Top 5 Session Picks for AMA Higher Ed 2018

With less than a month to go until the start of AMA Higher Ed, it’s officially time to download the conference app and pencil out your schedule for what is sure to be an action-packed few days. After missing last year’s conference, I’m even more determined to avoid any cases of FOMO and have reviewed the speaker lineup to curate my top five picks.


  • Trends and Tactics for Higher Ed Executives on Social Media and the People Who Support Them with Gail Martineau, Senior Social Media Manager, The Ohio State University; Josie Ahlquist, Research Associate, Digital Engagement & Leadership Consultant, Florida State University; and Liz Gross, Founding Director, Campus Sonar. Monday, November 5, 10:15 – 11:45am

Why I Picked It:

  • The NY Times recently published a must-read for higher ed marketers on what they dubbed “the iGen Shift” in which the author states, “A new generation is now on campus … [that is] driving shifts, subtle and not, in how colleges serve, guide and educate them, sending presidents and deans to Instagram and Twitter.” That transformation is typically happening a lot faster than the operations of higher ed marketing units, which often still have a team of one dedicated to the university’s social media accounts. With more and more leaders turning to social media as an authentic channel to amplify their messages and make an impact, this session is sure to be jam-packed with takeaways and insights from an analysis of 45k+ posts from Presidents/VPs to implement on your campus.



  • How Sweet Briar College Found Its FIERCE (Brand) with Melissa Richards, Vice President, Sweet Briar College. Monday, November 5, 11:15am – 12:00pm

Why I Picked It:

  • It’s been exciting to see the meaningful integration between marketing, branding, and enrollment that has led to a major comeback from crisis at Sweet Briar College. A new President, a revamped curriculum, and a tuition reset have all been part of the turnaround that has caught many people’s attention. The most recent accolade saw Sweet Briar singled out as one of the nation’s Most Innovative Schools in US News & World Report. I’m looking forward to hearing about the transformation and purposeful innovation firsthand from Melissa.



  • Lessons Learned: Presidential Transitions and Elevating Your University’s Profile to Gain Competitive Advantage with Amber Epling, Director of Presidential Communications and Jennifer Kirksey, Chief of Staff, Ohio University. Monday, November 5, 3:00 – 3:45pm

Why I Picked It:

  • With shorter tenure among Presidents the norm today, more higher ed marketers are likely to experience a transition of this magnitude at their institutions. With regular change and the possible turbulence that comes along with it, I’m intrigued to hear Ohio University share their case study that covers the three main stages in the process: the presidential farewell, the presidential search, and the presidential introduction.



  • 7 Potholes to Avoid on the Road to Brand-ville with Jack Chielli, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Marketing & Communications, Mount Saint Mary’s University and Elizabeth Johnson, CEO and Partner, SimpsonScarborough. Tuesday, November 6, 10:15 – 11:00am

Why I Picked It:

  • Although the “b-word’ (brand) is more widely accepted on campuses today, the process of branding is no walk in the park. From unexpected crises, lack of funding, and internal politics, there are plenty of roadblocks along the way of developing an effective brand. Aside from the fact that I work with Elizabeth and know she’ll share some great examples from many of our fantastic clients, this is a session that all attendees are guaranteed to leave with an immediately actionable list of do’s and don’ts.



  • Making Change: Growing a Seed in a Culture of Silos with Erin Petrotta, Director of Marketing & Student Communication and Megan Horton, Director of Branding & Digital Strategy, Oklahoma State University. Tuesday, November 6, 4:00 – 4:45pm

Why I Picked It:

  • I’m fascinated by the continued evolution of the marketing department within higher ed. While the current reach of marketing is significant at many universities, there are often limitations and challenges that inhibit the CMO and her department from playing a truly strategic role on campus. One key shift I’m seeing across the best-in-class marketing departments is the true integration and partnership they build and foster across campus (albeit if it takes years). I’m looking forward to hearing how Oklahoma State used the success of a pilot project to align marketing, communications, and enrollment departments and move the needle on institutional-level goals.


