ROI: We’re Not Always Looking at the Whole Picture

As the price of a four-year degree continues to rise, prospective students and their families are increasingly questioning the value: Is it really worth it?

Colleges and universities need to demonstrate that what they offer is worth the cost. Typical return on investment (ROI) metrics include graduation rates, average starting salaries, and job placement rates. Even though these metrics are important, they may not be painting the full picture. Gallup’s Brandon Busteed, a member of a team that conducts research concerning public confidence and consumer satisfaction in higher education, argues that there are two central experiences of a student’s education that have the greatest impact on ROI:

  1. Relationship-Rich Experiences: Busteed notes that relationship-rich college experiences are a vital part of a student’s career satisfaction post-graduation. Relationship-rich experiences include building strong communication with professors and having one or more mentors who help you reach your goals and dreams. Students who have these kinds of relationships are significantly more likely to have higher levels of engagement in their future careers. High levels of career engagement are a significant factor in overall quality of life post-graduation.
  2. Work-Integrated Experiences: Work-integrated experiences include internships, co-ops, and semester or longer class projects. An important distinction to note about internships and co-ops is that the value only exists if the work you do is applicable to what you are learning in the classroom. Busteed’s research shows that having an internship or on-campus job that had nothing to do with a student’s coursework had little impact on career success and satisfaction. However, work-integrated experiences that do correlate to a student’s coursework not only make students more employable but also make them more engaged future employees. Busteed’s research concludes that 85% of employers would rather hire a B student with a relevant internship experience over an A student without one.

It’s time to think about ROI more holistically. 

When looking at ROI, it’s easy to think about outcomes like average salary and job placement rates. However, as we can see, we need to think about ROI more holistically. Higher ed institutions should look to increase their efforts in shepherding students toward relationship-rich and work-integrated experiences that lead to higher levels of long-term career engagement and quality of life. We took a look at how some institutions are already promoting these types of experiences as great indicators of ROI for their students.

  1. Butler University highlights relationship-rich experiences by simply letting alumni tell their own stories. Through video, quotes, and narratives, grads provide authentic accounts of their most important relationships with professors and discuss the value of these mentors to their life and career successes.
  2. Gettysburg College promotes the value of work-integrated experiences by showcasing metrics such as the percentage of students who complete an internship before graduation and the percentage of employers who believe their Gettysburg interns will lead successful careers. By placing these metrics alongside traditional outcomes, an association is made between completing these experiences while in school and obtaining excellent outcomes post-graduation.
  3. Wartburg College also makes the connection between experience and success by sharing results of its alumni satisfaction surveys on the outcomes pages of its website. Metrics include percentages of alumni who felt a strong sense of community on campus, who had a good mentoring relationship with a member of the Wartburg community, who were challenged to make interdisciplinary connections, and more.

Promoting traditional ROI metrics as well as the experience-based outcomes will help institutions stand out and make the answer to the question, “Is it really worth it?” a resounding “Yes.”

Social (Media) Cues, Part III: Influence Me!

On Instagram (like anywhere else), it pays to be famous.

A recent study by socialbakers showed that users are more engaged with content when it comes from celebrities. Like, way more engaged.

According to the data, we double tap and comment on influencer posts 200% more than other media and brands combined.

For those of us in higher ed, though, what does an influencer even look like? College fits differently into people’s lives than Ray Bans or sneakers. And it’s hard to imagine Kim Kardashian repping liberal arts programs, or a popular meme artist making branded GIFs about student-faculty ratios.

Avoiding influencer endorsements might boost our sense of integrity as higher ed marketers, but it’s a missed opportunity in our branding playbook, especially since the numbers so clearly show influencer marketing gaining ground on social.

At SimpsonScarborough, before we even talk about possible social campaigns, we dive into the data and help our clients think through the big questions about their target audiences and the role that influencers play in their daily media consumption. Here are three suggestions for identifying and leveraging influencers to build your brand:

  1. Find out who really influences your target prospective students’ college perceptions. Is it an A-list celebrity? Or a 17-year-old YouTube-and-Instagram Artist with a million subscribers and a big decision coming up about where to go to college? What if you invited the latter influencer to tour campus and stream the experience? Whatever you do, invest some time in finding out who is capturing attention in your media space and imagine how you might engage your target audience directly through their social channels.
  2. Tap the idea, not the influencer. Jerry Seinfeld’s phenomenal web-turned-Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee has legions of young fans of the graduate-school age range. So if you’re working on a campaign for a grad school program, for example, you could concept ideas that leverage the show’s influence, show you’re tapped in, and further the university brand in the process. That could mean anything—maybe a web series where admissions officers have silly conversations with prospective grad students at coffee shops before getting to more serious discussions about their aspirations and how the program can help them achieve those goals.
  3. Try making something in the real world. Think beyond videos and hashtags. In fact, who says you have to even create a campaign ON social media? Instead of reporting the news, become the news. You could make a bigger splash — and make your overworked internal media and brand teams very happy — by sponsoring a real-world experience for your audiences to discover and then spread the message on social. Get an art class to paint a mural in an off-campus neighborhood. Or build a giant installation in the dining hall using only discarded plastic straws to raise awareness of their environmental effects and highlight your school’s commitment to sustainability.

