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 clonderee@simpsonscarborough.com

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.

Understanding Millennial Alumni = Greater Giving … Go Figure!

Higher ed institutions around the country are struggling to connect with millennial alumni. One of the most philanthropic generations ever, they’re quick to support a variety of causes, but also less interested in giving back to their alma mater. Why the disconnect? Advancement organizations are primed to appeal to generosity and tradition, but engaging millennials requires institutions to connect with these graduates in different ways that speak to their particular preferences. Here are three insights that will help you engage your younger alumni:

They want to give to causes, not organizations.
The most powerful way to engage millennials is through a cause they care about. The more they know about who and what they’re giving to and the impact of their potential gift, the more they will want to help. Millennials strive for a world in which conditions are better than they are today and will continue to get better for everyone. According to the 2017 Millennial Impact Report, millennials are interested in causes/social issues relevant to quality of life for the greatest part of the population and/or marginalized or disenfranchised individuals or groups. Harness this dissatisfaction with the status quo and demonstrate how your young alumni can be part of the solution through your institution.

They want to give on their own terms.

Young alumni will likely be more excited to support your institution if you give them many different ways to give back. For millennials, their time, money, and personal networks all have equal value. So ask them to share news about your institution on social media, to serve on a young alumni council, or to offer job opportunities to students and fellow alumni before asking them to open their wallets. This prepares them for long-term relationships that run much deeper than a single donation. Then, once they are ready to provide financial support, make sure you meet them where they are – online! Convenience is key with millennials, and it’s important to offer multiple methods of giving through online donation forms, mobile, crowdfunding platforms, and your school’s social pages.

They want authentic content.

Millennials see through many of the marketing techniques that worked just fine with their parents’ generation. The 2014 Engaging Millennials: Trust & Attention survey revealed that 84% of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising. And in their book, Marketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever, authors Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton write that millennials are 44% more likely to trust experts (who happen to be strangers) than advertisements and 247% more likely to be influenced by blogs or social networking sites than the average shopper. While this is a major shift for marketers, it’s also an enormous opportunity to take a targeted approach to your alumni engagement strategy. The key to creating tailored communications is understanding what matters most to your key target audiences. Conducting regular market research with your younger post-grads will help you build an informed strategy that fuels your institution’s engagement and fundraising efforts.

Millennials aren’t just a subset of your alumni population; they’re your institution’s upcoming leaders, board members, and donors. And the future of giving rests in their hands.

Branding in an Age of Cynicism

I was recently talking with a friend whose 17-year-old son is in the depths of his college-selection process. She related to me her family’s impressions of several campus visits, saying that one school had stuck out because the entire day’s experience—from the information session to the tour to random interactions with students—had reinforced an impressive theme of service. She concluded with a remark about how we all know, however, that higher ed marketing is B.S.

I’ll admit to being a little miffed that my good friend had basically just said that my profession was proliferating B.S. But I had to smile, too, because the story that she had relayed was an example of higher ed branding at its best. She had been captivated by the institution’s consistent delivery of its core ethos—to the point that this university was now her top choice for her son.

It bolstered a point that I always make with clients: staying on message—for the long haul—is critical. Even if you start to get bored with it yourself, it’s important for key audiences who may know of your institution in a general sense but are now interacting with it on a personal level for the first time. But with so much skepticism around college—the admissions process, delivery, outcomes—and just marketing in general, how can you relay your brand in a way that truly connects with cynical parents and their nonplussed teens? How about grouchy alumni and been-there-heard-that donors? While there is no bulletproof solution, I advocate for the following three tenets of branding that can make a difference in how today’s wary stakeholders receive your message.


Build around a relatable theme. So many “about us” statements and marketing materials I see for institutions present a mind-numbing laundry list of attributes and benefits that just end up making the place indistinguishable from its competitors. There’s such a fear of leaving something out that the end result is a run-on sentence of mush.

A recent Fast Company article gave a great example of how a carefully curated brand can provide a better framework for messaging. The article quoted Simon Endres, CEO of Red Antler, the agency that branded Casper mattresses, who said, “With Casper, we worked to say they’re a sleep company, not a mattress company, which gives them flexibility to build content. They can do anything with sleep, or waking life, because the [idea] was that better sleep leads to a better waking life.” The lesson for colleges: You can actually open up possibilities by honing in on an authentic high-level theme and then showing how different aspects of the campus experience support and extend it. Bonus: It’s easier for prospects to remember a singular theme—and make it their own—than to try to memorize a million different facts about your school.


Transcend the transactional. An article last year in Harvard Business Review explored the differences between purchase brands and usage brands. Purchase brands, it says, emphasize promotion, think about what they say to customers, and try to shape what people think about the brand. Usage brands emphasize advocacy, worry about what customers say to each other, and try to influence how people experience the brand—that is, they “think of customers less as one-time buyers and more as … members with an ongoing relationship.”

Colleges and universities often act as purchase brands, and that mindset can be hard to shake. But small moves can set change in motion. Engaging in social listening can open your eyes to associations both surprising and helpful, as well as identify powerful influencers to leverage. Regular market research is a must; we have some clients that make it a priority to conduct replication studies every two years and closely track the results to gauge brand equity and determine where they need to focus resources. And as my colleague Matt McFadden noted in his November blog post, institutions should think about opportunities where they can shift some traditional marketing activities toward more experiential approaches—programs, events, interactive sites, and other offerings that focus on community-building, customer service, and personalization that positions your brand as a lifestyle choice rather than a negotiable commodity.


Operationalize it. On college campuses, the word “branding” is almost always still paired with “marketing.” The common perception is that branding is the sole purview of the marcomm office. But a handful of colleges and universities are starting to understand the essential role of branding in the institution’s long-term growth. More and more we are seeing brand strategy informing strategic planning, rather than being one of the action items arising from the plan. In terms of best practices, neither is the chicken nor the egg—rather, each is constantly reinforcing and informing the other.

Your brand is not a tagline, logo, and color palette. It is a mission-based expression of your institution’s distinguishing ethos, and its power cannot be taken for granted. The brand promise and values must be taught and consistently nurtured, as noted in a recent Branding Strategy Insider article, which said: “Brands have so much potential to restore credibility to communications in ways that build the business. … Actions must align to the values of the brand, and customers need to see those values being lived by every worker and in every transaction, internal or external.” NYU is a good example of a higher ed institution working to operationalize its brand: the university is creating a faculty and staff onboarding center that will provide a one-stop shop for not only handling the logistical components of setting up a new employee—ID badge, health-insurance enrollment, etc.—but also offering training on the institution’s core brand values. From the very start, those who are on the front lines of providing the university experience will understand their role in living and propagating the NYU brand, whether in the classroom or in the dining hall.