light of data recently shared by the Pew Research Center. Teens and young people are driving the proliferation in social channels by seeking apps where communications can be viewed by friends, but not by parents or other adults. And millennials continue to use social media to run their complicated lives. And seniors have embraced social media.

According to Pew, 56 percent of college-educated adults over 65 use social media. And, significantly, since 65 percent of college-educated seniors and 81 percent of those with household incomes of more than $75,000 a year own a smartphone, many of those interactions are occurring on a mobile device.

This means that, yes, seniors are very comfortable commenting on Facebook or Instagram and in fact may demonstrate even more engagement than younger users simply because they have more time. And fundraisers should take note that some of their significant prospects may prefer to use Facebook Messenger to communicate.

Given the availability of tools that allow us to learn from these interactions, we appear to be entering a time when social media interactions can provide meaningful, and actionable, insights, and real results, demonstrating value to diehard skeptics.