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Higher Ed 2019 Recap Day 1

Higher Ed 2019 Recap Day 1

Julian Zeng and Steve Heisler

Higher ed daily roundup

What you need to know from Day 1 of the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education

Higher education is about to enter into an existential crisis: By 2025, the population of college-age students will drop by 15%, reducing enrollment across the board and possibly leading to school closures. At the same time, the cost of college is rising at an exponential rate and the degrees themselves are doing little to address the concern of the majority of college students: that they’ll get a job after graduation.

Brandon Busteed, whose keynote kicked off the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, suggests higher ed marketers lean into the issues and offer more pragmatic solutions. Rather than position a college degree as a way to get a job, universities should partner with employers willing to hire students right out of high school and provide them the opportunity for an education. He calls it “go pro early” and it’s caught on at Walmart, which has adopted a similar program. Should students seek a general course of study, such as pursuing an English major, they should have the opportunity to graduate with a specialty supplement, such as a certification in cybersecurity. That particular combination, for example, is currently more attractive to employers than simply a degree in cybersecurity. Busteed has dubbed it a “credigree.” Online programs and community colleges are great places to introduce these nontraditional programs and start recruiting students to hedge those 2025 doomsday scenarios.

Website Redesigns Don’t Need to Be Painful

When asked of their overarching emotions throughout a website redesign process, higher ed marketers seem to share similar sentiments: frustration, anger, division and overload.

Does it really need to be this way? A partnership between South Dakota State University and Sioux Falls-based marketing agency Epicosity proves there are ways around the annoyance.

Mike Lockrem, director of SDSU’s marketing and communications, and Chris Kappen, VP of operations and innovation and Epicosity, spoke to the wonders of “growth-driven design,” a movement that has been accepted by nearly 950 global agencies in similar fields. The term describes the fast, efficient and optimized process of regular, incremental improvements to websites by relying on real-time feedback from stakeholders. “The set-it-and-forget-it mentality should cease to exist,” Kappen said.


Traditional methods of website redesign are slow, expensive and risky—educated guesses on content decisions often lead to frustrated stakeholders, poor results and confused users. Instead, Epicosity and SDSU recommend following this process to get the best results:

  1. Establish core foundational activities in which to partake when building something new
  2. Improve user experience and institutional impact
  3. Build new items on the site that expands its impact

“Create a culture of accessibility,” Lockrem said. “Unite around continuous improvement and build a culture of it.”

Power of Content

A robust content strategy isn’t something a collegiate marketing team can cobble together right away, nor can it exist in the short-term only. Christine Campbell and Frannie Schneider from St. Edward’s University emphasized taking the long view at their seminar titled “Power of Content: How to Transform Your Team,” and their key piece of advice boiled down to getting your ducks in a row. An effective content machine requires clear strategic objectives, an understanding of audience and a paradigm shift away from job titles and toward the roles and responsibilities of teammates.

No one marketer can handle the entire content system, they argued, so pass pieces around. Data can inform the actual creation of material, a social media team can distribute the content and a marketing and editorial staff can be in charge of resurfacing relevant content as needed. Other analysts can focus on crafting personas, always with an audience-first mindset—not simply what marketers perceive their audience to be but who they actually are. They raised an example of the pieces all aligning based on a past AMA presentation from Siena College: Pieces about how to apply for college were perennially relevant and made for compelling social posts. They directly targeted the personas of applicants and individual articles could resurface every year. Each of those pieces can also be adapted into other forms of media, such as podcasts or a video series. Higher ed content marketing is best when holistic and thoughtfully developed.

Adult Learner Population Among Most Misunderstood in Higher Ed

The adult learner often tends to be an overlooked or underserved population. By not following the traditional four-year path of high school to college and graduation, the adult learning population can be forgotten by many institutions. This is an unfortunate oversight, according to the four panelists of the Emerging Trends in Adult Online Education panel.

“We tend to treat these students as if they screwed up their lives by not following a traditional path. I think our faculty members and staff largely believe that,” said the University of Arizona’s Christie Harper. “In reality, they have grit and tenacity, and they’ve made it this far in life and have enough money to go back and pursue a degree. These are accomplished people, just not accomplished in that traditional path. As marketers, we can serve our institutions well by lending a voice of respect to that audience, not condescension.”

