Some say the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is not appropriate for higher education. I respectfully disagree. And I’m befuddled as to why the NPS is so polarizing. As I wrote previously, the NPS is not the only metric you should use to monitor brand health, but it is very useful as one component of an overall brand tracking strategy.
Just last week I was reading an anti-NPS article in which the dissenter called out three reasons he felt the NPS wasn’t right for higher ed. The first: We do not recommend colleges the same way we recommend other products or services. While this may be true to an extent, it doesn’t negate the value of the NPS in any way. It’s still one (of many) valuable measures of brand strength. It’s true that if I am in a position to recommend my alma mater, I will consider the characteristics and needs of the person to whom I am making the recommendation. Do they want to go to school in that area? Can they get in? Can they afford it? Does the school offer their major? But this is the case with any recommendation. For example, If I’m in a position to recommend a movie, then I would consider similar factors. What types of movies does this person usually like? Can they relate to the subject matter? Will they like the actors? Recommendations are rarely indiscriminate, and they almost always depend on the person you are making the recommendation to.
The second point of dissent: We personalize college choices more than we personalize other goods or services. Rubbish. Lots of brands of goods and services are highly personal. Consider Apple or Wegmans or Lululemon, which all have fanatical brand followers. Harley Davidson lovers often tattoo the brand on their bodies. How many times have you seen someone with a tattoo of their undergraduate institution? To say they are less passionate about Harley than most are about their alma mater just isn’t true. To be honest, I am fanatical about my hair salon. I’m intensely loyal to the business and literally seek out opportunities to recommend it to my friends. Recommendations are always personal; that’s what makes the NPS a powerful metric in every industry, higher ed included.
And finally, there was this: NPS responses are rarely segmented, even though college experiences vary. This is also not true. We segment NPS all the time. And it reveals incredibly useful insights. We often find, for example, that NPS varies dramatically among current students and alumni depending on their major. We recently calculated the NPS for one large public institution’s alumni and found the NPS was twice as high for Milennial-age alums than it was for those in their 40s and 50s. For an elite private college, we recently found the NPS among faculty was much higher than we normally see for similar schools, and it was highest among faculty teaching in certain disciplines and faculty of a particular political persuasion. All super-useful insights that reveal opportunities upon which the institution can develop plans to capitalize. Segmentation of the NPS is often where the most valuable insights lie.
Here I stand, defender of the NPS. It has great value in the higher education context. And it becomes especially useful when you’ve calculated it for over 200 colleges and universities, as we have at SimpsonScarborough. When we report NPS among current students, for example, we are also able to report a high, low, mean, and median for like institutions, making the metric that much more revealing.
So, please, don’t throw out your NPS! It’s a valuable metric to have in your brand-health toolbox.
Over the past decade, marketing has undergone an incredible amount of change. The marketing and advertising industries continue to evolve to meet the needs of the digital age and have begun to shift dramatically as three macro trends emerge:
- The demand for good visual content is on the rise. A recent report from Libris and Contently found that the need for photography and video is increasing — an overwhelming 70% of respondents found a marketer’s message to be more effective when it included visual content. And visual content is now much more than a simple photo or ad; today, companies are producing content for mobile, social, web, print, television, physical spaces, and a host of other channels.
- Creative is increasingly going in-house. In the past five years, Apple’s in-house design team doubled, Chobani’s creative was brought in-house and subsequently introduced a widely popular new identity, and Capital One acquired a design and user experience firm. Many feel as though in-house departments are better equipped to collaborate with internal stakeholders and are able to develop a deeper understanding of customers’ needs.
- The traditional agency model is being disrupted. Historically designed for long-term client partnerships and marketing plans, agencies are rethinking their business and staffing in an attempt to remain at the forefront of creativity and technology. Real-time marketing and the increasing focus on customer experience requires that teams be agile and nimble and willing to adapt to frequent change.
Amongst all this change, the good news for marketing professionals is that businesses and brands are starting to understand the real value of design and visual expression. More than ever before, creativity and business are closely aligned, and for some, good design has become core to good business. The bad news? Creative professionals are overwhelmed. A recent survey by InSource and inMotionNow found that creative teams are producing 10 times the volume of work than in previous years, and it’s not uncommon for a team of fewer than 10 creatives to support the demands of 50+ stakeholders. I suspect that many higher ed marketing teams are grappling with the same challenges.
