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The University of Kentucky on how higher ed is continuing to evolve

The University of Kentucky marketing and communications team strives to put their values and mission at the forefront of their brand. They believe in promoting teaching, research, service and care, and drive it forward with their “Wildly Possible” marketing campaign, where they emphasize purpose and emotional connection. So when the pandemic brought disruption to higher ed, they were already in position with what matters most in today’s world.

The branding and marketing efforts are led by Julie Balog, the University of Kentucky’s Associate Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. Since assuming the role, Julie and her team recently introduced the university’s redefined brand strategy and creative platform. She previously used her expertise as UK HealthCare’s Director of Digital and Brand Strategy.

Jay Blanton serves alongside Balog at UK as the Associate Vice President and Chief Communications Officer, and previously served as the university’s Executive Director of Public Relations and Marketing. He has held communications positions in state and local governments, at agencies and in the private sector.

We sat down with both to get their insights on how the higher education world is changing and how it’s stayed the same.

There’s been a lot of pressure on higher ed marketing to generate revenue. Has that changed? And how does the corner office view marketing?

Jay Blanton: About 12 years ago, our president transformed the entire campus. And we’ve had $2.7 billion worth of infrastructure investment in the last 10 years. A lot of it has been through partnerships and finance through private philanthropy, rather than state support, because we’ve faced declining state support.

We’re an institution with a completely integrated budget. Our on-campus medical center is about half of our budget. Tuition is now the majority of the general fund budget. But that is a major reversal.

Our president is very cognizant that our industry is being disrupted in significant ways. In the last 10 years, our graduation rates and our retention rates are at record highs. We’re doing some really innovative things around financial need and how it plays into access and affordability. He was not convinced we were doing everything we could to position the brand of the institution in the way it ought to be. So, he asked for a pretty comprehensive study of the brand and a reformulation of our strategy.

“Marketing must be at the front end and very integrated into the revenue generating piece of the institution.”
— Jay Blanton, Chief Communications Officer, University of Kentucky

As a result of his charge, we have completely reorganized the department. Marketing must be at the front end and very integrated into the revenue generating piece of the institution. I think the president saw that and understands marketing’s increased importance within student enrollment and institutional growth.

Julie Balog: I’m a believer that if you understand what your brand is and you are authentic and live that brand, then you can make progress regardless of what industry you’re in. In turn, one of the first things that I did was immerse myself in understanding the Gen Z mindset. I wanted to understand them more as they went through the journey of selecting a school.

EDgage | The University of Kentucky on how higher ed is continuing to evolve

What trends did you see before and after COVID-19?

Balog: I think it’s pretty obvious that Gen Z care deeply about making a difference and being part of something bigger than themselves. I think they like to find their community and their community can be varied. I think that they care deeply about value and ROI, and those are all things that I think that the University of Kentucky offers extremely well. When I think of our brand, I think of us as being a place where you can come and achieve anything, and you’re going to do it in a community that both supports and challenges you.

From March to June, students were making decisions early in the COVID phase. Now that we are living with this pandemic longer, there are impacts that I’m not sure we have fully documented. Our observations are a bit more anecdotal. For example, family influence has been amplified so the parental involvement is much higher at this time.

Prior to COVID-19, we were having really good luck recruiting students a little further away. But, now we are concentrating on those students who are a little closer because we sense that families are putting a higher value on safety. Security was always important, but now it is top of mind. And it sure does help when your president has a PhD in public health to be able to help guide that.

Can you speak a little bit to how higher ed was getting disrupted?

Blanton: COVID accelerated every trend that was already happening. And I know it’s why Apple took 43 years to get to a trillion dollars in valuation. And it took three months to get to $2 trillion in valuation. Those that are doing really well, like big tech, have seen accelerated change. And it has also accelerated those that were already struggling and being disrupted.

Consider telehealth. We have a big academic medical center and we’ve been working on telehealth for a long time. When COVID hit, we went from an 18-month time horizon to build it out in a robust way to a six-week time horizon. And now we’ve got all kinds of patients meeting with doctors virtually. We knew we were moving in that direction from a business model perspective, but COVID accelerated that trend.

For several years, we’ve been marketing virtual and remote educational offerings. We have some great programs around bourbon distillation, as an example. But, due to COVID, we went from a slice of classes being offered online to every class being offered online.

