Ideas, musings and inspirations.


In light of my yellow Elliance copywriter’s desk making its first journey around the shy Pittsburgh sun, I got to thinking about what I’d learned about higher education marketing in the last year, and if there was anything the handful of schools I’ve worked with had in common.

It seems to all boil down to one thing: There are awesome people doing awesome things everywhere.

Pardon my vagueness.

There are about 2,000 four-year institutions in the United States, and each is known for different things — some more than others. But the one thing that I’ve found, no matter where U.S. News and World Report ranks them, is that 100 percent of these schools have staff, faculty and students putting their hearts into their work.

I truly believe that there is magic that happens when passionate people work together.

From the hundreds of thousands of service hours completed every year by a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts that has created a contagious culture of compassion…

…To the pitcher I chatted with who learned he is a leader — a skill he discovered playing the game he loves — and the great energy he brings to his campus community. College ball has given him the chance to be the first in his family to graduate from college.

One client of ours is among the best equestrian schools in the country. Its students hail from all over the place — Colorado, Connecticut, California — to the small Missouri town, yes, to learn from the industry’s best and brightest. Yes, to get experience and an education in a state-of-the-art facility and in a professional environment. But also because something beautiful happens when people with similar passions come together to devote their lives to something awesome.

Higher education marketing is about telling these kinds of stories.

I was trained as a journalist. I have a heart for diving in to uncover the amazing stories happening in everyday places. As a content marketer, I feel a responsibility to tell them, too.

Marketing becomes meaningful when we uncover truths of an institution that even they may not have known about themselves. It becomes meaningful when a high school kid learns that a place exists where people are actually learning about the things he or she dreamed of — that the thing that puts a fire in her belly is something she could spend her life doing — whether it’s a game or a service or a horse.

“Wow, I can make a life out of that?”

Higher education marketing isn’t just about raising inquiries or enrollment numbers or average applicant test scores. It’s about an opportunity to spread awareness about even the most niche communities to people who — without it — may have never known. And their lives are forever changed.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” - Howard Thurman

We recently met around the conference table at Elliance to discuss the pros/cons of pursuing an RFP opportunity —  a major state research university wanting to sharpen its brand focus and tell a better capital campaign story in order to raise a nice round $1 billion dollars.

Needless to say, with that kind of money on the table, stakes are high — for the customer, of course, but also for Elliance.

Although the four senior people around the table could claim a combined 70-plus years of higher education marketing and higher education branding experience, none of us had ever worked on a capital campaign of this magnitude.

The RFP spelled it out clearly:

“significant demonstrable, direct work experience and expertise in the field of fund raising consulting and projects related to fund raising for institutions of higher education is essential.”

My colleagues read this as a well-manned checkpoint and major obstacle. Their body language suggested skepticism and discouragement.

I leaned in.

Nearly every RFP I’ve ever read includes similar language, whether written by a savvy higher education marketing VP, a web or brand or capital campaign steering committee or by the procurement office.

“Show me the experience.”

Here’s an alternative paragraph for any one working on an RFP to consider:

“Yes, we need to see that you have meaningful experience working with and for colleges and universities. Just as important, we want to know how your work has challenged clients, opened institutions to real and lasting change, and produced measurable results.”

Said more succinctly…. “Show me the insight.”

Experience lends itself to easy check box type scoring. It’s not as easy for those on the buying side of the table to recognize and qualify “insight.”

Several years back, we helped St. Norbert College in De Pere Wisconsin shed layers of past website mistakes and turn its point of view inside out — so that it spoke with verve and clarity to student needs, wants and desires.

Somewhere in the midst of a six month project came a flash of insight in the form of two words: “Living Norbertine.”

St. Norbert College opened its doors in 1898. It grew from roots in the Norbertine Order that trace back to 1120. After 30 minutes on campus, one could sense how this living, breathing culture and community understood its deep value — to mind, body, spirit — yet had never given it full voice.

Living Norbertine.

In many ways, that insight and those two words guided many subsequent decisions regarding site architecture, brand messaging and and overall approach to telling the St. Norbert College story. One insight and two words also formed a vital bridge connecting a new website with a parallel capital campaign.

The website launched. The community rallied. Enrollment climbed. New buildings opened. New programs emerged. The St. Norbert College capital campaign met its goal in record time.

BeingNorbertineTo the credit of the St. Norbert College communications team, they listened closely and followed our lead. They have done a fabulous and meticulous job of preserving — and often improving — the fundamental forms, functions and messaging platforms we set forth.

