College “search”—the process of mailing promotional letters or flyers to students with qualifying characteristics—began in the early 70s as a means to open opportunities to schools that students may not yet have been introduced. In those days about thirty colleges and universities across the country participated in the College Board’s search program. In a sense, “search” was a means to target selected students as potential matches for an institution. To that end, it was less “search” and more “introduction” to students that met an academic profile.
Today, with more than 1700 colleges and universities participating, coordinated programs of online and print communications introduce students to hundreds of colleges and universities. Personalized letters, brochures and PURLs abound each fall and winter when test scores and survey data becomes available.
In our interviews with high school students around the country, we’ve heard their stories of the incredible amount of mail they receive. Many throw these mailings away if the school is unfamiliar, thus negating the benefit of being introduced to a new opportunity. Some document the arrival of their search mailings on social media. Some collect the mailings in dresser drawers or boxes or garbage bags (!).
Others—many others—of course, complete and return a reply card or inquire online or call a toll-free number or register on their PURL to serve as indication of interest in the institution. Or they may launch a search of their own by visiting college web sites as “stealth applicants” (at RHB we prefer to call them “self-managing prospects”).
Still other prospects do absolutely nothing. They don’t reply to anything. They don’t say “yes” or “no.” And these students represent the largest of the population of the search pool. Colleges and universities are missing big opportunity by operating with search as the only driver. According to the Noel-Levitz’s 2013 Marketing and Student Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions, schools indicated a median “enrollment rate of 2.0% on purchased names.”* I don’t know about you, but filling your funnel 98% full of students who will not matriculate seems wasteful. We can then deduce that names from other sources make up 98% of the class. Shouldn’t we reconsider making investments with this group?
Given the capacity for exacting data that pinpoints our best-matched prospects, the need for that qualifying round of “search” is over. Search was primarily used to determine which students in the pool might be suited to a particular institution. But now, we know that information in advance. Ubiquitous predictive modeling programs offer colleges and universities the opportunity to fine-tune their purchased lists of suspects to zero in on those students who are indeed “best fits,” reducing volume and increasing probability based on the students that historically have matriculated.
The second purpose of search was to indicate some level of “interest” whether or not the student “wanted” a particular institution. Since this paradigm has mostly reversed—it is now the prospect that needs to be “wanted” in the relationship—the idea that a student will “raise her hand” by responding to search is antiquated (if not irrelevant).
So, is “search” still necessary?
Perhaps a better option would be to buy the most refined, intelligent (dare we say smallest?) list possible and begin conversation with those students that would engage them with members of the college community. Invite them to college events. Welcome them to dialog with faculty. Rather than sending them information describing the college, let them experience the college. Better yet, take the conversation (and conversion) to the students. Go to where your prospects are and share an experience with them. Set up a store front in the local mall. Let them enjoy what it means to be part of your community rather than merely telling them about it. Expand the idea of what it means to “visit,” to “anytime we get to see the face of a student.” The science of enrollment management tells us that these encounters are far more fruitful than an “inquiry.” Construe this as “old-school with a twist” if you wish, but don’t let nostalgia get in the way of building a relationship with someone who could thrive at your institution.
In doing so, colleges and universities would more directly connect with prospective students while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Objectively, it’s hard to think of a 2% yield on search as anything more than waste. Perhaps those savings from ineffective marketing could be redirected to scholarships, reducing tuition or a myriad of other things that would make higher ed more attractive and more accessible.
*It bears mentioning that in the current competitive marketplace, with changing and mostly shrinking pools of prospects, institutions occupying the same market position are largely buying the exact same names. In this light, a 2% yield from search makes a bit more sense. It should also be said that search companies probably don’t calculate their results in quite the same way.
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in a creative idea that you fall in love with. Sometimes it’s difficult to break out of old habits. Sometimes it’s easy to think that what others have done is what you should do. Sometimes it’s difficult to do something different than you ever have before.
