Higher Ed competition is intense. Bring yours into focus.

College Towers

Download the worksheet: Position: Competitive Identifier

In an “ivory tower” universe, institutions of higher ed have traditionally avoided language or concepts that reflect business or sales practices. That is certainly changing as more accountability is required of colleges and universities. Still, we notice our clients shrinking a bit when we mention “selling” or “brand” or “customers” and especially “competitors.” But, frankly, whether we’re comfortable with it or not, every college and university has competitors…even Harvard.

You can think of your competition in many ways. You may have a local or nearby college or university that serves as your primary “rival.” You might even celebrate that rivalry on an athletic field or court each year. In truth, you likely have many competitors: for students (tuition), for gift income and for media attention.

One option often overlooked is the competition that comes from your customers doing nothing: not attending college at all, not giving at all, not caring at all. But that is indeed competition. More competition comes from options open to your customers in other arenas: learning from an internship or apprenticeship or giving to other worthy organizations, for examples.

Given the market’s openness to rethinking the college experience, the competitive floodgates open when you think of all the ways a student can earn a degree: on campus, on line, on weekends or hybrids of all three. It’s not uncommon for students to “swirl” or include several institutions in their college experience—a year here, a year there, a year abroad—all options are open to students. (Savvy universities are offering all of these options to improve retention.)

Needless to say, the competition is intense. This exercise will begin to help you and your team bring the competition into focus. In the next few exercises, you’ll look at evidence to determine where your real competition lies and how you can tell your story in a way that stands up distinctly among your competitors.

We’ll take this a step at a time. To begin, simply start identifying who you think your competitors are. You might need to duplicate this sheet a few times depending on how many alternatives make your list. The questions focus on competitors in the form of other colleges and universities, but keep in mind your customers’ alternatives that may not be a campus or a degree. Answer the questions that you can find in online resources or through your own campus data.

The objective of this first exercise is to simply get a good list of real competitors. Go!

Why you won’t find RHB in the NACAC 2015 Exhibit Hall


We love NACAC and look forward to meeting up there. In fact, we plan for this gathering all year and we’ve been doing so for 25 years.

This year you won’t find us in the exhibit hall. We’re changing our tactics to better facilitate meeting up.

We’ve been noticing that most of the best conversations we have at NACAC aren’t in the exhibit area. We chat better over coffee or in the bar next door. We see more of our colleagues in the hallways. We have deeper opportunities to learn together in the myriad great sessions that NACAC plans.

And frankly, hosting a booth requires that we’re stationed there instead of where most of the attendees are hanging. Don’t get us wrong—we’ve loved seeing you at our NACAC booth. We just want to be liberated to see more of you.

This year, we look forward to meeting up in different ways: let’s catch up over coffee, deliberate over a drink, or schedule an appointment in RHB’s Marriott Suite. Of course, we’ll still have our annual getaway with clients and friends (this might be the best one ever and if you’ve ever wondered how to get your name on the guest list, you might want to schedule an appointment.)

So what are we doing with the money we’re saving from not exhibiting? We’re reinvesting it in people by offering a registration scholarship and $500 of travel cash to a deserving college or university admission professional. If you or someone you know wants to attend NACAC 2015, but doesn’t have budget for the conference, please complete the nomination form at rhb.com/scholarship.

If you’d like to schedule an appointment while we’re in San Diego, call us at 317-634-2120, email us at solutions@rhb.com or visit us online.

Positioning in Higher Ed: Are you a One and Only?

Posted on June 9th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »

4-oneonly@2xDownload the worksheet: Position: One and Only

Good news: your market position is something you can choose. You determine who you intend to be when compared to other options in the market. Ideally, you will choose a position with no competitors; this position affords you a monopoly. If everyone wants what you deliver and no other school offers it, you will own that market. That’s fairly rare in higher ed, but you will want to choose a position with few competitors in the same arena.

Our friend Marty Neumeier provides a great exercise in his book Zag that helps you get to an “only” statement. He insists that until you get to “only,” you don’t have much security in the market. He once put me on the spot in a group meeting in Florida when he looked at me and said, “Rick, you’re the leader in higher ed marketing in the country, so what are you guys the only at doing?” I replied that RHB was one of the leaders in higher ed marketing, to which he replied with a smile, “Good luck with that.” As you might guess, it prompted some serious introspection and decision-making. (Had I been on my toes, I would have quickly responded that we’re the only group with the Coherence Model, or the only group that delivers Circles of Influence, or another RHB specialty… but, I wasn’t thinking quickly that day.)

