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.

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.