Ideas, insights and inspirations.

What’s the difference between a college with a surplus of applications and one with an unacceptably high acceptance rate? Sometimes, it’s curiosity and nerve. Adversity — brought on by geographic isolation, shifting demographics, living in the shadows of giants, deep-pocketed for-profits and other Goliath competitors — can inspire a college and university to challenge assumptions and try new approaches to gain an unfair competitive advantage.

We call these schools underdog brands — and salute the leaders willing to rethink the potential of a school website, blog, and social channels. Underdog brands evolve from thinking of marketing assets as a fixed cost — an unwelcome guest knocking at the budget door — to seeing its potential to enlarge the vision and change institutional culture.

Underdog brands tend to serve a lot of first generation in college families and students who are willing to try harder. These students are unafraid to roll up their sleeves and get things done, and are eager to find their rightful place in society. This creates an opportunity to create unique content with a specific point of view.

Here are some guidelines for creating and managing blog content for underdog college brands:

Goals

  • Know your goals.
  • Create a readership that engages with your passion for delivering practical, valuable and advice-oriented content.

Target Audience

  • Speak to different generations of prospective students: high school, adult, online, and undergraduate.

Start with a Keyword or Key Phrase

  • Identify the keyword or key phrase you would like your blog post to be ranked for, and search Google to see who else appears on page 1 of Google for that phrase.
  • Infuse the keyword or key phrase into your blog posts.
  • Use SEO best practices to ensure that the blog has a fighting chance at securing page 1 Google ranking.

Content Focus

  • Act as a guidance and career counselor.
  • Educate prospective students.
  • Quote other authoritative peers and aspirational brands who’ll lend you credibility.
  • Write blog posts with commensurate fidelity, which is less than that of an academic program page or a news item.
  • Tie it back to the institutional offerings.
  • Honor the blog writing style guide for the institution.

Voice

  • Be positive, real, helpful, accessible, insightful, professional and knowledgeable.
  • Avoid jargon.

Length

  • Limit the length of blog post to less than 500 words.
  • Build topic authority by creating a series of small blog posts instead of packing everything into one long one.

Engagement

  • Encourage questions and comments on the blog.
  • Share the blog post on your institutional social networks.
  • Respond to comments on the blog and social media.

Measurement

  • Measure the number of shares and likes.
  • Measure blog post views with Google Analytics.
  • Monitor Google rankings for the chosen keyword or key phrase.

I welcome you to share your guidelines with us.

Learn more about our inbound marketing services and consider partnering with us.

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Over the last 25 years, Elliance has developed .edu websites using proprietary, open-source and commercial grade content management systems (CMS). As one of the few technology agnostic agencies, we try and support the prior investments of our clients. However, for medium to large colleges and universities, we recommend Hannon Hill’s Cascade CMS (content management system). Here are five reasons why:

1. Cascade CMS Allows Us to Implement our “Smart Page Builder”.
Cascade CMS enables us to construct a “Smart Page Builder” tool which combines building blocks to create all website pages easily and cost-effectively via a single interface. In sharp contrast to template-based websites, this gives our clients the flexibility to create custom layouts as needed for various parts of the website. This dramatically reduces their training and website maintenance costs.

As an example, we created a custom “Smart Page Builder” for Catholic University of America’s online presence. Their online universe comprises the main .edu website, 12 graduate school websites, and promotional landing pages. Even though each of these websites have a unique look and feel, they belong to the same brand family because they are built using a single interface. The beauty of this system is that it allows differentiation while maintaining brand consistency across all divisions. See some examples:

2. Apache Velocity Software Easily Integrates with Cascade CMS to Create Custom Applications
Velocity is a nice way to extend the capabilities of the Cascade CMS. For instance, Elliance built Catholic University of America’s Degree Explorer tool to allow a prospective student to quickly sift through more than 400 degrees the university offers.

