Articles from 2018 Worth a (re)Read

2018 has been a long and busy year. February alone gave us the Winter Olympics, “Black Panther,” and an Eagles’ Super Bowl title, so we can’t blame you if you’ve forgotten a few of 2018’s under-the-radar headlines. It’s finally December, which means it’s time for our annual tradition of revisiting a few of the year’s best higher ed articles worth a re-read.

  • In many ways, 2018 was a continuation of 2017, as issues and movements such as #MeToo continued to find their way into the higher ed sphere. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report that found that “half of women in science experience some form of harassment.” But how do these academies handle the harassers when membership is for life?
  • The Chronicle’s article on the NASEM report discusses the reporting procedures that college campuses have in place, and the way that they often protect institutions from liability. Reporting from The New York Times detailed this idea further, upon obtaining Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ August proposal to increase the rights of the accused and reduce liability for colleges and universities. Any policy changes will continue to come at a sensitive and critical time, as investigations of sexual misconduct continue to take place at some of the nation’s most prominent universities.
  • In addition to the #MeToo movement, 2017 gave us a national debate about Confederate symbols that played out in college towns like Charlottesville. While the news typically examines the (oft-heated) conversation from a variety of perspectives, rarely is the focus on professors who give the debates a historical context. The Chronicle listens to historians who say that in 2018, “’business is good,’ but often for bad reasons.”
  • News of Amazon’s new headquarters locations made waves a few weeks ago, but back in June news from another online giant made quiet ripples on the web. A report from The Chronicle discussed Google’s plans to play a bigger role in the college search process, and that’s something we should all stay ahead of. As Google continues to be the internet’s preeminent gatekeeper of information, colleges and universities should monitor what data the search giant is highlighting for prospective students, and how this may change recruitment efforts including your college or university’s website.
  • Colleges and universities across the country are growing more diverse and inclusive by the year. But Forbes’ Josh Moody wonders, where is that diversity at the top? In a year that saw my alma mater William & Mary appoint its first female president after more than 300 years, there still exists a wide gap between the number of men and women who lead our institutions.
  • “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing evening.” No one will soon forget Nike’s new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. But what can universities learn from it? In the words of William Bernach, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.” SimpsonScarborough’s own Steven Lovern also talks about what taking a stand means in today’s political reality.
  • Private support is more important than ever to colleges and universities. However, as the need for support grows, so must the scrutiny with which one examines the complicated nature of a gift. Take for instance a very recent and very generous donation: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University. It’s an enormous contribution to a worthy cause, but Vox argues that even if the “why” is right – the “where” might be misplaced if you’re aiming to do the most good.

Finally, at the end of a long year, we could all use a reminder of why we do what we do. Higher education is about students and the pursuit of knowledge, and this East Carolina University professor reminds us that sometimes that means showing up to a late night library study session to provide some last minute help.

So, no matter what that sacrifice is for you in your role, we know that you all make it every day in the name of a greater good. Here’s to 2019!

Missed our (still relevant) recap of 2017? Check it out here.

Speaking Up: Higher Ed’s New Political Reality

Playing it safe — the way colleges and universities have traditionally approached politically charged issues — doesn’t work the way it used to. Our new political reality is not kind to those who sit on the sideline or approach issues half-heartedly. According to a recent study by Sprout Social, the majority of today’s consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues. Staying silent is considered more of a risk than a brand communicating a position on issues.

The 2016 Presidential Election is a prime example of institutions starting to speak up more and take a stand.

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the U.S. woke up to a political reality nearly all thought was improbable. While the effect of the election was felt across the nation, colleges and universities — especially a majority of students on campuses — seemed to be particularly affected.

I spoke with Trinity Washington University President Pat McGuire about the experience on her campus the day after the 2016 Election.

“Like almost everyone, including Donald Trump, I was shocked. It was quickly evident that the mood on campus was funereal. Students were crying, and faculty were stunned. The large number of Dreamers in our community immediately felt like their protections were going to evaporate.”

