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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
On Instagram (like anywhere else), it pays to be famous.
A recent study by socialbakers showed that users are more engaged with content when it comes from celebrities. Like, way more engaged.
According to the data, we double tap and comment on influencer posts 200% more than other media and brands combined.
For those of us in higher ed, though, what does an influencer even look like? College fits differently into people’s lives than Ray Bans or sneakers. And it’s hard to imagine Kim Kardashian repping liberal arts programs, or a popular meme artist making branded GIFs about student-faculty ratios.
Avoiding influencer endorsements might boost our sense of integrity as higher ed marketers, but it’s a missed opportunity in our branding playbook, especially since the numbers so clearly show influencer marketing gaining ground on social.
At SimpsonScarborough, before we even talk about possible social campaigns, we dive into the data and help our clients think through the big questions about their target audiences and the role that influencers play in their daily media consumption. Here are three suggestions for identifying and leveraging influencers to build your brand:
- Find out who really influences your target prospective students’ college perceptions. Is it an A-list celebrity? Or a 17-year-old YouTube-and-Instagram Artist with a million subscribers and a big decision coming up about where to go to college? What if you invited the latter influencer to tour campus and stream the experience? Whatever you do, invest some time in finding out who is capturing attention in your media space and imagine how you might engage your target audience directly through their social channels.
- Tap the idea, not the influencer. Jerry Seinfeld’s phenomenal web-turned-Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee has legions of young fans of the graduate-school age range. So if you’re working on a campaign for a grad school program, for example, you could concept ideas that leverage the show’s influence, show you’re tapped in, and further the university brand in the process. That could mean anything—maybe a web series where admissions officers have silly conversations with prospective grad students at coffee shops before getting to more serious discussions about their aspirations and how the program can help them achieve those goals.
- Try making something in the real world. Think beyond videos and hashtags. In fact, who says you have to even create a campaign ON social media? Instead of reporting the news, become the news. You could make a bigger splash — and make your overworked internal media and brand teams very happy — by sponsoring a real-world experience for your audiences to discover and then spread the message on social. Get an art class to paint a mural in an off-campus neighborhood. Or build a giant installation in the dining hall using only discarded plastic straws to raise awareness of their environmental effects and highlight your school’s commitment to sustainability.
It’s become a truism that all forms of media now compete with all other forms of media — books with movies, movies with television, television with social, social with advertising, and so on and so forth. Instead of fighting that reality, what are you doing to stand out today?
Attend any marketing conference these days and you’re sure to see or hear this quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” I’ve even used it myself. Often.
And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bezos made the statement, it’s clear it was a reaction to the lack of control or ownership that today’s brands have over their own stories. He was also undoubtedly referring to the modern digital age of marketing where social media, product reviews, and other online communities have as much voice and influence on a brand’s perception as any PR or traditional paid media might have in the past.
But while the pithy quote from Bezos is now held as gospel among marketers, it appears we’re still not listening. Most marketers are intent on telling their brand story in their own ways regardless of whether the people we care the most about are listening, what they’re saying about us or, more importantly, what they need or want from our brands.
And, unfortunately, it’s probably even more true in higher education than in other sectors. We continue to insist that we must “tell our stories better” or “get people to understand the value of the liberal arts,” use jargon-y, impersonal language, or just insult our audiences by presenting cliched, staged, or poor-quality images of our people and campuses.
It’s time we start listening! And that can take shape in several ways.
There’s no doubt that sound qualitative and quantitative market research methods remain among the most trusted of ways to understand your audience and how they consider your brand. But traditional market research must evolve. Response rates are falling. People don’t answer phone numbers they don’t recognize. And who can be bothered with a 20-minute survey? Options abound: short, mobile-friendly surveys with straightforward, quick response options. Research panels that can target obscure audiences. Text-message surveys to capture immediate reactions in real time. Instead of focus groups, 1:1 interviews.
Regular social listening and monitoring can also provide valuable insight. But it’s not enough to count mentions and sentiment or likes, shares, and retweets. You must also track what themes are being discussed, who is leading the conversation, and the accuracy of the information being shared, as well as look for opportunities for your brand to join the conversation.
But, as important as monitoring your brand might be, ensuring your institution is providing the right brand experience matters more. Brand loyalty exists on a tightrope. Just ask Uber. Emotional connections to brands can quickly disappear. Relevance and value drive connection to brands these days. And that requires careful listening and thoughtful action.
Spend some time listening—really listening—through research, user feedback, direct conversations or through your social channels, and you can learn a lot about your stakeholders and not just their reactions to your brands but their needs and desires.
You’ll discover a recent grad who graduated with a B.A. that just wants a bit more schooling to make sure she is appealing to an employer as she looks to change careers. Do you make it easy for her? Are you responsive when she is looking for information? How quick are you with an answer to her question?
And what about your students? Do you know if they are having a good experience? Is your institution meeting their expectations? When they were having a problem with a roommate and it was forcing them to stay out all hours of the night and impacting their grades, did you support them? Was there someone that was aware and offering help?
How responsive are you to alumni? Not in sending them updates on campus happenings or asking for a gift, a like, or an event invitation. But in truly keeping them connected with the many unique opportunities they had for exploration, fun, and connection they enjoyed as students? What about a little help to find someone local that may be in their field? Or a student that could offer some help as a summer intern?
College and university brands actually have the rare opportunity to be extensions of our lives. We have an untapped loyalty that many consumer brands dream of. But if you’re not listening, you’re not adding value. And if you don’t meet expectations, everyone will hear about it on their social feed.
Want to delve more into this topic? Join Jason Simon, SimponScarborough’s Chief Operating Officer, and thought leaders from throughout higher education in Chicago October 17-18 at ListenUp Edu, a cross-disciplinary conference that will explore how a culture of listening, service, and trust-building accelerates student success, marketing and communications, alumni engagement, and advancement.
We’re thrilled to be co-hosting Converge 2019! When Converge approached us with the opportunity to design a best-in-class program and curate a track for CMOs, I was eager to get involved. I have been in the higher ed space for 26 years and participated in a variety of conference planning committees, and this is the most exciting and provocative leadership track focused on the future of higher ed marketing I’ve seen.
The three-day event brings together CMOs, deans, enrollment leaders, recruiters, and digital strategists who are advancing the state of higher education marketing and recruitment. Bring your team and join us for deep-dive workshops, keynotes, and breakout sessions focused on everything new and next in EDU digital marketing. We’ll see you February 19-21, 2019, in Atlanta.
Visit the conference website for more information and use the code EARLYBIRD by October 15 to save $100 on your registration.