I could offer a dozen examples of similar insights by the Elliance team and talk about many similar good results. It’s unknown if any of them would earn Elliance a check box next to that state research university’s RFP requirement: “significant demonstrable, direct work experience and expertise in the field of fund raising consulting and projects related to fund raising for institutions of higher education is essential.”

Buyer beware.

Experience should not be immediately equated with success. Ask any higher education marketing partners to show you a consistent and relevant trail of insights. The extra effort required to connect the dots between insight and outcome may be the most valuable time spent on a long journey toward raising a college’s reputation, enrollment, student quality or next billion dollars in major gifts.

Living Norbertine

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Over the past few years, the web industry has been very focused on devices. So much so that responsive design is defined as “building web content that shows up well on any device.”But focusing on devices isn’t enough anymore. By focusing only on devices, we are missing other experiences. Our web content is no longer stuck to a browser. It is traveling beyond it’s traditional medium.

Take something like a news article — a simple piece of web content — and look at all of the different places this story can, and will, show up:

  • Perhaps its original print medium;
  • As a webpage on any device with a web browser — a computer, phone, TV screen, tablet, game console, watch, etc;
  • On the homepage of your website;
  • On a search results page; – or you can say on google but i would recommend keeping it open ended to all search engines.
  • On a 3rd party website;
  • In an ad on a website;
  • In an ad on an app;
  • Printed on a piece of paper;
  • Read by a screen reader;
  • On your Facebook page, where it shows a title, description, link, and re-sized image;
  • On your LinkedIn page, where it shows a title, description and a different size image than what’s on Facebook;
  • On Twitter, Google+, Pinterest,, Ello, Snapchat or some other social network;
  • As a Google Now card;
  • Pinned to a map;
  • On Flipboard or a similar news-reading app; or
  • Read out loud by Siri, Cortana or another personal digital assistant.

If you were keeping track, that is over 20 different places, each with their own look, feel and interactions. Our users have more options than ever before and you don’t get to choose how they consume your content.

This is important to keep in mind throughout all phases of website development. Content creators, designers and developers all have roles to play. We need to create various lengths of text with images that fit the different sizes, all provided with the proper markup so that devices and 3rd-party systems know how to render the content. This is an important and complex issue that we are attempting to solve at Elliance.

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Most people draw a clear line between conventional marketing of products and services, and social marketing, which broadly defined applies marketing principles to change human behavior in order to improve health or benefit society.

But what happens when you bring a social issue forward that almost nobody knows even exists — one that goes to the very heart of an American ideal as old as the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

True in countless respects, but not when it comes to gauging a child’s future academic success. Some children simply are born “gifted” or “talented” — and that wealth of talent spreads equally across all segments of the American population, regardless of race, religion, geography or family income.

Researchers count about 3.4 million academically gifted American school children in grades K-12 who happen also to be poor. Here is where the story gets interesting. Year after year, grade after grade, America loses many of these high-achieving, low-income students.

All poor American school children — now the majority — swim upstream when it comes to school resources. High-ability, low-income students face unique challenges — from peer stigma to a lack of teachers trained to work with gifted students, to a shortage of college guidance counselors.

Among those high-achieving, low-income students who persist and overcome barriers, the great majority do not attend select colleges — despite years of academic performance, test scores and their demonstrated resilience that show readiness. Researchers call this phenomenon “undermatching” — which says that poor smart kids are more likely to display college application pattens that match their financial peers rather than their academic peers from higher income brackets — even though select colleges have the endowments needed to provide the needed financial aid. In fact, family income, not high school academic performance, is a stronger indicator of a student’s ability to earn a college degree in America — that’s how onerous the financial demands have become.

The Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation partnered with Elliance in an effort to raise broad awareness of these issues and to influence national and state education policy to better support high-achieving, low-income students.

“The longer smart, poor kids stay in school, the less likely that they are to remain at the top of their class,” says Harold O. Levy executive director of the Cooke Foundation. “That’s a repudiation of the American Dream, and the foundation is determined to do everything we can to turn that around.”

Careful attention was given to site architecture and content strategy for the responsive microsite — balancing the need to inform audiences of an issue most had never encountered with the goal of underscoring that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation remains, at heart, a grant maker and convener.

IMG_0121-1In the initial weeks since launch, the “excellence gap” issue has attracted attention from the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other national and regional media outlets. A longer range inbound marketing (blog, social media and SEO) campaign will follow to build on that momentum and sustain the discussion through the long process of policy and public opinion change.

While social marketing launch strategies may differ from a conventional product launch, there is much to learn and borrow on both sides. As we advance the excellence gap issue beyond the media and policy makers, the next challenge involves tackling a whole range of closely held assumptions that educators, counselors, youth development leaders and college admissions staffs hold regarding who is gifted in America.

