Higher Ed Marketing in 2012

We’re almost at the end of 2011, and the year-end lists of predictions for 2012 have cropping up on marketing and social media blogs all over the web. CASE gave their own set of predictions in December’s BriefCASE.

The CASE list highlights five potential trends for 2012.

  1. “Further integration of social media and marketing”
  2. “Internal convergence”
  3. “Influence measurement”
  4. “Gamification”
  5. “Further migration of content from print to digital”

Their list pulls some of the best items from a number of other lists out there, but they did not spin it in anyway to relate back to education. I think the items included in CASE’s list have value to education and higher education marketing in particular.

1. “Further integration of social media and marketing”

CASE’s list points back to a post of the Harvard Business Review’s blog that calls the integration “convergence emergence”. Essentially, this is the idea that we’ll see social media being used to create interactive marketing experiences across various channels.

For higher education marketing, this concept will certainly have some impact for those willing to step out of their marketing comfort zone. I see the possibility for social media to be more heavily in the recruitment of students. Social media could be used to make recruitment events more interactive by integrating social media tools into the physical event to solicit input and feedback. One-way admission presentations could become two-way interactive experiences.

2. “Internal convergence”

This point is all about the application of IMC to the current marketing model. The idea is nothing new, but the list compiled by CASE predicts that 2012 will be the year of integration. Marketing silos will cease to exist, and all channels will be brought together to work in unison. This applies especially to social media.

For most of higher education, most channels have been working together for sometime. Colleges and universities have some of the strongest brand identities out there due to this fact. But, social media is still a new member of the marketing mix, and for most it likely functions on its own in support of other marketing efforts. There is an opportunity to let social media take an equal share of the marketing mix, or even take the lead in some campaigns allowing other channels to support.

Because of the decentralized nature of universities, most schools have a number of social media channels being managed by different departments and office on campus. 2012 will be a year for colleges and universities to bring these different channels together by applying an a centralized-decentralized approach. By this I mean that there must by an IMC approach applied to the multiple social media channels maintained by various offices from a central perspective where certain identity standards are upheld. This will strengthen marketing efforts and brand identity. But, at the same time departments and offices must still be able to function autonomously, as they are the experts in communicating with their various audiences.

3. “Influence measurement”

CASE’s list predicts that 2012 will be the year executives will start talking about social media influence and the year we’ll see a proliferation of influence measurement tools like Klout.

Patrick Powers wrote a great post on his blog earlier this month talking about the relative uselessness of Klout for higher ed marketing purpose. This is Powers’ main point:

Klout does a great job of determining the number and reach of the people talking about your brand online, but it doesn’t know if any of these people are actually taking action with your brand because of it.

Powers points out that Klout may be a good tool for benchmarking your school against others in the social media space, but beyond that it holds very little value.

This issue gets back to the problem of social media ROI. It’s something that marketers have struggled with since the early days of social media, and it’s something that still needs an adequate solution. As we use social media more and more in our marketing campaigns, we need tools to track their effectiveness beyond pure reach and influence. Influence is a great thing, but it’s not a end goal.

4. “Gamification”

CASE points out that social media check-in games like Foursquare and SCVNGR are already popular on college campuses. They predict that 2012 will be the year that we’ll see a wide variety of institutions and organizations in all sectors “gamify” their marketing with the addition of levels, badges, and points.

I’m still not sure what the return on “gamifying” the higher ed marketing approach might bring. I suppose that it could lead to higher levels of engagement with a number of audiences. It could be an innovative way to track event attendance and demonstrated interest with prospective students. Or, it could be a way increase alumni participation in events, giving, and volunteering.

5. “Further migration of content from print to digital”

This prediction is all about the rise of the tablet computer. CASE is predicting that in 2012, we’ll see a large number of printed publications move to a tablet platform. From a marketing standpoint, I think that this could be dangerous. While tablet ownership is on the rise, we haven’t yet reached a level of ownership that would allow us to favor the tablet over print.

I think that colleges and universities would suffer especially in the marketing to prospective undergraduate students. Nielsen reported in August that only 7% of tablet users are in the 13-17 age group where most prospective undergraduates fall. Only 10% fall in the 18-24 age group that includes current undergraduates and some graduate students.

In reality, the tablet is a still a pricy gadget. While the potential for using the tablet in marketing is there, the tablet isn’t ubiquitous. We’re still in the early days of tablet usage and ownership. We’re at the point with tablets where we were with smartphones five years ago.

