In the past 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with more than fifty college chief marketing officers. Whether they are recruited as a change agent or a strategic visionary, they are increasingly expected to liberate new growth for college by focusing on the 3 R’s of prosperity: Revenue, Reputation and Rankings. These three currents flow under the twelve practices for managing and running a successful college marketing operations in this manifesto:
1. You become the story you choose to tell.
It’s how institutions make meaning from the arc of their history, and operate with a sense of destiny to create purpose that propels them into the future. This story is what students, parents, donors, funders and partners buy into. A brand rarely exceeds the size of its ambition and the story it chooses to tell about itself.
2. Students, not the institution, are the real heroes of your story.
The best colleges and universities realize that students, alumni and faculty — not the institution — are the real heroes of a college’s story. That’s why successful colleges primarily celebrate them, their journeys and the consequential problems of humanity they are solving.
3. Invest in brand. Speak with one brand voice.
In the sea of sameness, brands win. Know your core promise, values, ideals, distinctions and what you stand for.
Articulate your brand value cheerfully irrespective of whether you are a liberal arts college, STEM university, research powered, experiential brand, college of access, online educator or an integrative brand.
Speak with one brand voice to all audiences, but strike different notes for each segment of students, alumni, donors, partners and influencers.
4. Prove your brand claims.
Buyers are both intelligent and skeptical. Persuade them by providing proofs in the form of stories, stats and third-party validations. Go long on proofs and short on claims.
5. Invest in first impressions.
Fortify every digital touch point including websites, social media channels, search engine descriptions, paid campaigns and brand anthem videos. Also infuse beauty and strength in every physical touch point such as open houses, information sessions, college entrance, campus grounds, campus signage, classrooms, tours, and admissions office décor.
The sum of these experiences builds a college’s brand reputation.
6. Romance prospects with high-fidelity academic program pages.
They are the “money pages” on a website used by value-minded prospects and their families to make their college choices. Build them with the right balance of persuasion architecture, science of conversions, and beauty. Prospects want to be assured that the value of their degree far exceeds the cost of their education.
7. Pursue right-fit students.
Invert the admissions funnel by marketing your students and alumni heroes to attract like-minded prospects. This will create admission pipes, not funnels. Right-fit students will go on to become engaged citizens, brand ambassadors, recruiters, partners and donors.
8. Surround and engage prospects and influencers where they hang out.
Fish where the fish are. Allocate marketing investments in digital channels where students roam. Invest marketing dollars in both traditional and digital channels where influencers live.
9. Facilitate creation of distinctive academic programs.
Know and market your signature programs, program portfolios and mission-oriented academic programs. Defend your core franchise while creating new degrees of the future: integrative, flavored and emergent. Encourage involvement of industry advisory boards to inform new program creation and program adaptation.
Prospects will pay premium to schools that have a competitive advantage and are continually relevant. Nothing creates surplus revenue for a college than a strong portfolio of distinctive programs.
10. Reimagine your publishing potential. Claim your thought leadership.
Weaponize your content based on your college’s natural wellspring of ideas, innovation and thought leadership with a thoughtful Keyword Lexicon, search engine optimization and social sharing. Insist that each and every piece of content your college produces is “juiced” with keywords, so your college can secure its rightful Google page 1 rankings. When you secure them, traditional rankings will follow suit. Don’t surrender top search rankings for your signature programs to competitors, lead aggregators and commoditizers.
Leads generated from high-fidelity content out-convert paid advertising leads by three-folds (which, again, out-convert purchased names by another three-folds). The best prospects prefer to “discover” the college of their choice through word-of-mouth on social media and via “accidental finds” on Google page one.
11. Stand for something. Win battle for meaning.
Stand for a societal or global cause that is meaningful and consequential yet rooted in your institutional core strengths. Actively participate in it and promote it. In a fragmented world where there are competing voices and narratives, it’s vital for a brand to win battle for meaning – with intentionality – by owning mindshare, social shares and Google rankings for your distinct point-of-view.
12. Support the institution.
You are the linchpin for building institutional communications across all aspects of your college including enrollment, advancement, alumni relations, academics, research, athletics, internal communications and reputation management.
13. Measure what matters.
As management guru Peter Drucker said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Create a culture of disciplined accountability with a shared dashboard of key performance indicators. Mutually define a set of essential metrics that truly matter. To achieve results, hold your people accountable for realizing their measurable goals.
This is clearly an incomplete manifesto for growth for higher education marketers. I welcome you to share your thoughts that could further fortify it.