So, we’ve included his excellent question in this worksheet. Begin with your school name (Notre Dame, Guilford, Westmont, Georgia, as examples) is the ONLY…what? University? College? Regional campus? Institution? School in our state? College in the West? Catholic University? HBCU? Select a description that identifies your position among your competitive set. Do you have a national or regional reach? Do you have a particular demographic that you serve? Write that in the next line.

Now, determine what you do that truly makes you one-of-a-kind. Are you the singular provider of an academic program? Do you enroll more students than anyone else? Do you have the largest campus? Do you have the most gifted faculty (and can you document it)? What sets you apart? Fill in the blank with your distinction following the word “that” in the exercise.

This will serve as the beginning of your positioning statement. This sentence will be the foundation of your marketing strategy and this will be the big idea upon which your brand will be nurtured.

For a great read on the difference between your position and your brand, read Sam’s post in our blog here.

Now, you may be frustrated because you can’t find an ONLY statement for your university. Our immediate counsel is to start imagining what you could do to carve an ONLY space for your institution. That will take time, work and collaboration. But make this a priority.

For now, we’ve offered some other ways to choose a market position. You might be FIRST at something. You might be LARGEST. You might be BEST (not only, but BEST) with something you deliver alongside competitors. And you might have the MOST of something (volumes in library, acreage, scholarship endowment, as examples).  These are also viable ways to position your college.

Start with a deliberate choice of your market position. That choice is in your control.

Core Values: What’s at the heart of your institution?

Posted on April 28th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »

3-heartofyourinstitution@2xDownload the worksheet: What are your core values?

You’ve heard it said dozens, maybe hundreds, of times: Actions speak louder than words. That’s true about your institution. Your mission may include flowery or highfalutin language intended to communicate your noble purposes. Higher education has earned its “Ivory Tower” image legitimately. We sometimes speak in lofty language. What really tells our story however, is how we act. “What you did spoke so loudly, I couldn’t hear what you said!”

Your core values—what’s most important to your institution—will be best demonstrated by your behaviors. For example, at Wooster, one of the celebrated moments of the experience is the day when seniors deliver their independent study theses to the Dean. They each receive a Tootsie Roll in return. Prior to that, a significant part of the user experience is narrowing options to focus on an independent study project. Related to that is the process of working with a faculty mentor—and, of course, the grueling work of research and writing necessary to support and complete the project.

Think about your institution. List the significant user experiences that characterize and define your college or university. Now categorize or cluster the experiences by frequency and commonalities.

What do these experiences have in common? What’s the big idea behind these experiences? Why are they important to you?
In the aforementioned example at Wooster, these experiences all have research and independent study in common. These may be important to Wooster because they want students to be prepared for graduate school. They want students to leave Wooster with the skills necessary to be resourceful and continually engaged in discovery.

What might these experiences suggest about a core value?
Wooster seems to have curiosity, discovery, and intellectual pursuit as core values. But they also seem to value the sense of intrinsic reward that comes from this achievement. They give a Tootsie Roll, not a scholarship, as the symbol of success.

What you practice—that is, what you do and how you behave—speaks more significantly to your core values than what you say.

What are your core values? Worksheet

  1. Look at the key words of your mission statement. (Use the worksheets from our previous two lessons.) Taken together, what values do these words describe?
  2. Identify and list the most significant experiences a student (or donor, or alumna, or visitor) might have at your institution. Are you able to cluster or categorize these experiences around some common values?
  3. What are the motivations behind these experiences? Why do you repeat these experiences? What do you hope participants will learn or take away from these experiences?
  4. Your motivations are directly connected to your values. What core values do these experiences represent? Do these core values summarize what is most important to your mission—and existence?
  5. Take this exercise a bit further. What signals are you sending your constituents about your core values? Examine your flagship publication(s) such as your alumni or research magazines. What are the key messages you are promoting? You could, in fact, create a word cloud (wordle.net) of the content of your recent issues. What are the most used words in these publications?
  6. Explore your core values more deeply. Take a campus tour of your own campus. What facilities and resources speak to your core values? Which of your facilities are most impressive? What might campus visitors conclude about what is most important to you?
  7. Examine your marketing materials like your website or recruitment communications. What words and phrases and images are most prominent? What are the values that surface as most significant?
  8. After reviewing the language and signals you send about your institution, create a list of the top words and phrases that characterize your institution. Write these values in the lower right of the worksheet.

Now that you have a list of your core values, convene a meeting with key internal stakeholders. Do they agree with your findings? What behaviors might you expect from an institution with your core values? What practices and environments can you encourage given your value set?

Why in the world are you here?

Posted on April 27th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »



Download the Worksheet: Why in the world are you here?

