At the end of day two at the American Marketing Association Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education held last month in Boston, I joined about 15 marketing leaders at a roundtable group thoughtfully discussing marketing at faith-based colleges and universities. What I heard sounded familiar.
There were a number of marketing leaders struggling with their institution’s desire to have the religious identity of their institution used prominently in branding even though they know it isn’t important to their target markets.
Branding at an identity-driven institution is a challenge because sometimes it’s seemingly not possible to reconcile the goals of making data-based decisions with emphasizing religious identity.
It’s a tough spot to be in for a marketing leader. Deciding not to base brand messaging decisions on market data is not wise, but neither is choosing not to emphasize religious identity at an identity-driven institution.
Some thoughts as I’ve reflected on the discussion…
Question the data. Never take data at face value. In this case, just because prospective students and students say they don’t care about the religious identity of your institution, it doesn’t mean that they don’t desire the academic life, campus life, culture, and values that flow out of your religious identity. Remember that we’re talking about Millennials, who, generally speaking, value spirituality over organized religion.
Think student experience, not identity. Thus find a way to connect the dots between the student experience you offer and your faith tradition. Identity shouts from the ivory tower, “this is who we are!” Branding connects that identity to markets.
In other words, don’t just talk about who you are. Tell prospective students how it will make a difference to their college experience.
I’ve worked for two identity-driven Protestant universities. Both institutions have a Christian identity, but the student experience at each institution is vastly different from the other. Concordia University Irvine, my present employer, has a heritage of Lutheran theological thought that strongly influences its approach to both academics and campus life.
It’s my job as Concordia’s chief marketing officer to brand our identity in such a way that prospective students understand what we bring to the student experience, thus making it clear how Concordia is different from other universities.
For traditional undergraduates, we’ve branded our identity and positioned our university with our undergraduate viewbook and our admissions microsite, both of which talk about helping our students develop their gifts through our core curriculum, and their major, in a campus culture that invites their participation in the faith rather than requiring it.
All three of these brand message points–vocational calling/core curriculum/Grace Alone, Faith Alone theology–rise out of our identity as a Lutheran university. Talking about our identity means something to prospective students because we’ve branded it and connected it to the student experience we offer.
Words don’t hold meaning. People do. As you work to brand your identity, keep in mind and educate leadership that words hold no meaning. People hold the meanings of words.
Therefore, know your audience. Your identity may carry with it very positive meaning to your target markets, or not. Or your target markets may not understand your identity language whatsoever. Use care in how you wordsmith your brand messaging.
Educate leadership. It’s vital that the CMO at an identity-driven institution has a voice in the identity conversations on campus, and educates leadership on the need to brand identity. If you do so, they’ll understand your branding decisions, and trust will grow if they see how you’re authentically branding your institution’s identity.
I’ve written other posts on the subject if you’re interested in exploring this topic further, and as always, I’m available to talk.
As I begin this post, I’m in a plane headed home from the American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Now there’s a keyphrase for you. It was a productive conference for me. The sessions were relevant, and I had the joy of meeting a number of colleagues and reconnecting with others. I highly recommend it.
After being at the conference, it’s clear to me that those of us in the marketing not-for-profit higher education profession are of the same tribe. We have the same DNA. We may be creatively inclined, or numbers may be our thing, but it’s the combination of being both mission and market driven that gives us purpose in our jobs.
Good thing. If market were our only passion, we’d be hard pressed to stay in the not-for-profit higher education marketing sector. Our heritage is one of being the voice crying in the wilderness regarding the market and marketing on our campuses, and this heritage has limited our resources and slowed us in evolving our marketing organizations. It’s one reason why the not-for-profit higher education marketing sector has typically been behind the rest of the industry with adopting trends.
Meanwhile, the for-profit higher education marketing sector has been taking advantage of our lack of aggressiveness with the market. Case in point, big data.
Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications…The trend to larger data sets is due to the additional information derivable from analysis of a single large set of related data, as compared to separate smaller sets with the same total amount of data, allowing correlations to be found to “spot business trends, determine quality of research…[etc.] “– Wikipedia
Simply put, the big data to which I’m referring is data at the granular level that informs colleges and universities to more accurately identify, locate, and qualify prospective students for marketing and admissions.
Some of the potential of this data has been used for years by not-for-profit colleges and universities in traditional undergraduate search campaigns. However, in the increasingly important graduate and adult markets, most not-for-profit colleges and universities, which are typically organizationally decentralized, are not tapping into the potential of big data.
