Targeting Your Social Media Content

In a 2011 interview with Academic Impressions, Brad Ward, CEO of BlueFuego Inc., cited his organization's research into the impact of university Facebook pages. After a 25-month study of nearly 400,000 Facebook updates across more than 1,200 university Facebook pages, Ward concluded that most institutions offer too much content via social media channels, leading to declines in engagement as their audiences begin to "tune them out." Ward warns that quality is far more important than quantity, because institutions compete with family and friends for time and social media "space" -- in short, for the attention of students and alumni on channels that are already overcrowded with content.

It's critical that marketing and communications and alumni relations offices invest more in listening to their audience's social media preferences and preferred content. Effective listening can empower your office to offer highly targeted content -- whether on your website, on your Facebook page, or via a mobile app.

In a follow-up article in June 2011, we turned to Linda Thomas Brooks, president of Ingenuity Media, The Martin Group and past member of the board of directors for the Ohio State University Alumni Association. With considerable expertise in setting up effective social media listening posts, Brooks offered advice on:

  • What to listen for
  • What types of tools can help you
  • How to harness your new knowledge to better target your content

Given the rapid pace of change in the social media environment, we have reached out to Brooks again, one year later, to gather her additional, up-to-date advice for effective "listening" in social media.

As the social media landscape evolves and more tools become available to interact with your constituency, you must begin to set an engagement strategy that makes sense for your alumni relations effort. While many institutions have adopted a social media policy, the greater strategic questions have been ignored, leading to a compartmentalized and ad-hoc social media presence.

Examples of What to Listen For

"Previously it was common to have an annual media plan, but the world no longer operates that way. Now news is being passed, morphed, and changed constantly. Now you need to optimize the channels you use and the messages you send out on them on an ongoing basis."
Linda Thomas Brooks, Ingenuity Media

The first step, Brooks suggests, is to cultivate an attitude of listening. Your office needs to be continually checking to see what messages are circulating -- what is being tweeted and reposted -- about your institution. The public nature of social media offers unprecedented opportunities for getting informed early both about issues of concern among your alumni and about their top interests.

For example:

  • Monitor recent graduates and young alumni -- "What are people saying about their degree from your institution?" Brooks asks; "that it was great and helped them land this career position, or are they posting about attending their weekly drinking night with other unemployed friends?"
  • Check the hottest topics of discussion among your alumni -- what are they talking about, and how do they feel about it?
  • If you are nearing a capital campaign, do a "temperature check" -- Brooks asks, "Are there issues that could possibly derail the optimal response to fundraising messages? For example, do you have alumni who are angry and vocal because the institution closed their department? You need to know"

"You probably don't need to monitor on a 24/7 basis," Brooks remarks, "but perform frequent checks, or monitor social media chatter preceding and coming out of a key event."

Social Listening in a Time-Effective Way

While there isn't a significant infrastructure cost to social listening and social scouring, there can be a cost in time. To manage this, Brooks suggests:

  • Focusing on key influencers
  • Leveraging your institution's own population of digital natives

Focusing on Key Influencers

These might include trustees, alumni board members, and other key alumni and donors who are actively involved in social networks. Identifying a handful of alumni who are well-connected and who are influencers of opinion among your key constituencies can narrow your focus while allowing you to both take an early gauge (or early warning) of what people important to your institution value and think important, and identify sources of content that you can share with the broader community of your alumni.

Leveraging Digital Natives

Besides identifying that handful of key profiles to watch, identify those resources within your own institution that can supplement your staff. "The good news for colleges and universities," Brooks remarks, "is that you have a population of digital natives. Find a student intern who can navigate social media in their sleep. And allow for 'reverse mentoring,' in which these interns mentor your long-term employees in using and monitoring social media. Not only does this help you build competencies within your staff, it also gives the student something for their resume; they can tell prospective employers that they trained or mentored senior staff in social media."

