Three Campus Visits in 24 Hours

The week of Thanksgiving, my 16-year old junior and I visited three colleges in 24 hours. My first visits as an official “prospective parent” were enlightening to say the least. Half of my brain was focused on trying to help Griffin figure out whether any of these schools are a good fit for him. The other half was analyzing every aspect of the experience for insight that will help my clients. Here are my key takeaways:

  1. The Tour Guide: We all already know that having a good (or great) tour guide can make a huge difference. It’s so true. But what makes a tour guide great? I think it’s all about his or her ability to truly *connect* with the prospects on the tour. Griffin, and every other kid on every tour we did, was super uncomfortable. They are all nervous about being on a college campus. They feel awkward and embarrassed. They rarely talk to each other. They are painfully shy and quiet even though they may not be like that at all in most other situations. When a tour guide can break through that discomfort and get the prospective students to relax and feel comfortable, it changes the whole tour. The best way to do that is to find something in common with each student on the tour. Most tour guides will open the tour by saying their name, their major, and where they are from. But the ones who continue and tell more about themselves are creating an opportunity to connect. As the best of our three tour guides was walking us to the first “stop and talk” spot, he rattled off a list of his interests and hobbies. Finally, he said, “I also play the guitar.” Bam! Griffin said, “I do too.” In that moment. Griffin opened up and started talking with the guide; he was super plugged in for the rest of the tour. To contrast, on another tour, the guide told Griffin very nicely that she was sorry, she didn’t know a thing about the physics program. That would have been fine, but she didn’t (or couldn’t) find another way to connect with him, and he never really plugged in. Encourage your tour guides to find a way to make a personal connection with every student.
  2. The Tour Focus: By its very nature, the campus tour focuses the prospect’s attention on the buildings and grounds. But you don’t want your prospects choosing your college solely or primarily based on what it looks like. Tours would be vastly improved if the focus were not completely on showcasing the inside and outside of the buildings. Almost every tour guide says hello to several friends *while* giving the tour. Why not stop and talk with those friends for a few minutes? Ask the friend what class they are going to or coming from. Ask them to talk about what they love about the institution. Ask them to describe what it’s like to be a student at the school. In the same manner, it’s very common to walk by a professor or two. Could they stop and chat with the group for two minutes? It would make all the difference because it would shift the focus from bricks and mortar to people and culture.
  3. The Brand: Honestly, I was shocked and disappointed to see that not even one school’s tour guide talked about the institution’s brand. I assumed that at the beginning of the tour, each tour guide would say something like, “Our schools says [this] about itself.” Where the [this] is something about the brand….maybe even the school’s tagline. I wanted to hear the tour guide talk about what that meant and how it applied to them and their experience. I wanted that brand to be a key theme throughout the tour. I wanted the entire tour to start with the brand, reinforce the brand, and end with the brand. I wanted the tour guide to personalize the brand and bring it to life in terms of how it’s related to the experience they’ve had at the school. Never happened. Huge opportunity. Just needs to be part of the tour guide training.

Griffin will be visiting lots of other schools this year. Come along with us for the ride and I’ll continue to share the unique insights that come from being a mom *and* a higher ed marketing professional.

Linking Brand and Philanthropy Can Lead to the Extraordinary

For many colleges and universities, planning and launching a comprehensive (or capital) campaign can be the catalyst for broader marketing and branding efforts. After all, if you’re going to try to convince alumni and donors to give money to a school’s vision, you’d better have your story straight.

Others, however, (having won the hard-fought budget battle) have already invested in researching, building and launching their institutional brands, using truly integrated strategies with measurable outcomes and amazing creative work that drive a variety of campaigns, from advertising to fundraising. In these cases, choosing a different direction for the capital campaign could confuse—or even weaken—the overall institutional brand.

As we’ve said many times before, there are two tendencies in higher ed that can undermine an institution’s ability to realize the ROI of a branding effort, regardless of its origins. First, internally we start to tire of our messages just as they’re beginning to gain some traction with our audiences. And, second, new leaders in an industry that has fairly regular transitions often want to “put their stamp” on things. In both cases, a bit of research and insight can help in pointing toward the right direction.

Which brings us to a great example from NC State University. In 2013, NC State launched a branding effort intended to demonstrate how the university merges “creative, innovative ideas with purposeful action,” a position brought to life through the concept, “Think and Do.” It’s one of higher ed’s best strategies and worth a deeper look. Not coincidentally, as NC State has become more strategic in its marketing efforts, its place in rankings, reputation and visibility, enrollment and fundraising have all swelled.

