Higher Education Marketing

College Marketing – Which half is working?

There is a saying in marketing, “I’m sure half of my marketing is working.  I just don’t know which half.”  Although this typically achieves a chuckle, it’s also very frustrating because it’s too often true.  Marketing is anything but cheap, so determining what works and what doesn’t seems very important.  And, to use a phrase I read just this week, “What you can’t measure, you can’t improve.”  Being a college admission guy I’ve come to love working with data.  I love to see if a strategy is working.  As a result, effective measurement techniques are important in determining success.  It’s not as easy when it comes to measuring higher education marketing success, particularly in the early stages of a campaign.

On Tuesday, December 3, 2013, Doane College launched a branding campaign to influence enrollment objectives.  The campaign is the result of a great deal of research, discussion, and a greater understanding of our brand promise which led to our brand idea.  Our brand promise: Doane College is an exceptional college opening countless opportunities.  Our brand idea: College of…get a great Job, College of…fit in and stand out, College of…it’ll change everything.

From the beginning, I embraced both the brand promise and idea.  I felt the promise represented who we are, why we are different, and why it matters.  And, I felt the creative concept allows for the flexibility that we need being an institution that must appeal to high school students and adult learners.  To be clear, I’m not interested in debating the merits of this particular campaign for Doane College in this blog.  No, I’m looking forward and being the data guy that I am, I’m interested in knowing if it works.  I recognize that patience is required and much will depend on what we do to take advantage of the concept.  Obviously just creating the concept isn’t enough.  But, first things first.

In admissions, we have the funnel!  Similar to sales, enrollment managers determine the number of leads it will generally take to create a sale or a new student.  We identify action steps between lead generation and ultimate sale which help us to manage our activity to maximize our yield.  We can determine how many students visit campus.  How many apply.  How many are admitted.  How many leads are generated as a result of our NRCCUA and CBSS leads blah blah blah.  We have the luxury (that may be a stretch of the word) of knowing what works and what doesn’t.  But, how do we know if marketing is working, or better yet, branding which doesn’t always have a specific call to action?  How do we create metrics in order to modify our approach or hold the line?

I’ve argued that we can’t focus only on branding but our marketing needs to have some strategies that have specific calls to action linking to a URL or phone number or email.  These can be monitored to determine if the specific advertisement had an effect.  And, I do think branding can impact our enrollment funnel.  An example comes to mind particularly after reading an article yesterday.  The Dodge Durango and Ron Burgundy commercials are a huge hit for Dodge.  I read that Durango sales are up 36% in November which Dodge attributes to the partnership with Ron Burgundy – you gotta see these if you haven’t yet.

Unfortunately, Doane College does not have the Dodge advertising and marketing budget to make this splash.  What budget we do have must be used as effectively as possible.  Our ability to determine effectiveness is predicated on our measurement metrics.  Therefore, we are creating metrics and defining how we will monitor them.  In our case, without prior benchmarks with these metrics, we are creating our foundational benchmarks in order to measure progress moving forward.  This is an example of our starting point.

We want to increase Doane College’s “stature” in the market place – yes, sounds vague.  The idea of stature is ambiguous.  But rather than use that as a simple excuse to not do it, we are pressing to find a way to measure if our stature is increasing.  We plan to integrate components of the results of third-party rankings also with our assessment of media presence over the course of the year.  We will also monitor, track, and assess website traffic particularly on our current most visited pages as well as identifying pages that we would like to see more traffic.  We will monitor and track our social media presence.  And, finally we will utilize public opinion surveys.  We are in the process of creating a reporting document that allows us to monitor these measures and draw our own conclusions ultimately resulting in modifications to our strategies.

Higher education recruitment requires a multifaceted approach partnering enrollment offices, marketing teams, and leadership that is committed to connecting actions to measurements.  I welcome comments regarding measurement metrics relative to marketing/branding.  How do you measure your marketing efforts at your institution?


The quest for the silver bullet.

Silver Bullet

Silver bullet?  What silver bullet?  I’ve been in higher education since 1998 working both in admissions and advancement.  I’ve participated in and directed discussions that lamented over what to do differently to achieve substantially greater results.  In almost every discussion it seems that we are most often looking for the one thing, that elusive silver bullet, which will turn water into wine.  As my Director of Admission says, “there is no silver bullet.”