In all those easy or difficult decisions, the focus is on you—well, your institution. What you like. What you think. What you find easy or difficult. What you cling to. What you are afraid of.
Perhaps a shift in focus would better serve you in making good choices. When your focus shifts to your customer (and off of you), your marketing and communications decisions become clearer.
Take for example, a conversation we had with a client last week about a capital campaign case statement under development. When we came to the layout and copy showing the details of the campaign, rather than discussing our preferences, we talked about the donors who would read those pages. Who were they? What would they be thinking? What would they be expecting? What would appeal to them? What would challenge them to participate?
Or, consider the strategy meeting about how to assign regions to recruitment representatives during a recent visit with a client. Naturally, all were inclined to think about what might be most convenient for the reps. But more of our conversation was devoted to the patterns of their customers—prospective students. Where did they live and go to school or church? Where would their network of friends be? What natural connections might exist in a certain county or region of the state? How could we arrange travel schedules and site visits that would have the most meaning and influence on students we wanted to enroll?
Just yesterday we were discussing the lifespan of a microsite we developed for a client. When would be the best time to phase that out and introduce a new site? Could we just shut it down? The choice was easy to keep it live when we considered that the URL was published in materials that were still circulating. Had the customer not come first, the client would have missed opportunities for connection.
Backstage vs. Frontstage
Because workloads and convenience and “fairness” are typically big concerns, backstage work often leads our decision-making:
- Creating forms and fields that fit our CRM (over what makes sense and eases the completion process for customers)
- Arranging a campus visit experience that isn’t too taxing for the tour guide—or faculty member or coach (over ensuring that a family sees what they’re interested in and speaks to the people they hope to)
- Planning an event for donors that works into our academic calendar (over what time of year might yield the best response)
- Using social media to get “the word out” (over inviting constituents to meaningful conversations)
- Filling our home page with every request on campus (over selecting relevant information and easy navigation)
Instead, think about the frontstage experience of your choices:
- How little can we ask of our customers when filling out forms? What do we really need to know in order to take action? How convenient can we make it to seek our help or response?
- When welcoming visitors, how clearly have we provided directions and easy parking access? How can we make a visit experience the best it can be for students and parents? What will they be most interested in seeing? Who would they most like to meet? What questions can we be prepared to answer for them? What would leave the “best taste in their mouth” after their visit?
- How could we make a donor feel most a part of our university? What would make them feel that their involvement not only mattered to us but also truly made a difference in the life of the college? How could we demonstrate our appreciation that would deepen our relationship with them?
- What does our homepage really say about us? Can visitors find what they are looking for? Can a prospect find answers to questions easily?
In a time when customers expect speed and accuracy and when “user experience” is a watchword, it’s imperative that we think of customers first.
You make strategic marketing decisions every day. Focus on your customers and let them drive your choices.
Kinesthetic learner? Need a worksheet to help differentiate front-stage vs. backstage? Click here.
It has become the norm for a marketing firm to have processes and models for sale in advance of producing anything tangible toward the stated marketing goals. There is sound logic for this and not all processes are created equal. Processes vary widely in their rationales; from subsidizing creative work, to engaging stakeholders, gathering much needed data or building inclusionary ownership, for example. What is common however, is that “processes” primarily solve a problem that the marketing firm has. Not the client.
Yep, RHB’s process of coherence solves a problem that we have. We need stuff to solve a client challenge. Without that stuff, we can’t solve their problem. Obviously this is an over-simplification, but the concept holds: In order to maintain the consistent success and high-quality work we produce on behalf of our clients, we have a process that we need to execute. However, this is indeed our problem.
The truth about “process” is that it’s code for “getting the things you need to do your job.” But there are other, less frequently stated, rationales and outcomes that a great process can yield.
Why firms use processes:
A. Financial reasons. Firms utilize processes for financial sustainability. The best ones do, and at a cost. This is ethically OK. Really.