As the role of your in-house design team becomes even more important, here are a few recommendations that can help set up your marketing communications organization and creative team for success:
- Provide adequate resources. The Libris/Contently report found 51% of companies have 2-5 full-time employees tasked with creating visual content. This is similar to the SimpsonScarborough and The Chronicle 2014 CMO study that found that Doctoral-granting universities have an average of 2.4 full-time employees dedicated to graphic design and .8 to creative direction. As noted, however, the demand placed on creatives has grown exponentially. Successful organizations staff to manage workload, whether that means increasing full-time employees or creating a more flexible operation that utilizes freelancers, part-time staff, and consultants to support design, writing, photography and video needs.
- Treat them as strategic contributors. While some still see designers as the mythical unicorns in the corner coloring, expected to generate an endless stream of original ideas, your creative team should have a leadership voice and strategic role in your marketing communications organization. Expect—and trust—your in-house creative team to be accountable for managing the brand as well as managing their workload.
- Create a sound asset management system. Not only does your team need to have systematic means to account for, complete, and work on deadlines, but more than ever before, in-house creatives must be efficient at managing assets to quickly locate and share visual content. Close to 40% of Libris/Contently respondents report that they do not have a clear method for tagging and organizing all their visual assets, and 1 in 3 report locating the right asset as the biggest obstacle in quickly sharing content. Ouch.
These considerations will empower your team to work smarter as the speed of delivery continues to accelerate and help define the business advantage of not only your creative team but the entire marketing communications department.
If someone picked up your viewbook 50 years from now, what would they notice? Would they recognize the latest design trends? Would they understand what is important to prospective students of the time? To society? To the institution’s community?
I had the opportunity to try to answer some of these questions for my alma mater. With the digitization of Georgetown University’s viewbooks and student prospectuses from the last half century, I flipped through the equivalent of digital time capsules for the University. I chuckled at the bright (somewhat garish) pink, green, yellow, and blue covers of the 1970s as well as the tiny images used in the early 1990s designs. After having a good laugh at the design choices of the past, I more closely examined an early 1950s Georgetown University viewbook titled, “A Visit to the Georgetown Campus,” to see what I might learn that could be applied to admissions marketing today.
The first thing I noticed about this old viewbook was how different the people looked (and I’m not talking about the clothes and hair of the 1950s). The photos exclusively show the all-white, all-male reality of the University in early 1950s, which prompted me to think about the transition to the more culturally diverse, co-ed institution that Georgetown celebrates today. Even though some of the clubs and extracurricular activities are a bit different these days, I saw my campus experience represented in the black and white photos, from the clubs highlighted to the “Hoya hoopsters” prominently featured. Most interestingly, I saw the parallels between the description of the University in this mid-century viewbook and the University’s current website — both descriptions promoted the Jesuit education, a “complete” education of the whole person, and a global experience.
While fun, this examination prompted further reflection on questions (and sometimes tensions) about the significant investment in a viewbook. Looking forward 50 years, who knows what your campus viewbook will look like—or if it will exist at all. But, while viewbooks continue to be a staple of many university marketing/admissions materials, acknowledge that, for the most part, your viewbook will never completely stand the test of time. Viewbooks are a snapshot in time and are an amazing reflection of shifting design trends and an ever-evolving student body that responds to societal needs. However, your viewbook can—and should—always honor the core of your institution, hopefully reflecting an inspiring brand that endures.
As your current viewbook approaches its expiration date and you itch to overhaul everything, I’ll leave you with the following questions:
- What trends or innovations can help you achieve the goal of the viewbook? Should you consider a shorter book with less text? How can the piece work with your website? How can this piece incorporate augmented reality? How can you personalize the viewbook and incorporate knowledge from your CRM? Should this piece even exist?
- What do prospective students (and/or their parents) want to see? How do they want to receive information or interact with you? What do they find important during the stage of their search or of their consideration process? How can you motivate them to engage with you further?
- What makes you relevant and responsive? Are your stories and proof points relevant to the current job market? What are people concerned about given the economy? What are the societal tensions that you help alleviate?
- How can you reflect what is important to the campus community? What are your brand pillars? What are the key stories or proof points to illustrate those points?
Is it possible for a college or university to have too much information about prospective students? Too much data on their parents? Too many insights into what makes alumni want to reconnect and give? Too many reactions to marketing messages, brand concepts, and tactical ideas?
It’s pretty ridiculous to think it’s possible to have too much of any of it.
Throughout my 26 years in higher ed marketing, I’ve come across maybe four or five schools that really did have too much research. Research was being conducted endlessly in order to avoid making decisions. It’s called “analysis paralysis.” These cases are extremely rare.
The reality is that the problem of too little data and testing is pervasive in higher ed marketing. College and university brand campaigns are sometimes launched with only feedback from senior leadership and discovery sessions or workshops with people around campus who have already bought into it. Designs are often significantly influenced by the president’s personal preferences—the president who is a microbiologist by training. New logos are rolled out without any testing, but with the assurance that the Board loves them. That love won’t stretch very far when thousands of your alumni are ripping your design on social media and students are campaigning against it.
