Two Steps to Better Higher Ed Advertising

Higher ed advertising is hard. Start with the sheer volume of messages—apply, visit, attend, sign up, learn more (just to name a few). Add to that a wide range of audiences—prospects, parents, higher ed peers, counselors, alumni, and others—and segment those even further. You have numerous segments within your prospect audience alone, from undergraduate and graduate to subsets like first-generation, nontraditional, high-achievers, student athletes, veterans/military, and international students. Tight marketing budgets then force prioritization of these audiences in an industry that has largely followed market cycles to inform strategy. Together, these various factors often result in generic strategy with limited outreach that doesn’t truly meet the goals of the university.

Let’s look at a deeper level—traditionally, higher ed advertising has been dictated by two things: recruitment cycles and rankings. As a result, we often see institutions flood the market at exactly the same time with very similar messages—typically fall and spring when students are applying and enrolling, and then again when U.S. News ballots are distributed and returned in early spring. It is exactly these types of short-term strategies that leave students disappointed and higher ed marketers struggling to demonstrate the ROI of their efforts.

So what is a higher ed marketer to do? What can help break out of this ‘sameness’ that we’ve all come to expect? Here are two critical steps to take:

Market research. Good market research arms you with data and insights that allow you to build a targeted advertising strategy. It enables you to know your weaknesses, but also your strengths by audience. What are the most important decision factors among your prospects? How do your alumni prefer to engage with you? What are the commonalities among your successfully recruited students and your prospects? Gather data, look for these commonalities and key opportunities, and focus your recruitment and marketing efforts there. Are there key programs or new programs that need an enrollment boost? Focus on those rather than developing a broad strategy.

Targeted year-round digital advertising. Digital advertising allows marketers to use data to reach their target audience at a precise level. A good digital strategy incorporates display, social, video, mobile, and search. You may decide to develop a prospecting/acquisition strategy or utilize remarketing, but you can also run a brand awareness campaign in these environments that engages and excites your audiences. In each of these cases, there is a need to develop an ongoing, year-round strategy that continually builds your audience base and, ultimately, your cookie pool. A long-term strategy should always include some level of investment at all times to maintain the audience you’ve built up. And cost effective digital advertising has made this a reality. Most importantly, digital advertising empowers marketers to test creative, messages, and strategies as needed on a weekly basis, something that can’t be done easily (or cost-effectively) with traditional advertising. Sure, there are wonderful reasons to take advantage of traditional media, out-of-home and promotional/sponsorship opportunities that typically require larger investments, but use them sparingly at key moments throughout the year as way to amplify your digital efforts.

Interested in more on higher ed advertising? Read my piece on the case against outdoor advertising.

We’re Celebrating: SimpsonScarborough Turns 10!

SimpsonScarborough is 10 years old! As I reflect back on the past decade, I’m struck by how much has changed. We moved from Pennsylvania Avenue in DC to King Street in Old Town Alexandria. We have two new partners. We have 15 more employees. Our colors are purple and cyan rather than our original navy blue and orange. Our Dells have been replaced by MacBook Airs. Our monthly all-staff conference calls are now called “Collaboration Calls.” We used to be known primarily for our crisis communications consulting; now we are doing some of our best work in our new creative services division. One thing that hasn’t changed is our “work hard, play hard” sensibility; stop by the office to try out our ping pong table, 28-foot white board wall, and hoverboard!

When we started in 2006, the field of higher education marketing looked a lot different, too. Most of our clients were Directors or maybe Executive Directors of Communications. Today, they are almost all AVPs or VPs of Marketing and/or Strategic Communications. They used to report to the VP of Advancement; now they report directly to the President. Marketing departments used to look like news bureaus or internal Kinko’s. Now, they operate strategically and proactively. Their work is integrated with other units around campus. Rather than printing thousands of brochures, they post thousands of tweets. “Marketing” and even “branding” are words higher ed marketers can now say out loud.

I’m also struck by how much has stayed the same. Despite the rhetoric, higher education is still an incredible investment, with bachelor’s degree holders earning 66% more than their counterparts with only a high school diploma. And the need for data persists; it will always be critical to be able to not only understand but also to quantify the attitudes and opinions of our key stakeholders.

As we look back over the last 10 years, we are most thankful for the 221 institutions we’ve had the privilege to work with. We appreciate every single one. Our work together is exciting, challenging, and deeply invigorating. We love higher ed. We love research. We love branding and bringing it all to life creatively.

We’re so grateful for the many great partnerships and talented people we’ve met along the way. And we’re thrilled to be celebrating this milestone. If you live anywhere near the DC area, be on the look out for an invite to our 10th anniversary party this summer!

The Reboot

It’s award season. The time for red carpets, black ties, and fancy gowns; hosts hungry to embarrass or offend; and snubs (either by systemic issues of equality or a critical eye). And I’m a movie fan.

This year, two of my favorite films (and two of the highest grossing) didn’t catch much of a glance for awards. While Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens may not have earned critical acclaim (save a nostalgic nomination for Sylvester Stallone and some nods in technical fields), they displayed a mastery in sticking to their film brands. Both movies honored story lines of good vs. evil, family and friendship, fallen heroes who find something within themselves (or a deeper force), and overcoming adversity while conquering a huge challenge. There were familiar faces and storylines that rekindled a fascination with long-standing fans while setting the stage for generations to come. In a nutshell: They re-booted the franchises.

