University Messaging Attributes: Are Yours Keeping Up with the Times?

While a college or university’s core brand should persist over time, the institution should continually monitor the resonance of the messaging it uses to express that brand. Keeping a finger on the marketplace by collecting research data every three to five years allows a campus to tweak and evolve messaging to remain relevant to key audiences. In this article, we look at how three “evergreen” marketing messages have waxed and waned over the last decade in higher education.

Academic quality. Perceptions of academic quality used to be pretty much associated solely with rankings and the academic profile of the incoming class. In the last few years, however, prospective students and their parents have started associating academic quality even more with a school’s ability to deliver outcomes, as measured by graduation rates, employment rates six months after graduation, starting salaries, and mid-career salaries. Five years from now, outcomes messages may very well shift again, as the public becomes more skeptical of salary reporting and the debate over mounting tuition costs continues.

Liberal arts. The term liberal arts alone was (and on many campuses still is) among the first 10 words used to describe many institutions. Recruitment publications from a decade ago simply used the term liberal arts without much explanation. SimpsonScarborough research, however, consistently shows that the term liberal arts in and of itself does not resonate with prospective families. In fact, it falls near the bottom of most students’ and parents’ lists of most important factors in the college decision. And most of them cannot easily—much less correctly—define what liberal arts means. (Many persist in believing that a liberal education is associated with a liberal political philosophy.) Media coverage of small liberal arts schools struggling financially to stay afloat have further complicated the confusion. While families generally have become savvier researching colleges and universities, this is a topic that requires a more nuanced approach to messaging. Our research shows that what better resonates with prospective parents and students is conveying the benefits of a liberal arts curriculum, such as a well-rounded education, a focus on intellectual curiosity, and the ability to explore different areas of study. Colleges and universities are missing valuable opportunities to communicate more effectively on this topic.

Alumni network. In the past, many institutions defined their alumni networks by the total number of living alumni and the cities where many live. The problem with this, however, is that audiences have little or no context around which to judge those numbers. Recent data collected across different types of institutions consistently reveals that what’s more important to prospects is, again, the direct benefits of the institution’s alumni network. Students want evidence of real-world connections to alumni that lead to internships and jobs.

The most effective messaging today may not be tomorrow’s. If your school is using the same messages it did 10 or 20 years ago, it is important to make sure those messages are effectively understood and valued by today’s prospective audiences. Data-informed messaging capitalizes on opportunities to communicate more effectively.

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