Liberal Arts (and Computer Processors) – So what? Who cares?

Before you let out an exasperated sigh, I am not questioning the value of liberal arts – there are plenty of other sources that argue the “so what” well (i.e. the Phi Beta Kappa Society toolkit, CIC’s liberal arts research and data, etc.). Here’s what I want to ask: Who cares about liberal arts?

The short answer is plenty of people – especially those who work in higher ed. We know the term “liberal arts” is great shorthand for a long list of benefits. We know liberal arts encourages students to look at a problem from a variety of perspectives. We know liberal arts sets a student up a for a successful career. We know liberal arts prepares students for a variety of industries including those in science or technology. Unfortunately, the short answer ignores that prospective students don’t even know what liberal arts means.

In recent interviews with high school students, I cringed as I heard them say:

  • “I’m liberal, so I want to go to a liberal arts college.”
  • “I would like to attend a liberal arts college because I am really into the arts.”
  • “I would like to take liberal arts courses, but I don’t want to major in it.”

I empathize with these high school students. I don’t know—and don’t care to know—anything about computer processors. But when I recently purchased a new laptop, I needed to understand why computer processors mattered to me. I followed steps similar to those of prospective students searching for a college. I looked at rating and reviews. I read computer geek blogs. I asked myself questions like: What is a processor? Why should I care about that?  As I type this on my new laptop, I have to admit that I still cannot tell you the difference between an Intel Core M or Intel Core i7—and please don’t ask me to describe the value of a processor. I would probably make a computer professional cringe.

Looking back, I appreciate that computer companies made it easy for me to purchase a laptop without understanding their jargon. Best Buy started off with questions like what is most important in your next laptop?. Lenovo let me sort by usage (high performance, students, home office, small business, entertainment, or gaming). Apple gave me fun quick descriptions: “Light. Years ahead”; “More power behind every pixel”; or “All the power you want. All day long.” I didn’t see any mention of processors at the beginning of my search. I only found those terms as I moved further into my search process.

I want to challenge you to take a page out of the laptop companies’ marketing book. Don’t ban the term liberal arts from communications or give up the campaign for liberal arts. Computer companies still explain the types of processor, and Intel still has prevalent marketing campaigns demonstrating how their products create “amazing human experiences.” Rather, start the conversation by communicating what makes your institution distinct and the benefits of your educational experience. Explain how prospective students will take a wide range of classes allowing them to solve complex problems. Show them how your alumni have successful careers in a variety of industries. Talk to students in the terminology they care about and save the confusing language for later.

Is Your Institution Ready for Branding?

As little as 15 years ago, you couldn’t use the “M word” on a college campus without getting booed off the podium. Marketing was seen as “smoke and mirrors,” and it was considered unseemly to “market” academe—the work should speak for itself.

Today, thankfully, marketing is a no-brainer. Of course you have to promote the institution’s good work in order to achieve awareness among prospective students and influencers. But over the years we’ve matured as higher ed marketing and communications professionals to understand that promotion is just one part of the bigger picture. For promotion to work well, there must be a strong underlying institutional brand to convey. And, like the “m word” before it, the “b word” today causes a lot of confusion and consternation on college and university campuses.

The difference is that most institutions want to jump on the “brandwagon.” The challenge is that there are as many notions of what branding is as there are people on your campus. At SimpsonScarborough, we are fortunate to have worked with hundreds of institutions on exploring, building, promoting, and refining their brands. After a decade of doing this, we can now pretty quickly predict whether a campus that wants to engage with us is really ready to undertake a branding process—and if the resulting work will be able to take hold and have an impact. If your institution is considering it, here are three big questions to ask to determine whether you’re ready to roll or if you might need to lay some groundwork first.

Is your president leading the effort? This is the No. 1 question we ask potential clients. Not, is the president “supportive” or “on board” … but is she leading it. Branding cannot be “that thing that the marketing office is doing.” It must be a strategic institutional priority that the institution’s leader understands, desires, and owns—and she must be vocal in communicating that to faculty and administration.

Does your campus community use the words “brand” and “logo” interchangeably? If so, you will likely need to do some education before entering into a comprehensive branding effort. A brand is not a logo, a tagline, or an advertising campaign. It is an exploration of the campus mission, culture, strengths, and distinctions as perceived by all of your audiences. The goal is to identify those aspects of the institution that are truly strong and valued internally, different or better than those your competitors offer, and desired by external audiences. You must know this before you can design logos and develop media campaigns.