3. Ease of Use for Content Teams
Here is what our university clients love about Cascade CMS:

  • Ease of use for non-technical content teams
  • View content you are responsible for
  • Manage drafts and schedule publishing dates
  • Track changes with audit trails and version history
  • Crop and resize images
  • Generate reports for stale content, broken links, spelling errors and accessibility compliance

4. Strong Development Environment
As developers, we appreciate these features of the Cascade CMS:

  • Integrates easily with third party systems (CRM, Marketing Automation, Faculty & Staff Directory, Course Catalog, Events Calendar, and more) using web services, connectors, and feeds
  • Provides great support for templating with XSLT – enabling separation of design and content layers
  • Supports Apache Velocity for custom development
  • Offers a granular permission system and access control lists
  • Enables a personalized user experience

5. Secure Hosting
Finally, Cascade CMS gives us and our clients peace of mind by decoupling the hosting of the CMS from the production website(s).

Higher Education Web Development with Hannon Hill Cascade CMS

We understand that there are numerous other content management systems for higher education, but Hannon Hill Cascade remains the top ranked CMS in this space. We have partnered with Hannon Hill because we are committed to offering the best solutions to our clients.

If you are seeking a higher education web development agency, consider partnering with us.

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The Covid pandemic has changed the landscape of enrollment management. Counselors aren’t able to travel to schools and meet prospective applicants face to face. Many students aren’t visiting colleges and aren’t able to take SAT and ACT tests. So how does a college enroll students in the absence of travel, the ability to purchase College Board lists or meet students face-to-face?

Here are 10 tactics for growing enrollment in these challenging times:

1. Abandon Traditional Student Search Models. Hunt Like Sharks. Don’t Feed Like Whales.
The era of buying prospects names, spamming them, seeing who sticks, and praying some convert is over.
Tell stories of successful students and alumni; let like-minded prospects find them. Embrace new digital methodologies based on micro-segmentation, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups. Think right-fit, admission pipes and inverted admissions funnels, not traditional admissions funnels.

Inverted Admissions Funnel

2. Hold Scholarship Essay Competitions
Shift existing scholarship dollars to support a national Scholarship Essay Competition. Use owned, paid, and earned media to attract prospective students.

3. Create Story-based Virtual Tours
Create a virtual tour that combines the best of still photography, student/alumni testimonials/quotes and a sense of place and culture. Use the testimonials/quotes to convey your school’s culture, not as a way finding device. Don’t show a dorm as a physical space, tell the story of a dorm friendship that endured for many years.

Imagine creating a digital version of iSpeak booklet which we produced for North Central College, or the Wellesley 100 microsite.

4. Develop a “Future of Work” Microsite for Guidance Counselors
Create an information-rich microsite aimed at helping high school guidance counselors convey how your college is preparing students for emergent careers. Tap your faculty, alumni, financial aid and career counseling staff to prepare the guide. Use owned, paid, and earned media to promote the guide to school counselors, students and the media.

5. Amplify Your College Blog and Publications to Achieve Google Page 1 Rankings
Invest in a more robust content mix for your college academic blog, developing a deep archive of student and alumni stories that can be used by your enrollment counseling team. Prioritize stories of audiences that drive institutional revenue.

Develop a “SEO Keyword Guide” comprised of keywords and phrases your college can rightfully claim. SEO Keyword Guide

Infuse your stories with targeted search engine optimization keywords to realize regional, national and international Google page 1 rankings.

6. Energize Influencers, Referral Networks and Reliable Feeders
Befriend high school college counselors, principals, teachers, and corporate/government training leaders. Wholesale student streams provide a solid foundation to supplement your retail one-on-one recruitment.

7. Invest in the Marketing of Signature Program Portfolios
Lead with strengths. Market distinctive programs where you have an indisputable competitive advantage.
Investment in Programs
Fight the temptation to start new me-too programs. No one has realized prosperity with me-too commodity offerings.

8. Invest in Smart Paid Advertising
Avoid democratic budget allocation. Target right-fit prospects where they hang out. Leverage machine learning, reliance on algorithms, and micro-segmentation techniques but balance them with your judgment. Embrace data-driven decision making. Measure what matters, watch what you see, see the unseen — but also trust your instinct and gut. Take bold action once you gather the insights from your data.

9. Augment Integrated Marketing with Timely Follow-up and Outreach
This trifecta is the holy grail of higher education enrollment and marketing. You take one out, and success will elude you. Don’t let automation get in the way of personalized and timely follow-up. There are no short-cuts for old-fashioned relationship building.

10. Leverage Tools, Technologies, Process and Imagination
Adopt CRM and marketing automation, but not to replace the essential relationship building work that needs to be done to win the hearts and minds of prospects. Imagination, passion and purpose — not process — is what prospects ultimately buy and are buying into.