He’s right but that doesn’t stop us from hoping that there is so these discussions continue.  Nevertheless, as realists we make sure we don’t spend too much time in imaginary land because it is highly unlikely that one strategic initiative from the admission office will achieve substantially different enrollment results.  Maybe it’s more productive to put time and energy into many strategic initiatives that help to move the needle together.  Staying true to my athletic background, I’ll use this analogy.  A star player can make a tremendous impact on a team; even win some games seemingly by themselves.  But, typically championships require a not only a few substantially talented individuals, but also a great “supporting cast”, a game plan that evolves adding new plays and different schemes, a crowd that supports the team, great coaching, and great ownership.  Great teams adapt and are always looking to get better throughout the season.  Teams that want to go from good to great, don’t make just one move in the off-season or even during the season.  Even those that are considered great must continue to evolve or complacency catches up.

This summer while in the same conversations of the past, we decided that we were going to try many new approaches with the plan that while not all will be home-runs, each of them together has real potential to help move the needle.  In fact, a colleague of mine challenged me.  He said, “Do one thing new every week.”  That proves to be very difficult but in the spirit of competition, I gave it a go.  It pushed (and continues to push) me every day to think forward.

We can easily put too much time and energy into one strategy and then we wait to determine if it actually works.  That’s frustrating!  I want to look for new ideas, new strategies, and continue to implement new programs anticipating that some will hit while others may miss.  I’m not arguing for the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach.  We still have to have a critical eye.  But, I want continual forward thinking.  Every plan is a working plan which should be continually adjusted.  This approach is particularly difficult for me.  I’m one that likes to create a plan and then work the plan with limited deviation.  In the world of traditional college enrollment, we deal with the traditional year-long cycle – often it takes a year (or more) to see results from our strategies.  We assess the results and make changes and then go again.  I don’t feel I can afford to be that traditional anymore.  I need to be more flexible; more innovative.

A buddy of mine read my first two blogs and provided some well-deserved constructive criticism.  He said, “You can suck me in and, yet, really not offer specifics.”  In that vein, I’ll give some specifics a try.  Here are a number of our new initiatives:

  • We launched a new senior advantage program for area high school students to take college courses for $100 at Doane College in their senior year.
  • We eliminated high school transcripts as a requirement for admission.
  • We approved 2014/15 tuition in October rather than waiting till February.
  • We plan to roll-out a three-year graduation guarantee before the end of second semester.
  • We are rolling out a new branding campaign.
  • We are venturing into social media advertising including Google AdWords and Facebook advertising.
  • We are creating videos to have a presence on YouTube.
  • We will substantially increase branding signage on campus over the course of the next 12 months.
  • We created targeted visit events based on some of our strong programs rather than continuing to offer generic group visit events.
  • We restructured our financial aid policy.
  • We are implementing a targeted communications plan that integrates mail, e-mail, text, and social media.  (Some of you may be saying, “Well, duh!”  I get it, everyone has a communications plan.  I also contend that everyone’s communication plan can be better.  I’m simply acknowledging here that our communications plan was not as integrated as it should have been and we took steps to mitigate this.  Still, we have more to do.)
  • We have initiated a Transfer Task Force to assess our current approach to transfer students – there may be a Transfer Graduation Guarantee Coming!
  • As an institution, we are instituting a College to Career Center and hiring an Internship Coordinator – we know internships lead to employment.
  • We are holding admission counselors accountable for the recruitment of what we call “unleveraged” students – those students who are not coming to Doane for athletics, music, or theatre.

These are a few.  None of these independently will propel us to our goals.  This isn’t enough!

We are smack in the middle of recruiting and I’m continuing to push on what we need to change to be more effective.  The market place has high expectations.  Meeting those expectations simply puts us in the game.  We need to exceed those expectations.  Quick example:  If you’ve ever been to Doane’s campus in Crete, NE, and taken the tour, you might make the statement, “If you can just get a student to visit, you should have no problem with enrollment.”  This would seem to imply a silver bullet possibility.  However, our visit yield is very similar to national averages.  It’s true.  Our campus is amazing.  But, let’s not forget that the vast majority of students don’t come to college to sit under the tree and look over the beautiful pond as the sun slowly sets.  Getting students to campus certainly is a huge step but there is more to it.

Colleges must evolve with the needs of students and families.  Communication methods have changed substantially in the last 10-15 years.  Change happens so fast that we must adapt and fight the urge to do it the way we always have.  Stay tuned…I’d like to share the process that led to a new branding campaign.


Okay, so you have the right people on the bus! Are they in the correct aisle, let alone correct seat?

Do you remember the feeling you get when you receive a bill or credit card statement and you get that incredible sinking feeling because the amount is way beyond what you anticipated?  I had this similar feeling when I modeled out first-year and transfer enrollment increases needed on an annual basis to grow from 1,100 students to 2,000 students in ten years.  Safe to say I had a significant knot in my throat and some uneasiness in my stomach.  I played with the numbers to determine how retention, transfer enrollment, and first-year enrollment all needed to increase and to what extent I needed to see those numbers increase immediately or if I could push them out a few years as new initiatives take root all the while feeling “okay” about the volume increase in a single year by comparison.  I have it plotted out year by year.  This is good if for no other reason to understand the reality of what we are trying to do.  However, I’ve got to be careful to not represent the model as representative of what WILL happen.  It’s just a model not my personal crystal ball!

