What you need to know from Day 2 of the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education
Bad News is Simply Good News in Disguise
Terry Flannery, an author and former VP of communications at American University, kicked off Tuesday morning with a keynote that felt targeted toward abating marketers’ biggest fears. No, she argued, the impending 2026 cliff (or 2025, depending on your planning) is not the biggest challenge facing higher ed marketing today. Yes, marketing and institutions at large can get along. No, boss, you can’t have it good and fast and cheap—quality takes time.
With those ideas in mind, she encouraged all higher ed marketers to brainstorm how they might approach their superiors with innovative ideas. Rather than ram a strategy that focuses on the fear of 2026, instead frame the conversation toward the opportunities this touchpoint provides, such as more distinct branding and alternative education options. Fear can be paralyzing, but it’s only through reframing discourse that higher ed marketers can push forward.
Bringing in the House
Previously adopting a fulfillment service model, Brown University recently built an integrated strategic marketing operation to streamline its operational infrastructure. Carly Kite Lapinski, associate vice president for marketing communications, walked attendees through the three strategic building blocks and operational touchstones that turned the tide for the Ivy League institution.
In order to over-communicate the narrative of the university and align goals across all departments, Brown instituted the following tactics:
- New marketing services: assessment of strategic consulting, editing and writing, visual design, social media.
- Annual marketing communications planning: institution of a marketing communications survey, creating a three-year plan based on results of existing and planned projects.
- Project assessment: asking strategic questions regarding the effectiveness of project management and prioritizing accordingly.
The operational building blocks to prop up these strategic pillars:
- Client relations (internal workflow, external feedback)
- Project management system (Brown employs Workfront)
- Service fees (overhauling of system to incentivize clients to work for them)
- Terms of service (outlining university goals, planned hours and service level agreements)
- Scope of work (closely analyzing project requests and specification time spent on deliverables)
- Designated vendors (Brown instituted a strict application process for new and existing vendors to assess which best met university policies and adequately passed compliance training)
If the College is A-Rockin, Students Will Come A-Knockin
How can higher ed marketers rile up student excitement if they’re not promoting something exciting? The marketing and admissions team from Siena College in New York, along with Lauren Herrington from the agency CCA, pleaded with the audience at their session, “Let’s Rock & Enroll: Experiential Marketing at Work,” to create something truly spectacular and immersive for prospective students. It has to be memorable. It has to be sharable. And above all, it has to be fun.
Their team has spent the last few years participating in experiential marketing, or the running of participatory events. This type of marketing goes by many names: Engagement marketing, relationship marketing, live marketing and participation marketing are a few, and they are all very similar. The goal is to, as they put it, “…create memorable experiences that ignite connection between brand and consumer to foster connection and trust.”
Their experiences carried with them a combination of giveaways, spectacles and games to draw attention. During a prospective student weekend, they set out a prize wheel, built a large sand sculpture in the shape of their St. Bernard mascot and set up photo ops.
Experiential marketing demonstrates a lot of upside: 91% of consumers have more positive things to say about brands after attending events, 85% are more likely to purchase from that brand and 78% of prospective students cite tours and visits, both experiences in their own way, as the most influential factor in making their decision on which school to attend.
Here are some of their key ingredients for a buzzworthy experiential marketing event:
- Put customers first. Moving a prospective student to a three-day weekend, for example, increased attendance at Siena from roughly 550 to more than 750 students.
- Ensure everything can be easily shared on social media, meaning provide plenty of photo ops.
- Engage students with all of their senses—sight, sound, taste.
- Speaking of…the easiest way to lure current students and faculty to events is to offer free food.
- Most importantly, provide a memorable experience long before you ask for even a single dime.
Five New Insights About Transfer Students
The transfer student population is notoriously hard to reach for higher ed institutions. A transfer student survey, conducted in partnership between NRCCUA and Eduventures, holds some insights into how to crack the code.
The survey received 990 total responses from students, 100% of whom are enrolled in a community college. Two-thirds of them fulfill the requirements to transfer to a four-year institution and 76% are enrolled full-time at their current college.
In parsing the data, Cara Quackenbush and her team emerged with the following five key insights about the traditionally little-understood category of transfer students.
1. The transfer environment is changing: Overall community college enrollment dropped 11% between 2010 and 2017, with private schools getting a bigger piece of the transfer pie.
2. Cost remains king, but other reasons are also important: Cost remains the most significant factor in transfer students’ choice of a school, but they also typically want to be close to home or are heavily focused on outcomes.
3. Transfer students are not monolithic: The four transfer types identified in the survey were the Home Body (40%), Cost Saver (36%), Late Bloomer (15%) and Local Explorer (9%). Family-first students are the largest part of the group, but the needs of those who are strategic with their financial choices, need structure and guidance, or are indecisive about their future can’t be ignored.
4. Remove the guesswork from transferring credits: Be concrete and transparent with the credit transfer process. It’s one of the most significant entry barriers in the minds of transfer students. Be direct with your messaging.