In a nutshell, during the pandemic, enrollment managers have to be creative, smart and strategic.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies to fortify the reputation of your college or university, view our higher education marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.

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Communicating before, during and after a capital campaign requires the kind of symphonic thinking that author Daniel Pink explores in A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.

Strategic visions and campaign priorities can quickly deconstruct into campaign inventory and itemization — losing all connection to a larger and more compelling story about why a college matters and to the invitation for how donors might connect their singular sense of purpose to something larger.

It’s not a matter of longer versus shorter content, but a question of what Pink calls the “relationship between relationships.”

Pink talks of the three types of people that thrive when asked to overlay little and big pictures.

Boundary Crossers: comfortable with abstraction, they understand how a concept like regulation can inspire donors to support the training of future financial accountants who will police insider trading and osteopathic doctors equipped to ease an epidemic of diabetes.

Inventors: able to project new ideas, such as why relocating physical therapy and pharmacy majors in one location will anticipate the development of regenerative rehabilitation drugs and therapies.

Metaphor Makers: willing to risk bold scenarios, such as reframing the combative border between the US and Mexico as a shared resource, where the harnessing of scarce water and the capture of abundant sunshine eases the very economic pressure that strains policy and diplomacy.

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Imagine a college or university making a capital campaign pitch with this kind of clear return-on-investment data: every $1 given to scholarships generates nearly four times the amount in lifetime student earnings.

That’s the case with Macomb Community College, which raised more than $10 million for its largest-ever fundraising campaign concluding in 2018. The campaign, called “Mission Macomb: Creating Opportunities & Channing Lives” exceeded its goal by 8 percent and doubled the number of private scholarships available to students.

While capital campaigns have traditionally been associated with four-year institutions, robust fundraising efforts are gaining momentum in community colleges around the country. The data from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) shows that over the last decade, the average community college endowment grew by 76 percent.

This data suggests a big opportunity for community colleges that are not already running a capital campaign. Successful capital campaigns can help community colleges fund their educational missions, diversify funding sources so that they are less vulnerable to volatility of public funding, and become more competitive by funding high-quality programs.

However, what makes capital campaigns a unique opportunity for community colleges is that they are ideally positioned to make a strong case to their donors:

Donor contributions make an immediate and measurable student impact.
Given lower community college tuition, donors can realize a significant impact from their contribution. Each contribution goes further in supporting student aid. Also, because community colleges tend to serve low-income students, they boost economic mobility at a greater rate than their four-year institutional peers. See the Macomb Community College example.

Donor contributions will fuel economic prosperity.
Across the county, industries such as manufacturing, infrastructure and transportation — those that require education somewhere between a high school diploma and a four-year degree — are seeing shortages of skilled workers. Research shows that some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require bachelor’s degrees.

Community colleges are poised to answer this demand by offering high-quality training programs that will support the economy and create pathways to high-paying jobs. Donors who want to see their contributions create a real economic impact in their community see community colleges as great partners in their philanthropy efforts.

In 2014, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) commissioned Economic Modeling Specialists International to quantify the economic impact of community colleges in the United States. According to the report, “community college-educated workers have higher earnings than workers without any postsecondary education, which leads to higher tax revenues and increased demand for goods and services throughout the economy.”

Convincing donors requires more than just facts and figures.
While making the case to community college donors rests on the transformative impact their contributions will have on the lives of students and their community, facts and figures are not enough. Community colleges who are looking to motivate donors must balance between proof and heart. They must tell stories of lives that have changed, businesses that have prospered and communities that have been reenergized — all in some way touched by their school.

If your institution needs help creating capital campaign communications, consider partnering with us.

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Google page 1 is destiny. 90% of users never go beyond page 1 of Google results. Organic rankings (i.e. the 10 natural search results) are trusted more, and convert three-folds better than paid ads.

Here are a 10-step plan for colleges, universities and higher education institutions to secure coveted Google page 1 rankings.

