Have innovative and effective higher ed marketing strategies to share with your peers? Then submit a proposal to present at the 2017 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, scheduled for November 12-15 in Atlanta.
The Symposium is the largest professional development opportunity for higher ed marketers. It features four days of lecture sessions divided into tracks including brand strategy, digital strategy, marketing insights, leading operations and organizations, and engaging audiences.
Benefits for presenters extend far beyond complimentary conference registration. Raise your institution’s visibility, contribute to the field of higher education, enhance your professional reputation, and expand your network. Want to learn more? Download the call for proposals for complete submission guidelines and suggested topics. Proposals are due April 14.
Sunshine, golf courses, mid-century homes, and furniture and streets named for luminaries of yesteryear like Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Gerald Ford, and Frank Sinatra (names that the near Gen Z’er in my house had never heard). Perhaps there’s no better place to talk about what’s “New and Next” in higher education marketing than Palm Springs? Our friends at Converge Consulting recently hosted their terrific biennial event that brings together big speakers and big ideas. We thank them for the chance to speak and, more importantly, to soak in knowledge from the sessions.
Along with detailed presentations on content strategy, effective search marketing, digital advertising, and inbound ideas galore, an interesting discussion emerged on the role of brand in the modern higher ed landscape. Should you spend money and vital institutional energy on branding efforts at a time when so many colleges and universities are fighting to build enrollments in programs or degrees, and when the profile of the prospective students is shifting so dramatically away from traditional 18-year-old undergraduates to a much more varied audience of nontraditional, working, part-time students?
It’s a complicated but completely reasonable question. And smart, experienced professionals and practitioners will offer differing perspectives on the right way to go. My assertion is that it’s not an either/or choice.
At SimpsonScarborough, we believe that brand strategy is linked by three key elements:
- Fundamentals: what the institution stands for, who it serves, its values, and its reputation
- Function: what are the points of excellence and distinction that the institution delivers better—not necessarily differently—than its key competitors
- Fit: how do people experience, feel, or intuit the institution, and how does the support and service they receive match their needs
Most higher ed marketing work we see today focuses primarily on the fundamentals and fit of the institution. It highlights rankings, reputation, and notable individuals’ stories. It captures the innate feelings of pride and passion that those closest to the university feel. It’s moved from the “three and a tree” shot of diverse students to the now ubiquitous drone footage with music and fast-paced editing and clever, engaging social media strategies. But it’s leaving a big part out.
Where institutions aren’t as successful is in identifying the “functions” that distinguish their brands. What’s that mean specifically? Don’t forget your products as an integral part of your brand marketing. While it’s easy for a luxury auto brand to not focus on functional product benefits like a back-up camera or 4-wheel drive, a university brand must ensure that your audience quickly understands the majors, courses, certificate programs, etc., that you offer to meet their needs and interests. That’s your product.
Then, more importantly, what are your product distinctions? Is it simply cost? Are you offering a program or curriculum that your competitors don’t have? Do your courses meet specific needs of the job market in your region? Are people hungry to major in those areas? Are you naming those programs and courses correctly? And are these distinctive offerings associated with your institution by prospective students and influencers?
For many higher ed marketers, this is often a sore spot, as we don’t get much input into the development of the “product.” But the reality is that marketers do have control over the stories and narratives that put a spotlight on these areas. Choosing to focus only on brand “fundamentals” in your strategy may leave your institution feeling like everyone else—even if you’re doing it with a better creative veneer.
And, then, what is the fit or experience when a student starts taking those classes? Basically, what’s under the hood? For example, if I’m a working professional, knowing that your institution’s courses are taught at times that are convenient for my family life and job schedule is a key consideration. Perhaps it’s knowing that instructors are actual practitioners in those fields that’s important. Maybe it’s as simple as making it really easy to register or just having web pages load quickly on mobile.
A contemporary higher ed brand should strike the right balance in bringing together these three elements. The right mix and emphasis will depend on your institutional goals and marketing objectives. But don’t sell your marketing strategy short by focusing on fundamentals over fit. Or brand over product.
As a student graphic designer for the college of business at a large university, I truly enjoy helping build the college brand, working closely with faculty and staff, and getting experience in my field. Through trial and error (and a great sense of humor) my boss has figured out how to provide students with hands-on learning experience in a way that is efficient and beneficial to the university. As one of the 11 student workers in our office, I’ve observed some do’s and don’ts to remember when using student talent.