It’s a lesson that higher ed professionals should consider as they look to build strategies that span generations of faithful alumni while attracting new prospects, families, and interest in their schools. Sometimes, as we design brand strategies for colleges and universities, we – rightfully so – want to project a forward vision for our institutions. The best brands, however, find a way to incorporate a certain amount of the nostalgia that represents things that are true or emotional from the past.

Look no further than two SimpsonScarborough clients for great examples.

Missouri University of Science and Technology is a client of ours going back to 2007 when the university, then known as the University of Missouri-Rolla, contacted us to conduct research to determine if a name change was right and to help create the new (at that time) Missouri S&T identity and logo.

The university has made great strides since its name change, but questions remained as they built a new strategic plan—were they known outside the region, what were they known for, how did various audiences perceive them, and did a negative halo or confusion surround them because of the name change? They contacted us last year to conduct an extensive research project to search for the answers. Our findings provided critical insight to their branding process, including that less than one percent of non-alumni audiences and less than 10 percent of alums across generations (and two other previous university names) referred to the university as anything other than Missouri S&T.

Armed with data-driven insights, Missouri S&T created a brand strategy that will not only help them reach key goals outlined in their strategic plan but also brings together a rich history with a forward-looking vision just like the aforementioned film-franchise reboots. For Missouri S&T—a school originally named Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, with “Joe Miner” as its mascot—that strategy is tightly told in a new positioning theme, Miners dig deeper. Read more about Missouri S&T’s brand strategy and see their terrific new brand guidelines site here.

Likewise, North Carolina State University looked to its heritage when building a brand that echoed its institutional truth while bringing forward a sense of pride in how the university delivers. NC State is a place where things get done. You won’t find ivy-covered walls or flowery mottoes here; it’s a place where people roll up their sleeves, walk the campus bricks, and do amazing things.

Accordingly, NC State’s marketing communications team has crafted a wonderful brand theme, Think and Do, meant to demonstrate how the “university merges creative, innovative ideas with purposeful action.” See NC State’s brand strategy here.

As we have worked with the team at NC State to craft a name and creative concept for its upcoming comprehensive fundraising campaign, we’ve learned just how resonant and true the ideas of Think and Do are. Ask any alum and they agree that Think and Do is NC State. But just as important, it’s their NC State, whether they graduated in 1960 or 2015.

There’s power in brands with a legacy, heritage, and history. And as you work to find or sharpen your institution’s brand strategy and voice, be sure to harken back to your campus’s own Rocky Balboa or Luke Skywalker.

Welcoming Kristen Creighton

A little more than a year ago, we announced the formation of SimpsonScarborough’s creative division, ensuring that we could help our clients translate research findings into meaningful strategies and creative expressions. Since then, we’ve been turning this vision into reality through partnerships with institutions such as Stony Brook University, the California State University System, and North Carolina State University, planning their brand campaigns, supporting their capital campaigns, and assisting them with other targeted efforts that seamlessly integrate research and creative.

As a jump start to 2016, we’re excited to welcome Kristen Creighton to the SimpsonScarborough team. With 20 years of higher education experience, Kristen brings a wealth of insight and experience to our team. As an Associate Vice President, Kristen will lead client engagements on projects that span from research to creative strategy.

Kristen first started working in higher education when she joined CASE as the Executive Editor of Currents magazine. Prior to joining SimpsonScarborough, she was the Vice President for Research & Brand Strategy at Mind Over Media and the Creative Director at Carnegie Communications, where she worked alongside Elizabeth Johnson, Dana Edwards, and Jeff Papa.

A word to the wise: Do not … we repeat, DO NOT challenge her to Rapper’s Delight in a karaoke battle. She will beat you.

Welcome to the team, Kristen.

Career Services and Marketing: The New Peanut Butter and Jelly?

I recently conducted a market research project for a company that is looking to extend its existing product to provide better solutions for career services offices and help universities tell better stories to key audiences. The product is currently in use by more than 300 colleges and universities nationwide, primarily in the marketing/communications area. As someone who has worked in marketing in higher education for nearly two decades, I found it fascinating to talk to thought leaders in career services and learn just how similar many of our challenges are. I also realized what great opportunities are ahead for stronger partnerships between these two groups. 

Marketers are storytellers. They seek out stories to help raise or change the perception of their schools among prospective students and their parents, to raise money, and to reinforce associations for alumni. They need to showcase what their students do while enrolled, and more than ever, share outcomes to prove the value of a degree from their universities.

Career services offices are also seeking out stories to share to help build strong internship and employer relations programs, and they too want to showcase first destination and post-graduation outcomes. Stories walk in through their doors every single day.

Imagine the collaborations if these two historically siloed departments worked closely together to craft strong stories that would benefit both of their offices and the college/university overall? And imagine if they even shared data? Break down the divisional silos, befriend each other (and your CIO), draft a vision that doesn’t get hung up in multi-year committee chaos, and make it happen. Add Alumni Relations to the mix and you’ll be the superheroes of your university.

Rachel Reuben is a consultant and experienced leader helping marketing professionals who are stretched thin so they are freed up to focus on strategic on marketing to optimize their marketing goals while increasing operational efficiency and negotiating tight timelines.