It’s become a truism that all forms of media now compete with all other forms of media — books with movies, movies with television, television with social, social with advertising, and so on and so forth. Instead of fighting that reality, what are you doing to stand out today?

Hey Marketers: Put Your Listening Ears On

Attend any marketing conference these days and you’re sure to see or hear this quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” I’ve even used it myself. Often.

And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bezos made the statement, it’s clear it was a reaction to the lack of control or ownership that today’s brands have over their own stories. He was also undoubtedly referring to the modern digital age of marketing where social media, product reviews, and other online communities have as much voice and influence on a brand’s perception as any PR or traditional paid media might have in the past.

But while the pithy quote from Bezos is now held as gospel among marketers, it appears we’re still not listening. Most marketers are intent on telling their brand story in their own ways regardless of whether the people we care the most about are listening, what they’re saying about us or, more importantly, what they need or want from our brands.

And, unfortunately, it’s probably even more true in higher education than in other sectors. We continue to insist that we must “tell our stories better” or “get people to understand the value of the liberal arts,” use jargon-y, impersonal language, or just insult our audiences by presenting cliched, staged, or poor-quality images of our people and campuses.

It’s time we start listening! And that can take shape in several ways.

There’s no doubt that sound qualitative and quantitative market research methods remain among the most trusted of ways to understand your audience and how they consider your brand. But traditional market research must evolve. Response rates are falling. People don’t answer phone numbers they don’t recognize. And who can be bothered with a 20-minute survey? Options abound: short, mobile-friendly surveys with straightforward, quick response options. Research panels that can target obscure audiences. Text-message surveys to capture immediate reactions in real time. Instead of focus groups, 1:1 interviews.

Regular social listening and monitoring can also provide valuable insight. But it’s not enough to count mentions and sentiment or likes, shares, and retweets. You must also track what themes are being discussed, who is leading the conversation, and the accuracy of the information being shared, as well as look for opportunities for your brand to join the conversation.

But, as important as monitoring your brand might be, ensuring your institution is providing the right brand experience matters more. Brand loyalty exists on a tightrope. Just ask Uber. Emotional connections to brands can quickly disappear. Relevance and value drive connection to brands these days. And that requires careful listening and thoughtful action.

Spend some time listening—really listening—through research, user feedback, direct conversations or through your social channels, and you can learn a lot about your stakeholders and not just their reactions to your brands but their needs and desires.

You’ll discover a recent grad who graduated with a B.A. that just wants a bit more schooling to make sure she is appealing to an employer as she looks to change careers. Do you make it easy for her? Are you responsive when she is looking for information? How quick are you with an answer to her question?

And what about your students? Do you know if they are having a good experience? Is your institution meeting their expectations? When they were having a problem with a roommate and it was forcing them to stay out all hours of the night and impacting their grades, did you support them? Was there someone that was aware and offering help?

How responsive are you to alumni? Not in sending them updates on campus happenings or asking for a gift, a like, or an event invitation. But in truly keeping them connected with the many unique opportunities they had for exploration, fun, and connection they enjoyed as students? What about a little help to find someone local that may be in their field? Or a student that could offer some help as a summer intern?

College and university brands actually have the rare opportunity to be extensions of our lives. We have an untapped loyalty that many consumer brands dream of. But if you’re not listening, you’re not adding value. And if you don’t meet expectations, everyone will hear about it on their social feed.

Want to delve more into this topic? Join Jason Simon, SimponScarborough’s Chief Operating Officer, and thought leaders from throughout higher education in Chicago October 17-18 at ListenUp Edu, a cross-disciplinary conference that will explore how a culture of listening, service, and trust-building accelerates student success, marketing and communications, alumni engagement, and advancement.

Converge 2019: Presented by Converge and SimpsonScarborough

Converge 2019: Registration is Open

We’re thrilled to be co-hosting Converge 2019! When Converge approached us with the opportunity to design a best-in-class program and curate a track for CMOs, I was eager to get involved. I have been in the higher ed space for 26 years and participated in a variety of conference planning committees, and this is the most exciting and provocative leadership track focused on the future of higher ed marketing I’ve seen.