On the other hand, for-profit universities and for-profit companies that provide Online Program Management (OPM) are using big data to identify and qualify leads and inquirers with the ability to segment prospective students into any one of 200 consumer group profiles, give or take. They know where they live and how they live their lives. Consequently, they not only have proven to work harder for prospective students, they work much smarter.
The challenge for not-for-profit colleges and universities is how to shift marketing and admissions resources and develop the expertise needed to take advantage of big data. In a show of hands in a good pre-conference tutorial session on digital with Bob Johnson, only a handful of people out of about 40 in attendance raised their hands when asked if they had a data analyst on their team.
That’s a big problem for colleges and universities competing against for-profit competitors with teams of data analysts. At some point very soon, not-for-profit higher education marketing organizations are going to need to get more talented and experienced with big data and the more sophisticated marketing tactics it informs.
For those who are able to figure it out and organize for it, big data is a big opportunity.
There’s a lot being written about brands making the transition from outbound marketing to inbound marketing, which has practical implications on the media mix. Before I get started, let’s define the terms.
Outbound marketing is traditional advertising and promotion, i.e., billboards, TV commercials, radio spots, direct mail, email marketing, etc. Outbound marketing identifies target markets and takes your brand to the consumer. It’s designed to generate leads for those prospects in the purchase cycle, and brand your product to others who will be in the cycle at some point.
Inbound marketing “is advertising a company through blogs, podcasts, video, eBooks, enewsletters, whitepapers, SEO, social media marketing, and other forms of content marketing…Inbound marketing earns the attention of customers, makes the company easy to be found and draws customers [repeatedly] to the website [and social media] by producing interesting [and relevant] content.” – Wikipedia [my revisions]
I love that last line about inbound marketing. It’s a quick overview of what we must do in today’s market. While outbound works to grab attention, inbound works to engage those who are actively in the purchase cycle.
Today, it seems to be all about inbound marketing. At least that’s what my email inbox indicates with many vendors telling me, “Outbound marketing no longer works, especially with Millennials. Inbound is where you need to be.” Of course, what they mean is that I should be shifting my finite marketing dollars to their inbound marketing company and away from outbound marketing vendors. What’s ironic is their use of outbound tactics to get my attention.
They do have a point. We’re all experiencing the market shift. Admissions Offices nationwide have increased numbers of stealth applicants–those students who first appear in our funnels when they apply for admission. In other words, they were checking us out on their own without inquiring.
Take a look at these *percentages of stealth apps and apps that resulted from specific outbound marketing tactics (such as mailing list purchases) for two of our programs:
Traditional undergraduate apps
49% were stealth**
18% were recruited by outbound marketing tactics
Apps for one of our graduate programs
35% were stealth apps
24% were recruited by outbound marketing tactics
*These stats are first-contact numbers, i.e., a particular tactic was credited when the prospect was entered into our system. Because of that, and because of the extended higher education purchase cycle, multiple platforms, and how students now choose college, the waters are muddied when it comes to crediting tactics.
**Impacted somewhat by the Common App
The truth is that talking about inbound and outbound marketing is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Outbound marketing’s work is largely at the top of the funnel driving prospects to your inbound marketing content. Inbound marketing’s work is ongoing above the funnel (e.g., SEO) and down throughout, which means your inbound marketing tactics will play an integral role in moving an outbound lead down the funnel.
Thus we have made a large investment at Concordia University Irvine in inbound marketing tactics and content strategy across media. Most of our media mix is inbound-related. However, we’ve also invested in more aggressive outbound tactics, which continue to produce. And I’m not about to mess with that.
The reality is that in this current market environment we have to do both inbound and outbound marketing. As CMO, I must build a team of employees and vendors that can cover all of those bases well. We’ve got to be good at list procurement, media advertising, email marketing, and call center work. But we have to be even better at producing relevant and engaging content for our target markets across media and platforms.
As a result, our identity is changing. Marketing and Communications, also known as MarCom, infers a service department doing outbound marketing. However, the market has moved us to increasingly see our identity as content producers. But I’ll leave that for another post.
I haven’t been in the habit of writing about successful enrollment seasons, choosing instead to talk about the strategies and tactics that lead to them. But the reality is that we live or die by the numbers, and enrolled students are the ultimate return on investment.
