“I think that's a problem you could solve.”
That statement, shared with Campus Sonar founder Liz Gross as she described a challenge she'd come across at higher ed conferences, was the start of an unexpected journey for her. After spending years as a social media strategist in the University of Wisconsin System, and later as a higher education marketing administrator for Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation (a private financial services organization), she added another title to her arsenal late last year: startup founder.
Her startup is an arm of Great Lakes and offers a solution to the problem of a costly but highly beneficial tool for marketing: social listening. Campus Sonar is a company dedicated to helping colleges and universities build and execute their own social listening strategies. WIHE interviewed Gross about her love of social listening and what it is like to be a founder of a startup.
First, how do you define social listening?
The most basic definition of social listening is, searching the social web (or the internet, whatever you want to call it) for conversations [about] and mentions of [your organization]. That is the actual act of social listening. When I think about it in a business use case, I like to think of it as strategic social listening. [U]sing it strategically means you accept the fact that the online conversations are indeed a reflection of real life. Strategic social listening is that real life—transcribed, categorized and analyzed—to provide your organization with data‐driven insights.
And how did it become such a big part of your life?
I remember sitting at my desk at the University of Wisconsin‐Milwaukee (UWM) in probably 2008 and realiz[ing] that if I [did] a Twitter search “UWM” and “dorm,” that there were students … just throwing out information freely for me to access, providing access for me to help them, wanting ways for me to connect them to other students and campus resources. And I was unaware of any of the software available out there.
So, I started hacking together social listening by creating RSS feeds of these Twitter searches and pulling them into Google Reader, and looking at them one by one, so I could respond to students and family members who were somehow thinking that the random folks on Twitter were going to be able to solve their problems related to campus housing. It seems to me now that it's a source of information I can't imagine not having as a leader of an organization that has anything to do with providing a service … or needing to know what a consumer thinks. To me, it's the most amazing, always‐on focus group.
As the landscape started to shift, how did social learning turn into a pitch for something your organization should be doing more of?
Originally, I started sharing educational sessions on social listening as a service to the profession. I was presenting mainly at higher education marketing conferences, but also general marketing conferences as well, helping folks understand that social listening had implications for customer service, for brand awareness, market research, crisis communication … really, the list is endless.
Good social listening software starts in the five figures annually for an organization, and that's because the access to the data is very expensive. The conversation would be “Oh thanks, this clearly isn't something that's going to work in higher education, particularly a small campus. Or at a nonprofit.” I was sharing that information informally with a colleague of mine at Great Lakes, who just so happened to be the new business development manager, and he just looked at me and said, “I think that's a problem you could solve.”
I hopped on the phone and started talking to founders from agencies. I talked to private college CMOs (chief marketing officers), I talked to VPs and vice chancellors, and shared the value I thought social listening could provide and a basically “back‐of‐the‐napkin sketch” for what I thought an organization dedicated to that could provide as a campus partner—and then a ballpark, here's what I think it would cost the organization. Do you think there'd be a positive return on investment and value in this, do you think this is something you would do? Almost every person I spoke with said “yes.”
How did the business within the business model come about versus a service that Great Lakes would provide?
We realized that in terms of brand equity with the name Great Lakes, it really doesn't go beyond the financial aid office. And it seemed that if we were coming to a new market with a new service that no one had ever heard of before, it would be just as easy (if not easier) to do it under a new brand name that would be powered by Great Lakes, would fall under our corporate umbrella, but wouldn't carry with it any of the connotations of being only involved with student loans. We chose to go with the new brand name, so we could start fresh as a new player in the marketplace and really have a brand name that speaks to what we do.
What did it take to get people in the organization to trust this new company?
Honestly, I didn't see a big shift until we started seeing some positive reactions in the marketplace to our business model. As soon as we started being mentioned at Inside Higher Ed, having phenomenal feedback at conferences and getting some real sales inquiries from potential clients, then it was clear that what we were doing was working. That made it an easier sell to say, “We have to do things differently to support not just this image that we're building, but what the marketplace is demanding from us.” It was tough to do this in the pilot mode [that] hadn't publicly launched, because there was no real client or industry feedback to show that it was going to be well‐received.
What would you tell somebody who wants to do something new in an organization that doesn't seem well‐designed for that?
There are a couple of things you can focus on that resonate at all levels of an organization, no matter what sort of culture that organization has. If you focus on the problem your idea is trying to solve, the value [of] your solution and then why you're trying to do that from a public good/mission/value statement, those three things are universally understandable within most organizations.
The roadmap to how you get those things done might change, and it might change drastically while you're actively moving toward the innovation or new idea. But if you continually focus on the problem you're solving, the value that solution is providing to the organization and the overarching reason why it matters, that is something that will keep you motivated and will make just as much sense to an entry‐level employee as it will to a CEO.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.