Witnessing and experiencing this moment, President McGuire knew she needed to “assure the campus community that the political change doesn’t necessarily mean a change for life on campus.”

In her message to the Trinity Washington University community, President McGuire stated, “I […] know that the election of Donald Trump poses some real concerns among members of the Trinity family. Let me take this moment to remind all of us of the common values we share here at Trinity, and the commitment that I, as your college president, owe to each of you to continue working to ensure our values.”

When reading the statement, the phrase “working to ensure our values” is what stands out to me. President McGuire went on to denounce “rhetoric or action or policy that denigrates women,” reiterate the values of social justice, and reaffirm the institution’s support for all students regardless of where they were born, what God they worship, the color of their skin, or who they love.

Still to this day, President McGuire doesn’t necessarily see this as a political statement, but rather considers it a message grounded in the institution’s values that is moral, ethical, and community-focused.


President McGuire was not the only president to release a statement in response to the election. There were dozens of institutions and presidents who made statements in reaction to the 2016 Election. It was during this time period that higher ed saw more institutions speaking up and speaking out about politics more than any moment in recent history. And this trend didn’t stop with the 2016 Election.

Seven days into President Trump’s term, he signed an executive order banning entry into the U.S. from seven predominately Muslim countries as well as suspending the refugee program — an executive order that would become more popularly known as the Muslim Ban.

The Muslim Ban prompted swift denouncement from colleges and universities across the U.S., with some of the most effective presidential communications coming from institutions using their values as the basis of their statements.

President John Sygielski of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) said, “Whether you were born in the [U.S.] or you are one of HACC’s…international students…the central mission of the college – to create opportunities and transform lives to shape the future together – applies to each of you equally. You are right where you belong — at HACC.”

President Janet Napolitano and the Chancellors of the University of California said, “[T]his executive order is contrary to the values we hold dear as leaders of the University of California. It is critical that the [U.S.] continues to welcome the best students, scholars, scientists, and engineers of all backgrounds and nationalities. We are committed to supporting all members of the UC community who are impacted by this executive action.”

Recently, higher ed has also seen institutions come out on politically charged issues such as the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

After the release of the ad, College of the Ozarks decided that it would no longer use uniforms carrying the Nike logo. College of the Ozarks President Jerry Davis stated, “If Nike is ashamed of America, then we are ashamed of them.”

Marci Linson, Dean of Admissions for College of the Ozarks, continued, “Nike is free to campaign as it sees fit, as the college is free, and honor-bound by its mission and goals, to ensure that it respects our country and those who truly served and sacrificed.”

Much like the institutions and presidents using their community values and personal values to speak up and speak out in reaction to the 2016 Election or the Muslim Ban, College of the Ozarks and others used their community values and personal values to speak up and speak out in reaction to the politically charged ad.


Institutions and their presidents speaking up and speaking out about politically charged issues is more common in today’s higher ed landscape, but it is not a new phenomenon. There is historical precedence.

When I asked higher ed history scholar and William & Mary School of Education faculty member Dr. Eddie Cole for one example of such precedence, he told me about Princeton in the early 1960s and the larger political question around stronger civil rights legislation in America.

“Princeton President Robert Goheen felt personally obliged to see to it that the university did its part to address racial inequality. This disgruntled many southern Princeton alumni, which was sizable considering the university’s history, but Goheen pressed forward with a number of initiatives. He launched programs to actively recruit more black students, opened campus employment for black employees beyond menial roles, and removed local businesses that discriminated from campus advertisements.”

President Goheen was willing to take a stance and advocate for one of the early examples of affirmative action in higher education, a cause that was important to him and his community — even if it meant upsetting a cohort of alumni.


For so long, institutions have tried to be everything to everyone. The reality is that’s unsustainable and ineffective. When you try to be everything to everyone, odds are you are nothing to nobody. By taking a stand you’ll likely gain admirers and turn off others.

