Branching Out

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How to connect with changing demographics

They call it the Story Team, a group tasked with identifying and determining the best way to deliver a brand message across the variety of social channels and platforms available. Chris Noah says the strategy focuses more on showing, not telling the message Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) wants to deliver. The strategy enables the story—not the delivery channel—to be the hero.

IUP’s marketing and communications team seeks out stories that support the university’s brand pillars—ones that are able to consistently deliver and fortify the reasons a student would want to consider attending the school. “We want the audience to get a true sense of our brand,” says Noah, CMO. “This means saying no to some messaging. Fewer, bigger, better is the goal, not volume of messages. You want to provide your audiences with interesting stories that will help them engage with your brand.”

The goal of Noah’s team—which consists of more than 20 professionals, including writers, graphic designers, media experts and multimedia producers—is to unify IUP’s voice and to build the university’s reputation among potential students, families, alumni and the broader community.

Connecting with the changing demographic of prospective college students is a never-ending race. Today’s prospective college students are more technologically savvy. They are accustomed to receiving content and goods at a moment’s notice. And they value the brands that provide excellent customer service and recognize that there are many options out there available to them as consumers.

The truth of the matter is that higher education has been slow to adopt this customer service mentality. In revisiting the higher ed marketing playbook, it would be wise to take a page out of how consumer brands like Netflix, Google and Apple interact with today’s generations.

“Being truly student-centric and customer-service oriented means removing the barriers that exist in processes and policies at your university,” Noah says. “The key to a campaign that can engage with this new brand of students is flexibility. It is about putting the students first, listening to them and creating messaging that speaks to their actual needs.”

One of the keys to engaging with prospective students is allowing them to be their real, authentic selves at your school. Does your marketing look like them or does it look like stock photos of well groomed, clean-cut kids? Gary R. Vaughn, M.S., Executive Director of Marketing at Wayland Baptist University, says the picture you paint has to be spot on.

“This generation is filled with scanners, not readers,” Vaughn says. “They want visuals, so you have to consider digital delivery options. This is where the students are all the time.”

To keep in step with what the kids are doing these days, Vaughn and his team take the time to listen to their student workers, who can be invaluable sources of information about student thinking, student trends and student life. Focus groups are another great tool to see what is on the minds of today’s students.

“Listen, watch and follow their lead,” Vaughn says.

For example, Wayland Baptist has been working on a new degree program with an emphasis on tabletop game design. Vaughn says his team did not know much about tabletop gaming until they sat down with a handful of students who enjoyed playing. “We found out they had already formed a club on campus and had a robust attendance. It was our own little nerd-fest. We invited them to review our materials and we ended up completely revamping our messaging to fit their world.”

“This generation is filled with scanners, not readers. They want visuals. Listen, watch and follow their lead.”
— Gary R. Vaughn, M.S., Executive Director, Marketing, Wayland Baptist University

New day, new way of thinking

Here is something you already know—the great mail-out campaign of 1999 will not have the same results as a mailing today. So, if you are thinking, “This is not your grandfather’s university,” you are right. The landscape of learning has changed.

So, what is a higher ed marketer to do?

Talk to your students. Explore why they leave or transfer, find out what makes the others stay through graduation. Travel to other campuses to see how they are integrating technology into daily life for their students.

“You will be surprised what you learn and how much you may need to rethink your own strategy,” Vaughn says.

IUP’s marketing efforts focus on messaging that blends support with academic rigor focusing on short, snackable pieces over long-form content. The best practices to follow key in on speaking in the students’ voice, being authentic, and staying away from jargon or marketing speak that errs on the side of pretentiousness. Noah and his team rely heavily on Instagram to deliver the messaging. Student-driven Q&As, where students actually field the questions, also prove to be very successful.

“You have to develop a solid brand strategy with strong research insights and use this as the foundation for all messaging,” Noah says. “A brand strategy with core message pillars should act as your guide and filter for all messaging. This will prevent marketers from just tossing messages out into the marketplace that do not build to anything greater.”

While it is easy to feel the pressure to message everything and anything that people across your university bring to you, Noah says it is critical to say no when you and your team do not believe it will deliver and advance the overall brand.

“You have to develop a solid brand strategy with strong research insights and use this as the foundation for all messaging.”
— Chris Noah, CMO, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

“It takes time to conduct the research, analyze it, make sense of the insights and build the actual brand strategy, but it will serve your institution well in this challenging environment,” Noah says.

And there is one last thing when it comes to marketing to today’s prospective college students—they are never satisfied. Because students apply to a variety of colleges and spend substantial time in the consideration phase, even when they commit to a university by placing a deposit for the fall, they have time to (and do) change their minds.

“The marketing never ends,” Noah says. “Yield communications is critical. Providing the reason why to choose your university should not end with a deposit. It is important not to fall into a transactional communications mode of housing choices and meal plans only. Keep providing messaging around academics, student life, faculty profiles and student/alumni success stories. Remember, choosing a college is a very emotional decision, so your marketing must balance both rational and emotional messaging.”

And plenty of it.