Here’s a truth: Implementation of creative solutions in and of themselves is inefficient from a business perspective. High quality, creative solutions require a tremendous amount of discovery, client review and revision time. When a firm only sells their solution at a cost that the market will bear, good design (the viewbook, the website, etc.) is often a losing proposition. A significant amount of time is spent figuring out what to do and how to do it before something billable is created. This is one reason for the billable process before the product model. There’s a throwaway quote out there: “Getting paid for thinking.” But the “thinking,” structure and cadence that the firm undergoes is what’s perhaps the most valuable to the outcome.
Why this should matter to you:
I won’t discuss why you should want your firm to make money here (though you really do), but there are a lot of features of a process that have value and investment implications for you. Does participating in the process produce more than the product? The answer should be, emphatically, “Yes.” The intelligence gathered in the process should be valuable beyond the purposes of the tangible outcome. That intelligence should also be accessible to the client in ways that go beyond the specific marketing objective. In a sense, the process should create an environment for learning together, not just from one another. For years we’ve heard that our qualitative process, Circles of Influence is as valuable as (if not more than) the creative solutions that follow it. This is because the applicability of Circles goes far beyond what ever we make using the findings from it. It can inform behavior, highlight points of distinction and build confidence. We can sell it because it has a broader value.
B. Client participation and stakeholder buy-in. Most great processes are collaborative and, to be truly collaborative, that means the process includes the input and values the intelligence (specifically) of the client. In the modern environment, if a client is excluded from the process, it’s a sure signal that what the client has to offer is unimportant. And that is wrong.
Why this should matter to you:
Two reasons. First, you have intelligence about your institution that the firm cannot recreate. You know the inner workings, the personalities of your constituents and how to function and apply the result of the process in your professional life. This is not insignificant.
Second, the epoch of silo-building needs to end. A process will increase in value to you if it intentionally convenes parties from disparate parts of an organization for input and transparency. Everything is important to someone and no one needs to be surprised (in a bad way).
C. Predictability and assurance. A good process should represent the sum of experiences that the firm brings to you. Simply put, the firm has determined what doesn’t work in a relationship with a client and builds a process that exclusively contains the time-tested stuff that does work. The good stuff. In that regard, the outcome is predictable. The firm knows what’s going to happen. A good process should also suggest assurance. Why? The outcome is valuable to the client and the firm, conversely implying that the process bears repeating.
Why this should matter to you:
A prospective client should be looking for a legacy of successes from a firm. This should serve as assurance that the purchase will yield a solid and predictable return. This also signals the process has been institutionalized and is a part of the firm’s business model.
There are five questions that I would ask when evaluating the process of a marketing firm:
1. Will the firm skip steps if I ask them to? The answer that you want to hear is “No.” But if the answer is yes, there should be a replacement for that step. This can be research that you’ve done with another firm or clear reasoning for not needing that step. If a step can be arbitrarily conceded by the firm, then it wasn’t valuable in the first place.
2. Am I paying for something that I can do internally? There are all kinds of things that your team may be able do on their own, if those talents and skills are addressed in the process. Another way to ask this question is: Am I paying for something twice?
3. How does the firm bill me? Will I be billed by the amount of progress completed or at the completion of the process?
4. Is there a clear beginning, middle and end?
5. Why should I trust this process? Has it been repeated sufficiently? What are the examples of its benefits?
Much has been written about why one process to achieve marketing goals might be better than another. Marketing firms make it tough on customers in that regard.
Not enough is written about why we conduct processes in the first place. The answer to that question will reveal a lot about a firm—and whether or not you should hire them.
Articulating your market position and influencing your brand are sequential and separate efforts.
In our work in higher ed, we see positioning (even used correctly) mistaken for “branding” all the time. Securing your market position in order to effect brand perception is the right sequence. But let’s be clear: these are not the same. Modifying your market position doesn’t become a part of your brand until external audience knows, understands and accepts that your claim to a position is believable.
