Filling the Funnel: A Case for Less

We’re facing a cliff of sorts. By the year 2025, the number of college-age students is expected to plummet like lemmings into a cold, barren sea. Many schools are already preparing by conducting research, finding ideal market positions, and launching new brands and creative—all smart, strategic initiatives. Almost always, these efforts lead to increased awareness, interest, and applications.

Schools are also adopting macro applications of the brand through large media buys, mass email campaigns, and boosted social to increase reach and eyeballs. However, in a landscape where the eyeballs may be diminishing by upwards of 500,000 prospective students nationwide (a million if we’re counting actual eyeballs), many will look at the lists they’ve bought or their online reach and try to increase those numbers for one purpose: because the math works out. More at the top yields more at the bottom. Right?

Maybe. It’s a risky effort that can be hard to justify. Try telling your VP of Enrollment that you’re going to spend time and resources identifying and then persuading a thousand people who have never heard of your institution to visit campus. The first response might be, “Great!” But the next question is the one that matters: “How many visits do you think you can get?” You probably couldn’t get a green light once you do the math and realize the ends likely won’t justify the means. At the end of the day, you’ll learn a little about all these people—but is it enough to make an impression?

Instead, focus your time and resources on getting to know your most promising prospects the most. Tell your VP that you are going to spend an entire day finding out everything you can about the family already planning to visit campus for the first time in a few weeks so you can line up meetings with the most ideal people to act as a welcoming committee. In this way, you’re creating something better than bigger top-funnel numbers: the most unforgettable first impression.

The first response might be, “Wait, what? You’re going to spend your entire day on one family?” But take a second to think about the importance of this family’s decision. Regardless of their socio-economic status, it’s enormous. Very few decisions they’ll make come with this much financial pressure. More importantly, very few decisions are attached to this much pride, passion, joy, and hope. And that, right there, is why, when you decide to spend a full day getting to know this family, it will be worth it.

Congratulations to the 2019 CASE SimpsonScarborough Scholars!

SimpsonScarborough is pleased to announce the selection of the 2019 CASE SimpsonScarborough Scholars. Launched in honor of our late founding partner Christopher Simpson, the program supports the professional development of four promising higher education marketing communication practitioners every year. Each scholar receives CASE premier-level member benefits, access to customized research through CASE’s Library, attendance at the Summer Institute for Communications and Marketing, and more. This year’s CASE SimpsonScarborough Scholars are:

Carly Banks
Media Relations Officer
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ

Roles and Responsibilities: As a member of NAU’s Communications office, Carly works with field professionals to develop high-quality and original written content for the University’s weekly newsletter. Carly also leads the distribution and development of executive communication campus-wide.

Nominated by: Heidi Toth, Assistant Director of Communications, who described Carly as a creative storyteller, excellent collaborator, and someone who is always looking to improve communications at NAU. “Carly collaborates with other departments around campus to best amplify NAU’s voice,” noted Toth. Toth attended the Summer Institute for Communications & Marketing in 2016 and is looking forward to Carly gaining the same valuable experience that she did.

Dawn Sugimoto
Internal Communications Specialist
Lethbridge College, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Roles and Responsibilities: Dawn is a significant contributor to the College’s internal communications by writing for its magazine, newsletter, and website. Dawn also contributes to communications planning, messaging, and analysis.

Nominated by: Paul Kingsmith, Senior Communications Specialist, who described Dawn as a vital part of the College’s small communications team. Although she has only been on board since January 2018, it is “hard to remember life without her,” Kingsmith says. Dawn’s “great initiative, creativity, and abilities” along with her “infectious positive attitude” have made her a great fit at Lethbridge. Kingsmith also attended the CASE Summer Institute in Communications & Marketing in the past, and he is excited for Dawn to have the same excellent experience.

Tom Mayhall Rastrelli
Director of Digital Communications
Willamette University, Salem, OR

Roles and Responsibilities: As Willamette’s Director of Digital Communications, Tom oversees institutional communications via digital channels including the university’s website, social media, internal bulletins, emails, event calendars, and newsletters.

Nominated by: Kristen Grainger, Acting Chief Communications Officer, who has found Tom to be a “highly-dedicated colleague who brings a great deal of creativity and positive energy to his role.” Grainger went on to note some of Tom’s accomplishments, which include improving audience and market engagement, internal coordination, and internal communication.

Zangi Miti
Assistant Director of Marketing Strategy
University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO

Roles and Responsibilities: Zangi is a critical driver in the planning and execution of each academic unit’s marketing strategy. She also increases the University’s public visibility by developing and facilitating relationships with key campus constituents.