It’s not time to move from print to tablet quite yet.

There’s no doubt 2012 will be a big year for social media and marketing. There is huge potential in the current platforms in use and in the ones that are in development. It will be interesting to see how social media really is integrated into higher ed marketing in the coming year, and what predictions we’ll be making a year from now for 2013.

Admission Search Campaigns – Part 2

In my last post, I took a brief look at admission search campaigns in general. In this post, I want to take a look at a the “Are You Innovation?” search campaign we ran at Carnegie Mellon in 2010 and 2011.

Campaign Overview

The “Are You Innovation?” campaign was an IMC campaign that replaced previous direct mail campaigns aimed at high school sophomores and juniors in the early stages of their college search who had yet to declare an interest in Carnegie Mellon. Direct mail remained part of the campaign with a series of three postcards, but the campaign also included an email campaign, an interactive website, and a video contest. The campaign components featured a unified design, and highlighted the central theme of the innovations of Carnegie Mellon students, alumni, and faculty. Prospective students were challenged to create a 30-second video response answering the question, “What is innovation?” and to upload it to the website for a chance at a $5,000 scholarship.

The landing page for the “Are You Innovation?” campaign.

The Target Audience

Just as with our previous search campaigns, we focused on high school juniors and sophomores. Because Carnegie Mellon’s academic offerings are so diverse, this demographic was split up into three separate groups based on the potential field of study a student listed on their standardized testing: technology, liberal arts and business, and fine arts. Students in these three separate audiences received email and direct mail messaging tailored to their declared academic interest.

The Goal

The ultimate goal of the campaign was to convert members of the target audience into prospects in the Carnegie Mellon system. This was done by filling out a form that was linked from individual innovation story and a few other places on the landing page. Once a link was clicked, the form below would appear.

The form itself had its pluses and minuses. As a plus, it gave potential prospects a way to skip it to get to the next portion of the site if they already provided us with their information. It also provided a glimpse of what was to come next by showing the steps in the contest. As a minus though, the form was really only branded as an entry form. While the goal of the search campaign was to gain prospects, this form led potential prospects to believe that they should only and need only fill it out if they want to enter the video contest. I am almost certain that we lost out on converting some of these students to prospects because of this factor. The real call to action here was lost behind the guise of the contest.

The Contest

The video contest was the hook of this campaign. It was our attempt to stand out from a saturated marketplace. Both years that we ran this campaign, the contest received a very weak response with single digit submissions both years.

The contest rules.

I believe this response had more to do with the target audience than anything else. The creation and submission of a 30-second video clip could be considered a significant undertaking, especially given the prompt, “What is innovation?” It’s my belief that we saw a low level of engagement in this contest because at this audience did not have any real vested interest in Carnegie Mellon. They had not declared their interest by requesting more information. They hadn’t attended any events. They hadn’t applied. We were essentially cold calling these students and asking them to give us content. Yes, there was a $5,000 a year scholarship on the line, but this was only if they actually applied to Carnegie Mellon and were admitted. For many of these students, this campaign was their first time hearing about the university.

In the end, while we had wished to have a higher level of engagement with the contest, we accepted the failure and moved on. Running the contest was not the real goal of the campaign, creating excitement and interest in Carnegie Mellon was and still is. As we’ve moved forward to launching our search campaign for 2012, we’ve kept this in mind. We’re looking for ways to communicate the stories behind the great things going on at the university. We’re trying to pique the interest of those high school sophomores and juniors who may have never heard of Carnegie Mellon or get it on the college list of those students who have but aren’t yet considering it.

Admission Search Campaigns – Part 1

The season for admission search campaigns is right around the corner. In a little over a month, the College Board will release students’ names to colleges and universities around the country who’ve purchased some portion of those names for their own marketing purposes. Once those names are released, it will be a mad rush by colleges to get their message in front of prospective students before anybody else.

Search campaigns are targeted at high school sophomores and juniors who’ve taken a College Board administered test and typically at students whose academic profiles and interests match that of the school. For small, more regional schools, search campaigns can be way of building brand recognition outside of their immediate market. I actually found out about Allegheny College, the school where I started my undergrad, through a search campaign piece.