We’ve introduced a series of guided worksheets to help you move your institution in the direction of coherence. And as we suggested a few weeks ago, the starting point is your mission statement. Your declared mission is the singularly most significant statement in determining your current and future success. This edition of our newsletter includes another worksheet that will help you become even more laser-focused on the power of the language within your mission statement. You can download the worksheet here.

From our observations of late, it seems that rather than investing in understanding and living out their missions, most institutions are investing in finding a tagline or campaign slogan to tell their stories. Higher ed is over-taglined. And most of the recent taglines we’ve seen lean toward varsity chants that do little to articulate a distinctive position in the market.

Indianapolis just hosted the NCAA Final Four tournament. You should have been here. We had a perfect view from our conference room windows of much of the activity around Lucas Oil Stadium. We kept the television tuned to the coverage in the booth that we could see from our window because we are cool like that (and maybe too lazy to walk outside).

Besides some gripping—and somewhat surprising—basketball playing, we were treated to some almost equally fascinating marketing by the institutions represented in the competition. Team uniforms emblazoned with campaign themes or taglines along with PSAs and crowd signs and costuming contributed to some lively advertising throughout the games. Though we talked about excellent plays in each game, our RHB office conversations turned to taglines and marketing with words. (You are not surprised by this, are you?)

If you haven’t visited higheredtaglines.com in a while, we always encourage to keep up to date with the latest developments in the use of language to describe institutions. And, if you haven’t done so recently, please submit any updates for your own college or university.

Taglines are interesting, but they all fall short of identifying your mission. Taglines might offer memorable snippets of what your institution does, or how you specialize or to what you aspire, but they generally don’t answer the question of why you exist in the first place. Taglines serve a purpose, but they’re not anything on which to build your future.

The best mission statements clarify your existence, declare your purpose and give an account of why anyone should care an iota that you are on the planet. And if they can do that succinctly, all the better.

In this series, A Guide to Marketing Coherently in Higher Education, we’re offering counsel with accompanying worksheets about how you can do a better job of telling your amazing story more truthfully, relevantly and compellingly. A few weeks ago, we introduced the first in this series. In it we wanted you to really know your mission. Here’s a second installment in the series and this entry will help you and your team focus on the strengths of your mission. This exercise might be more challenging in some ways but we think it will serve campus marketers (and the entire college community, for that matter) to better understand how your mission shapes your decisions today and for the future.

Download the worksheet before beginning this exercise.

If you thought determining the top six important words in your mission statement was tough (see “Know Your Mission”), this assignment is twice as difficult.

  1. Review the words you selected as the top six in terms of their importance to the meaning of your mission statement. Of these, now determine the top three words and write them in the spaces provided.
  2. Looking carefully at these three words, what is the big idea that this trio of words conveys? How do they express your purpose?
  3. Using these three words, identify your greatest intention as an institution. What do you most hope to achieve by continuing to exist in a highly competitive and increasingly scrutinized climate?
  4. Now try rewriting your mission statement in ten words or less. Focusing on the big idea, articulate your raison d’etre in as few words as you can. Can you use fewer than ten words?
  5. Finally, the great marketing guru Peter Drucker once said you should be able to fit your mission statement on a t-shirt. How would yours read—and look?

Really Know Your Mission: Let’s start from the very beginning.

Posted on March 24th, 2015 by in Coherence Workbook | No Comments »


Download the Worksheet: Know Your Mission

We’ve just completed a series of enlightening interviews with high school counselors across the US. During our conversations, we discussed how counselors determined appropriate institutional matches for their students. One of the consistent comments we heard in every interview was the need for clear articulation of what differentiates one school from another. Counselors said they hear the same pitches—or very similar ones—from every school. “We need to know what sets your school apart from others. Who are you particularly adept at serving?”

Coherence begins with the authentic expression of who you really are. And knowing who you really are by carefully examining your mission is a great place to start. At a time in which higher education institutions are fighting for survival, it’s critical to know what gives you a fighting chance.

Why does your institution exist? What is your purpose? What do you intend to do? What does your institution contribute to the world? What if your institution wasn’t here? What other institution could fill your shoes or do what you do so well?

Having a clear mission statement will lay the foundation for all your marketing choices. Begin by understanding what your mission statement really communicates.

We’ve created a worksheet to help you become better acquainted with your institution’s mission. On the form, write out your mission statement. This might take you a minute, but you will find value in actually copying your mission statement in your handwriting on this form. You’ll become familiar with each word as you write it yourself.

Now, reading your mission carefully, circle the six most important words in the statement. If you think you have less than six important words, that’s fine. But limit yourself to no more than six.

Next, in the spaces provided list the six (or less) words you circled.