You read that right, there are some people that will be turned off by your brand and the statements you make, and that is okay. Colleges and universities are in need of a change in mindset about how they position themselves. Institutions need to be bolder and more authentic in their approach of what connects them to people, what makes them different from or more relevant than their competitors, and ultimately, what they believe in. A strong brand has a point of view. It has the power to take a stand by clearly and simply stating what your institution values while being authentically rooted in your mission and vision.

The Great Folly of Numbers and Technology in Higher Education Marketing

What I Came Away Thinking After AMA

Like a lot of you, I just spent three days at AMA in Orlando. I heard about Facebook and mobile and automation and personalization. I heard about leadership and culture and generations and empathy. I heard about the impact of education on our society. And it was all great (minus Facebook tbh), as it always is. But all of the talks and conversations tend to spin me around. There’s so much, and I find myself asking: What did I miss? Was there a common theme? Was there something that connects everything we just heard and talked about? What was different than in years past? Are we evolving fast enough as an industry or just talking about the same things year after year?

The last question at first caused me to pause. And then it gave me hope. It’s easy to say that higher ed moves slow. And even easier to use that as an excuse for becoming complacent. But when you drown out the noise in your head, things become clear. No matter how slow or fast we move, there is always a constant. And there always will be. It’s humans. And more importantly, the human condition.

As marketers, we are trained to create things that are fundamentally designed to elicit an emotion. To cause someone to recall something. To get them to like us more. And we have been sucked in by the allure of efficiency and automation. To make things easier and faster. There may be some good in that approach, but the only thing I can guarantee you about that approach is that we’ll just do a nuanced version of it next year. We’ll dive back into Google Analytics or Sprout or {insert favorite dashboard here} and make a goal to eclipse a number we just looked at on a glowing rectangle. I can’t think of a worse way to elicit an emotion from someone. On top of that, our goal should never just be to elicit an emotion from someone. It’s short-sighted and the intent is awful.

Our primary goal as communicators and marketers should be about genuine human connection. It’s the only way to build a sustainable movement. We all long to be listened to, to be loved and needed, and to feel like we are on a path towards self-improvement. Universities can impact these deep desires every single day. And they can do it across all of their constituencies. Current students, prospects, alumni, faculty – there is an opportunity to build genuine connection every day. But it is hard. And it’s almost always immeasurable.

So, we focus on marketing tactics that will only take us so far because, at some level, they are measurable. Advertisements, brand anthem videos, campus banners, virtual tours, Instagram stories, and direct mail build awareness in the short-term. Sometimes they’ll increase the likelihood to inquire or apply. But not as well as a person can. Especially not face-to-face. If you think about an interpersonal communication effort like that across a university, it seems far too daunting (more on this in a bit). It’s a lot of conversations that you’ll never be 100% sure are working. This amount of effort and ambiguity is exactly what technology tells us we don’t need. It tells us, with quantifiable metrics, that what we are doing is working just fine and with minor adjustments, we can be doing even better. Numbers are like an electric blanket though. One minute you’re cozy and three episodes deep on Netflix, and the next minute your living room is on fire.

I’m not saying that we should stop marketing campaigns. Or that we shouldn’t automate some of our efforts. Campaigns, automation, and measurement are vital. What I am saying is that should never be our core focus. We should question where we focus our efforts and have the confidence to put time into efforts that require us to listen, engage, and learn from the people all around us. I wish I had more definitive answers to help, but I only have more questions. Like:

  • Are we better off creating a new virtual tour that we’ll know exactly how many people took? Or should we set up a workshop for admissions counselors and tour guides that allows them to design a new tour?
  • Should we develop a social media strategy for the President? Or should we find more intentional, one-on-one interactions for her to not just share her vision, but learn from others on how to make it even more impactful?
  • Should we do another crowdfunded Give Day? Or, do we work directly with local alumni groups and let them create new opportunities for giving that align with their ideas of how their alma mater can make a bigger impact?