Finally, rather than investing significant time in the monitoring, Brooks recommends investing advanced analytics or at least time and brainpower in analysis of what you find while monitoring. "You need to know not just whether views of your institution are negative," she notes, "but why they are negative. Are the negative comments in social media related -- are they all focused on one aspect of your organization -- or are there multiple items? Are those items related in some way? This listening can inform targeted troubleshooting within your organization and targeted responses to your constituents."

"People should think of this not as a nice to-do but as an absolutely must-do. These channels influence your brand reputation. You can't not pay attention to this."
Linda Thomas Brooks, Ingenuity Media

"Social Scouring" Tools

Tools for listening in are proliferating, and some are fairly cost-effective. Brooks recommends looking for tools that empower you to do the following:

  • Monitor Twitter feeds for key words
  • See "word clouds" that identify key phrases and sentiments that emerge when alumni discuss your institution or a particular topic
  • Some tools also allow you to quantify positive and negative sentiment (e.g., over the course of one month, how many positive comments were spotted, and how many negative)

Note that most social media platforms have their own built-in monitoring tools. These are free and provide a useful starting point, but are limited in one important respect -- they will only offer you data when your institution name is mentioned (or hashtagged, in the case of Twitter). Brooks adds that there are commercial analytics vendors (such as Sysomos) that allow you to aggregate data cross sites and also allow you to search for keywords other than the name of your school: "I could, for example, see what people are saying about Big Ten football or about Pelotonia, not just The Ohio State University."

Targeting Your Content

Finally, Brooks suggests using analytics tools aggressively to identify what content your constituents are responding to, what they aren't responding to, and in what ways they are responding. For example:

  • What pieces are seeing the most views?
  • What are your audiences "Liking"?
  • What are they not even reading?
  • What do they reply to or comment on?
  • What do they repost?

"On an ongoing basis, evaluate what content is valuable to them," Brooks advises. "If you are putting out a lot of content that's not getting attention, that's a waste of your time."

Once you know what content is getting your audiences' attention, make the most of it by:

  • Establishing multiple and deeper affinity ties -- use your social media channels to connect constituents not just with your institution but with their dorm, their major, and/or alumni from their geographic region
  • Offer easy ways for alumni, particularly, to display their affinity via social media channels, and then offer them targeted content and value that is exclusive to them and that others don't receive

Brooks recommends looking at targeted content as "social currency" -- you want to select content that is targeted to the audience's specific interests and that they are likely to pass on to others, content that helps them look connected and in the know. "They want the inside scoop," Brooks notes. "They want to be insiders. The institution just won an award -- convey that you wanted them to be the first to know. Or this incident just happened, and we want to let you know what it means."

"Fans of your institution need to get value from being fans," Brooks advises. "If you have one million fans on Facebook but you aren't doing anything with them or offering them anything, they are going to unfriend you at some point."

The Breaking News Approach

Brooks offers this additional approach to targeted content, noting that many large organizations have build PR teams whose role is to pick up promising news stories, draw further attention to them, and interpret them for their key constituents.

"In this current media environment," she suggests, "institutions need to reconsider their approach to public relations. News breaks from many sources and gets picked up and shared quickly. When the news is good, a PR team can help give that news longer life and broader attention by not only disseminating it through social media, but by providing additional perspective. Whether good or bad, the news is often just headlines or sound bytes, but what if you coordinated content where experts from your institution weigh in and help educate constituents on the issues? This is a different role from traditional public relations, and it is quite possibly more important than ever."


This Academic Impressions monograph by Marianne Pelletier, CFRE, will walk you through more than 30 separate exercises in using social media for prospecting and for prospect research, and will provide you with introductory information on the following:

  • The possibilities and limits of using social media in prospecting
  • Tactics for mining social media to locate wealthy prospects, with walkthroughs of specific steps and examples
  • How social media activity can reveal assets among your prospect pool
  • Using social media to identify level of involvement, affinity, and philanthropic engagement