Harper, joined by Southern New Hampshire University’s Adrian Haugabrook, the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathy Urban, and Lipscomb University’s Dave Bruno, agreed that the online adult learner seeks flexibility and convenience across the board. Marketing to that segment requires nontraditional methods of communication, particularly through out-of-home avenues. Bruno, despite agreeing with investment in OOH marketing in radio and print, recommends building strong audience personas to deliver quality digital content.

“Be relentless in communicating the student experience,” Haugabrook said. “Don’t just get to the top of the [marketing] funnel and pass it along; have a deep, determined, deliberate focus across the entire learning journey.”

Win Over Gen Z on the ‘Gram

Gen Z wants transparency, originality and authenticity. They want real. One of the best places to find them digitally should come as no surprise: Instagram.

Young people of that generation consume approximately 60-70 videos per day, which makes it incumbent upon higher ed institutions to have sound video strategies. User experience should be seamless and fast. Mobile must be flawless.

In the case of Coastal Carolina University’s own Instagram strategy, the institution’s account grew 59% over the past two years, with 42% of their audience between ages 13 and 24.

Lindsi Glass and Brent Reser—associate VP of marketing and branding and assistant director for digital media—talked through their Instagram implementation plan, which included use of the stories feature, making co-content creators out of students and creating personalized experiences.

“[Social media] content should shift from complete promotion of the institution to telling the unique stories of the students,” Reser said. “Show them respect. Don’t fall into the trap of glorifying the institution’s brand too much.”

Through campaigns such as Meme Monday, #CCUFamily and Instadoodle (doodling competitions on stories), CCU has maximized engagement across prospective students, current students, parents and the university community at large.

Complacency is Failure

While it’s important to look at competing higher education campaigns for inspiration, marketers needn’t neglect consumer-facing brands. The team at Colby College wanted to put together a fundraising and enrollment campaign unlike any other, so they took a close look at Netflix and Lyft, which take an entrepreneurial mindset, and mission-driven brands like Toms and Patagonia. The combined research helped Colby guide its work toward a brand that captured students’ attention and stood for good civic service and stewardship, according to a presentation by Colby’s Jennifer Eriksen, Anthony Ronzio, Dan Olds and agency 160over90’s Kim Hallman.

The resulting campaign, “Dare Northward,” leaned into the geography of Colby—located in Maine—as it demonstrated a sense of place as well as the adventure of the north. They launched the campaign at the school then took it on the road to connect with alumni around the country. All told, they’ve raised $487 million to date, at a rate of 88% of attending alumni giving. They continue to pull in donations and are on target to reach the campaign cost, a bold $750 million.

The campaign was unlike anything Colby had done before, and it resonated with students, alumni and faculty. But this level of engagement didn’t come about simply because the work was different, but because it was the best possible representation of what Colby already is.

Helicopter Parents Have Flown the Coop. Drones Incoming.

Drone parents are the new eyes in the sky, looming over the goings-on of their prospective students. Three out of four parents stay “very involved” in the college search process, yet less than half receive direct communications from institutions.

Alexandra Loizzo-Desai and Logan West of Fordham University walked attendees through the five partnerships they identified thatinstitutions can closely associate with prospective parents.

  1. Undergraduate admission and financial aid (customized digital campaigns featuring a comprehensive parent newsletter, highly visual content marketing for parents of admitted students, etc.).
  2. Student involvement (scheduled family events in New York City, specific programming).
  3. Alumni relations (regional receptions with admitted students—”students can meet their outcomes first-hand to see where Fordham grads can go,” West said. 
  4. Development (e.g., a parents’ leadership council, in which members can provide feedback on current university projects, encourage donations and provide mentorship opportunities).
  5. Online communications (improving the overall digital experience, specifically the parents’ newsletter and website).

Loizzo-Desai and West saw tremendous results: Fordham’s academic profile was raised, the applicant pool expanded and parents got more involved. Parent giving increased more than 15% in the past year, and the total given came to more than 41% over the same period.

“By specifically targeting parents,” Loizzo-Desai said, “they can become advocates or ambassadors for your institution.”

Julian Zeng is omni-channel content manager at the American Marketing Association. He may be reached at

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at