While direct mail was traditionally the way for schools to conduct their search campaigns, colleges and universities have increasingly moved into the digital world either supplementing their mail campaigns with email and web components, or replacing the mail component completely. In reality, if there ever was a place for an integrated marketing communications (IMC) campaign in admission marketing, search is it. In order to stand out from the crowd, colleges have been forced to become very innovative in their approaches to search campaigns. An IMC approach is the answer. With multiple channels working in concert, a college has a much high chance of getting its name out there.

Here at Carnegie Mellon, we’ve used a hybrid model for our “Are You Innovation?” campaign over the past two years with mail, email, and web components. I plan on talking about what I learned from this campaign in my next post in detail. Until then, take a look at the campaign website and   comment here. I’ll address any questions about the campaign in my next post, too.

Mobile for Higher Education

This post is short on solutions, and really more of a call to action than anything else. The use of mobile technologies in higher ed marketing fascinates me, but I’m not an expert and really look to others out there for guidance on the subject. 

It’s no secret marketers in higher education aren’t typically early adopters of new technologies. Typically, marketing innovation comes from the private sector where marketing budgets are bigger and the aversion to risk isn’t as large. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great things going on in the world of higher ed.

Take a look specifically at the world of mobile in higher education. As smartphone use and ownership has become more widespread over the past few years, more colleges and universities are entering the fray with mobile websites, apps, and sites built on responsive design principles.

Dave Olsen, a developer at WVU, has been instrumental in charting the adoption of all things mobile in higher education on his blog Mobile in Higher Ed. I had the opportunity to hear Olsen speak at the HighEdWeb regional conference in Rochester this past summer where he talked about building a progressive mobile strategy. Olsen is an evangelist converting those of us in higher ed who think that having an iPhone app is enough to serve our mobile users, and leading the converted through the mobile world. He’s also done a wonderful job cataloging mobile sites out there in the higher ed world.

Higher ed is off to a great start in the mobile world. The number of institutions with a mobile presence listed on Olsen’s site and the eduStyle Mobile Gallery shows just how far we’ve come. Now it’s time to take the next step in encouraging widespread adoption of mobile practices across higher ed, as there are still some notable institutions missing from the directories of mobile sites.

We need innovators in higher ed who will be the evangelists at their own instituions pushing for a mobile strategy that works alongside the overall marketing communications strategy. Mobile websites, responsive design, apps, texting campaigns, mobile gaming, augmented reality, and every new and shiny thing that might follow can only serve us so much. We need to put these tools to work with specific goals in mind.

Dealing with Decentralization

Universities by nature are decentralized places. Academic and non-academic units make up the university at the highest level. Inside the academic unit are colleges, and inside the colleges are academic departments, and inside the departments specific programs and majors. You get the idea.

Naturally, when it comes to a social media presence, everybody wants to have their own from the university at-large to the school mascot. And, in some ways we’ve come to expect this. But, is this for the best?

At my own institution, most of the important university departments and offices are represented through at least one social media channel. For a decentralized place, like a university this seems like a smart approach. For those units that can’t be served by the university’s main channels and have a more specific audience, a more specific channel becomes necessary.

So in undergraduate admission for instance, we maintain our own Facebook and Twitter accounts. We’ve taken the into Google+ (about a week behind everyone else). And we always have an eye out for what might be on the horizon, and what might serve our audience best.

Where we don’t maintain a social media presence, we work closely with the central university social media channels to cross-promote and utilize their resources. While we don’t have the resources to create video and maintain a YouTube channel, we use what the university has produced and might be reapplied to our audience.

The real challenge of decentralization becomes the multitude of voices representing a perceived single entity, which in this case is the university. Maintaining brand identity and image get more difficult with every new social media account and account manager added.

There are different approaches to dealing with this issue, one of the best I heard was brought up when I attended the HighEdWeb regional conference in Rochester, NY this past summer. During a session on working with social media teams on campus, several attendees brought up how they had created social media working groups at their home institutions that brought together all social media managers together on a regular basis to discuss issues surrounding their endeavors and to make sure they were all on the same page.

The main point that I took away from this suggestion was that it’s important to keep open the lines of communication. Each arm of the overall university social media presence needs to be aware of what the other arms are doing and trying to accomplish. This could be through a working group that meets on a monthly basis or a simple email list to exchange ideas and news. In order to maintain brand image and integrity, this sort of communication is extremely important not just for those of us in higher ed, but really any decentralized organization or business.