Those would all be difficult decisions. And it’s easy to poke holes in any of those ideas; to find reasons they just won’t work. At some point, though, you do have to make a decision and too often we default to the one we’ll be able to measure. But the other road, the one less measurable, works. And here’s proof.

A few years ago, I started working on a project with Tyler Gayheart at the University of Kentucky. He oversaw strategic communications for enrollment management. The project was to build a majors and minors finder app. Kentucky was embarking on a significant effort to reduce the number of students who were still undeclared. In one way, building a majors and minors finder is pretty straightforward. But we started differently. We wrote a story. That of a 16-year-old girl who built rockets with her dad growing up, who now wanted to be an astronaut. The app was designed and developed with her in mind. At every turn, we asked, how will she use this? Will she find a program at Kentucky that can set her on a course to living out her dream? And while the app functioned beautifully, it was successful because Tyler never saw it as an app. He saw it as a medium for face-to-face communication between people and a way for people at Kentucky to help students find direction and value. So much so that he spent six-plus months all over campus talking to deans, faculty, counselors, students, etc. about the app, why it was created, and how to use it. What happened? Counselors turned their computers towards students, walked them through the app, and had real conversations about the best options available. Within the first year, undeclared majors at Kentucky dropped by nearly 20%.

Tyler didn’t set out on that project to hit a specific number. He set out to increase the chances that more students would graduate by helping them find what they were passionate about. And the best way wasn’t to build an app, it was to build real human connections.

Storytelling: Art, Science, & Strategy

Here at SimpsonScarborough, we believe in and embrace the power of storytelling. In fact, our CEO and Partner, Elizabeth Johnson, is speaking at Academic Impression’s Leveraging High Impact Stories to Build Institutional Visibility conference later this month in Boston alongside Azusa Pacific University’s David Peck and Harvard University’s Mike Petroff, where she will help teach attendees strategies to convey their institution’s most powerful stories in the most compelling ways.

Storytelling has quickly become one of the biggest buzzwords in higher ed marketing over the past couple of years, for good reason: When done effectively, storytelling can elevate the messages you’re trying to communicate to your audiences in an authentic, aspirational, powerful way. Target audiences are able to engage and connect with your subject more meaningfully than through traditional “sales-oriented” forms of marketing. Doing this effectively takes not only a good reporter and writer, but also a great marketer who understands the three foundational aspects of brand storytelling:

1) Storytelling is an art. Go to almost any higher ed website. What do you see? “Ninety percent of our students receive financial aid.” “Ninety-six percent of our students are employed or are enrolled in graduate school six months after graduation.” In attempt to address ROI concerns with prospective students, parents, and other audiences, proof points litter our marketing materials. As impressive as many of these statistics might be, they can start to feel hollow, and students tend to glance over them when they see fairly similar numbers across institutions. Don’t get me wrong, these proof points are important, but we suggest using them as supports for stories that are more emotionally resonant with key audiences.

For example, if you are trying to communicate that 90% of your students receive financial aid, then it might be more effective to tell particular students’ stories. Andrew is a first-generation college student who comes from the rural part of your state. His parents make just enough money that they don’t qualify for Pell grants. However, because of a scholarship set up by an alumna of the college for the reason of helping students on the cusp of additional federal financial aid, Andrew can make the financial situation work at your college.

Students can see themselves in Andrew’s shoes. Parents can see themselves in the shoes of Andrew’s parents. Alumni can see the very real impact scholarships make in the lives of students. We all have stories like this that are ready to be told that motivate, engage, and connect with audiences.

2) Storytelling is a science. As much as storytelling is an art — creatively telling the stories of students, faculty, alumni, and more — it is also a science. In order to effectively use storytelling in your marketing operations, you need to have data.

Not all of your audiences are going to relate to Andrew’s story. The third-generation student with well-off parents from the suburbs of a major city probably won’t be able to see herself in Andrew’s shoes. One story isn’t a catch-all approach; different stories are needed to bolster storytelling efforts.

