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.

Illuminating Tech.

On January 14th, TV, radio and digital channels across the Midwest started rolling out our latest creative multimedia campaign for Indiana Tech.

We are beyond excited to see this work takeoff into the world, especially as it helps promote our great friends and strategic partners in Fort Wayne.

The Client.

Since the first day of our work with Indiana Tech, SimpsonScarborough learned never to underestimate what this institution was capable of.

For better or for worse, the word “tech” often is seen as limiting in the higher ed space. But for the Warriors at IT, tech is hardly a constraint. It’s the starting point of a powerful story that needs to be told. Indiana Tech has a campus in Fort Wayne serving traditional undergraduates, as well as 18 regional campuses across Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Indiana serving adults seeking to continue their professional studies. Its offerings and the people it serves are hardly limited.

Our robust quantitative research confirmed this hypothesis. So, we dug into the data and created a strategic platform for telling (and showing) the IT story. Building on that solid foundation, we then developed a big creative idea, and corresponding brand identity, that tied all of our insights together:

At its core, tech is the practical application of knowledge. It’s transforming everything we learn into everything we’re capable of doing. For centuries it has enhanced our minds, enabled us to see farther than ever before, and empowered us to live better, more fruitful lives.

The resulting creative work was unveiled to an internal audience of more than 500 faculty and staff and was met with a standing ovation.

The Campaign.

When our partners at Indiana Tech asked us to help them with a 360° ad campaign — building on our past year of research, strategy, and creative work — it didn’t take long to send our response, “Tech Yeah.”

We set out to answer the big question: how do we create a campaign that actually shows people the true comprehensive nature of IT’s offerings? How do we spark a conversation that expands the relevant regional perceptions about this high-quality, hard-working university in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

In this case, we started with the big story, we focused the campaign on the three biggest offers at Indiana Tech — and we turned up the volume.

Learn It: Academics.
Live It: Student Life.
Bring It: Sports & Recreation.
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Finally, we expanded the story (and the conversation) to show the many ways Indiana Tech makes a real impact on people and their careers.

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The Takeaway.

Every day, Indiana Tech helps people pull their distant dream into broad daylight, where they can see it, try it, and grasp it for themselves. The long-term goal of our work with this amazing client is to help illuminate that truth to the world.

“Warrior students and alumni have always known Indiana Tech as a place where people achieve remarkable things every day. We’re a university that helps our students, faculty, and staff reach for a brighter future. The Go for IT campaign created by our partners at SimpsonScarborough not only captures this idea perfectly, it also helps us reach prospective students, partners, and community members to make sure these audiences are aware of — and inspired by — our Indiana Tech story.”

Brian Engelhart, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Indiana Tech

Evolving Your Brand: Four Reasons Your Institution Needs a Brand Refresh

For many marketers, a brand initiative is an enticing idea. It’s also a time-consuming and costly process, so you need to make sure your institution is ready before you dive in. Just because you don’t like your logo doesn’t mean you need to scratch everything. But how do you know when the time is right?

Your Brand Doesn’t Reflect Your Values

Most would agree that your brand is not your logo or colors, although there are still some holdouts. Your brand isn’t the curriculum, study abroad opportunities, or the student-faculty ratio either. Your brand is your values – what’s important to you and what you stand for. It’s these brand values that should be the primary driving force behind your actions, decision-making, and behaviors. They also influence the way you connect with your target audiences. Your prospective students, internal audiences, alumni, donors, influencers, corporate partners, potential faculty hires, and others are more likely to engage with a brand whose values are aligned with their own.

Your Brand Is No Longer Relevant

We all know how hard it is to build a great brand, one that consistently inspires, influences, and compels. And in a time of constant change and heightened customer expectations, maintaining brand relevance is the key to remaining valuable to the people who matter to your institution. Brands need to evolve in a way that meets the needs of their target audiences, embraces change and innovation, and differentiates from the competition. At the same time, trying to stay relevant but not doing it authentically never works. A relevant brand must also align with where the institution is today and where it’s headed.

Your Brand Has Become Too Complicated

Sometimes people describe their brand, and several sentences into it, you still don’t understand their core message. That’s a bad sign. Simplicity makes a brand great. We lose this simplicity by trying to be everything to everyone. You can’t be everything to everyone. This is something most of us understand very well in our own personal lives, but it can be easy to lose sight of this in your brand and marketing efforts. No person, no company, no anything is universally beloved. The most popular restaurants on Yelp still get one-star reviews. The most critically acclaimed movies rarely reach 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you attempt to broadly appeal to everyone, it might work in the short-term, but over time, there’s a chance you won’t appeal to anyone. 

Your Brand Doesn’t Stand Out from the Crowd

Higher ed generally suffers from a crisis of differentiation. It seems every time one institution discovers something that works well, others race to the same idea. But the reality is that people are attracted to different brands because they don’t all want the same thing. So why aren’t we enabling them to choose the brand that is most meaningful to them? Simply put, differentiation directly affects a brand’s short-term profitability and long-term viability. When your target audiences see brands as interchangeable, they make decisions primarily based on price. This ultimately compromises a brand’s ability to survive, especially in challenging market conditions. Differentiation is a long-term objective, not a “take one and call me in the morning” solution. Following the crowd never produces exceptional results. 

If you said yes to any of the above, your institution is ready for a branding initiative. So now what? Join me and Mike Roe next month in Atlanta at Converge 2019 at our two-part workshop, Harnessing the Power of Research to Build a Brand and Leveraging Data to Achieve Long-Term Brand Success. At the end of this session, you will have a thorough understanding of all the steps involved in building, launching, and tracking a brand, complete with examples from many colleges and universities around the country.