5 New Year’s Higher Education Marketing Resolutions

While higher education marketing professionals traditionally equate the “new year” with the turning of an academic calendar, starting in September, the approach of 2013 gives us good reason to offer 5 New Year’s Higher Education Marketing Resolutions.

1. Reach Across the Aisle.

Colleges increasingly recognize the value and wisdom of working in collaboration with peer schools that share a geographic base or demographic/psychographic profile. Confident schools recognize the concept of “right-fit” and realize that by raising the overall pool of inquiry and interest, all schools benefit. While formal organizations link colleges in every manner possible — by denomination, geography, prestige — it’s often ad-hoc collaborations that produce real innovation and spark. In a smaller state like West Virginia, for example, a handful of liberal arts colleges might benefit from raising the overall profile of private education in an area not well known nationally for its residential, four-year college options.

2. Cultivate Keyword Literacy

While higher education marketing professionals have largely accepted and embraced the power of social media and PR 2.0 channels, many colleges we meet still lack for basic keyword literacy. Knowing the 10-20 keyword phrases that hold the highest value and potential to drive right-fit conversions will boost your marketing ROI and more. We find that keyword literacy becomes something of novel, common language that helps to open a dialogue between faculty, marketing and communications staff and senior management.

3. Recognize the Real “Hero” in Your Story

Shifting your overall communications perspective from one that is centered around what the institution offers to one focused on what the prospects desires is one of the more subtle, yet profound changes for a college. Elliance Director of User Experience Geoff Barnes has “written the book” on this approach to information architecture and content strategy.

4. Foster Affinity

While most higher education marketing professionals focus on the great sea change of course and program delivery brought on by online and distance education, we miss some of the more layered implications of higher education in the digital age. Comparative media studies author and professor Henry Jenkins predicted the future — one driven by affinity — in his essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

5. Cross the Brand Chasm

While many more higher education marketing professionals talk brand, there seems to be a steady move toward “big splash” campaign roll-outs and a risk-management-driven focus on quantitative research.

Several years back, a higher education branding session at the AMA/Higher Education conference was led by Purdue University’s chief marketing officer, Teri Thompson and Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO/Partner
 at the well-known quantitative research firm Simpson/Scarborough.

Toward the end of the productive hour that covered Purdue’s extensive investment in market research, staff re-structuring and process change, Elizabeth Scarborough acknowledged something profound. “Quantitative research will get you to the edge of the chasm,” she said, “but only inspiration will carry you across.”

It takes strong, insightful leadership — often a president and chief enrollment marketing officer working together — to cultivate an appetite for finding a school’s one strong-to-impenetrable differentiation and learning to speak their one true brand voice. Many more colleges stand poised at the edge of the chasm, unable or unwilling to cross.

In the high stakes game of institutional “buy-in,” schools are increasingly prone to settling for the lowest common creative solution that mimics quantitative findings and reassures leadership who take only a passing interest in the long term viability and sustainability of the brand.

In our more than 75 years of collective brand experience, we’ve come to agree that brand insights strong enough to change the trajectory of a college require significant investment in qualitative discovery work — one-on-one interviews. It also takes large measures of quiet judgment — made more challenging in a wide-open, “everybody votes” process. Finally, it takes patience. Presidents who recognize the enduring nature and value of brand understand the difference between a “vanity plate” campaign and something that will serve subsequent presidents and the long-term (30-50 year) interests of the community and school.

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