Therefore, you need to have data about your target audiences. Ask, for example, Who are your prospective students? Where are they spending their time? What are they spending more time with?

3) Storytelling is intrinsically tied to brand strategy. This one is pretty straightforward. As much as storytelling is an art and a science, the stories that you are creating must be tied to your brand strategy. You can have as many emotionally-resonating stories that are grounded in data as you want, but if those stories don’t tie back to your institutional brand, then you’re telling the wrong stories. Without the brand strategy guiding your efforts, you’re going to go off course—quickly.

If you’re interested in hearing more about branded storytelling and want to learn strategies to convey your institution’s most powerful stories in the most compelling ways, consider registering for the intense two-day Leveraging High Impact Stories to Build Institutional Visibility conference in Boston, October 29-30.

Conference Travel Ahead

It’s conference season again, and we’re gearing up for an exciting fall and early 2019 that will take us to Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, and beyond! This year, I’m particularly excited about the best-in-class agenda the SimpsonScarborough and Converge teams have developed together for the upcoming Converge 2019 conference taking place February 19-21.

When Converge first asked me to help plan the conference, I was intrigued because I recognized a gap in the professional development opportunities available to higher ed CMOs. The AMA Higher Ed Symposium is a huge event usually attended by more than a thousand people, while CASE and other organizations offer a variety of very small events. I could never find a mid-size conference with great speakers and enough people for great conversation and sharing, but not so many that you feel lost. Converge 2019 will be this “just-right”-size event—big enough to attract nationally known speakers on innovative topics, but small enough for real interactions and learning to occur. I wanted to share a recent conversation I had with our marketing director, Kristen Ingels, when she asked me what makes Converge 2019 a unique event and why I was so eager to get involved.


Q: Why was collaborating with Converge for the 2019 conference important?

A: Converge is at the forefront of digital marketing in higher ed. They are helping institutions take advantage of new technologies, measure the results, and adjust strategies to maximize ROI. SimpsonScarborough is a research-driven brand strategy and creative firm—we are all about measurement and ROI, and this is where our firms intersect philosophically. We share many clients and collaborate frequently. The folks at Converge are cut from the same cloth as our team at SimpsonScarborough.


Q: Higher education leaders are invited to participate in the CMO Experience, a curated leadership track that features sessions with some of the industry’s top experts. Why is the CMO Experience important for organizations, and how can it be impactful for them?

A: When Converge asked me to help plan the CMO Experience at the conference, I asked them to seriously consider every single crazy idea I had. They have implemented all of them. Most notably, there’s going to be a private lounge for CMOs. What I hear is that CMOs want private, quiet time to chat with their peers about budgets, org structure, politics, etc. The CMO lounge will give them the time and space to connect with their peers, share what’s going on at their institutions, and get advice on how to maximize their marketing effort.


Q: What is one thing you want your listeners to take away from past conferences, Converge 2019, or future conferences?

A: The future is here. The marketing function is growing rapidly in higher ed. We are getting more sophisticated and more effective. The role that marketing is playing on college and university campuses is finally being recognized as an essential business function. Now is our time. We have to be ready. Converge 2019 will help prepare current CMOs and the next generation.


Q: With over 20 years of experience conducting market research studies, what keeps you motivated in the higher education industry?

A: I love higher ed. I believe in higher ed. I’m convinced that it is the answer to many of our society’s greatest problems. Colleges and universities are educating those who will cure cancer, save the planet, eliminate poverty, reduce racism and bigotry, create beauty in the arts and literature, and so much more. As marketers, we play a small role in helping students find the right college and helping colleges thrive, so that their students can accomplish all these important goals.


We hope you’ll join us! Visit the conference website to check out the full conference program and speaker lineup. Don’t forget to use the code EARLYBIRD by October 15 to save $100 on your registration.