However, a changed market position, can (and will) affect brand over time. Here’s one example.
Let’s say we’re friends (nice to see you again). I’ve just told you that I received my EdD in Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. I watch your forehead wrinkle. A pause and a congratulations. You’re befuddled. This isn’t because you can’t believe that I achieved an EdD in Educational Leadership. You’re cool with that. What you can’t believe is that Phoenix grants EdDs online. That’s not how you get EdDs. You have to wall up in a university and lose all your friends to get those. You can’t believe that achieving an EdD can be done online relative to what you know about getting an EdD.
The level of believability doesn’t immediately change with the University of Phoenix market position. I assume, slowly but surely, advanced degrees of doctoral level will become part of Phoenix’s brand, as they deliver more of them more often.
Your market position is objective. You either occupy a position (alone or with others) or you don’t. This is your choice. Want to add a school of dentistry? Do it, or don’t. Up to you. Whether or not an audience believes in what you do? That’s different; that’s brand.
What is striking to me is how many institutions choose to work at affecting brand perception instead of market position. Positioning is far more autonomous and can have a more predictable and measured outcome. It likely is more difficult work, requiring an institution to look deeply at themselves AND the market to keep or abandon what they may have been doing for a long time.
I think one reason institutions prefer to work at changing brand perception without changing position is that, when the position they choose to occupy isn’t something that sufficient external audiences will pay for, they come up short. What they fail to consider is called market need. Not brand, not even position, and also not subjective.
A further reason that some institutions aren’t up to the task is that a market position doesn’t suggest that you’re the only school in that position to the customer. If many schools can offer nearly the same as you, then you occupy a position with others. In the mind of the customer you are not the only provider. No positioning statement will change the fact that what you offer can be found elsewhere. This boils down to parity, which I believe is the single largest threat to institutions of higher education (if we all offer relatively the same thing at varying prices, then the lowest cost/highest value, most convenient, provider wins).
A market position is completely up to you. The point of a positioning statement is to describe where you are relative to competitors. That’s it.
Brand, on the other hand, is completely up to them. As Marty Neumeier says: “It’s not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.” Brand is a concept in the mind of your customer.
Position is strongest when you are an only. It doesn’t mean you have to be the only, but no one will need you if you aren’t.
But get this: you get to choose your market position. (Cheering crowd noises here.)
This is the central logic to the process of Coherence. It is indeed a process and it takes time. The aim is simple: align what you offer with what the customer believes you could offer. Occasionally, for our clients, that means modifying their market position and then encouraging brand perception into alignment. In other cases this means articulating an existing market position more clearly and specifically and then conversing with customers to bring them along. Depending on the relative shift in market position this can take anywhere from a year to a decade. Whatever the shift, it takes time and continuity of effort.
The question shouldn’t be if you can afford to take the time, it should be can you afford not to.
In the past few months, I’ve had colleagues and clients note — in the midst of discussions about how to solve particular marketing or product challenges — that I was behaving unusually. Or more to the point: that I was being “weird.” These were, at least in part, statements of fact (I was being weird). But that’s because I believe that there are a variety of situational exercises that can help a team arrive at an idea that isn’t solely reliant on formula, but incorporates all of the due diligence that a good solution requires. And sometimes you have to get weird to get to that.
But here’s the thing: you have to really commit.
Often, RHB is asked to “get inside the head” of a teenager. This is relatively impossible, but if you gather enough information you can get a picture of what any customer accepts as normal; their preferences and dislikes. Even still, the teenage demographic behaves outside of what we (Xers and up) can normally empathize with.
Take Ke$ha for example.