Does your institution have an integrated, collaborative communications network? The impact of a brand comes from communicating a consistent message over time. You need ambassadors in every part of the institution, both administrative and academic. If your campus is currently very siloed or even has friction among various comms components, you might consider working on repairing those relationships before starting a branding process. If there’s general goodwill that’s just not harnessed, however, a branding project can be the perfect opportunity to bring everyone together and start to more formally structure your network, for example giving it a name (as simple as “Campus Communicators Network”) and scheduling biannual or quarterly meetings or retreats that keep everyone connected and provide opportunities for branding updates, input, and training.

Telling the Outcomes Story

Information about career outcomes has quickly become one of the most important factors for prospective students and their families in the college search and decision process. These audiences are actively seeking content that demonstrates the value of your institution in the form of quantifiable data on job outcomes, graduate school placement, and salary information, but also student testimonials and alumni success stories.

Given just how critical this type of information has become for traditional prospects, adult prospects, and parents, you need to reach beyond the viewbook and website homepage and integrate this type of content across key channels as a regular part of your content strategy. Here’s how a handful of colleges have approached it.

  • American University’s interactive microsite offers an in-depth look at where AU students land after graduation. Users can filter by various majors and schools to track placement rates, salary information, employers and other information. It is a nice feature that adds value for both adult and undergrad prospects who are eager to understand more about potential career paths.
  • Northeastern University also developed a microsite dedicated to preparedness. The thoughtful user experience design does a nice job of taking the user through Northeastern’s approach to experiential learning and co-ops. And the use of interactive features and graphics helps showcase the key data points and results of a recent survey of employers.
  • Colgate University used social media to congratulate students on their job and summer internship accomplishments. The social shout-outs, photos, and short testimonials from students added a personal touch and showed successful collaboration between the main Colgate social accounts and the Career Services office. This is a relatively easy way to integrate information on students’ careers and academic success that doesn’t require a ton of research and can be quickly worked into your editorial calendar.
  • Butler University clearly articulates its strong 95% placement rate on their website homepage, but couples the hard data with a selection of prominently displayed student and alumni success stories. This combined approach meets a parent’s need for data, but also offers prospects an inside look at the Butler experience from the student and alumni perspective.
  • Bentley University does a fantastic job of articulating their “Prepared” brand consistently through their integrated marketing efforts. PreparedU View serves as the hub of their marketing ecosystem and a powerful storytelling platform that features a continual rotation of fresh content such as news articles, white papers, infographics, and video.

Net Promoter Score and How to Truly Measure Brand Health

I’ve heard both sides—”I hate the NPS” and “I love the NPS.” I understand the perspective of the naysayers. In 2003, when Fred Reicheld introduced the NPS in Harvard Business Review, he called it the “one number you need to grow.” Great title, but obviously there is no one single number that can tell the whole story about your brand. That’s like suggesting there is one number that can tell you all you need to know about the strength of the economy. Which number is it? GDP? That may be the most frequently used metric, but what about job growth, the deficit, housing starts, industrial production, and jobless claims? All of these together help paint a picture of what’s really going on. Your brand is the same. NPS is one measure—a good and useful one. But it’s not the only one you need to track to understand the health of your brand.

As I wrote in a blog post last July, NPS is a metric calculated based on the answer to the question, “How likely are you to recommend [college/university]? On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1=not at all likely, and 10=very likely, respondents who answer 1-6 are considered “detractors” while those who answer 9 or 10 are considered “promoters.” The NPS is the % of promoters minus the % of detractors. You can ask this question of your current students, your faculty and staff, parents of current students, or alumni. In fact, comparing the responses of different audiences can be quite revealing.

We’ve calculated NPS scores for all these audiences for a wide variety of institutions. It stimulates a lot of discussion among the administration when the NPS score varies widely among audiences or segments within the institution. In one case, a university had an NPS of 36 among alumni overall, which is quite strong. But, when we isolated the alumni who attended one of the institution’s satellite campuses, the NPS rose to 51. For that institution, the NPS also differed by up to 20 points depending on the decade the student attended the university. In another case, current students who attended one college within a university had an NPS of 63 while the current students in another college had an NPS of 8. It’s even possible to have a negative NPS. That means there are more detractors than promoters and it’s a serious indication of critical issues for an institution.