If you’ve worked in admissions and marketing long enough, you’re going to experience highs and lows. This year, a lot of colleges and universities are experiencing enrollment decline. Unfortunately, It’s a tough time for many of our colleagues.
However, that’s not the case here at Concordia University Irvine. Our admissions, marketing and communications team-under the leadership of our executive vice president and chief enrollment officer, Dr. Gary McDaniel–just wrapped up an extraordinary recruitment season.
Fall 2013 enrollment highlights at Concordia University Irvine:
University enrollment = 4046 (+15%)
Undergraduate enrollment = 1592 (+9%)
Undergraduate Admissions = 614 (+15%)
Undergrad non-degree seeking = 28 (+133%)
Graduate enrollment = 2102 (+18%)
Adult degree programs enrollment = 324 (+20%)
While not all programs on campus experienced an increase in enrollment, and while we are definitely not without concerns about our enrollment, we’ve paused this Fall to thank God from whom all blessings flow, and the many on campus who contributed to these increases.
I’ve been reminded of a favorite song of mine, one of the signature songs from the musical Godspell, written by Stephen Schwartz. The first verse and chorus…
We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain
The breezes and the sunshine, the soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all His love.
The lyrics speak gently about how the seasons work together for the harvest. But the sometimes cruel reality is that the seasons are powerful forces of nature that require skillful responses by the one who scatters the seed. Nature rules. The sower is just grateful to God when the harvest is plentiful.
Such is the case with marketing higher education. While we don’t manage crops exposed to unpredictable seasons, we do manage our academic and university brands in a world of powerful market dynamics that require skillful marketing tactics. Ignoring or misjudging those dynamics spells trouble. The market rules.
Boiled down to its basic core, our responsibility as marketing leaders is to understand market dynamics and leverage them to our advantage in ways that are ethical and consistent with our mission.
But marketing is more than promotion, and it takes more than just marketing and enrollment leadership. Importantly, it also takes institutional commitment and skill by administrative and academic leadership to understand the market dynamics of product, place, and price, and to leverage them in order to be successful. I’m grateful to work with university leadership that understands this.
We’ll see what happens from here. Although we admittedly enjoy a better prospective student market than many other institutions, the competition is fierce, well-armed, and plotting to take our crops (market share).
So, we’re off sowing in a new recruitment season, understanding that market dynamics are by definition dynamic, changing just as the seasons change, especially in a market ruled by Google. Keep that in mind whether you’re experiencing the highs or the lows of the admissions and marketing profession this fall enrollment (harvest) season.
Major League Baseball (MLB) announced plans this past week to aggressively institute instant replay for its ballgames beginning in the 2014 season. The plan, which does not include instant replay for balls and strikes, covers most other plays during a game. It is expected to be overwhelmingly approved by owners, and it is long overdue.
For the first time, MLB is showing that it understands just how significantly technology has changed its market and the market it so desperately needs to attract–Millennials. For the first time, its commissioner is not talking about human error being part of baseball. Now it’s all about using technology to get the call right. It’s now about MLB being relevant, which means this is about the MLB brand.
Don’t underestimate the significance of this move. One of our most iconic brands in the USA–one that is all about tradition–is pushing aside arguments from baseball purists to institute a state of the art instant replay system. Finally, MLB is paying attention to technology-empowered sports fans who have long thought that the MLB is out of touch with the times.
If you’re still asking why this change is an absolute necessity for the sport, I wrote about it back in 2009, offering my perspective on why MLB needed to be adjusting to the technology-empowered consumer. As I write and speak to marketing and enrollment audiences, and to those on my own campus, I’m finding that the message is still pertinent today.
Adjusting to the Technology Empowered Consumer and Student (edited)
November 1, 2009
Late at night last July, I was with my Millennial son when he stopped at a gas station to fill up. As he got out of his car, a supposedly down on his luck stranger approached him and asked for some money for gas. Deciding to pump a couple of gallons of gas in the guy’s car, he put his ATM/credit card into the gas pump. But nothing happened. He then gave him a couple of bucks, but the guy looked suspicious and wasn’t either pumping the gas or leaving the station.
Concerned that his credit card may be vulnerable, I watched my son, in about 5 minutes time, use his BlackBerry to go online with his bank, transfer all money out of vulnerable accounts, cancel the card and order a new one. It was amazing to watch him do all of that so quickly. It was fascinating to watch a digital native at work.
