AMA Higher Ed 2015 Recap: There may not be a silver bullet, but here is a golden rule!

This week, I returned to the office from AMA’s 2015 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education with a belly full of Chicago cuisine, a brain overflowing with insights, and an amplified excitement for higher ed marketing! As I tried to synthesize all of the information, one thread of advice became clear – stop trying to be in control but rather be in command. Here is how just a few of many higher ed marketers have seen success from implementing this approach.

1. They created a system or structure to position their departments as strategic partners.

Dan Dillon at Arizona State University has over 400 marketers on campus. Instead of controlling every entity, Dan created “The Hub” which provides oversight and training for the marketers sprinkled across campus. With less time spent on tactics, Dan can focus on innovative marketing opportunities such as the corporate partnership with Starbucks.

Stacey Grosh at Ball State University implemented a “fast track” system in order to overcome high volumes of requests placed on the marketing and communications office. The first version of the fast track system forced colleges, departments, units, or clubs to submit detailed requests for materials and perform timely reviews through an online portal. Over time, the fast track system has evolved but the most beneficial feature remains – the system holds the colleges, departments, units, and clubs accountable for their own marketing materials.

2. They empowered others to help tell the story. (Or were empowered to tell the story)

Ed Stukane at Stevens Institute of Technology conducted research with higher ed peers (presidents, provosts, and deans of admission) and uncovered that peers overwhelming prefer to receive information about other institutions through personal relationships. Ed shared this research across his campus to motivate and urge the president, provost, and deans to engage more deeply with their peers in order to elevate awareness and the reputation of Stevens.

Santa J. Ono at University of Cincinnati is a great case study of an empowered president. He started with a poorly composed tweet that gained three likes and now urges every president to join social media. He’s heard plenty of excuses from his fellow leaders and debunked the myths one-by-one: that presidents don’t know have the know-how, social media takes too much time, presidents will lose privacy, it’s too risky, and it’s just a fad.

3. They are not afraid to listen.

Emily Truax at Boston University manages digital engagement and spends 90% of her time actively listening! She doesn’t constantly create content. Sometimes she simply asks her networks for content – especially in slower seasons like the summer.

Michele Norris, while not a higher ed marketer, has a timely message. As shown through her journey to write The Grace of Silence and the creation of the Race Card Project, she engages audiences in a difficult and sometime tense conversation of race through genuinely listening. Her advice specifically for the University of Missouri is to create a space for students to have a dialogue and listen.

While “in command and out of control” is a simple (and maybe familiar) concept, implementation and actualization may be extremely difficult. Don’t let that be discouraging! Try to find a small win today. You may not be able to overhaul your structure but maybe you can empower one more brand ambassador to tell your university’s story.

Five Ways to Engage Students in Higher Education Marketing

My internship at SimpsonScarborough has given me unique insights into how schools view themselves and their futures through crafting accurate and decisive messaging. Through my work delivering both qualitative and quantitative findings from surveys, focus groups, and in-depth interviews, I’ve learned that in order to properly market your school, it’s vital to have a real and specific understanding of your students beyond some broad generalizations or statistics on your student body. This can often be hard for administrators, but the good news is that we are eager to share our thoughts and experiences and support your marketing efforts. As a student myself, I hope to provide you with five easy ways to better engage and understand the students at your college or university:

  1. Talk to them: Since conversation is obviously the easiest and often most effective way to interact with students and understand how they see the school, I won’t dwell on this point.
  2. Buy them coffee or dinner: The perception that college students love free food is 100% accurate. You’re bound to have an honest conversation with them no matter if it’s an ad hoc chat with an undergrad at the student-run coffee shop or a more structured meeting at the local iconic cafe. Interacting with students in these types of casual social situations promotes honest conversation and develops a more nuanced understanding of student perceptions of the institution’s marketing strategies and general direction.
  3. Highlight student groups: Beyond the classroom, clubs and extracurricular activities are often central to students’ college experiences. As a student at Georgetown, and a member of the Georgetown University Grilling Society, I was giddy when they decided to celebrate our club’s ten-year anniversary on social media accounts. By showcasing specific and unique examples of student groups on campus, you will not only pique the interest of prospective students wanting to be a part of that those communities, but you will also engage current students who will happily open up and share about their beloved organizations.
  1. Offer internships at your marketing department: Bringing students onboard with the marketing team through work-study jobs makes students invested with the branding strategies you’re trying to implement. And they may even offer insights you might not have considered otherwise.
  2. Have them do the work for you: Give them a camera and have them tell their stories. A fantastic example of this is also from my alma mater university. Georgetown Stories features 12 competitively selected students from all walks of life who document their lives as students on social media. They do a great job showing the reality and diversity of the Georgetown Experience and what it means to be a Georgetown Hoya. The hashtag #GeorgetownStories accompanies quality Instagram and Twitter posts too, and these posts help to highlight the best Georgetown has to offer.

Charlie Lowe is a Project Strategy Intern at SimpsonScarborough. He is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in International Politics and enjoys biking, fly fishing, and higher education marketing in his spare time.

House of Brands vs. Branded House

For as long as I can remember, I’ve used a series of three slides in conference presentations and campus meetings with clients. They describe the difference between a “house of brands” and a “branded house.” They’re relevant to higher ed because many colleges and universities have unintentionally slipped into a house of brands philosophy. A house of brands is a multi-brand strategy such as those embraced by General Motors and Proctor & Gamble. Each brand is supported by its own distinctive marketing strategy. Any institution that is made up of a collection of units (business school, engineering school, arts & sciences, etc.) that are each marketed under a different name and a customized program is essentially a house of brands.

A house of brands strategy can work well in some industries, especially when the branded products or units can’t replace one another. But in higher ed, a branded house approach is almost always preferable. While many institutions are beginning to recognize this, more are still struggling with converting. A branded house is one in which there is a great deal of synergy between the units of an institution. When University of X adds a school of education and names it the “University of X School of Education” as opposed to naming it after the donor who funded it, that’s a sign the institution is probably applying a branded house approach.

A house of brands approach gives each of an institution’s units the flexibility to determine their own target audiences and fight their own battles unfettered by the rest of the institution. Many deans find this appealing for the wrong reasons. And many underestimate the costs associated with successful implementation of a house of brands strategy. Cost is one of the primary reasons a branded house strategy is more appropriate for higher ed. It’s substantially more efficient and effective to focus on marketing the overarching brand of the institution.

Ithaca College has been moving in this direction. In the recent Inside Higher Ed article, The Sum or Its Parts?, reporter Kellie Woodhouse describes how the College is moving to promote the “comprehensive student experience,” an effort that actually began a few years back with the “Ready” campaign. Faculty concerns that the strategy will fail to “address the unique substance of the college’s academic programs” don’t even make sense. They are confusing “marketing” the College with “selling” the College. Marketing is done by the marketing department. Selling is done by admission officers. Marketing, which is a “top of the funnel activity,” should emphasize the whole of Ithaca College. It will fill the inquiry pool with a wide variety of prospects interested in many different programs. Selling, a “bottom of the funnel activity,” will involve working with prospects interested in specific programs to help them understand the unique aspects of Ithaca’s individual programs. At the top, the marketing effort (which is one-to-many) should embrace the branded house strategy and focus on the College as a whole. At the bottom, the selling effort (which is more one-to-one) should focus on responding to the needs and interests of each prospect.

Unfortunately, many institutions only recently came to realize these important issues about strategic marketing. Now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s difficult to get deans to relinquish control of the programs they’ve implemented to promote their own colleges or schools for the good of the entire institution. But with all the pressure on higher ed these days, I predict many are beginning to realize they are stronger united than divided.