10-Step SEO Plan for Colleges, Universities and Higher Education Institutions

1. Identify Your Goals and Objectives
Here are a few common goals:

  • Grow enrollment in undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, or online programs
  • Strengthen Brand Reputation locally, regionally, nationally — in new areas of expertise, strategic priorities, and centers of excellence — all in service of positioning the institution as a school of consequence
  • Expand Fundraising to serve students, secure high caliber students, secure talent, or to fulfill the vision of the strategic/master plan
  • Improve External Relations with trade groups, foundations, corporations and government partners
  • Recruit Talent personified by great faculty, staff and students

Your tactics should change depending on your selected goal(s).

2. Establish a Multi-Year Attack Plan
Take the long view. Develop a plan that goes after the lowest hanging fruit first (local rankings), then harder-to-achieve rankings (regional), and finally the hardest-to-achieve national and reputation rankings. Slow and steady wins the race.

Multi-Year Plan for Securing Google Page 1 Rankings

3. Use .edu Instead of Using .com, .org and Other Domains
Since each college and university can be awarded only one (and occasionally two) .edu domains, search engines generally rank .edu websites higher than other domain extensions. Use .edu domains for websites, landing pages and microsites.

4. Make your website responsive, secure and fast
Google rewards responsive websites – the ones that auto-adjust gracefully on smartphones, tablets or desktops. Google also ranks higher those websites that load fast and are running in secure mode.

5. Create a Keyword Lexicon, and Claim Top Search Engine Rankings
Develop a Keyword Lexicon for your college. The lexicon is comprised of keywords and key phrases the college should claim. Categories in the lexicon include program keywords, brand positioning keywords, reputation keywords, decisioning keywords, and location keywords.

SEO Keyword Lexicon

Prospective students use different clusters of keywords at each phase of the decision funnel. (e.g. they’ll use reputation keywords during the awareness phase, category keywords during the consideration phase and branded keywords during the preference/purchase phase). Write copy that responds to the issues that matter in each specific phase of the decision cycle.

higher education marketing SEO decision funnel

6. Optimize all Assets for Search Engine Bots
Optimize copy, images, videos, pdf’s, tables, links, and meta-data on every college website page. This will ensure that Google serves up your copy, images, videos, maps and tabular data on a search results page. Since search engine bots also review and serve up assets on college social media channels, ensure that they are also optimized.

7. Multiply Social Signals 
Social signals (a webpage’s shares, likes and social media visibility) impact organic rankings. Add them to every page of your college website.

8. Secure Top Rankings for Mission-Critical Pages
Secure top rankings for your signature academic programs by developing high-fidelity, sharable and optimized content to secure top rankings for each on Google. This helps colleges combat competitors and lead aggregators.

The more competitive a keyword, the more high-fidelity content you’ll have to create to secure page 1 rankings.

High-Fidelity Content Marketing

Alternatively, claim thought leadership by re-packaging, optimizing and re-marketing new content assets based on your college’s natural wellspring of ideas, innovation, and intellectual capital.

9. Embrace Voice Search
We have entered a new era of “natural language”, “sentence based” and “question based” search with the advent of voice-activated search on mobile phones (like Google Assistant, Siri, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa) and gadgets like Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and others. 30 percent of searches are now voice driven. Get ready for the voice era by taking the following steps:

  • Write colloquially. Since people won’t change their speaking habits for the computer, write new content using everyday vernacular.
  • Write page summaries. Write short, persuasive, 29-word page summaries above the screen fold on long-form pages. These summaries act as pop-up snippets served up by voice searches on mobile devices and home gadgets; they also appear as answer boxes on desktop search results.
  • Build social shares. Implemnt social share campaigns because the more shared the page is on Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn and other social channels, the more likely it will surface on voice search.
  • Think globally. Act locally. Since more than 20% of searches are local, add phrases such as ‘near me’ into your copy, especially if a college is a local or regional brand.
  • Rank high on desktop/mobile search. If a website is not ranked on desktop/mobile search, it is unlikely that it will be ranked on voice search. Therefore, focus on achieving top rankings on desktop/mobile search for your college website.

10. Monitor and Protect Keyword Rankings
Measure keyword rankings to ensure your college ranks on Google and sustain your rankings. Watch your college competitors for signs of encroachment, and counter their moves on an as-needed basis.

Ideally SEO thinking should be baked into every aspect of a new website construction project: all the way from strategy, information architecture, design, content, front-end development, back-end development to site launch and post-launch marketing. However, on most occasions, we are either called in at the tail end of a website redesign project or after it has been relaunched.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies for your college or university, view our SEO capabilities and consider partnering with us.