Nominated by: Kim West, Chief Marketing Strategist, who noted Zangi’s commitment and curiosity about her job as something that has shined through in her short time with UMKC. West mentioned that Zangi has “demonstrated leadership skills and taken immediate responsibility for her role and her clients.” Although “the expectations of her job are big,” Zangi has lived up to the challenge. West has a “high degree of confidence in Zangi and her abilities” and is looking forward to seeing her training advance.

Experience Management: The Future of Higher Ed Brand Research

After months of anticipation, the countdown to the 2019 Qualtrics X4 Summit finally arrived. My colleague Leslie Baldino and I (and more than 10,000 other conference attendees) made our way to Salt Lake City to hear from an all-star speaker line-up and learn about market research trends and innovations. The theme of Qualtrics X4 was breakthroughs – something we are always trying to help our clients achieve.

It probably goes without saying that seeing Barack Obama and Oprah were huge life moments for us. They, along with other keynote speakers like Sir Richard Branson, Adam Silver, and Ashton Kutcher shared inspirational words of wisdom about their own career (and life) breakthroughs. Ashton Kutcher (somewhat surprisingly) gave one of my favorite tidbits of advice when he told us there is no substitute for manners and good old-fashioned hard work. But ultimately, what we were there for was the research … and Qualtrics did not disappoint.

We learned how big brands are using market research and Qualtrics to track key brand metrics. The insights that were shared reinforced our company’s core belief in the criticality of asking the right questions, in the right way, at the right time. Case studies of corporations such as Toys “R” US, Sears, and Wordperfect reminded us that tracking the wrong metrics—or failing to track the right ones, depending on how you look at it—can create an irreversible disaster from a fixable problem.

I have always referred to Qualtrics as an online survey platform. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Qualtrics brands itself not as an online survey tool, but as an “Experience Management Platform” – an intentional positioning that was hammered home throughout the presentations at X4. So, the conference turned into an opportunity to not only learn about research trends but also to see some great branding in action. Check out Qualtrics’ core brand mantra:

It’s not a logo, or a clichéd tagline, or even a product-ID statement. It is a benefits-oriented statement about what the company can do for its customers. It helps us at SimpsonScarborough know that we are using the types of tools that align with the way that we approach market research and how we want to serve our own clients. For Qualtrics and the companies (like us) that use its products, the distinction between being an online survey platform versus an experience management platform is an important one.

Here’s an example: We use Qualtrics to help our clients define their brands and track key metrics that support them. Many institutions we work with ask us to create benchmark measures of brand equity that we can then measure against three years or five years later. That’s important. But more and more, we are also asking, what happens during the in-between? How can we use research in new ways to help our clients understand and evolve with a higher education landscape that is shifting from being driven by the transactional to being built by the experiential?

We returned from X4 thinking about how we could offer our clients problem-solving experience-management tools. For example, pulse surveys, which help track brand metrics with key audiences in real time, get a deeper read on the true impact of their efforts, and help identify any potential problems while they can still be easily fixed.

As we were returning from X4, news broke of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, bringing several big names in higher ed into the headlines (and not in a good way). We all know that crises happen, but what if we could offer our clients a cost-effective way to measure how both negative and positive events impact those critical brand metrics? How can we tie changes to these metrics to specific events (both the good and the bad)?

Big brands like Nike can tell you their NPS scores for various audience segments at any point in time, and they can tell you what is driving that NPS score. More and more companies are realizing the value of experience management and experience driven brands. When it comes down to it, higher ed is exactly that – an experience-driven industry – so we’ve got to pay more attention to these trends, learn from corporate case studies, and understand how higher ed can adapt to evolving customer expectations. A big question we are grappling with is how to do this in an affordable way, knowing budgets are a bit different at Nike than they are for most of our clients!

That is what we are chewing on at SimpsonScarborough – and we are all excited to continue the conversation and explore new ideas regarding experience management with our partner institutions. We will keep you posted with new developments!

We’re Looking for a New Design Intern.

