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Higher Ed 2019 Recap Day 3

Higher Ed 2019 Recap Day 3

Julian Zeng and Steve Heisler

Higher ed daily roundup

What you need to know from Day 3 of the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education

‘You Can Only Control What You Can Control’

“It’s a garbage idea to put a [hockey] team in the desert.” This was one of many disparaging comments thrown at the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights as the franchise took shape. But the expansion team that took the ice in 2017 more than earned its place in the league, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in its inaugural year.

That success wouldn’t be possible without a terrific incoming draft class, but the hype around the team played no small part. The team’s CMO, Brian Killingsworth, delivered the morning keynote of day three of the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, walking attendees through the monumental steps the franchise took to building its brand and prominence in the local Las Vegas community.

“Your mission every day is to always advance,” Killingsworth said.


Certainly not every higher education institution has the resources of a team among the Big 4 sports leagues, but Killingsworth told the audience how every brand should emphasize what makes it exclusive. For the Golden Knights, it meant creating a first-class entertainment experience on game day, with Vegas-based acts and other performances taking center ice at halftime. It also meant providing an irreverent tone to its social media and digital presence, joining in on poking fun at its own expense. Or it meant arguably the most important initiative for the team of all: the Vegas Born campaign. By strategically partnering with organizations across the city and globe that aligned with the team’s mission, the Golden Knights ingrained themselves in the lives of fans during the season and beyond.

“How do you separate your school from the rest?” Killingsworth asked. Declaring the Golden Knights the epitome of class champions, on the ice and in the community, Killingsworth demonstrated how they’re a superlative act to follow.

How to Evangelize a College

Using fear as a motivator may not be his modus operandi, but Guy Kawasaki experienced first-hand how effective this method could be in his professional career. The source? His boss, Steve Jobs.

From his time working in the Macintosh Division in the 1980s, Kawasaki popularized the term “evangelist” to describe how to get people to believe in something as much as you do (albeit without the brutality). Get the consumer to understand the value of what you’re selling, without the pretense of meeting quotas. People follow others when they understand how they can enrich their lives.

Yet so many higher ed institutions, according to Kawasaki, are merely following the same cookie-cutter template. Every school tour he’s been on has said the same thing: “We have a diverse student body, we have small classes with attentive instructors, we have flexible majors and there are opportunities to study overseas.”

Schools can avoid falling into this identical trap by telling their story in a unique way, while exhibiting clear value. Position yourself as best in class in one specific field, such as:

  1. Resources for students with learning differences.
  2. Top internship programs and job placement numbers.
  3. Best value in tuition with the least loans required.
  4. Optional test scores or video essays in lieu of standardized test submissions in applications.
  5. Quick admission decisions.
  6. Transparency.

How can you be a successful evangelist for your institution? Most obviously, the institution must be good. Believe in what you’re doing before trying to make others do the same. Additionally, localize your efforts without following macro trends. Hone your storytelling, which is much more powerful to prospective students or parents seeking a quality narrative. And allow people to “test drive” your institution, whether through virtual tours in your app that are easy to understand, offer real-world experience preview events, or self-directed tours that require a simple email registration.

Sell your dream and get people to believe. Never lose sight of the core mission of evangelizing a higher ed institution.

Check out our recaps from Day 1 and Day 2

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