Starting in 2010, the “Arab Spring” was a protest movement sweeping through the Middle East. Riots, uprisings, and even armed rebellions occurred in one country after another. It caught many governments off-guard. After years of relatively comfortable rule where civil unrest happened only in isolated pockets, suddenly the ideals of these activists jumped from one group to another and spread like wildfire, faster than anybody could react to it.

What enabled this rapid spread of ideas? For the first time, people had free access to social media. The government could no longer control the narrative.

Since then, activism in every country has worked hand in hand with social media. There is almost no such thing as an isolated incident anymore—social media has everything to the surface. Anybody with a phone can record what’s going on and post it to the entire world’s attention in a matter of seconds. There are no secrets, no way to sweep anything under the rug.

Most recently, a Pew Research study has reported that more than 70% of Americans think that social media companies now wield too much power. From a president who tweets his every stray thought to special interest groups flooding Facebook with fake news, it seems like social media has become the new Fourth Estate. This goes double for young people, who grew up with a phone in their hands. They don’t trust any news network, but if five of their friends said something on Snapchat, they believe it.

Politics aside, social media impacts businesses and individuals to the same extent. “Cancel culture” is a new controversial factor, where one tiny misstep in front of the world’s eyes can lead to you getting blacklisted forever. This is dangerous because the “Internet lynch mob” tends to tie the hemp first and ask questions later. The world is now a giant game of telephone, where you can track down a nasty rumor about anyone or anything. Conflicting sides emerge over literally any issue, to the point where there can be reverse-cancel backlashes.

There is now so much media, so many conflicting narratives, that the truth can be counter-intuitively obfuscated and all of us have to resign ourselves to simply picking the narrative we like the most and stay with it—if it happens to be true, so much the better. Bombarded by news updates every minute, we patch together a consensus reality, whether we want to or not, because we’re all too busy with our daily hustles to afford the time to manually sort out the objective truth of anything. Social philosophers Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson coined the term “reality tunnel” to describe this effect.

 

Before we wander too far off in the philosophical weeds, this is about the difficulty of reputation management in the 21st century, as applied to companies, corporations, and brands. This is exactly what a higher education institution is, even if they haven’t all adjusted to thinking of themselves that way.

 

Eavesdropping the Global Conversation

How do you find out what people are saying about you? Why it’s simple, you just Google yourself, a practice that has attracted the name “egosurfing.” The trouble with that strategy is that online media is so vast, you can never digest all of it in one human lifetime. Our technology has made us incredibly proficient at spewing out terabytes of data every single day. If you want to find out what people eat for breakfast, that’s a hashtag with 95 million posts on Instagram alone.

Tools to manage huge amounts of data are going to become very useful and popular in the 21st century. This is where artificial intelligence is shining right now because natural language algorithms can do some of that reading for you. Any business can use automated social media monitoring tools as a marketing and public relations aid.

Many of these tools are multipurpose. The available technology for interacting with social media currently has these use cases:

  • Automated term monitoring and alerts for events
  • Automating posts of your content
  • Measuring the effectiveness of social media marketing campaigns
  • Statistical gathering of keyword trends related to a subject
  • Analysis of keyword trends of subjects
  • Crisis management
  • Customer relations management and analysis
  • Influencer marketing

In short, it is now possible to have your own little online spy tools, which can automate your brand monitoring and condense all that data down to a chart or two. Please be careful to use this power only for good and not evil.

 

Social Media Management Tools:

Some are free, some have a paid upgrade option, and some are license-only. Most fall under the category of “SaaS” applications (software as a service). Try some of these out, mix and match, and find out what works in conjunction with your institution’s social media marketing and PR plan:

Brandwatch

This is a UK digital consumer intelligence company. Brandwatch makes a SaaS social media monitoring and analytics platform. It’s widely regarded as one of the most powerful tools in the industry. Brandwatch has recently acquired both the former Buzzsumo and Crimson Hexagon.

If you’re familiar with tools like Google Analytics or SEMRush, Brandwatch feels right at home. Your school can use this to gain insight into consumer opinion about your brand (or your competitor’s brand for that matter). Its features include customizable queries, data visualization, data export, and notifications. One of the features that sets Brandwatch apart is “opinion mining,” which can track sentiments and emotions expressed in positive or negative terms. Visit their YouTube channel to view some videos of it in action.