Examples abound of higher ed marketing disasters that could have been avoided had someone just done the research or the testing. Sure, it takes time and costs money, but mistakes—especially big ones—take even longer and cost even more in the long run. Plus, they’re painful, and they leave scars on the marketing department and sometimes the entire institution.
The only thing worse than no research is bad research. We see agencies dish up terrible research all the time. My favorite is when they quantify qualitative data. “We conducted in-depth interviews with 100 prospects, counselors, and alumni and 85% of them preferred X.” Marketers beware! Anytime you see a percent sign associated with qualitative research, run (don’t walk) in the other direction. Percent signs are only used when conducting quantitative research with a representative sample—when you can project the results of the sample on to the larger population you are studying. Were those 100 interviewees selected at random to participate in the research? Do you realize you are blending three very different audiences together? Do you know how huge your margin of error is? The problems are obvious.
Without research, your marketing strategy has no rudder. Your brand strategy will sail in one direction this year, and then the wind will turn, and you will blow in another direction next year. That won’t help you make any long-term progress on brand building or reputation management. One of the biggest mistakes colleges and universities make is developing a brand concept, putting it out into the world for a few years, getting sick of it, and then going back to the drawing board to come up with something new. Reputation management requires consistent and intentional message delivery for years and years. To develop an enduring brand, you have to do the detailed and thorough research with internal and external audiences, use the data to establish your brand positioning strategy, create compelling brand concept ideas, test those ideas, and then begin the implementation.
It is vital to test your hypotheses, hunches, long-held beliefs, and great ideas. Insightful data is like an insurance policy that protects your marketing strategy and tactics from critics. And, it gives you the confidence to act boldly and stick with your strategy for the long term. That’s how you build a brand. So, is there such a thing as too much research? Absolutely not.
CASE recently held an event titled, “Claiming Our Story.” I was excited to watch the live stream, especially as a follow up to the Inside Higher Ed program, “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism,” held in February. The higher ed community desperately needs to get in the driver’s seat and influence the public narrative around the value of a college degree. At no time in my 26-year career in higher ed has the actual value of a college degree been higher. But at no time has the perceived value of a college degree been lower or more distorted.
In “Claiming Our Story,” there was a great deal of productive commentary about diversity, lifelong learning, and student debt. Still, the word “communications” was used too many times to count while “marketing” was mentioned only once and “branding” was never mentioned at all. I understand the event was meant to further the discussion on the public’s mistrust of higher education. But the discussion still led me to believe that colleges and universities continue to avoid fully embracing the vital role that marketing and branding can and should play in fixing the problem.
As I said at the Inside Higher Ed event, our mere existence is not a marketing strategy. Marketing is an essential business function for every type of organization, including colleges and universities. But our industry seems hell-bent on avoiding this fact. Why does the industry still shy away from these important concepts, when the most respected non-profits in the world — Human Rights Watch, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and Doctors Without Borders to name a few — have completely embraced them? All of these organizations are masterful marketers. In a job description for a marketing professional, UNICEF says, “The post is responsible to increase sales and net income from UNICEF Cards and Gifts…to help UNICEF build a better world for children.” Increased sales and net income equals a better world. I could say the same thing about higher ed.
Some in the higher ed community seem to view marketing with disdain. Some appear to associate marketing with greedy, for-profit corporations interested only in tricking customers to buy their products and services. It’s viewed as something higher ed has to do but doesn’t want to do. Expectations of marketing are all off; a college will throw less than 1% of its operating budget at marketing and expect a significant increase in enrollment and fundraising. For so many, the very definition of marketing is too narrow; it’s defined as only the promotion P of the marketing mix. We need to wake up. Better marketing can help save higher education. We have to embrace the fundamental principles of integrated marketing and branding. We have to invest in getting our story out there. We have to staff our marketing departments in a manner that’s commensurate with our goals. We have to integrate our efforts enterprise-wide and even industry-wide. And we need to do it now. Our world desperately needs us, and they don’t even know it.
With all my heart, I believe that higher ed is the answer — the answer to ending poverty and reducing the income gap, combating racism, finding cures to diseases that plague our world, saving the planet, eliminating the possibility of nuclear war, and so much more. Higher ed gives us art, beauty, and community. It lifts us one and all. Higher ed must not only survive, it must thrive. But in order for this to happen, we can’t refuse to market ourselves. We can “claim our story” all day long, but unless we deliver that story to our stakeholders through effective marketing, we will continue to lose the perception battle. Marketing can no longer be a dirty word. In higher education, marketing is spelled S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.