Liz Gross

People are an asset. Trusting in the capabilities of team members can launch a business forward more quickly than a single entrepreneur could. The same can be said for a strong personal and professional network.


Dr. Liz Gross is a data-driven researcher and scholar who specializes in creating entrepreneurial social media strategies in higher education. Her professional super power is to embolden colleges and universities and help them launch modern market research strategies using social listening. Teaching is Liz’s passion and she brings that to colleges and universities as the founding Director of Campus Sonar, a specialized social listening agency that matches high-value social media intelligence and engagement opportunities to organizational strategic initiatives.

Liz is also an award-winning speaker, author and strategist who was recently named a 2018 Mover and Shaker by Social Shake-Up Show. She has delivered top-rated talks at SXSW, SXSW EDU, the American Marketing Association Symposium, the Carnegie Conference and others.

Liz has more than 15 years’ experience spanning the private and public sector including Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. She received a Ph.D. in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service in Higher Education at Cardinal Stritch University, a master’s degree in educational policy and leadership from Marquette University, and a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

In 2012, I left my job as a marketing and communication director on a college campus to build a social media strategy for Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation from scratch. I am deeply committed to the higher education industry, and remained connected professionally even after leaving campus-based employment for “higher ed adjacency.” From day one, the social media program I designed was both external (creating content and engaging with our customers) and internal (using social listening for reputation management, competitive intelligence, proactive customer service, etc.). Over time, my role expanded to include the management of our market insights and research activities, eventually growing to support corporate new business development. While all of this was happening, I was speaking and writing to teach my campus-based colleagues how they could use social listening to improve outcomes in enrollment, marketing, and alumni development. While my content was very popular, the feedback was consistent: using social listening strategically for most small and medium campuses was unlikely to happen because the required software was expensive and complicated and small teams didn’t have the required analytical talent.

I was sharing this feedback with our new business development manager, and he pointed out that I had identified a market need that we were uniquely positioned to solve. That comment launched a business development process that went from idea to launch in ten months. Campus Sonar is an independent business unit of Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation that partners with college campuses to find and analyze online conversations that matter, seize engagement opportunities, and develop data-informed strategies. We are an intrepreneurship initiative that operates as a startup within a larger, established organization.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

That depends if I’m in the office or on the road. I travel about 100 days per year to higher education and marketing conferences. On the road, I’m serving as an evangelist for Campus Sonar and social listening as a market research method. I speak at conferences and lead workshops, connect with campus professionals in exhibit halls, and engage in thought-provoking conversation over coffee, dinner, or happy hour. I’m usually live-tweeting insights from these events to share knowledge with my network, and also keeping in touch with the team back at the office. I stay productive by trying to touch emails only once whenever possible and staying close to inbox zero. I hate knowing there’s a whole list of things I haven’t even thought about accomplishing yet.

In the office, I’m sharing industry intelligence with the team to improve our products, services, and content marketing, connecting with campuses and agencies to explore partnership opportunities, writing and crafting presentations as often as I can to grow our content knowledge base, meeting with my management team to make sure we’re embracing our core strategic intentions of customer intimacy and product innovation, and further developing our business strategies. My main productivity tool is my calendar; I block time for key work that needs to be accomplished, and use that as my to-do list. For example, I have 90 minutes each week dedicated to writing. I’m also ruthless in delegating tasks that can be completed by a team member.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I make sure the strategic impact of the idea is clear to the people who need to support me, both financially and operationally. At the drop of a hat, I can produce a business plan or strategic documents that clearly explain the most important aspects of the business. This avoids the trap of “why is this a good idea” conversations.

Most of my ideas have been brought to life because of the contributions of an incredibly talented team. I have a lot of discussions in small group meetings, on Twitter, or around our desks that end up sparking new ideas. We’re always talking about how we “accidentally” did something; that’s an idea that grew out of organic conversation. Diverse perspectives are a key ingredient of good ideas.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m fascinated by blockchain. I don’t claim to understand it completely, but the idea of a perfectly automated record of transactions or how information spreads can have an incredible impact. I’m currently following Civil, the blockchain-based journalism project, with great interest, and I see multiple applications for blockchain in education.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I watch very little television, and my internet connection is too slow to regularly binge on Netflix. I might not be able to participate well in the office coffee conversation about the new shows, but I spend that time connecting with people that have creative ideas and perspectives or reading.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Know what hills you’re willing to die on, and don’t get too invested in the other dumpster fires you see around you. In my early 20’s I inserted myself into multiple professional controversies that were none of my business and took my focus away from my key responsibilities or areas of impact.

Don’t make assumptions. They can quickly lead you down a damaging rabbit hole. Never assume someone’s intent, or why something is the way it is. Seek to understand, and ask question when you don’t.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Conflict is healthy, can be productive, and shouldn’t be feared. The look on new team members’ faces when I tell them I love conflict is usually pretty entertaining.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m intentional about meeting people and maintaining relationships with them, and I’m receptive to people who seek me out in that way. Some might call this networking, but I think it’s more than what that hollow word has become. The people I meet, whether they’re a college intern or a senior executive, become a part of my life both personally and professionally. These connections often start online, and sometimes from me reaching out to someone because they seem like someone I should know. We stay connected using social media and text messaging, and meet in person when we’re in the same town. I have developed hundreds of these relationships in the last 10+ years, and they’ve allowed me to be more effective at business building, marketing, and selling. I met one of my closest friends and professional collaborators in this way over four years ago because she reached out as a stranger and said I was a “cool chick she’d like to know.”

I started doing this early in my career because I wanted to learn and find people who had similar interests. I had no idea it would build valuable social capital. To this day, I do it because I enjoy the interactions and the relationships. The business value is just icing on the cake.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We knew from our early research that our focus in the first year would need to be education; we’re offering a service that most of our clients have not considered, but we know they need it. So we’ve been providing value and education without a heavy sales pitch since day one. Our prospective customers tell me how much they appreciate our resources and content, and we’re already a trusted voice in our industry. This strategy worked for us because it filled a need in the market and leveraged my skills in teaching and training. The result is 800+ inbound leads in year one for a business that needs a couple dozen clients to be successful.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My early failures, which have been mostly invisible to the public, have resulted from my hesitance to trust my own vision and decision-making abilities and defer to others on decisions that were critical to the business. I sought out mentors who have built companies, and gotten out of my comfort zone to more strongly advocate for my point of view when I feel it is critical.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Create a product or a service that helps me stop forgetting my leftovers at restaurants.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I matched $100 in donations to my birthday fundraiser on Facebook, which raised $650 for a local non-profit supporting small, organic family farms and providing access to fresh produce for low-income families. I’m trying to use my time and talent to benefit society, and inspire others to do so.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

My noise-cancelling headphones. If I can block out the world and put on some motivating music, I’m usually productive.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Science of Serendipity – How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organizations, by Matt Kingdon. I received this book as a gift from my boss just as we were exploring the idea of Campus Sonar. It motivated me to push through some difficult times while developing our business idea. Even if you work in a small organization, there are great takeaways for leading innovative.

What is your favorite quote?

“Well-behaved women seldom make history” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Key learnings:

  • People are an asset. Trusting in the capabilities of team members can launch a business forward more quickly than a single entrepreneur could. The same can be said for a strong personal and professional network.
  • Matching your business strategy to your target audience can give you a competitive advantage (i.e., leading with education when serving the education sector).
  • Well-defined goals and strategies continue to propel a vision and business forward even if the tactics or people involved change.
  • Innovative entrepreneurs need to advocate for their vision and ideas even when others try to dissuade them.