Those are my top five, although the agenda (now available online) is full of sessions that are worth checking out. I’m looking forward to a great conference and hope to connect with you. Stop by our booth (#308) to say hello! See you in Orlando!

Higher Ed’s Generational Identity Crisis

We’re in the midst of a generational transition in higher ed, but many schools look like they’re still just talking to Millennials. Which made us think: How often do you need to reexamine who your core audience is and what they care about?

About six years ago, we were working on a university’s brand strategy. Throughout the process, especially when interviewing students, we heard about opportunities to work towards the greater good. Every student was involved with some volunteer organization on campus, and they expected their academics to be purpose-driven. It was awesome, and at the time, unique against their competitors—so much so that the theme became one of their brand pillars.

Fast forward to today. We just finished a competitive review for a client. We read website copy, recruitment emails, social media posts, and more. You know what’s everywhere? “Impact the world,” or some variation on that theme.

It’s common for any unique brand to lose distinctiveness over time due to industry competition. Higher ed brands are no exception. It’s easy to latch on to generational trends. But in this scenario, there’s a bigger issue at play. We are at a point in time in higher education that only comes around every 20 years or so. We’re in a generational transition.

We’ve actually been in it for a couple of years now, but not everyone has caught on. The students mentioned earlier are now somewhere between 24–28 years old. Hang out on Twitter for a few minutes (or don’t, it’s kind of a hellscape right now) and you’ll see someone bash college students or recent grads for liking avocados or looking at their phones while walking or — whatever — and call them Millennials. Maybe they are in the youngest age range of Millennials, but chances are they are the oldest Gen Z’ers.

Generational cutoffs aside, the Millennial Twitter bashing highlights a bigger problem: that people spent a lot of time getting to know Millennials and now think all young people are Millennials. We could debate the differences between Gen Z and Millennials, but this isn’t about generational differences. This is about the evolution of brands in higher education, and the frequency at which that evolution needs to happen.

We all know universities lag in their marketing efforts. Having lots of stakeholders and tradition come with a lot of drag. I’d imagine more MarComm offices would do more brand research and be far more agile in their messaging and marketing if it weren’t such a giant pain in the ass. So how often should a university work on evolving its brand and marketing? And what should that entail?

Good MarComm offices are pulling sizable market research every couple of years (some every year) and making needed strategic adjustments. But is that often enough? On one hand, no. On the other, good research can be expensive and time-intensive, so it’s understandable why it doesn’t happen more often. “Introspection fatigue” also sets in amongst stakeholders when they are involved in qualitative research too often. Given this confluence of hurdles, here are a few ways institutions can obtain more information and act on it much faster.

Secondary data from trusted sources

This one has some flaws. It’s free, which is great. And there’s no shortage of articles on Gen Z. Like this one. Or this one. Or this one. A lot of good information and ideas can come from these sources, but I’d temper that by asking your own students if they align with what you find. Keep in mind that generations are just that — GENERATIONS. A lot happens over the course of 15–20 years. Like, three to five Presidents happen. Hell, a lot happens over the course of a year that can change someone’s perspective. Don’t expect the mindset of an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to be the same because they carry the same Gen Z label.

Replication studies

If you’ve got the budget, testing your university’s messaging and perception through replication studies can be your most quantifiable measure. The downside here is cost and time. Time is an issue if changes are warranted and you want to test them in market. It’s also common for significant change in perception and other metrics to take longer than a year to change significantly. Which leads us to…

Agile research and creative testing

Within each generation exists a handful of sub-generations. I am eight years younger than my sister, and while we are both Gen X, we have our distinct differences. Setting up efficient online surveys with tools like Get Feedback, on-campus workshops, or other means to gauge more frequent shifts in perception will allow you to adapt more in the moment. This becomes especially useful within CRM, social media, and digital efforts. If you feel like you have a solid brand platform, you should be able to naturally evolve the messaging and key areas of focus without eroding the foundation (i.e., brand pillars).

