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Blog: Conversation Trends by Campus Size

Differentiate yourself from peers and competitors by paying attention to and leaning into industry trends and opportunities.

by Amber Sandall, Director of Client Services

Marketing: Blog

If higher ed campuses were ships at sea, the ship for each campus would correspond to its enrollment size. Submarines, seemingly immovable to the forces of nature, are campuses with greater than 10,000 students enrolled. Large container ships (the ones that could only get stuck in, say, canals) are the next size down of campuses representing about 3–10,000 students. And in the ocean amongst these sea-faring vessels are the honest fishing boats, the recreational vehicles, and sight-seeing double-deckers representing campuses with fewer than 3,000 students.

These small and mighty boats—the ones that provide the world with sustenance, relaxation, and entertainment—can be quickly swallowed up as mother nature expresses herself through the water and the wind. And so, too, as crisis after crisis has and continues to sweep our world, do the small and mighty campuses get swept up in the fight to survive.

This has never been more evident than when looking at a sample of online conversation from higher ed campuses from fall 2020 and spring 2021.

Very small and small campuses (those with less than 3,000 students) experienced dramatic drops in online conversation volume during the pandemic. As a result, in spring 2021, they saw the greatest increase in median conversation volume (186% on average), as they rebounded online from the previous semester, compared to their peers with greater enrollment who weathered the 2020 storm more predictably (3.5% increase of median conversation volume on average semester to semester). 

But no matter a campus’s enrollment size, the tide brought each equally from fall 2020 to spring 2021 semester:

  • More earned conversation from campus audience members
  • More news coverage
  • More neutral conversation

While these changes were experienced across all campus sizes, each experienced them to different degrees. Large campuses, for example, saw a 51% average increase in median conversation volume from news. That is a noteworthy increase, larger than we would expect to see over the course of two normal semesters. At the same time, that increase is overshadowed by the increase in news coverage for small and very small campuses, which experienced an average increase of 293%. 

As of spring 2021, news coverage makes up 35% of non-athletics online conversation, and 24% of all online conversation. Both figures are increases from previous semesters, and for campuses of all sizes, the increased percentage of news coverage comes at the expense of social conversation. 

It’s important to consider that the increase in news coverage and the increase in neutral sentiment go hand in hand. News coverage is meant to be majority neutral. However, it would be foolish to think that neutral coverage does not shift the reputation or perception of your brand. Indeed, it’s worth examining the impact that increased news coverage has had on your brand specifically. As you do, consider whether or not news coverage is strategically aligned with your brand and messaging goals, or how much of that news conversation about your campus you’ve actively influenced. 

It’s also worth remembering that when not neutral, news coverage is more likely to be negative than positive—in our September 2021 special topic research examining news coverage of higher education—30% of national news conversation was negative. 

Meanwhile, there is fierce competition to land media pitches with national journalists who will tell positive stories about the people and experiences on campus. For smaller campuses, in particular, coverage in local and regional news sources can be critical and more attainable to bring awareness to your mission and opportunities you offer. Still, it’s important to have a plan in place for proactive communications and pitching. Not sure where to start? Consider our September 2021 infographic that offers eight ways to prepare your campus for three commonly reported new topics.

Smaller schools are looking for a lifeboat to weather the same storm as their larger peers, and one bright spot from fall 2020 to spring 2021 was forums. Compared to their larger peers, which saw a 9% increase in median forum conversation, smaller schools saw a 311% average increase in median conversation volume from forums from fall to spring semester. Forums offer a good way to get the pulse on what your different audiences may think and feel. Individuals flock to Twitter and Facebook to complain and celebrate in equal parts, but on forums they share more nuanced conversation under the veil of anonymity. If you don’t already have an approach to monitoring conversation about your campus on forums like Reddit and College Confidential, now is the time to do so. 

Another interesting change, which played out differently across enrollment size, was the shift in content creation. In analyzing the fall 2020 semester, we noted a strong decrease in online conversation across our sample. In the spring 2021 semester, most campuses in our sample, regardless of enrollment size, increased the amount of owned social conversation. 

But while the increase in volume from fall 2020 was consistent, the type of content created differed across enrollment size. 

  • Very small campuses increased the median volume of comments/replies by a whopping 366%, while the median value of original content increased by 46%.
  • Small campuses increased both original content (84% median value increase) and comments/replies (75% median value increase) somewhat equally.
  • Medium campuses had the inverse change. The median value for original content increased 51%, while the median value of comments/replies actually decreased by 38%. 
  • Large campuses increased the median value of original content and comments/replies, but not at equal rates. Original content increased by 70%, while comments/replies increased by only 22%. 

While we’re encouraged by the median value increase across the board for original content, it’s discouraging to see that, despite more opportunities to do so than ever before, medium and large campuses did not equally increase comments/replies. 

Sonarians have a history of collectively advocating for increased engagement on social media, rather than an obsession on increasing engagement rate. This is especially true for medium and larger campuses, which typically have more resources and talent behind their social accounts. What if, instead of putting those resources towards increased original content, campuses focused on building more meaningful connections with their respective audiences? Comments and replies remain a miniscule percentage of owned content at only 3%, especially compared to original content, which makes up 43% of owned content. 

Increasing your percentage of comments/replies does not need to be a massive undertaking to be effective. As Liz Gross writes, “Set a small goal to be more engaging—try to post one reply for every five pieces of original content you publish. That should easily put you above the industry benchmarks.”

While higher education still finds itself in choppy waters, the seas have calmed since 2020. And regardless of which type of vessel you consider your campus to be, you can greatly improve your chances of staying afloat by paying attention to and leaning into industry trends and opportunities to differentiate yourself from your peers and competitors.