We were one of the institutions that went back to something approximating normal campus operations. With in-person instruction, we could implement online components and have synchronous and asynchronous sorts of learning. We simply had to accelerate and upgrade the quality within the online space. In a matter of a few months, we invested seven figures worth of technology in our campus. Classes can now be offered in-person, from their residence hall room, or off campus. These trends were already occurring and were necessary because we need to reach students where they are.

Are you worried about this generation and a lack of experiences?

Balog: There’s almost a little bit of delayed experiences or delayed adolescence for students who arrive on our campuses because they’ve been at home and it’s the first time that they are trying some of these new things. It was important to us to do a couple of things. We had to educate the students about the healthy behaviors that are needed and the guidelines that were put in place that they need to adhere to. But we really did not want to spend all of our time communicating or marketing around the things that they can’t do.

“We knew this would not be a traditional semester in a lot of ways, but this is where ingenuity has to unfold.”
— Julie Balog, Associate VP & Chief Marketing Officer, University of Kentucky

We wanted to talk about the things that they could do. We wanted to create opportunities for them to find friendships. I give our student organizations a lot of credit. There were so many things going on in this campus for students to safely leave their dorm and go find something to do. We had watch parties for every football game. We had movies on the lawn and we even created hammock gardens for students to safely sit together outdoors to study or dine together.

We knew this would not be a traditional semester in a lot of ways, but this is where ingenuity has to unfold. With safety as our number one principle, we need to create opportunities for what they can do.

What is your mindset regarding selling the value of higher education?

Blanton: Our students told us they wanted to be on campus. They thought that residential educational experience is important, even as students are also telling us to meet them where we are. It’s where you network. It’s where you get internships. It’s where you make connections. We’ve got world-class researchers, poets, and national book award winners sitting on this campus. There is something to be said about the connections that make higher education distinctive.

To meet students where they are, we need to bring more technology to the classroom. But the residential experience—that distinctive experience that we provide—is still important.

Parents and students are still telling us that experience is really important. And when they don’t think we’re hitting the mark, they tell us. Our communication process has to be rapid because everyone has to be on their toes and adapt on the fly.

Balog: COVID has accelerated the cost issue related to the value of higher ed. We have done some analytical work on what barriers to success exist for students. And what we discovered is more often than not, it’s not students flunking out because of grades. It’s students having financial issues. It is what we call unmet financial need. In simple terms, it’s racking up debt or not having the money to pay.

Over the last few years, we started to slowly move our financial aid scholarship model to address unmet financial needs. We still have academic merit but we have shifted more of our dollars over the last few years through a program we call “UK Leads.” And now it’s become attractive to donors who are really interested in seeing how their dollars work to help students succeed.

We’re training for the job that we don’t even know exists 10 years from now. And we’re trying to create lifelong learners who put themselves in positions to be successful no matter what the world’s throwing at them. We believe in delivering the kind of education that will sustain them over time. It’s about getting them world-ready so that when they leave here, they can go out and they can do great things.

EDgage | The University of Kentucky on how higher ed is continuing to evolve

How do you stand out in reaching kids today?

Balog: Our recruiters are really stepping up and have a lot more one-on-one direct contact with students, to help cut through the clutter. Several years ago, our chief enrollment officer started to really build connections with high school counselors, because we recognized that they’re a major influencer on decision-making. We are big believers in the parental communication side of what we’re doing, while not compromising the fact that we’re trying to market to the student. This is such an important time for a young adult to make an important transition.

We certainly don’t want to take away all of the major milestones and decision making processes from them because that’s part of growing up. It is part of learning about deadlines and managing big things like getting your housing deposit. We want our students to be active learners and make sure that they own that, but we’re also communicating with the parents and letting them know the kinds of things we’re talking about with their kids.

How do communications, marketing and enrollment all work together?

Balog: We have two account managers from the marketing team. We’re set up sort of like an ad agency approach and they’re embedded in the enrollment team. So they go to all those meetings and provide that perspective. We manage all of the creative and help with the messaging. The recruiters are the experts in what they’re hearing from the students and what that market is telling them. There’s a lot of listening going on.

We are looking at how we’re using Salesforce Marketing Cloud to personalize more of our information going from the recruiter to the student. That was because the recruiters recommended it. We all know how to swim in our own lanes.

Blanton: Like a lot of industries, higher ed could fall into silos pretty quickly and dive down rabbit holes of terminology and all kinds of things that don’t make us transparent. It’s forced our teams to think more creatively about how we work together. The fact that we had done this reorganization already also positioned us to serve our university, our customers, and our commonwealth in a better way.