We’re in what feels like a bit of a lunar eclipse as higher ed marketers. We’re about to see a severe downturn in the overall population of college-going students coupled with a shift in generations. This may be the only time in our lifetimes that we experience a combination of events like this. The mix of both should motivate us all to evolve at a far greater pace.

This post was originally published on Matt’s Medium blog.

Call for Nominations: 2019 SimpsonScarborough Scholars

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) is currently accepting nominations for the 2019 SimpsonScarborough Scholars program. Established in 2008, the program honors our founding partner, Christopher Simpson, who passed away that year. Well-known in higher education for media relations and crisis communications work, Christopher was strongly committed to serving as a mentor to young professionals. The SimpsonScarborough Scholars program continues Christopher’s legacy by supporting the professional development of promising candidates in higher education marcom. Each year, up to four Scholars attend the Summer Institute for Communications and Marketing, CASE’s flagship training program for newcomers to the field, and receive mentoring and other benefits. Visit the CASE website for complete details, including eligibility requirements and application instructions.

The application deadline is November 16, 2018.

What We Did on Our Summer Vacation

When we formed SimpsonScarborough in 2006, it was fair to say that higher education marketing was in its infancy. And it’s no coincidence that as it reaches its adolescence, our agency has grown along with it. The reason is simple—the best higher education brands are built, measured, refined, and expressed through research. Colleges and universities need insights to inform strategies, seek out what sets their institutions apart, measure their impact, and bring skeptical academics along with them on the brand journey.

As the industry has matured, we have added more services as our clients have needed them. In 2014, we began to go deeper on strategy and offer creative services. This summer, we’ve made several additional changes that will allow SimpsonScaborough to continue to grow and serve the industry we’re so deeply committed to.

First, we refined the role of our agency partners. I’ll be truly taking on a CEO role, working with university presidents and chancellors to define and build their marketing teams and strategies and provide a vision for SimpsonScarborough’s continued growth that makes sure we are able to support our clients at the highest levels. Jason Simon is now our Chief Operating Officer, overseeing our work, client relationships, and 30+ member team. And as our Chief Marketing Officer, Dana Edwards will handle all of our marketing and business development, finding new clients who could benefit the most from our partnership.

While we’ve quickly grown from a small team to a full-service, integrated agency, we continue to expand, hiring people who are not only the best and brightest but those who share our passion and commitment to higher education. This summer alone we added five talented professionals, and we’re excited to tell you about them.

Matt McFadden is our new Vice President of Strategy and Account Planning. He came to us from Up & Up, a higher ed branding and marketing agency in Greenville, SC. When I first met Matt, he convinced me to try rice and beans at the Baton Rouge airport, and I knew right then and there that he had to be on our team. Matt will apply his 20+ years of experience, including work with loads of colleges and universities, to leading our team of AVPs, Senior Strategists, and Account Teams.

Cole Londeree is our new Associate Creative Director (Design). She is a talented, award-winning designer who has worked with cool brands like the Greater Columbus Arts Council, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, and Susan G. Komen, in addition to working with schools like Carnegie Mellon, Denison, and University of North Carolina. Fun facts about Cole include that she has a twin, has a particular talent in hand-lettering and paper arts, and is an expert in curated craft cocktail products and experiences (trust me, you want to try one of her creations!).

Emma Miller  joined us as a Senior Account Executive from Butler/Till, a digital marketing agency, where she worked her way up from an assistant account executive to a senior account executive role. Emma knows SimpsonScarborough’s work well, as she worked with our team when we partnered with Butler/Till on several previous projects. She earned her B.A. in Communication from University at Buffalo and has all the traits of a great account manager, including the fact that her greatest fear is clutter.