Two-and-a-half years later, as the university got closer to launching a $1.6 billion campaign, some began asking—as happens at many institutions—whether “Think and Do” was still relevant and motivating among alumni and donors. And that’s where SimpsonScarborough came in.

“Through a comprehensive branding effort, our ‘Think and Do’ theme was widely embraced by the campus community as it truly represents NC State’s legacy and can-do spirit,” said Brad Bohlander, Chief Communications Officer. “When it came time to create a campaign identity that would build upon the brand implementation’s success, we selected SimpsonScarborough to lead a research-informed, consensus-driven effort across campus and with our key constituents.”

Through a series of interviews and discussions with campus leadership and both qualitative and quantitative research with alumni and donors, a clear picture came into view of just how fully “Think and Do” was embraced across audiences. The most important pieces of the puzzle:

  • Stakeholders felt that “Think and Do” not only reflects NC State currently but also that it should represent the university into the future.
  • The phrase “Think and Do”—and all it represents—makes alums feel proud and increases their interest in supporting or giving back to the university.
  • Proclivity towards “Think and Do” was higher among donors who indicated a strong likelihood to give to NC State’s campaign.
  • A lot of alumni still had not been exposed to “Think and Do.”

The only shortcoming of the concept was that it was perceived by some to be too simple and lacking in emotion for a fundraising campaign. Words like “extraordinary” or, even better, phrases like “courage to think beyond boundaries and power to do the extraordinary,” evoked more feeling and personality.

With these findings and other insights, a clear strategy emerged. The data supported the opportunity to further enhance brand equity by building on “Think and Do” and making it even more appealing with the addition of some inspirational language and narratives.

With this strategy in mind, SimpsonScarborough recommended a campaign name—Think and Do The Extraordinary—that inspires donors while reinforcing the university’s brand promise of creating economic, societal and intellectual prosperity. It didn’t hurt that legendary NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano had a memorable line from a speech, “Every day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things.”

Together with our creative partner, The D4D, we developed a brand mantra and supporting messaging platform that guided the development of everything from creating a case statement to planning inspiring events. An emotion-packed video strategy announced the campaign, was used at the gala event, and created assets used in broader marketing, digital and social channels. It pulls the elements together, showing how the powerful ethos of “Think and Do” is propelling NC State toward an even more prosperous future.

“SimpsonScarborough’s research was critical in creating a campaign name, giving categories and key messages that both accurately reflect NC State and inspire our key audiences,” said Bohlander. “Built on this work we launched the campaign at the end of October, and the feedback has been—extraordinary.”

Articles From 2016 Worth a (re)Read

Like many, I’m ready to bid adieu to 2016. But before we close the door completely and embrace 2017 with open arms, it is time to bookmark a handful of the “best of” higher ed articles from this year that are worth a reread.

  • FiveThiryEight explored realities of what “college” really looks like for most applicants today – hint, it isn’t always the leafy, tree-lined campuses that the media typically depicts.
  • Malcom Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” featured a three-part miniseries (episodes 4-6) that took a critical look at the idea of capitalization—the measure of how well America is making use of its human potential. Gladwell focuses on the US school system, philanthropy in higher ed, and how liberal arts institutions serve underprivileged students. It is also worth reading Bowdoin’s thoughtful response to Gladwell’s episode 5 “Food Fight.”
  • The Atlantic offered an inside look at what colleges pay to host a presidential debate and how the decision to host a debate typically comes down to raising visibility and bolstering its reputation.
  • The Upshot showcased the success of Georgia Tech, who with the launch of its online master’s in computer science may have discovered a whole new market for higher education.
  • The NY Times explored how out-of-state enrollment is changing the role of public universities. Check out the accompanying interactive map that shows the flow of each student by state.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed how American University is reinventing its student services by looking at customer-service powerhouses outside of higher ed like Wegmans and Cleveland Clinic for inspiration.
  • University Affairs took a critical look at university websites and the countless infuriating flaws that many of us are much too familiar with. Michael Fienen’s response digs into the issues even deeper.
  • The Hechinger Report looked at the increasingly common practice of students and families negotiating the cost of college.

Missed my recap from 2015? Check it out here.

How to Design a Logo? Start with Research.