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In times of the coronavirus, higher education marketers can easily get distracted and lose sight of the fundamentals. Included here are 25 timeless higher education marketing strategies that have generated proven growth in enrollment, endowment and reputation for colleges and universities.

Branding

1. Students and faculty, not the institution, are the real heroes of your story
Colleges and universities empower student journeys. Faculty enable students and build institutional reputation.

2. Invest in brand
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.

3. Speak with one brand voice to all audiences
Strike different notes for each segment of students, faculty, donors and partners.

4. Prove your brand claims
Buyers are smart. Provide proofs in the form of stories, stats and third-party validations.

5. Stand for something unique and let the world know about it
To draw attention you must do something unique. To stand out, here are three things you can do:

  • Become a product innovator in emerging fields of law.
  • Position yourself as a thought-leader in emerging fields of law.
  • Champion a meaningful societal or global cause that is rooted in your institutional core strengths.

Reputation Management

6. Invest in first impressions
Remember you become the story you choose to tell.

  • Tell a better story.
  • Celebrate your star students, alumni and faculty – the kind you want more of.
  • Fortify every touch point – including websites, social media channels, your Wikipedia entry, email signatures, newsletters, tours, information sessions, and all your presentations.
  • Fortify your Google results pages – ensuring the information that appears on search engine results is persuasive and inviting.
  • Make your facilities and grounds beautiful because beauty engenders confidence.

7. Claim your keywords on Google
If you are ranked on US News & World Report, then secure your Google rankings too. Don’t surrender top search rankings for your star programs to lead aggregators and commoditizers.

8. Transform your flagship university publication to a print/digital hybrid publication
Reimagine your print university magazine as a print/digital hybrid publication. Instead of publishing it bimonthly, quarterly, biyearly or annually, consider rolling out stories digitally on a weekly schedule, SEO-optimizing each for search engine rankings and promoting each on social media. You’ll be effectively weaponizing each article based on your schools’ thought leadership, innovation, and intellectual capital. Supplement the digital publication with a leaner, nimbler, annual print publication.

Enrollment & Admissions

9. Think student life cycle
From prospect to current students to alumni and donors. Take the long view.

10. Find students where they hang out
Allocate marketing investments in channels where students roam. Fish where the fish are.

11. Energize influencers, referral networks and reliable feeders
Over time, these wholesale student streams will create a rising tide that’ll relieve pressure from retail recruitment efforts.

12. Abandon ineffective and expensive traditional student search models
Embrace new ones based on right-fit, micro-segments, look-alikes, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups. Think right-fit, admission pipes and inverted admissions funnels, not traditional admissions funnels.

13. Mobilize and mutually reinforce paid, owned, earned and shared media
Surround and engage your prospects with your brand by leveraging various forms of paid media, high-fidelity content marketing, online PR, and social media to create a comprehensive marketing strategy for your program.

Create hermetically sealed landing pages/microsites for paid media, and open-fields of strong website pages for owned/earned media are the best combination for getting the best out of different strategies.

14. 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.

15. Pursue right-fit students
Create admission pipes, not funnels. Invert the admissions funnel by marketing the student and alumni heroes to attract like-minded prospects.

16. Check up on inquiry/applications follow up and boots-on-the-ground activities
This trifecta is the holy grail of higher education enrollment success. You take one out, and success will elude your institution.

Academics

17. Insist on offering a distinctive portfolio of programs
Foster creation of new programs where you have indisputable competitive advantage. Fight the temptation to start new commodity programs. No one has realized prosperity with boring non-distinct offerings. It’s easier to market and grow enrollment for distinct academic programs.

18. Help name new academic programs
Use competitive offerings and Google keyword search history histograms to inform naming of new academic offerings.

Fundraising

19. Cultivate a culture of giving
Adapt your communications based on the diversity of donors – small donors, intermediate donors and mega-donors. Insist on giving a ton before you ask for something even small in return. Students and families feel that they have given enough already.

20. Create customized marketing
Whether it’s emotionally appealing microsites for capital campaigns, process-oriented annual giving sites, printed appeals for specialty giving, direct action emails, social media campaigns, or personalized videos for mega-donors, create customized marketing materials to support fundraising.