  1. Define each word you circled. What is its literal meaning? Feel free to use a dictionary or thesaurus to better understand its meaning. More importantly, in the context of your mission statement, what does it mean? Perhaps the word “engaging” is an important word in your mission statement. On its surface, “engaging” means “charming” or “attractive.” But in the context of your mission statement, you might find that “participation,” “involvement,” “dialog,” “conversation,” “exchange,” “occupy interest” or “move into position” may be more related to its meaning.
  2. Now, using your best judgment (and feel free to pose this question to your colleagues), briefly explain why this word is important to your mission and your institution. Why this word? Is there a synonym that might be better?
  3. Again, using your best thinking, rank the merit/importance of this word to the meaning of your mission. If you are a church-related institution, perhaps you include a theological perspective in your mission statement explaining your worldview. Your mission statement might include “Reformed” in the text and, for you, it’s really important. If it’s most important, rank it “1.” Rank each of the words in your list 1 through 6.
  4. Finally, rate the words in terms of their clarity for your customers. Do all your customers know and understand this word? How aligned is your understanding of this word to that of your customers? Are they interpreting the language as you do or as you hope they do? How accessible is the language of statement? Is it Ivory Tower lofty? Is it aspirational or is it real? (Your mission statement should express your intentions, but it is not your vision statement, so it should be about what you do everyday.) For this form, use a rating scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being highly comprehensible.

You now will have a deeper understanding of your mission statement than you likely ever have.

What questions does this in-depth look bring to the surface? What observations are you making? What about all the words beyond the top six? What do they add to your mission?

A few suggestions:

  1. Share this study with your colleagues. Engage them in a discussion about the significance of the language of your mission.
  2. Assign a task force to assess the relevance of your mission statement and the institution’s accountability to uphold it.
  3. Determine meaningful ways to assess your commitment to the mission and your customers’ understanding of your distinctive mission.


Higher Ed isn’t Retail

Posted on November 18th, 2014 by in Higher Education Marketing | No Comments »

kid in grocery

What’s Next?

Adapted from Coherence: How Telling The Truth Will Advance Your Cause (and Save the World)

The conversation in the RHB conference room in 2002 that launched our development of the Coherence model we now follow began with a question I threw out to our team for discussion: “What’s next?” At the time, none of us thought that question was particularly significant or profound. After all, times and circumstances were changing. The market was shifting. Consumers were gaining power. Of course, we’d ask ourselves what was going to happen on the horizon.

We were looking for a way to understand the substantial shift in branding principles and practices and we began wondering out loud: Given the diminishing strength of brands and their clear disconnect with our not-for-profit clients, what would be the next phase of consumer behavior and marketing exchange?

As you might imagine, we had a lively discussion. One thing we knew: without change, higher ed in the US was on collision course for disaster. Consumers simply wouldn’t put up with unresponsiveness. There were simply too many alternatives. And new approaches, delivery methods and, yes, for-profit competitors were gaining acceptance in the market.

Higher Ed is a Commodity

We all know higher ed isn’t retail. It’s not burgers. It’s not cars. It’s not manufacturing; it isn’t automated. It’s not jeans or toothpaste. There’s no return policy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a commodity.

Nothing wrong with being a commodity. Though we often think of commodities in terms of minerals or agricultural products, a commodity is simply something of value that can be bought and or sold. That is certainly true of higher education. In fact, a college education is something of great value. But higher education’s erudite community historically resists its connection to consumerism and the possibility that education can be “reduced” to marketing practices and principles.

Yet, when a culture of customers can be convinced that low price or convenience or speed toward completion are all valid considerations for purchase, then we have a commodity on our hands.

Acknowledging the power of consumers is the most difficult step toward powerful exchanges. Getting over ourselves can be tough. But in order for coherence to work, we need to understand our audiences as customers and equal partners. For education, that notion drives us crazy. Isn’t our raison d’etre to transfer our knowledge to those who don’t know? Given that, are we not superior and “unequal” at the start?

At the time Coherence was published (2010), the world was experiencing a collapse of the pillars on which we all built our hopes—and retirement funds. No matter where you point the blame, we saw some of the worst of incoherence. Things just didn’t add up. One of the great benefits of the financial demise is that we were confronted with the opportunity to rebuild, rethink, rework, reinvent and, hopefully, the occasion to reconsider how to be more coherent.

Despite the record-breaking economic trading that we’re experiencing today, higher ed is still in recovery mode. And the realities of the recession left our customers with tons of questions: What is the real value of higher ed? Are the liberal arts justifiable in our current setting? What can we expect from higher education? How do we measure success? Can higher education—especially private higher education—be held more accountable, and by what measures?