With a working model designed, reality strikes initiating personal pains of urgency far beyond what I have experienced in the past.  And, consider this important fact; urgency isn’t necessarily shared by all at Doane College – at least not at this point.  I’m not being critical.  Rather, I’m acknowledging the reality.  Our interest in growth is proactive.  It’s a vision established by our President, Dr. Jacque Carter, who makes a great case for growth based on long-term stability and national presence.  It’s exciting!  But, our backs are not against the wall.  We are not in crisis mode.  We are not in financial dire straits.  That is good and we want to be even stronger ten years from today.

So, one of my continual challenges is to bring people to a significant level of urgency without the benefit (and/or drawback) of a “nothing-to-lose” mentality.  I contend that while all strategic visions will have their naysayers, these naysayers have a stronger presence when they truly feel there is a better alternative.  In our case that alternative may be the simple resistance to change.  At least when in panic mode, even the naysayers can struggle for a better alternative than a solution to a crisis.  As a result, they may not be helping but they also aren’t hurting.  In our current environment, doubt in our ability to grow can easily impede our urgency.

In order to create some urgency, I’m pushing operational change particularly in admission and marketing.  We are identifying what must change in order for us to grow.  How are we going to attract and yield students that we don’t currently get – both traditional and adult learners?  How will we grow our geographic market?  It begins to set in with our teams…this is on us.  No one will do this for us.  The cavalry is not coming over the hill.  But, this is not to say that admission can do it all independently.  It will be a team effort for sure.  Nevertheless, the teams responsible with leading our enrollment growth effort are admissions, marketing, and athletics.

For some quick perspective, when I first arrived at Doane, marketing did not report to me as VP for Admissions.  Marketing departments are structured different at each college and university.  Dr. Carter recognized my desire to bring the efforts of marketing and admissions more closely aligned.  I felt we needed to leverage a strong working relationship – a partnership – with our marketing department.   As a result, one structural move we made was to bring marketing, communications, and admissions under the same VP.  My position of Vice President for Enrollment Services and Marketing was created.  In addition (and also very critical to Doane’s enrollment), the athletic department also transitioned to report to the VP for Enr. Services & Marketing because student-athlete recruitment is currently a significant component to our enrollment plan.

Once departmental realignment was complete, it was time to begin focusing the departmental operations on common goals.  This also allows for enrollment accountability to be shared across a greater number of key decision makers at the institution.  After spending some time making sure people are in the right aisles, it’s time to get the bus out of PARK.



Enrollment – What’s easier, growing 100% or doubling in size?

Confidence is an amazing personal trait.  With some people, confidence comes and goes.  However, consider the basketball player that doesn’t give a shot any hesitation even having missed the previous 10 shots.  The confidence that player has in his/her shooting ability never waivers – regardless of the competition.  They believe the next shot will go in.  They have unwavering confidence most likely based on achievements to that point.

I’m proud of my accomplishments professionally and feel that I’ve had enough success professionally that I should be pretty confident in my skill set and professional knowledge.  However, what we are attempting to accomplish at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska and what I have great responsibility for leading is something I have not accomplished nor do I know many who have.  We plan to double our traditional undergraduate enrollment within the next 10 years – yes, that’s 100% growth!  Admission directors and enrollment managers understand the gravity of this when put in the context of growing a first-year class from 300 annually to almost 600.  What you did yesterday won’t get the results you want tomorrow.  What’s even more obvious is that if it were that easy to grow a class 100%, it’s fair to say many schools would be doing so.

Safe to say there are many new initiatives at the college (not just in admissions) which will need to work in order for us to achieve our enrollment goals.  Nevertheless, my focus is on the actions we take specifically in the areas of enrollment management and marketing to achieve our goals.  I want to capture and share my experiences.  In that vein, I plan to blog at least two times each month.  I will share successes and failures possibly even frustrations.

While it’s true that I have confidence, I also have the anxiety of potential failure as a character trait.  This blog is not meant to be a road map or even a “look-at-me” experience.  I am not selling consulting and frankly I’m not looking for that either at the moment – I may need counseling or even consoling in the future.  I do know that the higher education landscape for enrollment managers is different from it was 10-15 years ago.  I’m anxious to share my experiences and hear about other’s experiences as well.  This is my journey.

My next blog will give a bit of a current situation update as a foundation from where we start.