NPS is a strong and useful indicator, but it really should be combined with other measures to truly capture the full picture of your institution’s brand strength. What is aided and unaided awareness of your brand? How familiar are your target audiences with your brand? What level of quality is associated with your brand? To what extent is your brand preferred compared to alternatives? To what extent is your brand perceived favorably? And, are those perceptions better or worse than they were in the past? All of these questions, if asked of your target audiences, will generate metrics that can be combined with NPS to provide a complete report of your brand health. Regular measurement (every three years or so) will help you and your leadership develop a familiarity with these important measurements of one of your institution’s most important assets – your brand.

Not Just the Same-Old, Same-Old: Articulating a Distinctive Brand

One of my favorite episodes of the short-lived, late-‘90s sitcom Veronica’s Closet features Kirstie Alley’s lead character, Ronnie—the flashy, brassy CEO of a large lingerie company—blithely approving a press release in which her employee has used the made-up word “accribitz” because he’s tired of using the word “increasing” over and over to report on the company’s financial successes.

I think the reason I love that episode so much—and still remember it 20 years later—is because I’ve been there so many times. I’ve struggled along with countless college and university clients trying mightily to differentiate themselves when many of their offerings are so similar to their competitors’. Perhaps that’s why a recent Inside Higher Ed article on the topic really struck a chord when it stated, “To sell themselves, colleges try to stand out. But often, their marketing efforts look practically identical.” That line really hit home, particularly among the legions of college marketers who try—really try—to find new ways to say “nurturing critical thinkers,” “inspiring global minds,” and “preparing the leaders of tomorrow.”

Short of making up new words—tempting though it may be!—there are a few steps marketers can take to encourage and lead their institutions in developing language and taglines that describe their attributes and offerings in more compelling, authentic ways.

Keep an eye on the competition. This should be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many institutions couldn’t tell you the taglines of their closest competitors. Several years ago, I did a quick scan for one of my clients in the U.S. West and found that three of its 14 closest competitors used the word “mountains” in their taglines, SIX used “minds,” and some even had both! Needless to say, both words were quickly eliminated from the list of tagline contenders. In addition to reviewing competitors’ websites regularly, check the Stamats tagline repository as well as just spend some time doing general searches on words and phrases you’re considering. Keep an eye out for any other wide-scale uses that could be potentially problematic, see how other organizations are using similar terminology, and gather ideas for how you might vary the structure of your tagline or messaging in order to stand out from the crowd. And, last but not least, always do a trademark search for any tagline that makes it past file 13. The last thing you want is to develop a full brand strategy using a tagline that’s already registered under a competing category.

Get specific. The foundational purpose of most colleges and universities is to educate citizens to be productive members of society who contribute to the economy and greater good of our states, country, and world. It’s how your institution does it that sets you apart and provides students a choice. Don’t rely on generalities and clichéd platitudes to convey the spirit and personality of your campus and its people. Through research, both qualitative and quantitative, look for attributes that add a unique dimension to the overall educational experience. They might be found in your location, in a particular academic approach or perspective, or in a discipline for which your institution has achieved distinction. They key is to show how this attribute or idea is integrated across disciplines and throughout the different layers of campus, positively and distinctively influencing the experience of every individual who engages with the institution. For example, SimpsonScarborough’s research for Bentley University pointed to the institution’s uncommonly good track record for career preparation. Instead of just leading with the dry facts, we worked with Bentley’s creative partner to develop the brand concept Prepared, which portrayed the emotional and literal benefit to the student.

Let a wordsmith do the wordsmithing. We always counsel our clients to assign a proven professional writer as the lead for developing institutional brand and messaging platforms. Don’t leave it up to a committee of administrators and academics to come up with the language that you will put forth to the world. Their input and ultimate approval is critical, of course, but so is capturing the authentic language of your campus and presenting it with compelling prose that motivates and inspires. In our recent partnership with Stony Brook University, for example, the brand mantra “Far Beyond” was developed. The words aren’t new, but listen to the way the idea is described to university audiences: “Stony Brook University unites an imaginative community in the relentless pursuit of tomorrow’s big ideas.” No institution-speak here. The bottom line: You wouldn’t ask the president to draw the architectural plans for the new science building or have a geography professor run the endowment, right? In the same way, you should hire a skilled reporter and writer to craft your institution’s unique and important story.