Moving Past Buzzwords: How to More Effectively Differentiate Your Institution

In Matt Sutherland’s blog post, “The Higher Ed Swear Jar,” Sutherland discusses the propensity of higher ed marketers to use buzzwords, words that are repeated so frequently among various institutions that they no longer differentiate schools to the degree they are intended to. Sutherland creates a tongue-in-cheek game called “Higher Ed Buzzword Bingo,” featuring a bingo board full of overused higher ed brand terms like “innovative,” “experiential learning,” “small classes,” and more.

I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of using these terms as part of our ongoing marketing efforts – they are commonly used in viewbooks, websites, as part of your campus tour, and even across social media. Although it may be unrealistic to go buzzword-free in your next communication, push yourself to move past the cliché and try to redefine terms in a way that truly differentiates and stands out from the pack. To do so, it’s helpful to remember these tips:

  • Don’t assume prospects understand what makes you special. Internal audiences, particularly alumni, have spent years at your institution, so when you use buzzwords, they understand what you’re talking about. But prospects see schools using terms like “social justice” and don’t understand what that means at your institution. They see the buzzword and don’t understand the depth behind it.
  • Provide examples. What does experiential learning mean at your school? Is it internships at local businesses? A hands-on lab experience for undergraduates? Whatever it is, don’t just tell people, show them. Provide detailed examples with visuals that will help prospects get an accurate sense of what their experience at your school will be like and how it will be different from what they would get at other schools.
  • Don’t be afraid to be different. Do you know how many schools offer study abroad and internship opportunities? A lot. But how many offer internship opportunities in a student’s major while the student studies abroad in a non-traditional location? If this is what you offer, let the world know! Don’t hide behind a buzzword or two because that’s what your competitors and peers are doing. Let prospects know about the unique opportunities offered to them.

My Selects for #AMAhighered 2015

With little more than a month until the start of 2015 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, it is time to decide how to best divide and conquer the packed agenda amongst your team and determine which sessions and tracks are can’t miss. This year will be the 26th annual event and my third year attending. While many higher ed conferences are designed specifically for digital/web or admissions/enrollment professionals, what I love about AMA is its relevance for all higher ed marketers across digital, social, brand, communication, and web−a mix that promises a wide array of speakers, and opportunities to network with higher ed professionals from all disciplines.

And it looks as though this year promises to live up to my high expectations. Taking a look at the full program agenda, here’s where I’ll be headed:

Sunday, November 15

5:00 – Opening reception: First day of exhibits = best chances at awesome swag (and t-shirts in your preferred size).

Monday, November 16

8:15 – Morning Keynote: Latino Narratives in 2015

  • Sergio Alcocer, President and Chief Creative, LatinWorks
  • Earlier this year, the University of California announced that for the first time UC received more freshman applications from Latino students than any other ethnic group in the state. I’m fascinated to learn more about the shifting demographics and what that means for higher ed marketers.

10:15 – Track 5: Flipping the Funnel: How One School Increased Yield with Website Optimization

  • Grant Geske, Manager of Digital Analytics, Johnson & Wales University; Jason Smith, Managing Director and Founder, OHO Interactive
  • Higher ed is in a truly unique position where our websites continue to be one of the top sources for prospects and their parents. There is a huge opportunity there, but we all know that university websites are often more treated as a tug-of-war for prime real estate among departments. I’m curious to see how Wales University tackled the issue with an admissions and marketing focus.

11:15 – Track 3: Mythbusting Admissions: Where Prospects and Professionals Agree, and Disagree, on Enrollment Marketing, Messages, and Channels

  • Michael Stoner, Co-Founder and President, mStoner, Inc.; Gil Rogers, Director of Enrollment Insights, Chegg
  • I’ll be here to learn more about Generation Z and how their ever-changing digital habits influence enrollment marketing.

12:00 – Keynote: Eavesdropping on America’s Conversation on Race

  • Michele Norris, NPR Host and Special Correspondent, Founder of the Race Card Project
  • If you aren’t familiar with it, check out NPR’s The Race Card project before heading to AMA.

