What’s behind the increasing expectations on University Marketing and Communications
Three months ago, a client launched their new brand creative, including a new identity system. I spent the better part of two days on Reddit reviewing comments and memes from students on the topic. I was also watching petition signatures on change.org escalate quickly for a few hours, only to watch them screech to a halt less than 48 hours later.
All in all, the new identity and creative has been positively received, but it’s indicative of our time as higher ed marketers: a time of increased pressure and scrutiny on marketing and communications teams from administration, faculty, students, and alumni.
Lastly, stand behind your work and stick with it. Every big brand and creative initiative that rolls out on a college campus will be met with some level of resistance. Like the example I laid out at the beginning, you’ll hit roadblocks at launch but the more the campus community sees all the work that went in the more buy-in you’ll receive.
Here at SimpsonScarborough, we are increasingly adding social media audits and social listening trends analyses to our work with colleges and universities to help them develop and amplify more impactful marketing content. One of our key partners is Campus Sonar, a firm that assists institutions in leveraging social intelligence in their marketing and branding efforts. This month, we are sharing some strategic insights from Campus Sonar’s Steve App on why higher ed institutions need social listening, and how they can get started.
In light of shifting demographics in higher education, marketers are increasingly asked to reach and influence new types of prospective students—students difficult to reach using traditional higher education marketing tactics *cough* list buying *cough.*
Using social listening can provide campuses developing content strategy with a goldmine of content ideas. The information obtained is authentic—these ideas are not self-reported through formal, controlled environments—and relevant, since the data collected is happening in real-life and real-time. So how can you use social listening to gain insights?
Where to Listen
You need to look where the public conversation is happening. That leaves out Facebook (which is restricting its data access more and more) and Snapchat. Twitter and Instagram are excellent sources, but don’t discount discussion forums and Reddit—these can be gold mines of online conversations, because people who feel really strongly about a topic tend to congregate in niche spaces. This is where software comes in handy. It’s technically possible for you to find and cruise the Reddit threads and message boards that cover your topic in-depth, but it’s hardly as efficient as software.
How to Listen
If you’re doing content marketing correctly, two things are top of mind: an audience and a topic (or a few topics). These are key when you consider where to look for conversations to mine for intelligence.
Think about your audience, and get specific. How old are they? What is their profession or student status? Does their location matter? Use this information to identify social media profiles (likely on Twitter or Instagram) that meet these characteristics (yes, there is software for that). Now, “listen” to their public online conversations as if it’s your private, always-on focus group. Identify trending content, influencers, and questions that pop up. Questions are key. You want to find the questions everyone is asking and answer them. Along the way, you may also learn what emoji are popular, what they tend to binge on Netflix, and what entertainers are popular. You can weave this into your content marketing to become hyper-relevant to the audience.
Alternately (and this is easier), focus on a topic. Think about the way people talk about that topic and develop some words and phrases for a search query. Then, using your software (if you’re giving this a spin for the first time, use an advanced Twitter search), search for conversations on the topic. Guess what? You’re still looking for questions. But you can also look for keywords and phrases that your audience uses and adapt your voice and tone to complement (not match) them. The React team at Brandwatch, a social listening software company, is really good at this. Check out their analysis of A-Level Results Day in the UK, trends in food, and why women love true-crime podcasts. To super-power your topic research, mash up your social listening data with online search data, like the React team did with UK student debt.
One really useful and easy place to look is conference hashtags surrounding events focusing on your topic and attracting your target audience. You can quickly find ideas that resonate and questions that remain unanswered. Amplify the ideas and get to work answering the remaining questions (assuming that’s within your area of expertise). This is particularly helpful when you’re recruiting working adults who already have affinity to professional organizations with associated public conference discussions.
Segment to Make Sense of What You Find
You control your segmentation. You likely have some sort of a taxonomy or categorization system in your content strategy already—so use it! Some of the segmentation we use when helping colleges and universities is:
- Enrollment-related conversation to find the questions that students and their families have about applying/visiting/attending the campus
- Alumni-related conversation to understand how alumni are honored, what fields they work in, and if they’re even talking about their alma mater
- Athletics-related conversation because frankly, for most of our client’s content strategy projects, the conversation about athletics is irrelevant so we filter it out.
Recently, one of our analysts investigated conversation around a professional development conference, and her segmentation included:
- Conference tracks
- Presenters vs attendees
- Topics of conversation: Inspiration/Encouragement, Food, Travel, Networking, Social Media, Reflections of Revelry
She created this segmentation based on themes she saw in the data. The insights in these segmented conversations could drive content strategy for a variety of authors and purposes (i.e., the travel bureau of the next conference location, area restaurants, conference planners, or vendors marketing to this audience). The segmentation you use should clearly relate to your goals.
Tie it All Together
Of course, social listening won’t just help you uncover relevant content topics and audience questions; it will help you amplify the content. As you conduct your research, pay attention to the influencers within a target audience or relevant topic. After publishing your content, use these insights to conduct a personalized outreach campaign, increasing your odds of scoring highly influential social mentions and inbound links, which are golden tickets for your organic search rankings. You can also spot any public shares (even the subtweets) of your content to better understand who finds value in it. Social listening and content marketing feed off each other in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
Stephen App is Campus Sonar’s Account Executive. He leads the company’s business development efforts, working with campus professionals to identify appropriate social listening programs that will help meet strategic institutional goals. This article is excerpted from a longer piece on content marketing, co-authored with Liz Gross, Ph.D., which was originally posted on the Campus Sonar blog in late 2018. An amateur runner and professional donut connoisseur, you can often find Steve on Twitter staunchly defending the Oxford comma.