5. Transfer students are complex and hard to reach: There is unfortunately still no silver bullet solution to reaching transfer students. Visiting campus ranks as the top way for them to get information about an institution, but half don’t read marketing emails. One in four students rank the transfer process as easy to understand, and nearly half don’t plan to or are unsure how to contact admissions before they apply. But a comprehensive plan of attack across all fronts named should deliver gradual results in this arena.
“No” is a Big Decision, but Prospects Arrive at “No” via Smaller Ones
One of the main reasons a student may decline an invitation to enroll, said Rich Funk of the higher education consultancy Eduvantis, may have nothing to do with the university itself. Branding might be excellent, communications polished and social media strategies intact. Instead, he argued at his session “The Reasons Behind a Student Saying ‘No,’” the timing and target might be entirely wrong. Too often he has noticed that schools don’t drill their data mining down to the most granular level, and this forces them to combine data sets to the detriment of both.
During the presentation, he spoke about the difference between online degree-seeking students, full-time students and those looking for a mix of online and in-person education. The data shows that online students aren’t that concerned about how flexible the timing of the program is, because they inherently understand that online courses don’t require in-person sessions. Yet they care about the flexibility of hybrid courses, meaning if a university mangles those three categories into one set, they may hammer an online student with messaging about flexibility and turn them off.
Along with seeking the most specific data possible, Funk encouraged attendees to treat micro-decisions with the utmost importance. Spread out communications across channels and throughout the month. Think about each touchpoint with a potential student and when exactly they might be turned off. Never flaunt a call-to-action to apply until the student has either scoured your website or attended an in-person chat. The devil’s in the details, he argued, and universities have permission to seek that devil’s tuition dollars.
The Changing Paradigm of Retention Marketing
Student retention is a critical marketing priority. In higher ed, retention has typically been viewed as someone else’s job, setting up a dangerous loop of stagnation. The national average of first-year retention rate is 61%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. So where are institutions going wrong?
It starts with applying a marketing lens to the retention problem. Surveys, data mining, predictive modeling are essential strategies that can help predict student behaviors. Meredith Purvis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Matt Walters and Josh Dodson of VisionPoint Marketing, told attendees that it’s time to think of current students as the institution’s primary audience.
“Students will have a better experience in a healthy, supportive ecosystem to foster success,” Purvis said.
Rather than having a passive or reactive way of addressing retention needs, “[institutions] must fundamentally focus on retention efforts and take responsibilities seriously,” Walters said.
Marketers can do so with this basic framework:
- Consider current students as the primary audience, not secondary, in cross-channel integrated marketing work.
- Shape proactive messaging campaigns around institutional resources related to key predictive indicators at your institution. What value can you add to the conversation? Prioritize channels, don’t communicate in bulk.
- Marshal resources within cross-functional brand promise task forces to help influence the “product” as the message.
- Integrate with orientation teams and partner on institution initiatives.
- Redirect some brand awareness spend to digital awareness marketing on your own campus.
- Level up resources over time via demonstrated success.
Great Academic Leadership Comes with Sea Legs
Jessica McWade and Peg Brandon don’t believe in the term “soft skills.” The pair, representing the popular semester at sea program appropriately known as SEA Semester, argued at “Mariners and Marketers: Four Leadership Lessons from the Sea” that empathy is a crucial skill that contributes to nearly all facets of leadership, particularly at the higher education level. And they learned this first-hand by spending years traversing the northern Atlantic, southern Pacific and the Caribbean.
Their program places students for six weeks on land and six weeks on the ocean and offers opportunities to learn about biodiversity, climate change, environmental policy, sustainability and many other eco-friendly topics. But above all, they learn to be excellent leaders through lessons in seamanship.
Here are the four key ideas that make for a great captain both on and offshore:
It’s not enough to simply know where you’re going. A good leader must understand the proper course that’s both effective and efficient, then share that plan with the rest of their staff. Too often, McWade said, leaders don’t write that plan down, or they draw from a larger university plan that they may not think is any good. Be present in every moment of the journey and ensure it’s exactly where you want to be. Or, course-correct.
While the waters of higher education marketing can be tumultuous, that’s not to say everything is unpredictable. Always be asking your team strong questions, especially those that begin with “what if” to make sure they have answers ready to go should the time come. Also, by working on your emotional intelligence, you are better preparing yourself to lead a team during a time of crisis and establish yourself as a leader they can trust.
Change is a constant, and change is exciting. But there are dangers for both you and your team. First off, pay attention to myriad parts of your job. Just because one facet feels a bit off doesn’t mean it’s time to uproot the entire operation. Recognize that assumptions can be dangerous and utilize strong communication to understand what truly needs to be changed. And don’t interpret employees’ silence or ambivalence to change as a sign that they are resisting it. Employees often need time to adapt to new ideas themselves, and they’ll come around. Too often leaders think their employees aren’t on board with change and they take it personally.
Empathy is the strongest form of communication. It places leaders deeply within the shoes of their employees to the point where no communication may need to happen at all for both parties to be on the same page. But while leaders are working on their empathy skills, it’s important to recognize that other forms of communication aren’t just aural in nature. Communication comes from a leader’s reputation, track record, body language, actions and reactions, title, reporting relationship and organizational clout. Good sea captains pay attention to all of these factors, and higher ed marketers should set their course in the same direction.