2:00 – Track 3: The Benchmarking Boom: Tracking Your Marketing and Branding Over Time

  • Elizabeth Johnson, CEO, SimpsonScarborough; Sharon Higgins, Assistant Vice President, Marketing & Communications, Loyola University Maryland
  • I’m excited to learn about Loyola University Maryland’s approach to benchmarking and anticipate insight into the best approach to wrangle campus metrics in a simple-to-use dashboard.

3:00 – Track 3: The Value Equation, Measuring & Communicating the Return on Investment of a College Degree

  • Jeff Selingo, Contributing Editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students; Terry Flannery, Vice President for Communications, American University; Noah Leavitt, Associate Dean for Student Engagement, Whitman College
  • This is an absolute can’t miss. The question of “value” and “ROI” continue to be top of mind for consumers and for higher ed marketers as we look to integrate outcome data in our brand strategies.

5:00 – Networking!

Tuesday, November 17

8:15 – Morning keynote: Driving Affinity through Innovative Marketing

  • Dan Dillon, Jr., Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Office, Arizona State University
  • I’m so looking forward to hearing about the ASU story first-hand. I not only admire their innovative partnerships (Starbucks and EdX), but how the ASU brand is visible in every move the university makes.

10:15 – Track 3: Predicting the Unpredictable – Strategies for Today’s Student Behavior

  • Alexa Poulin, Vice President, Marketing and Student Search, Carnegie Communications; Gillian Chapline, Marketing Manager, Chestnut Hill College
  • Digital marketing + data + analytics; count me in!

11:15 – Track 4: A Whole New World: Thoughts and Reflections on Joining Higher Education from Industry

  • Matthew Mindrum, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Butler University; Mary Baglivo, Vice President, Global Marketing, Northwestern University; Nicholas Scibetta, Chief Communications Officer/Vice President Marketing, Stony Brook University; Moderator: Jason Simon, Vice President/Partner, SimpsonScarborough/Conference Co-Chair
  • As the role of the CMO and marcom department continues to mature within highered, we are also seeing an uptick in the number of “outsiders” joining the industry. I’m looking forward to hearing their perspective and learning about the challenges they’ve encountered.

12:00 – The World of Higher Ed in 2025: Boom or Bust?

  • Dan Greenstein, Director of Education, Postsecondary Success, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • I don’t think there is anyone who can provide a better glimpse of higher ed in 2025 and provide valuable insight on how higher ed marketers can continue to respond to the national need of creating a more educated workforce.

2:15 – Track 6: Building a Social Campus Through Cross Campus Collaboration

  • Tyler Thomas, Social Media Specialist, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
  • Social media management across campus at both centralized and de-centralized universities is a reoccurring topic at AMA and for good reason. Social media moves fast and often higher ed finds itself behind – collaboration across campus and a strong workgroup can help. I’m looking forward to hearing how University of Nebraska-Lincoln tackled this ongoing challenge.

3:15 – Track 1: NYU’s One Logo, One University Initiative

  • Mark Courtney, Visual Identity Director, University Relations and Public Affairs, New York University
  • I’ve had my eye on NYU’s brand guidelines site for a while, and in particular, their social media guidelines that are the best I’ve seen in terms of content and tone.

Wednesday, November 18

8:15 – Session 5: Using LinkedIn to Deepen Relationships Throughout the Entire Student Lifecycle

10:15 – Closing keynote: The Digital Presidency – Brand-Building in the Age of Twitter

  • Santa Ono, President, University of Cincinnati
  • If you aren’t following @PrezOno on Twitter yet, please do. His latest tweet? Wishing a University of Cincinnati student a happy birthday! Can’t wait to learn his secrets to authentic social media engagement and stardom.


I’d be remiss to leave out our booth – stop by to say hello and chat about what’s happening in higher ed marketing at booth #3!

If you can’t attend in person this year, I’d encourage you to follow along with the #AMAHigherEd hashtag. I suspect it will only build on last year’s trending feed full of commentary, doodles, and key takeaways from throughout the conference. I’ll be sure to chime in from both @SimpScar and @k_march.