Hootsuite

Hootsuite is a venerated classic on the social media scene, among the first of these tools in its class. It started as an automated social media posting tool but has added on monitoring features.

Hootsuite is primarily aimed at social media account management, letting you load up a hopper with content to schedule posting at intervals, exactly like scheduling posts on WordPress. It is inexpensive and simple to use—there used to be a free version, but that seems to have vanished. Hootsuite can also monitor social media channels in streams, and provide some basic data analytics tools. It’s no Swiss army knife, but it might be just the right size for small institutions. Hootsuite’s YouTube channel has plenty of tutorials and demos. They also regularly publish eBooks and guides to help you enhance your social media game.

Union Metrics

Union Metrics is another social media intelligence and analysis tool, which has recently acquired TweetReach and integrated it into their system.

Features of Union Metrics include keyword listening, profile analysis, reporting for social media campaigns, and competitive analysis. Union Metrics is aimed at the sales and marketing front, being strictly a monitoring tool without social media account management included. This is perfect if you are only looking for a social media monitoring tool and want to use other methods to manage your accounts. Union Metrics is still pretty new, but here’s their fledgling YouTube channel.

If This Then That

If This Then That, commonly abbreviated “IFTTT,” is not specifically a social media tool, but it can be used for this purpose and has many other uses as well. It is a free web-based service where you can build applets that trigger on conditions you set.

IFTTT is an imaginative creation that works sort of like an automated personal assistant to watch social media channels and set up automated actions through APIs. As the name implies, it’s a natural tool for anyone with programming experience. IFTTT is flexible enough that it’s also deployed in home automation. It’s a smart tool for building custom Internet bots and the price is unbeatable, but it may not be the right-size tool for every job. Visit IFTTT’s YouTube for tutorials and use cases.

Honorable Mentions:

Not all social media monitoring needs to be done from an app. Here are a couple of quick tools you may find useful for spot market research:

  • BoardReader – A search engine that only searches discussion forums. Very handy to cut out all other sources and see the “word on the street.”
  • Social Mention – A search engine and analysis tool that only searches social media feeds. It gives you link results plus some simple sentiment analysis. Too good to be free for long!
  • Google Alerts – Google itself can monitor the web for you and send you an email notification whenever a subject comes up, set to your filtered specifications. Also free.

 

Your Brand Reputation Affects Future Enrollment

As we point out frequently, students do not decide to attend a specific college in one day. They consider what they want to study, how far they want to move from home, how much they can afford to spend, and what career path they want to take. While they do all this soul-searching, they’re prone to discuss their decision process with their social media peers, and secondarily with their relatives or coworkers.

To get some insight into this decision process, try searching for query phrases such as “what university…,” “which college is best for…,” “what courses should I take for…,” and such.

At the same time, young people are adept at Google themselves. They will search to see if others have asked similar questions and what their answers were. There is a wealth of college discussion out there, especially considering that academics were the first to adopt the Internet. Academic Internet culture even shaped some of its earliest slang, such as “Eternal September.” That gives you an idea of how long students have been conversing on the Internet.

Potential students will also visit your school’s website to scrutinize it. They will read through your staff blogs, take virtual video tours, peruse your social media channels, and try to find out from people on your campus what life there is like. Student ambassadors are a useful marketing strategy, and they can assist in shaping your online reputation as well.

 

How To Join the Conversation

All this is great for passive listening and analysis, with some tools for pumping out your sunny outlooks about your brand at regularly scheduled intervals. But sometimes you want to take a more active role in your brand’s reputation, such as when you have a crisis management situation.

Managing a higher education institution’s social media presence is a large scale operation. Many universities have several separate accounts for different departments, schools, or functions. If you have multiple people handling social media, you must create a unified social media policy and hold regular meetings so that all these individuals work together as a team. You want the signal you send to be clear and united, not mixed.

Harvard Law retweeted or “re-posted” a tweet promoting a podcast on their page. By retweeting, @HarvardLaw gave @HarvardEELP more visibility to another audience, cause, and podcast episode.