Gen Z is the most recent generation headed to college, and just to keep you on your toes, they bring their own particular set of values, beliefs, and preferences to the college-search process—including how they use and consume digital media.
Gen Z is often described as the first digital-native generation, meaning that while Millennials grew up during the introduction of digital technologies, Gen Z was born with all of it at their fingertips. Think about it: Kids born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s have never known life without cell phones and the Internet. This shapes the way they understand and interact with the world, for better or for worse.
Higher ed marketers, who may feel they’ve just got the hang of the Millennials, must now adapt to a whole new generation. First stop: Revisit your paid media strategies. Here are three tips for ensuring you’re maximizing your digital efforts to reach—and resonate—with your Gen Z prospects.
- Make it relevant and personal: Long gone are the days where you could blast thousands of people with one message. Because they grew up during the early days of display advertising, Gen Zers are discerning consumers. They can spot a generic ad from a mile away, and they prefer—if not demand—relevancy and personalization. Ideas: Segment your prospects by academic or extracurricular interests in order to effectively communicate the benefits of your institution. From an owned-media perspective, create Snapchat filters for events like open houses and preview days, or compile tailor-made Spotify playlists for different types of communication in order to create a connection with your prospects.
- Serve bite-sized information: There is a negative stereotype that Gen Z has short attention spans; however, the exact opposite is true. They take the time to pay attention when it’s relevant for them (see bullet no. 1). They are experts at sorting through information quickly to deem what is most important to them. Get on their good side by making their vetting process easier. Ideas: Whether it’s a :15 second pre-roll video or ads on Snapchat, make top-of-funnel communications about the benefits of your brand short, concise, and to the point. Then, as your prospects learn more about you and begin to express interest and engage, they will start wanting more information and be willing to spend more time with it.
- Multi-platform campaigns win: It’s been said that Gen Z is the best generation at multi-tasking. At any given moment, they can be watching TV while doing homework on their laptop and snapchatting a friend on their cell phone. It’s vital to diversify your media mix so your brand is not appearing only on one type of medium. Ideas: Consider including ads through online streaming services, and make sure your programmatic digital buy incorporates mobile ads and optimizes to the best-performing channels. The more platforms you appear on, the higher chance your message will be seen and resonate.
Above all, just be human. All paid media efforts, and even larger marketing initiatives, will be more effective if you humanize your institution through your brand. In order to win the trust of Gen Z, be honest about your institution’s culture and personality. Find authentic ways to evoke emotion through your paid media and marketing strategies that align with your prospect’s values and motivations.
When we kick off any new branding initiative, our SimpsonScarborough team always starts by spending several days on a campus, meeting with faculty, staff, administrators and students and asking them to share what is distinctive about their institution, what they see as its strengths and weaknesses, and how it is relevant to its constituents. The goal is to find the strongest strands that weave together the fabric of the institutional brand. The discussions often go like this:
“What is something distinctive about your institution?”
“I would have to say it’s our robust study abroad program. More than half of students participate!”
“What are your institution’s biggest strengths?”
“Our small class size really allows our faculty and students to build close relationships.”
“What makes your institution relevant?”
“Definitely our high placement rate. Ninety-some percent of our students are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.”
People almost always resort to talking about institutional attributes: high job and graduate school placement rates, strong student-faculty relationships, small class sizes, affordable tuition, and beautiful campuses, to name a few. Even though these attributes, and others like them, are important aspects of an institution, they unfortunately don’t do much to communicate its brand.
We refer to key institutional attributes as foundational elements of a brand — the building blocks of the college’s or university’s offerings. For prospective students, their parents, and high school counselors, these foundational attributes are table stakes. Through a Google search, they can determine which schools have the baseline attributes that are important to them. Then they start asking, What else? It’s the “what else” that forms the heart of your brand. It might be a standout program, a unifying institutional personality, an overarching philosophy that drives your people and programs — or a rich combination of all three. When we conduct discovery sessions and research, we are trying to find your “what else.” Two factors help define a successful brand pillar or position:
- It is differentiating. Your class sizes may be small; your student-faculty relationships may be strong; your placement rates may be high, but many institutions (including your competitors) can also claim the same things. To all the small schools thinking, “But we actually have a low student-to-faculty ratio,” the large public down the road is still talking about meaningful faculty-student interaction, just with a different proof point. Your brand messages should speak to the things that you do differently or better than your competitors.
- It is emotion-driven. Your brand should build an emotional connection to the audiences you are trying to reach. As much as you might want your 10:1 student-faculty ratio to resonate in the hearts of your prospective students, it just doesn’t. Rather, audiences are drawn to brand messaging that inspires, excites, or strikes them — ideas like providing students opportunities to move up in the world, fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service, empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about strong attributes. Instead, start thinking about the benefits that students and others derive from them. “Empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could” is possible because of your small class sizes and strong student-faculty relationships. “Providing students opportunities to move up in the world” is possible because you are affordable and accessible. “Fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service” is possible because of your robust internship, study abroad, and community service programs.
Because it’s so common to fall back on attributes, we have been changing the way we ask people to talk about their institutions. We ask questions like, “What kinds of behaviors and attitudes are encouraged here? What is discouraged?” We ask people to share their most meaningful moments as a student or professor and other questions that are personal and transcend the transactional (see more on this idea in a blog post earlier this year from my colleague Kristen Creighton).
Bottom line: In a competitive market, you can’t rely on strong yet non-differentiating attributes to drive your brand; you must unearth the bigger-picture benefits that speak to your audiences’ aspirations and drive their loyalty to your institution.