How to listen to your audience
Creativity. Perseverance. Hard work. Humility. There are certain qualities that Abu Noaman believes are essential to fostering the kind of engagements that it takes for brands to connect with the audiences they seek. It starts with the understanding that a brand does not and cannot know everything about the community it serves. That is what listening is for. Surround yourself with a good team and make sure they stay connected to the pulse of the market, whatever that market is.
That is the strategy that Noaman, founder and CEO of marketing firm Elliance, believes is critical in today’s ever-changing higher education landscape—one that is continually saturated with myriad connection tools and channels designed to help marketers tell their institution’s stories.
And here is the thing Noaman says you should know: Being able to stay connected and to listen to your target market appropriately is not easy. Getting your message through to the masses takes work—lots of it. There are three challenges that Noaman believes make it incredibly hard for higher education marketers to stay connected with their communities.
First, higher education marketing departments are under-resourced and under-staffed. Most nonprofit schools invest less than 5% of total revenue on marketing compared to nearly 20% by their for-profit counterparts.
Second, it is difficult for schools to rise above the noise considering that every day there are 500 million tweets, 55 million Facebook updates, 95 million photos shared on Instagram and 87 million Snapchats.
Third, since each platform has a distinctive personality, marketers must be able to communicate uniquely on each platform. Consequently, each school has to pick and choose the platforms where they will proactively cultivate relationships.
“In an era of dwindling college-bound students and increasing college tuition, the higher the share of voice and share of mind, the higher the market share a college can expect to harvest.”
— Abu Noaman, Elliance
As for the race to stay connected with an ever-changing student base, Noaman says higher ed marketers have no choice but to keep their foot on the pedal. “Money makes money and buys talent. Higher education marketers, like the rest of advertisers, are engaged in an arms race to grab the time, talent and treasure of their stakeholder communities. In an era of dwindling college-bound students and increasing college tuition, the higher the share of voice and share of mind, the higher the market share a college can expect to harvest.”
Noaman also says that in higher education’s epoch of growing mega-donors and dwindling small donors, marketing investments can be the determining factor in whether a college will grow its endowment (which funds the war chests for scholarships and student support services) to attract the most talented students/faculty or settle for mediocre students/faculty.
With more than 35,000 students and 300,000-plus alumni, it is hard for marketers at the University of South Carolina to keep up with the sheer volume of conversations taking place in its social and digital forums. As the university’s Director of Brand Strategy for Communications & Public Affairs, J.C. Huggins and his team are tasked with the challenge to monitor and participate where applicable.
“We put great emphasis on feedback from our audiences to inform how we communicate,” Huggins says. “As marketers, we’re constantly inundated with directives of using data to make decisions, and we certainly do that at South Carolina. It’s really easy to get caught up in the dashboards of metrics that change in real-time and to neglect the measurement of key performance indicators (KPIs) with longer time-horizons.”
“We put great emphasis on feedback from our audiences to inform how we communicate. As marketers, we’re constantly inundated with directives of using data to make decisions, and we certainly do that at South Carolina.”
— J.C. Huggins, University of South Carolina
Both informally and formally, the University of South Carolina strives to have dialogues when possible on social media. The conversations help measure what types of content its community is engaged with and how they engage with it. Huggins and his team analyze the social and digital sentiment across all public platforms and conduct market research ranging from readership surveys for publications, to focus groups on their video storytelling and brand perception research.
“To avoid getting caught up in those moment-in-time snapshots, we’ve been really successful taking the longer view with brand perception tracking research,” Huggins says. “Every three years since I arrived here in 2011, we have conducted research measuring our main constituencies’ perceptions toward the university brand, our values and our messages. The results allow us to see how successful we have been at shaping perceptions since the last research and, more importantly, help us spot opportunities for messaging in the years ahead.”
Marketing for the fences
After missing the first enrollment target by more than 80% in its first cohort, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh turned to Elliance to spark interest in its first-in-the-market Master of Science in Product Management degree.
With the help of the Elliance team, Carnegie Mellon focused on key elements of the value proposition, which included high name recognition/reputation (Carnegie Mellon’s top-rated Tepper School of Business + School of Computer Science); product manager earning power and job satisfaction; differentiating Master of Science in Product Management from MBA; and positive cost/benefit equation. Surgical campaigns awakened the ambitions of dormant and “junior wingman” product managers.
Elliance created keyword-rich, shareable, high-fidelity content to extend the awareness into key demographic, geographic and affinity-based prospect pools. “We anticipated prospects’ questions and positioned Carnegie Mellon as the go-to source by creating a Product Management Field Guide, infographics and posters,” Noaman says. “We executed micro-segmented paid campaigns with A/B testing, targeting key tech economy markets that drove home career acceleration. We leveraged Carnegie Mellon’s social channels and wrote blogs to amplify and complement paid campaigns, bringing in a number of expert voices.”
In just two years, enrollment grew tenfold, as the campaign attracted an elite group of students—the Top 1%, based on GMAT scores. Graduates of the program have gone on to earn an average annual salary of $135,000 and are now gainfully employed by blue chip clients like Facebook, Cisco, Home Depot, Uber, Expedia, and more.
“Recognize that you become the story you choose to tell,” Noaman says. “The key is to bring that ‘content is destiny’ perspective to your school or university, and turn all publishing—academic, research, alumni, general audience—into a reputation-building, Google-dominating, social sharing cooperative enterprise that can help power enrollment, reputation and fundraising.”
Your playbook should include the following: Test fast, fail fast, and adapt fast. As Noaman tells his team, “Measure the impact of everything you create since you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
It is the kind of advice—which includes keeping your finger on the pulse—that higher education marketers can continue to build on.