- DO use student talent appropriately. Whether students are doing this as a hobby or a career, we are still learning. Take the time at the interview stage to figure out where we stand in skills and experience, and make our assignments commensurate with that. We’re probably not ready to produce prime-time TV commercials, for instance, but we are happy to get experience taking headshots, interviewing guest speakers, and shooting campus events.
- DON’T assume we can’t do big projects. As we prove our capabilities, just like any other employee, give us opportunities to move up the food chain. I am studying branding, for example, so for a recent College event I designed a full suite of branded materials that included a PowerPoint slide, flyer, program, event signage, and T-shirt.
- DO take advantage of students’ fluid schedules. Students give you the capability to cover more of the events already happening on campus, including the after-hours ones that 9-5 staffers might gladly give up. And our student status lets us blend into the crowd and potentially find a different, more student-centric angle.
- DON’T forget we’re students. We have a load of classes, roles in student organizations, and roommates that eat the last of our cereal, and we’re bound to drop the ball every once in a while. To enhance coordination between institution staff and students, it can be extremely helpful to use project management and file sharing systems. We use Trello and Dropbox to store files and keep track of projects’ status.
- DO make the most of our social media savvy. When it comes to maintaining creative and relevant social media accounts, students are a strategic advantage. Since a majority of students actively use and participate in social media, we have a clear understanding of the language and culture of different sites. From Instagram contests to SnapChat shout-outs to knowing the latest memes, students can assist in brainstorming inventive and authentic social media campaigns and posts.
As a student worker myself, I considerably value the experience and education this job has provided me. The relationships I built have not only opened doors for my career, but the experience has truly made me feel further invested in the college of business and my university overall. (And while I use the term “invested” figuratively here, maybe that will change once I graduate!)
Katie McGee is a senior media arts and design major at James Madison University, where she works as a graphic designer for the College of Business and serves as president of the campus’s student chapter of the American Advertising Federation. She is a marketing intern for SimpsonScarborough.
One question we can almost always guarantee will be asked in a research presentation is, “How does this finding compare to other schools you work with?” You asked, and we delivered.
Working with more than 200 colleges and universities over the past decade has allowed us to develop a normative database on findings from several standard questions we ask across institutions. Now we can show clients how their data compares to other schools of similar size and type. This article is part one (of many!) where we will share general insight gathered from our work over the years.
Today’s topics: response rates and Net Promoter Score (NPS)!
Survey Response Rate, also known as the completion rate or return rate, is a standard research calculation that measures the number of people who completed the survey divided by the number of people in the sample (read more about response rates in my previous article). Below are the average response rates we see for some typical audiences in higher ed surveys (for each one, I’ve noted how many schools were included in the calculation):
1) Prospective undergraduate students: 3% (for 71 schools)
No difference between public and private prospective undergraduate response rates
2) Prospective graduate students: 4% (38 schools)
No difference between public and private prospective graduate response rates
3) Current students: 17% (106 schools)
Public schools’ average response rate is 12%; privates’ is 20%
4) Faculty/staff: 35% (95 schools)
Public schools’ average response rate is 28%; privates’ is 37%
5) Alumni: 10% (111 schools)
Public schools’ average response rate is 8%; privates’ is 12%
It is important to know that response rate has a lot to do with the incentive offered and the closeness of the audience’s relationship with your institution (so for example, faculty/staff response rates are usually higher than prospects’). And incentives play a role, too: a $20 Amazon.com Gift Card, or better yet, a trip to Hawaii for every participant, would produce a much higher response rate than no incentive at all.
Net Promoter Score (NPS) measures respondents’ likelihood of recommending the institution. You can read more about the NPS in Elizabeth Johnson’s June 2016 article. For this article, all scores are calculated on the likelihood that a specific audience will recommend their school to a prospective undergraduate/graduate student. Like we often say in our research, alumni are your biggest brand ambassadors and cheerleaders, and the proof is below.
1) Average NPS of current students recommending to:
A prospective undergraduate: 20 (34 schools)
A prospective graduate: 10 (25 schools)
2) Average NPS of faculty/staff recommending to:
A prospective undergraduate: 25 (25 schools)
A prospective graduate: 8 (17 schools)
3) Average NPS of alumni recommending to:
A prospective undergraduate: 44 (39 schools)
A prospective graduate: 31 (22 schools)
While these NPS scores are high, we typically advise clients that anything over 0 is in good standing. And with NPS it is important to look at where your audiences fall across all points on the 10-point Likert scale. Because NPS only calculates promoters (9 and 10) and detractors (1-6) we are missing the passive audience (7 and 8). So sometimes it is simply moving your passives (7 and 8) to promoters (9 and 10) to completely change your NPS.