And (maybe) you’re looking for us, if you’re:

  • A junior or senior graphic design/visual communication major based in Columbus
  • Excited about branding and typography
  • Eager to apply your expanding skillset to real-world projects
  • Interested in gaining a practical understanding of how research can inform the design process
  • Comfortable working both independently and collaboratively
  • Available for 15–20 hours per week during the school year (up to 40 in the summer)

Role and responsibilities:

  • Design remotely, but meet regularly in-person with our Creative Team, including our full-time Associate Creative Director (Design), Sr. Designer, and Designer, as well as sit in on client presentations via Zoom video calls
  • Concept with copywriters, and partner with in-house Researchers and Strategists to uncover creative insights
  • Collaborate with professionals from the fields of branding, marketing, advertising, graphic design, and higher education
  • Experience the entire process of brand building, from research and strategy to creative execution and activation
  • Work on a new Mac for the duration of your internship (yay!)
  • Receive a monthly stipend

Interested in this position? Please email your portfolio to

Converge 2019 Recap: Content Creation, Enabling Genius, Managing Crisis

Last week in Atlanta, SimpsonScarborough had the amazing opportunity to partner with Converge to put on Converge 2019: The Digital Marketing Conference for Higher Education. The conference featured engaging sessions covering topics ranging from creating data-driven personas to mastering Google analytics to harnessing the power of market research to build a brand. There was no shortage of colleagues to learn from.

After listening to all the great conversations, three big-picture takeaways stuck with me the most:

Higher ed marketers can—and should—act as creators, not information pushers.

A lot of the times at higher ed conferences we hear how higher education is behind the curve and that we are in a game of trying to “catch up” to best practices in other industries. I love the desire to want to learn from others; I hate the assumption that we are always behind. In his session “Flashes of Genius: Learning the Art and Science of Creativity,” Allen Gannett of TrackMaven (and author of the book Creative Curve) shared three habits that cutting-edge “creators” have in common.

  • They are consumers: “You can’t have insights about things you don’t know anything about,” Gannett said. The best creators consume vast amounts of content related to their industry. We all have a colleague who has a child that has undergone the college search process. Talking to them, it is easy to see how going through that experience changes their thinking about higher education marketing. Our challenge is making sure we are doing that more than once, twice or maybe three times in our lifetime.
  • They create opportunities for silence: This can be hard, especially in an industry that’s short-staffed and often on a shoestring budget. In order to get a head of the curve, time has to be set aside to step back, disconnect, and just think.
  • Imitate the structure of successful work (with a twist): People crave what is familiar because in our brains, unfamiliar things represent risk. New creations that resonate feel familiar, yet have just enough alteration to them that they are exciting and keep the consumer engaged. 

We must view content strategically rather than tactically.

“Content, like life, should have purpose,” said Angela Bostick of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. In her session, “Evangelists, Influencers and Storytellers – Oh My! A Journey Down the Yellow Brick Road of Digital Content Creation and Brand Elevation,” she laid out a very common-sense framework for organizing content according to marketing goals and highlighted how that content can best be expressed and measured. Her recommended categories included:

  • Content meant to entertain
    • Goal: Build connection with skeptical audiences by showing personality
    • Options: Student-generated videos, blogs, and competitions
    • Metrics: Total views/completions, shares, and engagement
  • Content meant to inspire
    • Goal: Motivate choice with aspirant audiences through emotion
    • Options: Leadership videos, event coverage, and faculty research
    • Metrics: Visibility with target audience, engagement, and conversion
  • Content meant to educate
    • Goal: Highlight differentiation to new audiences using detail
    • Options: Infographics, Q&A output, “how it works” videos
    • Metrics: Recall, completion, and downloads
  • Content meant to convince
    • Goal: Drive selection with qualified audiences using logic
    • Options: Research blogs, student-driven lists, comparisons
    • Metrics: Recall and conversions

No institution is immune to crisis.

More time, resources, and talent are being put in to building college and university brands than ever before. At the same time, these brands have never been more exposed to external and internal threats that can damage them. I took copious notes about risk management during the thoughtful panel “Crisis? What Crisis? Advice from Your Peers Who Have Been There” with Jennifer Campbell of Ithaca College, Carol Keese of the University of Virginia, Lawrence Lokman of Penn State University, and moderator Simon Barker from Blue Moon Consulting Group. They talked about three core ideas crucial for ensuring all that hard branding work doesn’t go to waste because of a crisis:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare: Unfortunately, it is not a matter of if a crisis will happen, but when. The goal, then, is to be able to identify a potential crisis early so that decisions can be made when there are more (and better) options on the table. That only happens if there are clear procedures in place and open dialogue between campus stakeholders.
  • Keep marketing: It is easy for a crisis to overwhelm a marketing and communications team. It is also important to not appear tone deaf to very real and serious incidences that occur. However, even in a crisis it is important that marketing teams continue to promote and tell the story of their institution because if they don’t, no one will.
  • Measure the impact: By engaging in consistent benchmarking research, it is possible to assess the impact of a crisis on a brand. Data delivers crucial insight into where and how any negative perceptions can be overcome.

Kudos to Converge on another great conference. I look forward to seeing what is new and next in 2020.