In proactive social media management, you have several moves you can make on the Internet chessboard:

  • Post: Your thoughts on a trending matter, naturally
  • Re-post: reinforce the good words of others by upvoting, favoriting, and resharing
  • Respond: When you find somebody with a gripe, swoop in to engage them, seeing how you can repair the situation
  • Amplify: Find other posts that synergize with your goals or image and reshare them
  • Hush: Some social media services do provide the option to ban / block / or hide offending replies, but watch out for backlash if you’re caught suppressing bad news instead of fixing the problem
  • Poll: Survey the social audience and find out what they want

One of the reasons why you need a coordinated social media team is that you want to have a concrete threshold in place regarding when a crisis calls for a response. A student complaining about the cafeteria food last night is minimal. Someone alleging a harassment situation involving a staff member is a three-alarm fire. We all know the kinds of scandals that stick to a school’s name. Anything like a scandal calls for a swift, reassuring response that you have your top people working to rectify the situation.

Beyond simple scandals and incidents, universities also have to manage their quality image. This is a trickier battle, the kind that factors into ratings. Quality issues for a college mostly revolve around student’s perception of the school’s return on investment (ROI). These factors in the graduation rate, fees, and post-college career paths. Some universities get a reputation for being a “party school” where tuition dollars are wasted by an institution that doesn’t take their students’ futures seriously.

Adjusting the school’s quality is a job for other faculty. But from the marketing and reputation standpoint, enhancing the perception of your institution’s quality is viable and relevant to your bottom line.

Some of the quality standards issues that students most frequently complain about include:

  • Poor ROI: As mentioned previously, this is the top overall complaint
  • Unsafe Campus / Poor Security: Typical in urban schools in a bad neighborhood
  • Not Integrated Enough: Not welcoming to minorities / LGBTQ, toxic culture
  • Poor Staff Relations: Disrespectful or uncaring staff, out of touch curriculum
  • Outdated: Schools that haven’t kept up with the times, poor in a technology sense
  • Poor Culture: Lack of recreation, lack of community, nothing to do

Stepping into the situation when you encounter gripes like these can save a negative conversation from turning into a slander. At the least, just acknowledging a problem and stating that you are looking for solutions goes a long way. If the student feels that there is a proactive staff that at least cares about their problem, that cuts through their frustration and makes them less likely to air their grievances further. Remember, everyone wants to feel heard.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to stay on top of the non-student conversation. This includes parents, community, sub-contractors, and even your staff. A disgruntled ex-employee can mangle your school’s image worse than any student can.

 

Conclusions

Refer back to that concept of a “reality tunnel.” We all carry around assumptions about the world around us, not all of which are founded on the best information. Your job in changing your institution’s perception is one of adjusting those reality tunnels. You can do that by countering a negative with a positive, answering a problem with a solution, or correcting a poor perception with a better one.

Beyond perceptions of an individual school, higher education itself suffers an identity crisis. A recent College Post survey charges that over 50% of Americans think higher education is heading in the wrong direction. The survey respondents indicate dissatisfaction with school affordability, accessibility, class experience, and vocational viability.

The COVID-19 crisis is just an extra Godzilla stomping down Tokyo for the already troubled academic landscape. How schools handle the pandemic is already contributing to further criticisms. It’s also raising further questions about that ROI. Students go to university looking forward to a stimulating classroom experience. They want an inspiring Robin Williams from Dead Poets’ Society to change their life. It’s going to be tough to deliver that experience through a Zoom window.

But seriously, check out ol’ Bob when you can. The late author of the Illuminatus! Trilogy had so many prophetic things to say about modern media, you’ll swear he had a crystal ball.

While you should cultivate your school’s reputation and brand image organically, you may want to consider adding paid social to your marketing strategy. Organic and paid social work together to

Organic social media can be more effective when paired with paid social media ads. Together, they increase brand awareness faster and create opportunities for interested students to convert and find out more about your school. At Cardinal Digital Marketing, we have a skilled team dedicated to creating effective digital advertising campaigns to help your college or university meet its marketing and enrollment goals. Contact us if you would like a consultation in promoting your brand’s image through a paid social strategy.

 

 

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).