I’m going out on a limb, but most readers of this blog probably don’t appreciate the music or behavior of Ke$ha. More accurately, you may not have any idea how anyone could like Ke$ha or her music. When you listen to her, I hear you saying “this just makes me feel old.” Which is another way of saying you can’t empathize with her fans and listeners. This has nothing to do with feeling young, or ceasing to like jazz, but imagine that you love Ke$ha and her catalog. Pull up YouTube and listen to it.
Don’t think about how you could like it. Just like it. Read her wiki page. Tell everyone you like it. Defend Ke$ha to your friends.
So, why would you do this? First, it’s easier to simply decide to like something than to rationalize how (not why) someone else would like it. It bypasses a discussion of the circumstantial. Second: deciding to like Ke$ha allows you to experience the implications of liking Ke$ha, which is a significant finding when working with an audience you can’t directly relate to. Most importantly, this allows you to define your distance from the prospect intellectually (what do they know that I don’t), instead of in years.
Use whatever example you like, but I find more polarizing elements of culture are effective. To get in the shoes of an older eccentric segment of society, I decided to cryogenically freeze my severed head for the purposes of reanimating it in the future. I just decided to do it. I read everything about cryonics I could easily find. I told Rick and Malachi my plans. I defended head freezing. I’m not really going to freeze my head, but in deciding to do so, I started to think about all the possibilities. What is the future going to be like? Why is this appealing to me? Will my family come to see my head? Whose body will I get? I really want to see the future.
Is that weird?
Maybe. But it allows me to get into a space that liberates me to think more authentically—coherently—like the person or group I’m trying to connect and communicate with. By going to a place like cryogenics or Ke$ha intentionally, even if it’s initially uncomfortable, and by going there deeply, I become open to and aware of ideas and possibilities that I might not have previously explored.
So I invite you to be weird. In fact, I encourage you to be weird. You really will be better for it.
I woke up this morning to a great email from my friends at Delta Airlines. The Customer Care Director Jason Hausner (whom I have never met face-to-face) wrote to apologize for my cancelled flight last week and to express his remorse with a nice deposit of frequent flyer miles in my account. He used his data to discover that I was indeed inconvenienced (and his records may have shown that my already-too-brief sleep was interrupted three times in the middle of the night) by the cancellation. What a guy. The problem with last week’s flight was indeed a bit incoherent with my experiences with Delta; yet, he recovered by taking responsibility and offering me, essentially, another trip. (I know that you may not like Delta as much as I do, but on the whole, I am quite satisfied with this carrier and use it as much as possible.)
My point: if you dissatisfy a customer, own the issue and make it right.
When you dissatisfy a customer and behave in a way that is incoherent, and you don’t make it right, you lose points. And possibly the customer.
Two cases in point:
- I’ve written before about Nordstrom as the quintessential example of customer care. So I was surprised a few weeks ago when I went shopping to replenish my cologne supply that a store representative was not positioned at the counter. A person who I mistook as a Nordstrom employee was behind the counter and said, “I’ve been waiting for ages and no one is here to help. Guess you have to serve yourself.” My ears heard this while I observed three Nordstrom employees chatting jocularly at a counter about 50 feet away from us. I waited a bit more thinking surely they’d come running over any minute. Alas, I had to help myself. In my effort to reach for the scent I wanted on an upper shelf, I inadvertently tipped the sample bottle off the shelf and it landed on a mirrored shelf below that broke the mirror on impact. Bad luck, right? Glass shattered at my feet. And the noise captured the attention of the sales team. A gentleman rushed over and told me not to worry, “we can replace the mirror.” “What about my feet?” I asked. He just looked at me quizzically as if I had asked something irrelevant. I made my purchase—I will still shop there—but Nordstrom notched down a bit in my book. They’re good, but, for me, not that good anymore. Coherence is really important.