Now, gather your research report(s) and see where you fall on these factors. Are you above or below our average on response rate and NPS? Curious about how you compare on other factors like unaided awareness, familiarity, or academic quality? Or how other external audiences like counselors and employers/business leaders perform? We can’t give away all our secrets in this article, but be sure to keep up with our newsletter, and we will share more findings in some upcoming issues.
Movement at the director and VP levels of college and university marketing and communications offices is a fact of life, whether precipitated by an institutional leadership change or the opportunity for professional growth. How an institution chooses to approach the transition period is a true test of its leadership. It can leave the marcom leader’s position open during the time spent searching for a replacement, or it can appoint an interim director—either from within or outside of the institution—to provide direction and stability.
Leaving the position vacant is the easy choice that institutions think will minimize disruption, but it can more often result in a marcom operation in limbo, struggling to stay on task and on message. The decision to hire an interim is sometimes met with resistance and wariness at first, but in my experience the opportunity it presents outweighs the risks of a temporary change.
This was the case at Ball State University, where I recently completed a three-month consulting engagement with the university’s interim president, cabinet and marcom team while the institution conducted its marcom VP search. As I take stock of those productive three months, I’ve identified seven ways an interim marcom leader can make a real difference at an institution in a short amount of time.
- Provide the president with hands-on management support and counsel.
Few presidents have the bandwidth or background to personally manage the marcom unit, but they highly value assurance that the varied functions of marcom are being executed in a timely way. Furthermore, presidents rely on counsel on issues related to communication and preparation for media interviews.
- Move initiatives forward that shouldn’t be put on hold.
At the outset of the engagement, the interim can help identify for the president which initiatives must continue to move forward and which can wait. Initiatives such as website re-designs, market research surveys, ad campaigns, and production of signature creative projects are initiatives that are too important to be paused. At Ball State, we took on and completed eight such initiatives.
- Ensure that key campus clients are receiving full marcom support and are happy.
The arrival of an interim marcom officer is an opportunity to check in with key clients such as admissions and development offices. Are they happy with the quality and timeliness of marcom products and services? Do they rely on marcom as a strategic partner in developing marketing plans? How can communications with these important units be improved? Because the interim—especially one from outside the institution—has no long-term skin in the game, he or she will be received more openly as an objective party focused only on moving the institution forward.
- Provide the marcom team with representation “at the table.”
To do their jobs well, the marcom team relies on timely updates from campus leadership on the status of campus initiatives, especially those that may present public relations opportunities or challenges. They need a representative at cabinet or other senior-level meetings to stay in the know. In addition, knowing their voice is heard on key issues and their major project “wins” are shared at the highest level strengthens the morale of the marcom team.
- Steward relationships with cabinet officers and deans.
Cabinet members appreciate regular personal briefings on how the work of marcom is benefiting their units. They also value the opportunity to provide collegial feedback, both positive and negative, on university-wide marcom products such as ad campaigns.
- Mentor and encourage staff critical to the future of the institution.
The risk of losing top-performing staff during a leadership transition can be reduced with the presence of an experienced mentor offering professional guidance and support. It’s also a time to provide these emerging leaders with supported professional development opportunities such as piloting a key initiative, serving on a university-wide committee, or making presentations to the cabinet or deans’ council.
- Enable the incoming vice president to “hit the ground running.”
An in-depth, up to date assessment of the marcom situation from the interim can help a new leader save time in setting priorities. At Ball State, the incoming vice president requested a two-week overlap that included numerous one-on-one discussions and several joint meetings with the marcom management team. The staff appreciated the advocacy and not having to start from scratch with the new VP.
With vice presidential searches often taking six months or more, universities need strong interim leadership to sustain the constant, vital work of raising their visibility and strengthening their reputations. A qualified full-time interim director, whether from inside or outside of the institution, provides this essential leadership function and offers the institution the ability to do some reflection and assessment that will optimize its prospects for success moving forward.
David Macmillan is a higher education veteran. He served at the University of San Francisco, first as Vice President for Advancement for two decades and then as Vice President for Marketing Communications. At USF, he directed two highly successful comprehensive fund-raising campaigns and co-founded its Office of Marketing Communications. He is now an independent consultant working with colleges and universities nationwide.