Analytics & Metrics

21. Know industry benchmarks, but forge your own metrics
Create your own path. Perform better than how you did last year. Measure what matters to you, not to others.

22. Combine data and intuition
Embrace data-driven decision making. Measure what matters, watch what you see, see the unseen — but also trust your instinct and gut.

Budgets

23. Insist on Investing 10% of revenue on marketing
In the world of for-profit schools who invest close to 20% of their revenue on marketing, and the $100 million marketing club of non-profit colleges (Southern New Hampshire, Purdue, Arizona State, University of Maryland and others), underspending on marketing will not yield success.

If you have generous marketing budgets, you’ll be able to set aside some play money to explore new marketing tactics and strategies.

24. Avoid democratic budget allocation
Pick winners. Judge. Allocate budgets equitably, not equally. Allocate pilot budgets for new approaches and tactics.

Operations

25. Balance tools, technologies, process and imagination
Adopt automation, but not to replace the essential relationship building work that needs to be done to win hearts and minds of prospects. Imagination, passion and purpose — not process — is what prospects ultimately buy and are buying into.

Remember, it’s all about balance: between profit and purpose, between near and far, and between data and story. At all times, but especially in times of a crisis, I encourage higher education marketers to stay focused on the fundamentals and deploy proven strategies.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies to fortify the reputation of your college or university, view our higher education marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.

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A familiar Chinese proverb instructs: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”

The current situation in higher education defies that enduring wisdom. Change arrived suddenly, with little regard for institutional history or might. In this respect, all colleges stand on relatively common ground. All college presidents, to a degree, have become new college presidents.

It might be tempting in this moment of great uncertainty to think that successful colleges/presidents will be those that summon deeper reserves of managerial will or command with greater “corporate turnaround” intensity.

More likely, how you and your college navigates this public health crisis and its aftermath will come down to something as fundamental — albeit elusive — as how effectively and artfully you communicate.

Every college has crisis communications plans in place, and these plans have served everyone — especially students — well through the initial weeks and months of this crisis. We know that eventually, the urgency of this moment will give way to larger questions that will require a different kind of communications mindset and strategy.

In ordinary times, such a strategy would seldom rise to the attention of a president. As long as key revenue indicators — enrollment, gifts, grants, partnerships — appeared healthy, a president would not bore into details such as keyword priorities, digital publication analytics or the nuances of storytelling and brand voice. The necessary shift in mindset would never become a mandate.

But these are far from ordinary times. Here are a few presidential considerations on how to leverage the power of communications to move and inspire an institution — students, faculty, alumni, donors and partners — forward.

Rethink Stakeholder Sorting

Historically, higher education audiences sort by simple data sets (SAT scores, FAFSA indicators, location, degree type, graduating year, giving record, net worth). Now is the time for a president to challenge his cabinet and key departments (enrollment, institutional research, alumni, development, marketing) to reimagine stakeholders along a different (cause/effect) axis.

For example, prospective students with an interest in medical and health research careers, alumni working in a broad range of health sciences, and partner corporations and foundations form one of many potential adhocracies. Communicating with and about such a group will change the way you operate and communicate.

Be more Socratic.

College presidents tend toward Socratic inquiry by nature and necessity. By modeling a higher questions-to-statements ratio, you will begin the process of mining for deeper insights and help to normalize the internal climate of the organization.

You can set the expectation that good questions – and the details that surface — matter now more than ever. By doing so, your cabinet and their direct reports can see that the road forward will not be strewn with blame, but with a persistent search for the best answers to support the overall cause.

Tell the better story.

Assume that anything that signaled “momentum” prior to this crisis has far less relevance going forward. Recent capital campaign success or improvements in student quality, however welcome, carry less promise than they might have otherwise. Resist chasing a lucky break or buying gigabytes of enrollment search names to address a new set of challenges.

Author Jim Collins (Good to Great; Turning the Flywheel) describes disciplined people pursuing a disciplined response:  “the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond… with the same creative intensity that made (the organization) great in the first place.”

A case can be made for designating your digital communications efforts as that flywheel. As fundraising consultant Jim Langley writes: “True philanthropy is not about money, nor amounts given… It is the clear-eyed conviction that sacrificing a measure of one’s individuality is a worthy investment in a world more worthy of vesting one’s self in. So much of the hopes of humanity then, you see, hinge on preserving a healthy measure of true philanthropy.”

