Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Research?

Is it possible for a college or university to have too much information about prospective students? Too much data on their parents? Too many insights into what makes alumni want to reconnect and give? Too many reactions to marketing messages, brand concepts, and tactical ideas?

It’s pretty ridiculous to think it’s possible to have too much of any of it.

Throughout my 26 years in higher ed marketing, I’ve come across maybe four or five schools that really did have too much research. Research was being conducted endlessly in order to avoid making decisions. It’s called “analysis paralysis.” These cases are extremely rare.

The reality is that the problem of too little data and testing is pervasive in higher ed marketing. College and university brand campaigns are sometimes launched with only feedback from senior leadership and discovery sessions or workshops with people around campus who have already bought into it. Designs are often significantly influenced by the president’s personal preferences—the president who is a microbiologist by training. New logos are rolled out without any testing, but with the assurance that the Board loves them. That love won’t stretch very far when thousands of your alumni are ripping your design on social media and students are campaigning against it.

Examples abound of higher ed marketing disasters that could have been avoided had someone just done the research or the testing. Sure, it takes time and costs money, but mistakes—especially big ones—take even longer and cost even more in the long run. Plus, they’re painful, and they leave scars on the marketing department and sometimes the entire institution.

The only thing worse than no research is bad research. We see agencies dish up terrible research all the time. My favorite is when they quantify qualitative data. “We conducted in-depth interviews with 100 prospects, counselors, and alumni and 85% of them preferred X.” Marketers beware! Anytime you see a percent sign associated with qualitative research, run (don’t walk) in the other direction. Percent signs are only used when conducting quantitative research with a representative sample—when you can project the results of the sample on to the larger population you are studying. Were those 100 interviewees selected at random to participate in the research? Do you realize you are blending three very different audiences together? Do you know how huge your margin of error is? The problems are obvious.

Without research, your marketing strategy has no rudder. Your brand strategy will sail in one direction this year, and then the wind will turn, and you will blow in another direction next year. That won’t help you make any long-term progress on brand building or reputation management. One of the biggest mistakes colleges and universities make is developing a brand concept, putting it out into the world for a few years, getting sick of it, and then going back to the drawing board to come up with something new. Reputation management requires consistent and intentional message delivery for years and years. To develop an enduring brand, you have to do the detailed and thorough research with internal and external audiences, use the data to establish your brand positioning strategy, create compelling brand concept ideas, test those ideas, and then begin the implementation.

It is vital to test your hypotheses, hunches, long-held beliefs, and great ideas. Insightful data is like an insurance policy that protects your marketing strategy and tactics from critics.  And, it gives you the confidence to act boldly and stick with your strategy for the long term. That’s how you build a brand.  So, is there such a thing as too much research? Absolutely not.

 

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