The Importance of Incentives

Following up on our November 2016 blog posts, we are back to talk about incentives. Here at SimpsonScarborough, we spend a lot of our time writing and fielding surveys with various audiences, and regardless of the audience we almost always recommend incentivizing survey respondents. So why do we do this?

One of the most obvious reasons for incentivizing external audiences who have no direct affiliation to the school (prospects, higher ed peers, guidance counselors, etc.) is to boost response rates. If we offer an incentive for a respondent’s time, we get a higher response rate. But what about when you are talking to your own students, faculty, staff, and alumni? We have clients who ask us, “Why should we spend money on an incentive for our internal audiences?”

It is a reasonable question and a topic that many researchers have strong feelings about—both for and against. There are three top reasons we push for the use of incentives, even when we expect that we could get a decent response rate without one.

  • You want to responses from more than just your biggest fans. The first people who respond to your survey will generally fall into two categories: your cheerleaders who love you and the people who have a bone to pick. But we don’t want to hear only the loud voices. We want to hear from a broader range of respondents. We want to hear from the people who might not have taken the survey had an incentive not been offered. That helps to even things out so your data isn’t skewed towards the people who absolutely love you or those who are mad at you for some reason. If a respondent takes your survey because an incentive is offered, that doesn’t mean the resulting data is bad. It’s actually quite the opposite – and there is data to back that up.
  • Incentives ensure quality responses. The norm of reciprocity tells us that people generally feel an obligation to do a good job when they are receiving an incentive. Overall, incentivized respondents place more value on the task at hand. They put more thought into answers and provide more detailed open-ended responses. Additionally, when an incentive is offered, respondents tend to feel more valued and have a more positive survey-taking experience, mitigating the effects of survey length and respondent burden.
  • People like to feel appreciated. Even when talking to your internal audiences, it is always important to deliver the message that you value respondents’ time and input. It makes them feel better about spending their valuable time on your survey. We believe if respondents feel good about that exchange, they will likely have more positive feelings about their relationship and interactions with your institution. With alumni and current students, in particular, you need to think about their connection to your institution. You need to have as many positive touch points as possible to ensure that you maintain a positive life-long connection.

The act of offering an incentive, even a small one, can only make your survey data stronger. Have questions about what kind of incentive to use or what incentive amounts are most effective? Let us know! We are always here to share our experience and expertise.

Take the Guesswork Out of Your Program Development Strategy

To be successful, an institution must continually develop, refine, and evolve its portfolio of academic programs to reflect the changing needs of learners and society. Historically, campuses have created new programs based on anecdote or a few (influential) professors’ interests. However, given the high costs of program maintenance and development, this “build it and they will come” approach to curriculum design is neither strategic nor sustainable. Instead, a growing number of institutions are conducting program demand research to determine the market potential and growth opportunities of current and potential programs. A variety of primary and secondary research techniques can be combined to provide a compelling argument for whether to invest in a new program offering.

  • Degree Trends – Data gathered through the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) includes enrollment, program completions, graduation rates, finances, institutional prices, and financial aid. This information provides a size and growth analysis that informs market potential, determines program outlook based on recent and established growth, and gives insight into potential market penetration of target programs.
  • Occupational Trends – Analysis of third-party data—including employment projections, fastest-growing and most common occupations, state occupational projections, educational attainment statistics, and employment growth—provides an understanding of employer needs and demands.
  • Google Analytics – Google data shows what students are searching for online, measures the amount of traffic for various program search terms, and gives additional insight into SEO and digital advertising.
  • Survey Research – Qualitative and quantitative methods gather feedback from prospective students, employers, and other target audiences regarding their needs, interests, motivations, perceptions, and other key areas of exploration.

An institution’s academic offerings should constantly change and adapt to reflect advances in knowledge and emerging student and employer needs. Program demand research provides a college or university with the market intelligence necessary to make actionable and strategic decisions regarding its program development strategy.

AMA Higher Ed 2016 Wrap Up

Full disclosure: I missed the opening session of the 2016 AMA Symposium on Higher Education.

Big mistake.

From the time I made it to the conference floor Monday afternoon to my flight home on Wednesday—where I not surprisingly found myself seated next to one of my fellow 1,200 conference-goers—everyone I ran into wanted to talk about Richard Edelman’s keynote from Monday morning. I experienced a feeling much worse than FOMO; it was KIMO—Knowing I’d Missed Out.

I frantically sought to catch up, and learned that Edelman— President and CEO of the eponymous global communications marketing firm—hadn’t pulled any punches in laying out his thoughts on the critical crossroads facing higher education today. In his words, “You have a choice: You can be a convener seeking solutions, [or] a refuge to hide from them.”

Edelman’s research shows a society in which public trust of governments, corporations, and the media has hit an all-time low, fueling a preference for peer-to-peer communication over traditional top-down news dissemination. Edelman called on colleges and universities to assume the role of a “Fifth Estate” by forming their own media operations, which report on how their institutions are contributing to finding solutions to the world’s critical problems; and providing platforms for objective public discourse.

As I made my way through many sessions and workshops over the following few days, I was struck by how the tone and message of Edelman’s speech was echoed throughout the conference. Presenters from both inside and outside of higher education projected a sense of urgency for marketing and communications professionals to take a more proactive role in how they position their institutions to serve as agents of societal change.

  • SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher spoke to the challenge of developing meaningful higher education brands, and said that to do so an institution must ask itself: “What is the relationship between our university and the world in which we live?” She described how SUNY uses the concept of “systemness” to drive a unified vision in which the power of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Ajay Nair, Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life at Emory University, used a similar metaphor in “shakti”—a Hindu concept that speaks to “the energy that connects us.” He provocatively stated that colleges and universities are falsely marketing themselves when they are not open and honest about the challenges they face in today’s society, and advocated for institutions to shift focus from promoting diversity to practicing cultural humility; that is, teaching and modeling how to communicate in a “civil, generous, and responsible way.”
  • And James Kane, author and expert on customer loyalty, said that in order to achieve true brand loyalty, institutions must satisfy their constituents’ foundational human need to seek a sense of trust, belonging, and purpose. To do so, colleges and universities must understand—and then provide—the types of experiences that make their students’, faculty’s, and alumni’s lives safer, easier, and better.

It was certainly some heavy stuff to consider. The many questions posed and ideas generated during this conference will definitely make their way into SimpsonScarborough strategy and practice in 2017. While we’re not sure exactly how that will happen just yet, one thing I do know is that I’ll be booking an earlier arrival when next year’s conference rolls around.

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.”