- When one of our employees recently moved on to a new post-RHB life, we needed to cancel her corporate account card with American Express, the other iconic customer-care company. A few minutes after Tammy cancelled the card, another employee was denied a purchase with his card while travelling. We scratched our heads a minute and called AmEx back. They had cancelled not just the one card, but the entire corporate account. Human error, but a bad one. An error that took many calls to fix. And too many managers. And way too much time. It seemed odd to us that one call and one card cancellation would clear an entire account without someone raising a flag to ask, “After 22 years, is there something we may have done that is causing you to cancel your account?” or “Are you certain you wish to cancel the entire account?” Shouldn’t there have been a big flashing red light on the screen that said, “Danger, Will Robinson!”?
Now, lest this seem a mere rant, let me circle around to a point: Sometimes we think our errs aren’t that big a deal. But if our missteps don’t coincide with the ideals that make our brands, then they are a big deal. Here are three important steps to consider if you ever mess up (you won’t, but just in case):
- Own up to the err. Acknowledge first to yourself that you made a mistake or used poor judgement. Then you can admit your mistake to others as needed. But you have to be convinced first. Fake apologies won’t cut it.
- Be honest about what happened. With yourself and with anyone who has been negatively influenced by your choice. Don’t go overboard here. Don’t take responsibility for more than you did. But don’t minimize your mistake. Just call it as it happened and for what it is.
- Apologize. Simply and straightforwardly.
- Make it right. Apologize where you need to. Fix the problem. Make amends. Ask what it would take to make it better.
You don’t have to be perfect to be coherent. Just honest.
Institutions need to bring marketing in house. You may be surprised to hear that from someone who makes his living on doing the work of marketing on your behalf. I’m speculating, but any higher ed marketing firm that isn’t thinking about the future—yours and their own—isn’t thinking very much. The gist of our conversations go like this: if higher ed matures to the point of recognizing the relative importance of marketing and how they can and should accomplish that task in house with skilled professionals, for what services should they come to us?
In a day of high expectation for accountability, it makes fiscal sense to bring certain marketing activities in-house, specifically functions that are economically feasible. More specifically, I mean to say that institutions that invest in a proper marketing team should be creating marketing and sales tools for the income generating divisions (gifts, enrollment). Building a remarkable team, a bevy of freelancers and an efficient production process, will save you money and time. For (a not so sexy) example, let’s say you have a firm of record, and those pesky postcards come up. That firm is going to charge you $2000 a piece for those (we’ve done the research, and yes, everyone hates them). How many postcards do you have to pay for before you could’ve hired a designer with that money?
If you made this far into the post you’re thinking, “he’s going to tell me to pay for something next.” Not yet.
Here are more things that you shouldn’t go outside for:
Institutional data collection (including scrutiny of your competitors)
Most writing and design
Anything with “social media” in it
You’ll also note that most of these things are on our list of services. And, I’ll add that we do those things very (very) well. Which leads me to the next point.
In the future, someone will (still) take your money
The future marketing firm specializing in higher ed will fall into one of a few camps:
- Some will rush to tools that can’t be economically supported by an institution, such as call centers, boxed marketing automation products and CRMs or other “gadgets” that assist in implementation.
- Some will offer the same services that an in-house team can offer, but meet demand for increased capacity. Meaning, the institution has need to outsource design implementation (regardless of medium).
- A select few will achieve “boutique” design shop (shoppe?) status.
The good ones
Others will focus on marketing services that institutions cannot provide to themselves. From my perspective, here those are (in order):
- Interpretation of experience to expression
Most institutions I encounter struggle with this the most, knowingly or unknowingly. They simply cannot view their services objectively enough to measure true value. Higher ed, by nature, is insular. And for the most part, missions are written to be insular, but the relative importance of what we say and do cannot be seen purely from the inside. One example of this is institutions organizing themselves by delivery method. Objectively, that’s not a good plan, but from the inside, it makes perfect sense.