I heard a story yesterday that almost made me drop the phone. A college’s marketing team had hired a local agency to create a new logo. Okay, happens all the time. The odd part is that there was absolutely no research conducted. I mean none. No qualitative. No quantitative. No interviews with faculty or students. No surveys to figure out the image or brand the institution was trying to project. Very little internal input and zero external input. Just a designer and a blank page.

To me, this is not marketing – it’s art. The resulting logo can only be characterized as an expression of the designer’s creativity. But marketing is not (exclusively) an art. It’s a mission critical business function. And in this century, it’s strategic and data driven. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised by this story. Higher ed marketing was in its infancy, and we were just beginning to grow and develop as an industry. But today, this story sounds almost criminal to me. – especially when we have all seen so many logos debacles headlining the higher ed press.

I’m not saying that marketing is no place for creativity. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. But the work of writers, designers, and strategists who build logos, headlines, messages, and entire brand concepts should be driven by data and strategy. Without the appropriate marketing intelligence from internal and external audiences and without a clear messaging and brand strategy, our creative strategy is a house of cards. It won’t withstand criticism. It may not appeal to our target audiences. It may not last a leadership transition. It may end up costing our institution millions of dollars while accomplishing nothing in terms of visibility and reputation.

Every discussion about the creative aspects of your marketing program should begin with the data you have on the target audiences you mean to influence and the strategy you’ve built using that data. Then, unleash your writers, designers, and strategists to create for the purpose of advancing your brand.

Secrets of a Successful Market Research Project

In a recent 2016 study of higher ed marketing leaders, we found that approximately 50% of colleges and universities are currently implementing a marketing research initiative. The higher ed marketers in us were excited to see this number so high, since this critical step is sometimes overlooked due to time or budget constraints. However, the data geeks in us immediately started to wonder about the specifics: What survey software are they using? Are they surveying the right audiences? Are the data valid?

Regardless of whether you are implementing market research internally or hiring an external consultant, there are many things you should consider to ensure you get the most out of your research. Here’s a look at some of the key questions you should ask yourself, as well as our recommendations for designing a survey that is accurate AND gets you the critical insights you need to inform your strategy:

What kind of survey software should I use? There are many options out there for implementing online surveys. Some free versions are limited in what they can provide. We recommend that you pick a solution that offers you the following, at a minimum:

  • Ability to send individual, authenticated links through a panel
  • Ability to branch and/or create skip logic based on responses and embedded data
  • Ability to rotate or randomize response options

How do I make sure I am reaching the right audience? It is important to ensure your survey is reaching the desired population, but how do you do that?

  • Use Authenticated Links: Whenever possible, use your own distribution lists to send unique, authenticated survey links. This means that each respondent is assigned a survey link that is unique to them and can only be used once. This allows you to track each survey response back to the person you sent it to.
  • Use Screener Questions: When dealing with external audiences—for example, prospective students, higher ed peers, guidance counselors, community leaders—screener questions are a vital tool for ensuring each respondent fits within the parameters you have set to define that audience. Screener questions are typically demographic questions that either validate demographic information you already have for the respondent or add new information that may not have been available in your file. Anyone who doesn’t match the established parameters can be omitted from your respondent pool.

Should I tailor the survey to the audience? You should always make sure that the questions you are asking each audience make sense for that audience. However, that doesn’t mean you need to program separate surveys for each audience. Branching and skip logic tools make it easy for you to choose which audiences see each question.

Wait, so I CAN’T use an open survey link? The question you should be asking is “are we ONLY reaching the desired audiences?” That is, are we possibly collecting responses from the wrong people? Can you authenticate that the survey was taken by the person you sent it to? That the desired respondent only completed the survey one time? Watch out for instances where you can forward a link to share with family, friends or colleagues, or even situations where a respondent can take the survey more than once. An open link, a URL where anyone can access the survey as many times as they want, can affect the validity and quality of your collected data and should only be used in rare cases as a last resort. If you have a list source and are driving survey traffic through email, there is no good reason to use an open link.

There are certainly many details to consider as you embark on a market research study. And we are here to help and love to talk research! If you have a specific question nagging you, feel free to reach out to us at We’ll be back in in 2017 to cover some additional questions you should consider as you get started on your next research initiative.

Also, stay tuned for the full results to the 2016 higher ed marketing study that will be published in December. Results from the inaugural 2014 can be downloaded here.