The Pressure to be Perfect

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 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.

It wasn’t always like this, so how did we get here?

It wasn’t that long ago that most universities didn’t market or advertise because there was no need. Enrollment was robust on most campuses, and state funding was solid for the publics. Nevermind that marketing was a bad word on campus. It devalued the university brand (or so we were convinced). Eventually, more schools adopted market research to measure awareness, perception, and brand health. As the data improved, marketing teams used it to build more robust brand strategies. And from there, more and more creative executions and campaigns. Finally, content strategies evolved, shifting newsrooms of beat writers to teams of digital and social storytellers. It’s been a long, slow burn to our current state. 

This doesn’t fully answer the question of, “how did we get here?” The story sounds more akin to Hemingway’s quote regarding bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” 

This made me wonder if there was an inflection point, and I think I found one. Or, better stated, a combination of three factors that lead to this increased pressure on university marketing and communications to get things exactly right.

1. The Recession

In the wake of the economic recession in 2008, states began to cut funding for higher ed. For a couple of years, there was an uncertainty of whether the decline in funding was temporary or if it’d become the new norm. By the early 2010s, it was apparent this was the new norm in most states. Since then, state funding has dropped by more than $9 billion since 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

2. Better Data (and a lot more of it)

Google Analytics launched in 2005, and by the early 2010s it had wide adoption. Even those not using the tool we’re at least aware it existed. By the mid-2010s, social media analytics became more robust and specialized, and programmatic advertising made campaigns more targeted and increasingly effective. With campus communities now accustomed to marketing and advertising, their expectations for it to be even better began to rise dramatically. But there are innate flaws with all of these measurement tools, especially in higher ed marketing — more on that in a minute.

3. Fewer Students

This is one we all know too well by now: far fewer students are coming of college-age. It’s this factor that has many colleges and universities revisiting brand strategies, creative campaigns, and testing new geographic markets. When you combine that economic downturn, the pervasiveness — and accessibility — of big data, and the generational reality of fewer college-bound students, you can nearly hear the reaction now: “We need more students, marketing has all the tools they could ever need, why aren’t all their efforts working with 100% effectiveness?” 

Fair or not, this perception isn’t going away anytime soon. So, what can we do about it?

Own Up to the Flaws in the Data

Yes, we have more data at our disposal today than ever before. But there are two core issues with analytics tools. They both involve humans. Fake and real humans, to be exact. Take a look at any account’s Twitter follower growth chart over time and you’ll see periodic dips in follower count. That’s twitter killing off bots. Fake accounts make up some portion of our data across every platform. Does that mean you should stop using these tools? Of course not. It’s just something to keep in mind and possibly communicate in reporting. 

Real humans are more problematic, though. Website traffic grows or shrinks based on content produced. (That’s the most over-generalized definition of SEO or how Google works ever, but that’s not really the lede here.) On college campuses, this is an impossible thing to control. Marcom is producing content, but so are professors. Everything has an impact — whether good or bad. The same thing happens on social media. Teams try new things every day, some work and grow reach and engagement, and some don’t. The point is, new, independent variables are introduced every day across multiple channels, making it increasingly difficult to trust the data and to understand what is working. I mean, it’s literally science. 

The best marketing offices try and establish as many constants as they can, to benchmark and report on those year after year. It may be an untenable effort on some campuses, but it’s still the best course of action when it comes to data.

Proactively Communicate and Stay the Course

From conducting market research to rolling out a new creative campaign, involving the campus early on marketing initiatives is critical to get buy-in. Today’s environment requires an ongoing effort throughout the process: engage the stakeholders in research findings and share creative to get early feedback. The more data points you gather along the way, the more proof you have that you’ve done your due diligence. 

If you’re working on launching a new creative or brand campaign, prep the press. Use the data you’ve collected along the way and share with campus publications and local media. Build campus ambassadors (beyond just the President) and aid them with talking points. Many times, the process on campus is more important than the final result, and the more people you have speaking the same language, the better your chances for success.

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.

Test Creative (quantitatively)

This is an extra step most institutions do not take, but it’s one we really believe in. Sending creative into the market shouldn’t be done to decide which concept to use. It should be used to inform your team on what resonated best amongst target audiences. This is a nice arrow to have in your quiver.

Partner Closely with Enrollment

Arguably, this is the most difficult of the bunch. To truly market effectively today, marketing and communications and enrollment management need to be joined at the hip. The best programmatic ad platform in the world can’t tell marcom what geographic markets admissions counselors are planning to be in next month. That ad platform also won’t alert marcom to the fact that the enrollment office has already spent money on ads. This is why it’s imperative for the two offices to communicate regularly. That type of collaboration not only increases the effectiveness of marketing by creating better brand awareness where it’s needed, but it reduces wasted money and resources (and not just for ads, but for digital and print efforts too). 