You don’t have to look far for the evidence: the keywords on your pole banners are likely the same as an institution 100 miles or 1000 miles (or maybe only 10) from your campus. Everyone is promoting the same thing, in the same way, utilizing the same language. Part of this is subconscious pack mentality (what benefit is there in behaving differently?), but that’s the point: it’s not conscious. It’s mostly a lack of perspective. Part of what a well-positioned higher ed marketing firm will offer is the benefit of working with hundreds of institutions and that should come to bear on the engagement.
Interpretation of experience to expression
The sum of the first two informs how the actual experience should translate into external and internal expressions. This all needs to happen in sequence: an objective evaluation of the institution, with the benefit of macro perspective, leading to a true interpretation of what you do to what you say you do and how you say it. At RHB, we call that coherence. The expressions, of course, vary widely. They can be brand books (we call them coherence manifests), experience design, focused consulting, key passages of language or sensory expressions. I contend that the best deliverable must be something that provides clear guidance and is perpetuating. Meaning, your firm can leave you, only to return when you need to reevaluate anything on those three measures.
In some ways, this post is a Jerry Maguire moment. It’s affirming our commitment to helping clients in ways that they cannot help themselves. I do believe, if more institutions were to focus on gaining these three types of intelligence, internal marketing teams would be sufficiently equipped to create, deploy and maintain marketing and sales initiatives in a viable way. And that’s good for everyone.
Ruckus. I love this word; the sound of it alone describes its meaning. Actually ruckus is a relatively new term; it’s only about 125 years old, which is pretty young for a word, actually. And it’s likely that it was derived from two words: “ruction,” which means “a noisy fight or an uproar”; and “rumpus,” which is “a noisy commotion.” Someone combined the two and came up with “ruckus,” “a disturbance.” We say “raising a ruckus” when we mean someone is creating a disturbance of some kind. And we are living in a great ruckus: fiscal cliffs, 99percenters, an unsettled Middle East, threats of nuclear armament, hurricanes and mounds of snow, and that growing body of knowledge and technology with which we can’t possibly keep pace.
The Army has a term they use to refer to environments of tremendous challenge. They call it VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. At the Army College, they teach how to respond, how to cope and how to work through VUCA settings such as battlegrounds. The current communications landscape may feel a bit like a battleground for you. Trying to get the attention of your constituents, let alone your close friends, and capturing the eye of those you wish to reach can seem insurmountable.
When you consider how much data there is the world to weed through, it’s no wonder those of us in the communication world are a bit, shall we say, “different.” The amount of information can make finding the truth somewhat elusive—difficult at best. We live in a confusing world in a confusing time.
That’s why coherence is so important.
I remember attending a conference about 25 years ago and the speaker suggested that soon many of us would suffer exhaustion from information overload. I think I may have laughed a little when I heard that thinking “how could information exhaust me?”
“Bring it on,” said I.
Not long after the conference, I remember thinking, “You know, there may be truth to that…”
Today, I’m sometimes exhausted trying to sort through all the information in search of truth; you know, the stuff I can really count on. And hence, the need for coherence.
The amount of information available to each of us is increasing by the second. This tsunami of information overload offers tremendous challenges for us. Specifically, the amount of available digital information increases tenfold every five years. A total of five exabyte’s* of data existed in 2003… meaning we accumulated that much data in roughly 4.5 billion years. Today, we generate the same amount of data every two years. Currently, it’s estimated that the amount of information in existence is around 1.27 zettabytes* or the equivalent to 4 trillion books. To help illustrate that, let’s suppose each of the books of information were an inch thick. That being the case, with the amount of information available today we could stack books on shelf that would extend around the earth more than 2500 times. You can’t even imagine that, can you?
I’m pretty sure most of that information has come to my inbox in the past month.
If you are like me, you may be overwhelmed by all the information available to you. And you can be certain you are not alone. Your customers are likewise overwhelmed.
And it is your job to achieve two seemingly opposite tasks:
- Help your customers weed through information to clarify and simplify so they are not overwhelmed (and you don’t get lost in their tsunami!); and
- Overwhelm them with your spectacularness. (I give you permission to use that word, though others will choose “spectacularity.”)