You have the power to decide

What you have in common with everyone else in the higher ed arena is a window to re-examine how you’ll move forward; to decide how you’ll be ready for what’s next. This is certain: You must provide sufficient rationale for existence. In a word, you must differentiate. Clearly, genuinely, openly. You must provide a convincing case for your enormous cost. You have to prove the merits of your approach. You need to show the outcomes that make you a superior choice.

Further you have to deliver on the experience. You have to do what you say you do. Be who you say you are. And those institutions who survive will deliver more than they promise. They’ll be the ones you listen, engage and speak openly and honestly with their audiences. They’ll be the ones who practice transparency. They’ll be the ones who practice coherence.
What’s next for you?

Enough about me. What do you think about me?

Posted on October 16th, 2014 by in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Confession: I take intentional time away to write. If you have called me at the office and have been told I am away, I could be writing. I am not to be disturbed on these ventures.

On one occasion, I was in Florida “under the influence of sunshine” to inspire my writing. Alas, most of the time, clouds and rain plagued my retreat. Fortunately, my Mac works indoors just as well, so I was able to make some progress regardless.

My time away yielded a bright spot, nonetheless. As I am prone to do when traveling alone, I chose to pick a seat at a restaurant bar for lunch, not because I am a heavy drinker, but because the chatter there can be enlightening. Someone should write a book, “Lessons Learned Liquorless at the Bar.”

For this lunch I chose a place with outdoor seating and soon enough the friendly bartender offered me the opportunity to order a drink. When he brought me water, he asked my name and introduced himself as Alex. During my lunch, Alex used my name no less than seven times. “How’s that tasting, Rick?” “Everything okay, Rick?” “Need more water, Rick?” Needless to say, Alex got a larger than usual tip.

I noticed however, that the very smart Alex followed this name-calling practice with all his customers. I started to pay attention to the response of those he greeted. Even the grumpy-looking ones smiled. They all seemed to look forward to Alex’s next encounter. They’d stop conversation as he approached them. They’d stop eating or drinking. They’d look up and directly at him. Alex had their complete attention and admiration. I dare say he had their respect. He had us all right where he wanted us—at the paying and tipping end of the bill.

It’s a gripping sound, your name aloud. We all love to hear our name spoken (and our name in print). Your customers—donors, members, prospects, students, parents, neighbors, are like everyone else: they like it when you demonstrate your interest in them. They all like you to call them by name, to address their interests, to seek their opinions. So use names as much as you can, even when you can’t say it aloud. Here are a few ways to do that:

  1. Pick up the phone. Your telephone still works. Try calling your prospect or a parent or a donor for no particular reason except to express interest or say thanks. Calling during the phonathon doesn’t count. Let your allies hear their names.
  2. Use your CRM to personalize all your communication. Gone are the days of generic salutations like “Dear Friend” or “Dear Student.” Technology has raised the expectations of your constituents that you not only know their names but that you have the capability to use their names on all your communications, print or digital.
  3. Write personal notes and emails. The art of real letter writing may seem to have disappeared but the impact of personal notes has not. If you are average (and YOU definitely are not!) you receive about 85 emails per day. But also, if you are average (and again YOU are not), you receive only one personal letter every seven weeks. But, seeing your name handwritten carries far more impact given the time, effort and cost involved by the sender. The sender’s investment means more to you.
  4. Consider personalizing your digitally produced communications. But don’t overdo it. Find a coherent way to incorporate personalization. One of the interesting projects we have worked on is a video for Saint Mary’s College that incorporates personalization into a video announcing admission to the college. It works, not only because it is emotionally-charged, but it uses the name of the recipient repeatedly throughout the video on signs, t-shirts and college newspaper headlines.
  5. Use names whenever you can. One of my favorite college presidents memorizes names but uses first names almost religiously even when referring to someone not in the conversation. “I was talking to Steve last week and he suggested that…” I don’t always know what Steve we’re talking about, but I am assured that my president friend and Steve are on a first-name basis. I have to assume I am talked about in the same way, even when I am not present. I like that level of personalization.

My Florida waiter Alex knew what he was doing when he used his customers’ names. He was making friends, building trust and earning larger tips by catering to our need to hear our names. Smart guy. We should all take a lesson.

Let’s Do Away with Search.

Posted on September 11th, 2014 by in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

binoculars-008Colleges and universities ritually invest millions of dollars in an outdated, over-utilized, under-performing strategy to generate inquiries. Most institutions are simply afraid to stop doing it.

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.

Let Your Customers Drive Your Strategy

Posted on July 8th, 2014 by in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Drivers-hands-on-steering-wheelSometimes 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.


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