This is an increasingly difficult time for higher education marketers. But the bottom line comes down to understanding the data and benchmarking appropriately, opening up lines of communications, and increasing collaboration with key partners. There will always be naysayers, but be confident in the process you’ve run and the work you and your team are producing. 

How to Reach Gen Z, Part 2: Messaging

This is part 2 of our 3 part series on Gen Z, where we share trends, key takeaways, and actionable insights from our research on Gen Z. 

Last month we shared tips for higher ed marketers to ensure you’re maximizing your digital efforts to reach—and resonate—with Gen Z prospects. Now that you’re equipped with the right strategies for your paid media, it’s time to focus on ensuring you’re communicating the right message in your higher ed marketing strategy.

1. Price Sensitivity and Return On Investment

In recent research studies we’ve conducted, the top factors influencing Gen Z students in choosing their ideal college or university— and often selected by 90%+ of respondents—are strong career preparation and job placement rate.

This continues the trend that Gen Z live pragmatically— especially in comparison to the more idealistic Millennials– as a result of the tremendous impact the recession of 2008 had on their childhood. Millions of Gen Zers remember their parents being laid off or losing their childhood home, and the implications continue to push Gen Zers towards job security and economic stability.

Messaging Strategy for Gen Z Price Sensitivity

Being detailed and transparent with outcomes are pivotal in helping Gen Zers understand the value of higher ed. When they’re searching for schools they’re not just looking at academic programs and admissions requirements; they’re looking for where your graduates are getting jobs, how quickly they’re landing them, and how much they’re making. It’s not enough just to have an “employment report” somewhere on your site, this information needs to be front and center– and brought to life. 

Gen Zers are more likely to follow influencers than celebrities on social media, so start thinking of your alumni as micro-influencers. Consider a rotating carousel on your website with stories about recent alumni and how their experiences at the institution helped them get to where they are today. And have some fun with it! This is your opportunity to bring those statistics to life and allow prospective students to imagine themselves in an alumnus’ shoes.

2. Diversity is Table Stakes

One of the most significant benefits to Gen Z being digital natives is that diversity comes naturally. So much so, they feel they can better identify with people their own age on the other side of the world than with people more than a generation older in their own community. When conducting research with Millennials, we often saw the diversity of the student body, faculty and staff as key points that increased interest in an institution. With Gen Z, we often don’t see diversity as a top motivator in school selection simply because it is something they expect because they’ve never not had it.

Messaging Strategy for Gen Z Diversity

This doesn’t mean that you can simply place a button on your website for the office of diversity and multicultural affairs or have some staged “diverse” pictures in your admissions materials. Remember, the average person views more than 5,000 ads every single day, and Gen Zers spend more than 10 hours looking at a screen every single day. To say they’re experts at discerning authenticity in the blink of an eye is an understatement. To tell your institution’s story authentically, you first need to understand the value that diversity plays on your own campus: How diverse is your campus, really? Is it a strength or a weakness? How is your school set up to support diversity? Not just racially, but economically, religiously, and with diverse genders and sexualities? If it’s a weakness, own it and talk about what your institution is doing to improve it.

3. Gen Z is Independent and Competitive

Gen Z likes to work alone and believes that if something is going to get done, they need to do it themselves. In fact, about 75% of Gen Z would prefer to work for themselves. We also know that many more Gen Zers want to be entrepreneurs than Millennials. Our own research findings indicate that Gen Zers want to be judged on their own merits and develop their own leadership skills to set them up for future success.  

Messaging Strategy for Gen Z Independence

When you’re collectively talking to hundreds or thousands of prospective students about the benefits of your college or university, it can be easy to think of them and speak to them as a collective group. But Gen Zers aren’t just highly independent; they’re also used to having content explicitly curated for themselves. A one-size-fits-all messaging strategy won’t just fall flat; it’ll feel inauthentic and disengaged. Instead, you need to have data-driven persona development so that you can focus your messaging strategy on talking about their passions, their interests, and their potential outcomes. 

Remember, the result of your marketing efforts is only as good as its execution, which is only as good as its strategy, which is only as good as its research. Building on thorough market research will help you to not only identify and target your prospective student populations, but also inform the messaging with their aspirations, goals, and motivations and align them with where your institution performs well. 

Stay tuned for part 3 of our series where we share our final thoughts and insights from our research with Gen Z.

How Social Listening Can Benefit Your Content Marketing

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. 

Reaching Gen Z, Part 1: Paid Media Strategy

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Finding the “What Else” that Really Drives Your Brand

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.