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In a world of peer influence, what other people say about you and your brand matters just as much—if not more—than what you say about yourself. It’s difficult to assess and quantify the earned conversation about your brand, but higher education has attempted to do so for decades through perception surveys and focus groupsbrand studiesmarket research, and more recently social listeningCampus Sonar’s new report establishes online conversation benchmarks for higher education and sheds light on how people talk about institutions online and how the campus contribution to the conversation relates to visibility and institutional influence.

There are thousands of public online conversations about most institutions each year. The range of conversation volume is staggering—from just a handful to millions. The median annual number of non-athletics public online conversations at private nonprofits is 4,164 (range: 21–8,967,233) and at public institutions it’s 20,260 (range: 2,061–959,320).

These figures include an institution’s contribution to their conversation. On average, 24 percent of online conversation about higher education institutions is owned, meaning it’s published by campus-controlled social media accounts or other online properties. That leaves 76 percent of the conversation as earned—what people and organizations say about the institution. The relationship between owned and earned conversation suggests there are opportunities for higher education institutions to influence how their audience talks about them online. To understand those opportunities, you need to understand the make-up of owned and earned conversation.

Understanding Owned and Earned Online Conversation

To measure owned conversation, four categories help us better understand where it comes from.

  • Owned Tweets:Tweets from accounts under campus control; does not include retweets. In theory, these messages should be brand-aligned (but that’s not always the case).
  • Owned Retweets: Retweets of owned account tweets. Retweets are a measure of message amplification.
  • Owned Non-Twitter Content: All web content except Twitter and owned websites, i.e., Instagram, YouTube, forums, etc.
  • Owned Websites: Websites under campus control, i.e., campus website, microsites, development site, etc.

Earned conversation has similar categories—earned tweets, earned retweets, and earned non-Twitter content. Of the 76 percent of online conversation about institutions that is earned, it’s fairly evenly split between the three categories.

Aligning Conversation Themes to Support Your Brand and Increase Visibility

The topics of owned and earned conversation can vary—63 percent of the institutions we studied saw no alignment in the top five topics. Alignment of owned and earned conversation themes is a measure of institutional influence, and only a third of institutions we studied currently see any alignment. Twenty percent of institutions shared at least one topic of conversation between owned and earned, and 10 percent aligned on two topics (some institutions had such low online conversation volume that we couldn’t measure topic alignment). What was different about the institutions with greater alignment? They saw more retweets of their owned content. Generating quality engaging content on Twitter that audiences want to share seems to influence how their audience talks about them online. 

We also noticed that the share of owned retweets within an institution’s owned conversation positively correlates with a higher share of retweets in earned conversation. An audience that’s likely to retweet owned tweets appears just as likely to retweet audience-generated content about a campus. Combining higher levels of additional owned retweets with increased earned retweets results in a snowball effect that serves to amplify conversations about the institution and increase online visibility.

How to Use Social Media to Increase Amplification and Brand Alignment

So what’s the secret sauce to generating the sharing behavior that increases your institutional visibility? It certainly isn’t creating more social media accounts. Institutions with more owned social media accounts don’t have a larger share of earned conversation compared to their peers with fewer owned social media accounts. Your social media manager needs two things to craft content that generates conversation and inspires your audience to create and amplify brand-aligned content.

1.    Visibility and understanding of key brand themes and messages. Spend some time with your social team to make sure they understand your brand themes and integrate them into social media voice guidelines that allow them to communicate your brand with a human voice. Specifically, when you have major news (whether positive or negative) to share with the campus community, involve the social team early. They can consider how to share the news on social in a way that encourages sharing and sets the tone of the discussion, rather than simply posting a press release.

2.    Trust and invest. Your social media manager likely knows more about this medium than your CMO or your president. After you hire a skilled social media manager (because how they do the job can make or break your reputation), trust that they know the nuances and intricacies of the rapidly-changing online environment. Invest in their professional development so they can continue to learn from experts in the industry (and contribute their own expertise). Social media cannot be effective when it is micro-managed, but when it’s placed in the hands of a trusted expert it has the power to bring your brand to life—and increase brand visibility and alignment. Both the University of Florida and the University of Central Arkansas demonstrated that by providing their community with shareable, on-brand GIFs. UF’s GIFs received more than a billion views,and UCA recently added presidential GIFs to their branded library.

What your institution says on social media matters. To enhance your visibility and reputation, social media content should be brand-aligned, engaging, and shareable. Owned conversation with a higher percentage of shares is correlated to increased earned conversation and increased alignment with brand themes. Brand managers can’t ask for much more than an audience that creates and shares content they’d gladly share themselves.

Liz Gross is the founder and CEO of Campus Sonar. Find her on Twitter: @LizGross144

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