Where’s the personality?

As they do any field, trends in web design and digital media have influence over websites in higher ed. And with trends, we end up having so many sites with a similar look and feel. A clean, minimalistic, grid-based design has become standard across higher ed sites to the point that if you were to strip away a college or university’s name 75 percent of the websites out there would be indistinguishable from the next. One look at the websites featured on eduStyle, a showcase of higher ed websites, will show you what I mean.

Good things have come of from the adoption of these trends: ease of navigation, great content organization, and the widespread adoption of aesthetically pleasing design principles. All of these things have advanced the state of college and university websites, but the adoption of trends comes at a cost.

The basic problem here is a lack of personality in higher ed websites. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly exceptions to the rule out there, but the majority of higher ed sites lack the personality of the institutions they serve. The majority of sites may do a great job of delivering content, but what is content without soul? Yes, there may be great, professionally done shots of campus. There may be links to video and social networking sites. None of these things alone are able to express the personality of a school.

A few weeks back, Aarron Walter wrote an article for A List Apart on the importance of personality in design. His conclusion is worth mentioning here (emphasis added):

Just as our personalities shift with the context of communication in real life, they must shift in the projects we design. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. If we stop thinking of the interfaces we design as dumb control panels, and think of them as the people our target audience wants to interact with, we can craft emotionally engaging experiences that make a lasting impression. 

Keep in mind that when you emphasize personality in the user experience, some people won’t like it. That’s okay, though. Personalities clash, and in the case of businesses, it can actually be a good thing. If people don’t understand your personality, chances are they’re not the right customer for you, and you’re actually saving yourself future customer-relations problems. Personality is a risk, but there are many real-world examples that suggest the rewards are worth it.

The benefits for adding personality to higher ed websites starts with admission where it can allow a university to market fit to the right students, to current students, and all the way to alumni members looking to reconnect with the university they loved. With personality added in meaningful engagement becomes possible.

It’s time for all of us in higher ed to focus on what makes our schools different from others out there (beyond the usual name, school colors, logos, mascots), and time for us to really attempt to capture the essence of our institutions through our websites in the same way we do through print publications. Slapping our institutions’ names on a trendy design isn’t enough. Everything that makes a school unique (traditions, community, place, typical student, etc.) must be boiled down so that that essence may be applied to the schools website (and even its overall brand).

Like I said there are some great examples out there of schools successfully incorporating personality into their websites, but they are in the minority. In the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of these sites and discussing how they are accomplishing this.

Excuse the profanity…

Before I even begin, you should know that for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve edited out the gratuitous use of the f-bomb featured in the website up for discussion.

There’s been a lot of buzz over the past week, over a site set up by two Oberlin College alumni called Why the f&#k should I choose Oberlin? While the site is not officially endorsed by the college, it’s doing an amazing job creating awareness for the Oberlin brand.

The site focuses on the quotes of students and alumni who’ve offered there own unique and often profanity-filled reasons for attending Oberlin. The reasons run the gamut from academics to extracurriculars to a population of albino squirrels present on campus. Here’s a sampling:


Because we’re sexy f&#*ing awkward kids who bring joy to each other’s lives.

Because majoring in both biology and classics is totally f*&*ing normal.

This site a perfect example of an instance where a brand has reached a certain level of resonance with its audience. I think colleges and universities have an easier time reaching this level of resonance because people naturally feel a strong connection to the place where they went to (or go to) school, but not every school could inspire its alumni to do the same thing that these two Oberlin alums have done.

It is also a perfect example of how the audience owns the brand, not the organization. While Oberlin College (here I mean administration) might not view the Oberlin brand in the same terms as these very vocal and passionate alumni and students, they have realized that the Oberlin brand lives in the minds, experiences, and opinions of the students. To this point, Oberlin College hasn’t official endorsed the site, but they are letting it and not disapproving of it.

I think this site will undoubtedly inspire copycats at other universities and colleges, but I don’t think exact copies will work for two reasons. First, the shock value of using the f-word is now gone. This site is so successful as it is because it is unexpected. It has impact because profanity and higher ed marketing don’t usually go hand in hand. Second, this site works because it fits Oberlin and its community. Taking the same approach wouldn’t necessarily fit a large research university or another small liberal arts college. If there are any successful copycats out there, I think they’ll succeed as interpretations rather than exact replicas.