Fast forward to the World Series. After instant replay had exposed terrible performances by Major League Baseball umpires during the playoffs, technology again points out glaring mistakes by umpires in the World Series. Asked about implementing instant replay to correct mistakes, Commissioner Bud Selig, says, “Yes, we had some incidents that certainly need to be looked at…But do I believe in instant replay? No, I do not. Human Error is part of our sport.”
Amazing. While this statement could have been stated 30 or 40 years ago without controversy, it’s simply an unacceptable statement today. And the audience baseball isn’t reaching–the under-35 market–isn’t buying it. It may sound right to Selig, but it doesn’t ring true for any brand in today’s market–you’re not going to get it right when you have the ability to do so?
It’s not just that those umpiring mistakes become viral, it’s that the world is different now. We are changing. Or more accurately said, those of us who are not digital natives are changing. Digital natives aren’t changing. They are by definition, connected.
While Selig and others may see technology as an add-on to life as usual, technology is becoming a way of life. It is changing how life is experienced.
All of us make mistakes, just like major league umpires. But when you’re responsible for marketing strategy, don’t pull a Bud Selig and underestimate the significant sea changes happening in the marketing environment that impact your ability to connect with your students, constituents and communities.
I’ve been thinking for some time about revisiting a post that I wrote in 2010 about the power of creating brand empathy. What especially makes the post worth sharing again is the Cannes award-winning short film that I shared with permission from the director, Alonso Alvarez Barreda.
If you have not seen Historia de un Letrero (History of a Sign), I encourage you to take a few minutes to view it now. And if you have a few more moments, in this post I share about how the video should remind us of the power we have as marketing and communications professionals, and challenge us to seek to create content–print, web, and social–that makes an emotional connection, fostering brand empathy.
A Parable for the Power of Brand Empathy
January 26, 2010
Historia de un Letrero (History of a Sign)
Directed by Alonso Alvarez Barreda
Winner of the Short Film online competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
A stranger transforms the afternoon for another man with the stroke of the pen.
In December, I was on a United Airlines flight eventually headed to a university campus where I would be doing a presentation to faculty on marketing higher education and the relationship of an institution’s brand to its mission. During the flight, while I was reviewing my notes and paying little attention to the videos being shown, a short film began playing that caught my attention.
The film, Historia de un Letrero, caught my attention because of the way director Alonso Alvarez Barreda engaged my right brain as he visually unfolded the story. It didn’t matter that it was Spanish-speaking with subtitles. It needed few words to connect with both my head and my heart.
If you haven’t viewed the short film already, please take a look. You’ll enjoy it.
Historia de un Letrero, as one reviewer put it, is “a beautiful and compelling story that invites us to be human again.” The story has a wonderful message.
But the film is beautiful and compelling–and it works–because the director tells the story using purely visual means, until brief dialogue at the end. In so doing, he engages us in the sights and sounds of the scene, putting us in the middle of the park, people-watching and taking it all in. In so doing, he “invites us to be human again” rather than preaching the message at us through dialogue or narration.
As I viewed Historia de un Letrero on the flight, it jumped out at me as a parable with lessons for branding organizations, including colleges and universities. I worked the story into my presentation as a way to show the power of branding.
Indeed, by a stroke of a pen, the good Samaritan changed the perceptions of those who would walk by the old man. In essence, he rebranded him.
A sign that begged for sympathy was transformed to create empathy.
No longer would those walking by view the old man as a beggar, a homeless man without dignity whom they could ignore. Now, he was a human being–just like them. Only less fortunate. The good Samaritan humanized him and in so doing emotionally connected him to others.
Well-crafted branding does that. It connects emotionally with your audience. It creates brand empathy.
How are your branding messages? Are you emotionally connecting with your audience by connecting your institution’s story with the heart of your audience? Or, are your communications solely institution-focused, full of academic-ese, simply structured to list all of your programs?
Do your branding communications invite us into the wonderful collegiate experience you offer? Do they remind us of the life-changing experience we had as alumni on your campus? Do they create empathy allowing us to envision enrolling in or donating to your institution? Or, do you simply preach at us using a narrative voice that lists your benefits without connecting emotionally?
Historia de un Letrero carefully crafts a story that draws us in and connects with us emotionally, inspiring us and motivating us to action. Branding should do the same.