On one hand, you want your customers not to be overwhelmed and, on the other hand, you want to overwhelm them. Well, you want to really impress them to the degree they don’t forget you.
Let me suggest that you overwhelm your customers with the truth. Give them data, give them facts, and give them information on which they can rely. Tell your great story straight up. Doing so will build your trust and a relationship that will yield the dividends you seek. Data and facts aren’t necessarily boring—use them because they are part of your great story. Use them to tell the truth.
*KNOW YOUR BYTES
You are probably smart, but can you tell your friend how many zeroes are behind the 1 in a yottabyte of data?
megabyte 1000 2
gigabyte 1000 3
terabyte 1000 4
petabyte 1000 5
exabyte 1000 6
zettabyte 1000 7
yottabyte 1000 8
With May 1 in the rearview, most institutions are carefully calculating the incoming class for the fall. “Carefully optimistic” is what we’re hearing from most of our clients, moderately sure of the current count, but uncertain of what the summer will bring both good and bad. While the reasons for confidence heading into the summer vary, one thing is for sure: decisions are getting later and later. I think we can attribute this to three factors:
Families have more control than they have had in the buying process. They are (broadly) more knowledgeable and have access to information about their options. They have less money than they’ve had in many years and are inclined to scrutinize (they would describe it as “due diligence”) their options before purchasing.
All of this action occurs on their timeframe, making arbitrary deadlines mute (see: May 1 and most other “transactional” deadlines). Institutions are losing confidence for a very good reason: they no longer control information or the length of the engagement. This is just plain data: May 1 doesn’t matter to the consumer and frankly doesn’t matter to institutions all that much.
In an effort to secure sales (there, I said it), institutions hype (oh, I meant, overemphasize) the decision to apply and attend as though it is the biggest decision ever. It’s indeed important, but probably not as important as some other life choices. While there is data to suggest that the decision is significant, from the consumer perspective, this is a fallacy. And, you’ve heard us say this before: if it’s not true, not trustworthy, exchange won’t happen.
Further, the college “trial period” is in full effect: a third of students are attending more than one college on their way to a four-year degree. A quarter of those are switching states in the process. This “swirling*” is mostly justified by the media as related to the cost of attendance. I interject: institutions are courting students to make the “decision of a lifetime” when the options are nearly the same. I won’t say the same, but VERY nearly the same. If this parity is as obvious as the consumer sees, to what end does committing early benefit them? And if option A is only slightly better (or different) than option B, how can an institution really be confident that they will attend and persist?
From an evolutionary perspective, everything is speeding up. From culture to climate, everything is changing more quickly. I didn’t make this up. Things that we wanted yesterday are obsolete today (see: my used-to-be-awesome TV and to a lesser extent, my goth phase). Options we had yesterday also multiply overnight. This amplification can be extended to MOOCs, proliferation of program offerings and whatever “the next big thing” is or will be.
In addition, the speed at which negative events are occurring delays decision-making. Your warehouse can collapse, your government can audit you arbitrarily and your admission office can fall into a sinkhole: right now. All of these elements manifest themselves as consumer indecision. Psychologically, indecision is the consequence of fear (from our animal brains), which essentially means, “I don’t want to make a mistake.”
None of this is particularly new information, nor does it significantly change the fact that at some point, institutions need to have some measure of who is coming in the fall. But that need for certainty on the part of the institution is being deflected onto the consumer as a superficial mandate. And in an era when every one hates colleges and universities, this seems antithetical to how institutions should behave.
To a larger detriment, institutions are actually embracing parity and ignoring any benefit that would result from being distinctive. It can be assumed that if the offerings were fundamentally different, then the certainty of the decision more definitive. Finally, as indecision is the result of a primal fear for making a mistake, then wouldn’t it behoove institutions to combat fear with love?