Jack Edgar is also a new Account Executive. Jack spent the last five years working in advancement at William & Mary, where he tirelessly managed volunteers and worked to engage the 25,000+ alumni in the DC metro area. He also earned his degree in Marketing and Sociology at William & Mary.  Jack’s personal motto is, “If you’re going to do something, do it right,” which is related to his proudest accomplishment: he had perfect school attendance in 1999.

Alec Smith started interning with us in May and was so impressive that we offered him a full-time position. His dream job is to be a general manager for a major league baseball team, but for now he’s happy to settle for Assistant Account Executive at SimpsonScarborough. Alec graduated from University of South Carolina, where he majored in Marketing and Entrepreneurial Management. While at USC he studied abroad in Copenhagen and Spain and worked in the Off-Campus Student Services office.

We are continuing our growth and expansion, actively seeking to fill three more positions that are located at our headquarters in Alexandria, VA, just outside of Washington, DC. We’re in search of an AVP of Research, or VP if you are super talented and experienced (#superdatageek). We also need another right-fit Account Executive and a Qualitative Research Coordinator.  If you’re interested in joining SimpsonScarborough or know someone who would be a good fit, please let us know!

ROI: We’re Not Always Looking at the Whole Picture

As the price of a four-year degree continues to rise, prospective students and their families are increasingly questioning the value: Is it really worth it?

Colleges and universities need to demonstrate that what they offer is worth the cost. Typical return on investment (ROI) metrics include graduation rates, average starting salaries, and job placement rates. Even though these metrics are important, they may not be painting the full picture. On a recent swampED podcast, Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, talked about two central experiences of college education that Gallup’s research has revealed to have the greatest impact on graduates’ ROI: relationship-rich experiences and work-integrated experiences.

  1. Relationship-Rich Experiences: Busteed notes that relationship-rich college experiences are a vital part of a student’s career satisfaction post-graduation. Relationship-rich experiences include building strong communication with professors and having one or more mentors who help you reach your goals and dreams. Students who have these kinds of relationships are significantly more likely to have higher levels of engagement in their future careers. High levels of career engagement are a significant factor in overall quality of life post-graduation.
  2. Work-Integrated Experiences: Work-integrated experiences include internships, co-ops, and semester or longer class projects. An important distinction to note about internships and co-ops is that the value only exists if the work you do is applicable to what you are learning in the classroom. Busteed’s research shows that having an internship or on-campus job that had nothing to do with a student’s coursework had little impact on career success and satisfaction. However, work-integrated experiences that do correlate to a student’s coursework not only make students more employable but also make them more engaged future employees. Busteed’s research concludes that 85% of employers would rather hire a B student with a relevant internship experience over an A student without one.

It’s time to think about ROI more holistically. 

When looking at ROI, it’s easy to think about outcomes like average salary and job placement rates. However, as we can see, we need to think about ROI more holistically. Higher ed institutions should look to increase their efforts in shepherding students toward relationship-rich and work-integrated experiences that lead to higher levels of long-term career engagement and quality of life. We took a look at how some institutions are already promoting these types of experiences as great indicators of ROI for their students.

  1. Butler University highlights relationship-rich experiences by simply letting alumni tell their own stories. Through video, quotes, and narratives, grads provide authentic accounts of their most important relationships with professors and discuss the value of these mentors to their life and career successes.
  2. Gettysburg College promotes the value of work-integrated experiences by showcasing metrics such as the percentage of students who complete an internship before graduation and the percentage of employers who believe their Gettysburg interns will lead successful careers. By placing these metrics alongside traditional outcomes, an association is made between completing these experiences while in school and obtaining excellent outcomes post-graduation.
  3. Wartburg College also makes the connection between experience and success by sharing results of its alumni satisfaction surveys on the outcomes pages of its website. Metrics include percentages of alumni who felt a strong sense of community on campus, who had a good mentoring relationship with a member of the Wartburg community, who were challenged to make interdisciplinary connections, and more.

Promoting traditional ROI metrics as well as the experience-based outcomes will help institutions stand out and make the answer to the question, “Is it really worth it?” a resounding “Yes.”