Changing the Location Narrative

At SimpsonScarborough, we love asking questions to gauge audiences’ opinions of our client institutions’ strengths and limitations. One attribute that often appears on both lists is location. This immediately causes confusion and concern and leads to the immediate question: What should we do about this?

The first thing to remember is that you can’t change your location. Your institution will always be too close to home for some prospects and too far away for others. The second is that you can’t rely on hiding the bad parts or trying to make them sound better than they really are. Instead, you have to own your location’s strengths and liabilities.

Gen Z has high expectations for college, and an appealing location is part of that mix. Since the definition of “appealing” is going to be different for every student, it’s more important to test around non-personal aspects of a location that an institution can control (i.e., not climate or size). Our research points to social opportunities and internship availability as the most important aspects of location.

Here are some ideas for leading the narrative surrounding your school’s location:

  • Include a trip to downtown as part of the campus tour. If this is too difficult logistically, consider developing a separate downtown tour with transportation provided, perhaps ending with lunch at a favorite local establishment.
  • Highlight community-institution partnerships. Take advantage of social media to post quick feel-good features about your institution’s relationships with the local community. Announcements of service events and stories of students doing internships or class projects with local businesses provide short bursts of content that can be used in multiple channels.
  • Showcase successful alumni who have stayed local. Maybe it’s a monthly column in the alumni magazine or stories pitched to media outlets in your most productive recruitment ZIP codes. We spend so much time proving that our graduates can be found all around the country and the world that we can overlook the power of those who stay nearby as testimonials for the town where students will spend four (or more) years of their lives.
  • Internships, internships, internships. Figure out the easiest way to keep a running list—maybe it’s a Google doc or just a work-study student in charge of a spreadsheet—and regularly mine your campus communicators network for updates. Admissions and marketing staff can pull examples whenever needed, whether for a recruitment email, an outcomes page on your website, or inclusion in scripts for campus tour guides.
  • Use statistics to counter safety concerns. Perceptions of crime are usually greater than reality, so putting the actual numbers in context every so often can help keep things in perspective. And it’s always good to be proactive about safety. University of Southern California, for example, has a page on its website detailing the university’s many resources to help students stay safe, including a free app managed by USC’s Department of Public Safety that the campus community can use to report crimes and suspicious activity. It even gives users the ability to share their location with selected friends so someone will always know where they are.

Finally, when it comes to location, remember everyone on campus is a brand ambassador. Look for opportunities to educate internal audiences on how to best speak to the benefits of your location.

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