For colleges, an ability to use the power and reach of fully optimized digital publications, fueled by high-fidelity content, allows you to connect the college’s specific value to a philanthropist’s specific concerns and passions.

The gap between the best and most productive college flagship publications — a handful of outliers — and the great majority of college magazines and news sites suggests that much value (for reputation building and more) has been left on the table.

Only the college president can reframe a truly great flagship magazine and story telling operation from that of a cost center to one of a mission/vision/reputation/brand/value engine.

Your college has a core reason for being that extends far back in time, well beyond this current crisis and many others that preceded it. The source of your institution’s renewal — and the key to leading others out of the current confusion — lies with telling the better story to a far wider and more engaged audience.

Before anything resembling progress, there will first have to be change. By changing how you communicate, you will begin to turn the flywheel and signal to internal and external audiences an ability — individually and collectively — to adapt to a changed world.

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As higher education departs the shores of government sponsorship and enters the era of academic capitalism (which unites the scientific search for truth with economic maximization of profits) improving the reputation of a college/university becomes mission-critical. However, becoming known as a college of consequence takes talent, discipline, money and smarts. Included below are the five best practices for improving college/university reputation and brand recognition:

1. Invest in Brand
Begin your journey for building reputation and brand recognition by investing in a brand. A brand is the sum of all experiences, be they virtual, experiential or architectural interactions. It is the DNA of an institution that affirms its purpose, defines its core values, creates distinction and is the foundation of its reputation.

2. Transform Your Flagship Publication to a Print/Digital Hybrid Publication
Reimagine your print university magazine as a print/digital hybrid publication. Instead of publishing it bimonthly, quarterly, biyearly or annually, consider rolling out stories digitally on a weekly schedule, SEO-optimizing each for search engine rankings and promoting each on social media. You’ll be effectively weaponizing each article based on your schools’ thought leadership, innovation, and intellectual capital. Supplement the digital publication with a leaner and nimbler print publication.

To create the digital publication, take the following steps:

  • Develop a Keyword Lexicon: Categories in the lexicon should include keywords for brand positioning, reputation, thought leadership, star faculty and their areas of research, leadership and their unique point-of-view.
  • Craft an Editorial Calendar: This will ensure topics coverage and cultivate the habit of routine publishing. Build in flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that surface over time.
  • Create High-fidelity Content: The high-fidelity content (such as videos, infographics, interviews, posters, field guides, animations, slide shows and microsites) elevates a college’s brand reputation and dislodges competitors from search engines for tough-to-rank keywords.
  • “Bake” Keywords into Each Article: Use SEO best practices to “bake” the keywords into each article.
  • Foster Social Sharing: The more an article is shared on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social channels, the more likely it will surface on page 1 of search engines.
  • Promote Content: Promote the high-fidelity content through your college’s earned, owned and paid media with the goal of reaching new prospect pools and encouraging peer-to-peer sharing.
  • Track and Measure: Measure reach and exposure to friends of the college, and more importantly to strangers who are unaware of your college. Measure keyword rankings to ensure your content ranks on Google. Sustain your rankings by watch your college competitors for signs of encroachment, and counter their moves on an as-needed basis.

3. Write Thought-Leadership Blogs
Encourage your thought leaders to follow these steps to create and manage their blogs:

  • Outline Goals: Create a readership that engages with their passion for their expertise by delivering practical, dependable and valuable content.
  • Manage Personal Profiles: Curate and manage their personal profiles on their school’s website, their personal LinkedIn account, and other social channels. Grow and cultivate their personal network comprised of practitioners, peers, collaborators and most importantly influencers.
  • Define Target Audience: Speak to practitioners, peers, collaborators and influencers.
  • Determine Keyword Focus: Think of the keyword or phrase you would like their blog post to be ranked for. Search Google to see who else appears on page 1 of Google for that phrase.
  • Content Focus: Write about research, studies, best practices, and policy issues.
    Educate. Quote other authoritative peers and aspirational brands. They lend you credibility. Tie content to the keyword or phrase.Limit the length of blog post to less than 500 words.
  • Articulate Unique Point of View. Provide authoritative perspective on their expertise and related topics.Share lessons learned. Risk yourself. Lean into controversy.
  • Voice: Be positive, real, helpful, accessible, insightful, professional and knowledgeable. Avoid jargon.
  • Engage Audiences: Encourage questions and comments on the blog. Share the blog on their personal social networks as well as on their college’s official social media channels. Respond to comments on the blog and social media.
  • Measure: Measure the number of shares and likes. Measure the traffic on the blog post. Monitor Google rankings for their keyword or phrase.