The three-day event brings together CMOs, deans, enrollment leaders, recruiters, and digital strategists who are advancing the state of higher education marketing and recruitment. Bring your team and join us for deep-dive workshops, keynotes, and breakout sessions focused on everything new and next in EDU digital marketing. We’ll see you February 19-21, 2019, in Atlanta.

Visit the conference website for more information and use the code EARLYBIRD by October 15 to save $100 on your registration.

Christopher Simpson: A Legacy That Still Inspires

Cleaning out my home office recently, I came across quite a relic: an issue of CASE Currents from January 1998, back when I was the magazine’s relatively new managing editor and responsible for its marketing and communications beat. I had the cover topic that month, and printed in 60-odd point type I read: INTEGRATED MARKETING: What It Is, Who’s Doing It, How You Can, Too. This was the first time that CASE covered integrated marketing, and it caused quite a stir. Flipping through the issue, I fondly remembered commissioning and editing one of the lead articles by Larry Lauer, a pioneer of higher ed integrated marketing at TCU, and the other from none other than Christopher Simpson, then the head of marketing and communications at Indiana University who eight years later founded SimpsonScarborough. Evocative of his style, Christopher’s article had a very provocative title: “The Day We Closed the News Bureau.” (As a magazine editor, I loved him for being gutsy enough to run that headline.)

Christopher left this world much too soon, in 2008. I realized that this special issue of Currents marked not only my own 20-year anniversary of working in higher ed marketing but also the 10-year anniversary of Christopher’s passing. As I re-read his article 20 years later, I first noticed so many of Christopher’s professional characteristics that made him so good at what he did. He was honest: When his president asked him, “What is the perception of IU in Indiana?” he wasn’t sure, and he admitted it. He was a problem solver: He came up with a plan to find out. He was a reporter at heart: He and his colleagues conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with more than 100 legislators, business leaders, and IU alumni as part of that plan. And he was confident: After constructing a strong and detailed strategy for closing the IU news bureau and replacing it with an office of marketing and communications, he executed the strategy without wavering.

The second thing that struck me about the article was how much of Christopher’s advice about integrated marketing still holds true two decades later. Though integrated marketing is no longer a new concept in higher ed, and indeed has matured greatly in its sophistication and implementation, we can all still benefit from the following five recommendations for integrated marketers that Christopher offered at the end of his piece.

  1. “Find every available means to educate faculty and staff on the benefits of marketing.” Now more than ever, we need faculty and staff to understand the need to market the institution accurately and consistently in order for it to remain relevant and viable. A national conversation is starting around how colleges and universities can reclaim the higher ed story, and professors and administrators have a critical role to play if we are to succeed.
  2. “Be skeptical of outside consultants.” Believe it or not, we love this one. There are a lot of bad consultants out there, as well as a lot of good ones that aren’t good for every school (us included). Colleges and universities should take the time to identify “best fit” marketing consultants in the same way they spend time and energy identifying “best fit” students. This tenet of Christopher’s lives on at SimpsonScarborough, where we take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of our clients’ time and resources.
  3. “Don’t try to make marketing specialists out of every staff member.” In his article, Christopher wrote about accepting and leveraging the fact that some of his staff performed better as traditional journalists. There will always be foundational tools of the trade that technology and new frameworks cannot supplant. No computer can fully replace a designer’s sketch book and Sharpie; even the most sophisticated marketing operation cannot thrive without marketers putting on their reporters’ hats and hitting the pavement to find their institution’s best brand stories.
  4. “Measure every new effort.” Yes! This is why market research guru Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson agreed to enter a business partnership with Christopher in 2006. Early on, he understood that you need data not only to convince your skeptics but also because, as he put it, “had we not first conducted research, we would have only been able to guess how to best change some of the misinformed attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of our key constituents.”
  5. “Hang on tight.” Though Christopher was specifically referring to surviving the transition from news bureau to integrated marketing office, this advice can apply to any of today’s large-scale marcom undertakings. Sticking to your plan and focusing on education and buy-in will always be more effective than changing course every time a naysayer naysays.

Elizabeth remembers that after Christopher died, people asked if she was going to remove “Simpson” from the company name. She never hesitated to respond with an emphatic “Hell no!” He established the vision for the firm that we still adhere to today, and even as the years go by, his influence continues to guide our work in ways both big and small. As Elizabeth says, “I’m so proud to have the name Simpson in the name of our company, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”