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As a writer who spent the first 10 years of her professional life as an agency copywriter, I approach writing with two specific questions: Who’s the target audience? What’s unique about this client? I had a creative director once who often quoted David Ogilvy and I still remember this classic:

“Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

As a mother whose daughter is a junior in high school – prime time to be inundated with higher education marketing materials – it saddens me to see that many universities don’t take the time to write something truly unique about their school.

Surprisingly, my sixteen-year-old daughter noticed the same thing. Her assessment of the brochures that keep filling the mailbox is this:

 “They all tell me I’d be perfect for their school but they don’t do a good job at explaining what they can offer me.”

Here’s another quip from her that will make a marketer cringe:

“Most of them look the same.”

My daughter wants to know specifics. Instead of reading that a school has state-of-the-art labs, she wants to know what types of research is being done at a school. She’s also very active. She shakes her head when she reads that a school says they have a number of student activities but doesn’t give any examples.

Which reminds me of another classic from David Ogilvy:

The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.

First impressions leave a lasting impression. Read your higher education marketing materials with a critical eye and then ask yourself two key questions. Does it answer the questions teenagers are really asking? And, perhaps more importantly, does it make the same claims as every other school?

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I hope you enjoy these as much as we do at Elliance:

Designed by Apple in California

Productivity future vision by Microsoft

What inspires you?

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We recently launched the William Woods University website with the thought that it might be touted as one of the best responsive design college websites. Our guidelines were simple:

1. Authenticity
2. Simplicity
3. Integrity
4. Findability
5. Usability
6. Beauty

How did we do? What do you think?

One of The Best Responsive Design Websites

and in responsive mode

William Woods Responsive Website Design

Visit the responsive website at

Learn more about our responsive website design services.

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Christopher Columbus Statue

Christopher Columbus statue points to horizon

Last Thursday, we had an interesting monthly performance report (ROI) meeting with a client. In that process, we made several observations about traffic downturns on a particular program, which defied the historic trend data. At the same time, there seemed to be an across-the-board decline in leads, which also ran counter to seasonal data for this time of year.

On one hand, one could consider the marketing activity to be a failure. But, with ROI analysis is always best to avoid a snap judgment, given the number of moving parts in any integrated campaign. Life in the marketing fast lane is more complex than ever. So, we began asking more questions.

First, we queried the client to see if they had seen anything similar in their own sales reports. No joy. In fact, it was just the opposite. Sales (based on internal tracking) were generally up over the previous month. Que?

Second, we asked about a recent in-house update to website templates, which may have caused tracking codes to drop off. If that was the cause, it would have resulted in uncounted leads, which could be a possible cause of a seemingly “unexplainable” decline in leads. We’ll work through that line of inquiry in collaboration with the client.

Third, the client announced that they had received an unexpected invoice from their marketing automation provider. Could it be that the data connectivity faucet was turned off for a few days? Also a possibility that needs looking into…

What’s the lesson here? Too often we can get caught up in the rolling and shifting granular data.  And, while the detail is important, it’s also essential to keep our eyes on the horizon. Maintaining a wider perspective avoids tunnel vision that can prevent us from seeing other very important pieces of the marketing ROI puzzle.

So, fellow marketing ROI lovers… Be like Columbus. Keep your sights on the marketing ROI horizon.


It’s simple.

It’s about people, their stories and their relationships.

It’s about compelling storytelling.

It’s about telling stories with great photographs, great videos and intriguing ideas.

If you follow these three guidelines with your social media, you will be very successful.

Learn more about our social media marketing services.

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As the world of higher education settles in after a frenzied first few weeks of new faculty introductions, last minute dormitory re-assignments and opening football weekend, there is that lingering question: what should we do about our brand?

Whether you’re stuck in avoidance or racing headlong toward action, it’s worth considering a pause. Maybe past attempts at brand cohesion have failed. Maybe the current administration has lost its will to move forward. Maybe the ink just dried on a statement of work. Whatever your situation, relax.

Your brand issues did not arise overnight. They won’t magically resolve any time soon. It may well be the single most important thing you orchestrate in your career as a vice president of marketing or college president. And it can wait.

Great brands, in the end, depend on good soil to take root. And when I say soil, I mean smart, authentic, surprising, delightful story telling. Show me a college bold enough to tell an honest, compelling story — and I will show you a college fit for the rigors of a brand discovery.

Brand articulation without the benefit of a good acoustic backdrop — without an audience accustom to listening for and relishing great story telling — will ultimately ring hollow.

Here are a few places I routinely go to find such stories, and to read for pleasure about the life of a college:

Notre Dame Magazine

Bucknell Magazine

Middlebury College Magazine





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