4. Strengthen Ties with Community Partners
Create porous walls between the the institution and community partners. Get connected with the vitality of external communities including corporations, non-profits and civic organizations. Create centers of excellence that fuse corporate and academic interests.

5. Implement Image Advertising Campaign and Public Radio Sponsorship
The strongest brands reserve a portion of the marketing and PR budget for image advertising and public radio sponsorships designed to shape the image of a distinctive, positive and memorable brand.

As more colleges face demographic, endowment and government funding challenges, their pursuit of market-like activities is only expected to increase. Colleges must begin investing now — in protecting their intellectual property, marketing their thought leadership and building their brands.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies to fortify the reputation of your college or university, view our higher education marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.

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Like every market, the audience of college-bound high school seniors is responding to change and uncertainty with… more change and uncertainty.

Very recent surveys show roughly a quarter of next year’s class feeling uncertain about whether they will attend their first choice college, attend a school closer to home, or delay college enrollment for a year.

College enrollment marketing teams (already stressed by acceptance/deposit season) now have to scramble to reassure and to some degree, re-recruit the Class of 2024.

Here are five content needs/priorities to consider.

Liberal Arts as catalytic.

How often and how well do you make the case for why complex times and challenges require agile thinkers? Do you routinely interview students who find the core curriculum applicable across a range of research, internship and other experiential learning opportunities? Do you trace that confidence back to encounters with specific faculty, courses, assignments and texts? Do you ask internship supervisors and employers why such learners outperform their peers? Do you get perspective from mid- and late-career alumni on how the liberal arts enabled them to mature into fully reflective professionals?

Faculty as wellspring.

How routinely do you assign experienced reporters/writers to engage faculty? Do faculty trust your ability to translate their research and life’s work to general and prospect audiences? Have you identified opportunities for faculty to contribute — in person, in writing and through podcasts, video and other owned media? Do your blogs and flagship publications leverage keywords of importance to departments and faculty?

Student life as real.

How candid have you been in your communication with prospective students and families about the emotional and social realities of the transition to college? Do you partner with student life to offer prospective students and families a realistic set of expectations, and a transparent view of support systems? Do you drill into the details of residential life, housing, wellness and diversity enough for prospects to see you as honest information brokers?

Rigor as welcome adversary.

Have you found ways to reveal and celebrate the academic challenge of college — the progressive building of resilience and mental muscle — that sets a baseline expectation for all prospects and families? Have you studied closely the true readiness of prospects, and have you worked with faculty, advising and academic support to give prospects anticipatory guidance? Do you look for creative ways to capture all dimensions of learning?  Or do you disguise the harder truths of academic challenge under the guise of college as some kind of extended summer camp escapism and excitement?

Agency and maturity as outcomes. 

Is your communication with prospects attune to less tangible measures of integrity and character that, as much as major choice or final transcript, foreshadow someone’s career trajectory and quality of life? Do you look for opportunities to celebrate good judgment among current students — not just athletic trophies and scholarly honors? Do you hold out for prospects the goal of being able to think independently, and do what’s right, in the face of falsehoods, economic pressures, and distortions. So much of someone’s college experience comes down to simple actions. Negotiating with roommates. Meeting a deadline. Supporting a teammate. Showing up for a friend. Do you track — from orientation to graduation — that small voice inside your students as it matures into a growing faith in one’s ability to shape one’s own thoughts and behavior and handle a wide range of people, assignments, challenges or situations?


Everyone is being tested right now — far more than any of us expected. Rather than scrambling to put a brighter shine/smile on our features and benefits, now is the time for generous action and straight talk with prospects/families.

We move into our integrity when we speak what we know to be true — and act upon that truth in the best interest of students (not our colleges).

With truth, comes trust. And trust — especially in times of uncertainty and crisis — is your most enduring strategic asset.

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