Higher ed institutions are grappling with declining enrollment. The old ways of recruiting students that institutions used during the “go-go” years 15 years ago no longer work – there is far more competition for a shrinking pool of “traditional” students, student demographics have changed, and numerous other reasons. This has resulted in deep discounting of tuition, institutions investing in “climbing walls and lazy rivers” on campus, and other ways to attract prospective students. Yet, on average, only 11 percent of students accepted actually enroll at the college. In essence, (prospective) students control the enrollment process in most situations.
As the saying goes, “putting old wine in a new bottle doesn’t work,“ nor does enrolling students the “traditional” way of buying lists, etc. Higher ed must change their enrollment strategies – put new wine in new bottles – starting with understanding how to market in this new normal.
What’s Changed, and Why Marketing Is So Important Now
Over the past 10-15 years, three major changes occurred that changed higher education, and specifically higher ed enrollment. The first of these was student demographics – there are fewer students graduating from high school than there were even 10 years ago. Add to this a myriad of factors, including increasing income inequality, etc., and the result is fewer “traditional” students available as prospects.
The “go-go” years of the 2000s when nearly every higher ed institution in the country was seeing increasing enrollment and was patting itself on the back for a great job it was doing at marketing and recruiting was a false flag – institutions were merely riding a demographic wave. Those days are over, and we are seeing declining numbers of students graduating from high school.
The second major change was the Great Recession, which is still affecting enrollments. When the economy tanked in 2008, many parents saw their kid’s college savings disappear overnight for two reasons: their stock portfolio was wiped out and/or the home equity that they had planned to borrow against to pay for their children’s education was no longer there. This, coupled with the cuts at the state and federal levels for education, raised the cost to students of an education; we’re seeing this effects in the form of increased student loan debt.
In some ways, this is a double whammy – fewer traditional-age students, and then there are fewer among them who can pay full price or even a significant percentage of the price. This has led to significant tuition discounting as a way to attract more students. This discounting is analogous to what happens in a product lifecycle when a product moves from market maturity to decline; what is used to get people to buy is reducing prices.
Lastly, there is increased dissatisfaction and distrust with higher ed institutions and/or higher ed as an industry. People, and especially parents and students, increasingly are questioning the value of a college degree, whereas, in the past, it was a given that a college degree was going to pay off.
The Changing Marketing Game
The higher ed “marketing game” has changed significantly in the past 15 years. Yes, there are definitely fewer high school students considered to be the traditional students (18-24) going to college, both from a numbers and a percentage of the total students, but what has increased are the numbers of what are called “post-traditional” students, those students who are 24-70 years old, who do not study full-time during the day and are not in residence. This number has increased significantly and is now 73-74 percent of all college students.
There are multiple reasons for this, but they boil down to three basic reasons:
Which brings us to the current challenge that institutions are facing.
There are significant marketing challenges that institutions must overcome given that the majority of today’s students are post-traditional. For example, when attracting traditional, 17-year-old students, you know how and where to reach them: they are in high school, they will be signing up for the PSAT and SAT, and you can buy their names and send them communication materials directly.
However, with post-traditionals, students can be anywhere and it's a marketing challenge to figure out how to reach them. This has given rise to a new industry online for recruiting students, but most institutions are using these so they aren’t as effective as they used to be. Fortunately, the cost of advertising, specifically digital advertising, is decreasing, and it can be used to target much more narrowly.
What Is Positioning and Branding, and Why Is It Critical for Higher Ed
Positioning and branding are two of those things that if you ask 100 people for their definition, you get 100 different answers.
We define positioning as the space that your institution or your brand takes up in the minds of the external audience. It is what you represent to people who are thinking about going to college, their parents, or any of the other audiences that you deal with.
Positioning answers the question:
Branding is the strategy behind trying to reinforce and/or change that positioning in people's minds. It is the act of creating an intentional strategy behind what we stand for, i.e., the words and phrases that we want people to use when they talk about us and think about us.
What makes that statement critical is the emphasis on the “the one thing people remember.”
Marketers would love to have people remember 10 or 15 things about a brand because we as marketers know all the great things about the brand. However, institutions are very lucky if you get people to remember one thing, and so you must be very deliberate and tough on yourself and the and the people who are working on the brand strategy to say, “folks, we’ve got one thing and we need to figure out what that one thing is.”
Take for example Nike and their “Just Do It” campaigns. That is the one thing that you remember about Nike. Oklahoma and football. Texas A&M and the Corps of Cadets.
What is the one thing that your “customers” remember about your institution? And how do you know what that is?
All Established Universities Have A Brand
One of the critical things that university presidents must remember is that they already have a brand because any institution that's been around for a while has a reputation in people’s minds. Your university stands for something already – you are not starting from scratch.
Being already established is actually more difficult than starting from scratch because if you want to change the way that people perceive your brand, you have to first undo what they currently think and then create new positioning in their minds. That's one thing.
Second, your brand is and must be foundational to the strategic planning process every institution should go through in every five, six, eight, 10 years, but far too many institutions view those things as completely separate, i.e., the planning process on one side of the house, and developing the marketing and branding strategies on the other. That is a mistake.
Your brand is the promise that you're making to the world, and your strategic plan has to be focused on those things that we need to do to improve our institution. They are inextricably related and wholly dependent on one another.
The way people view brand should be this: “What are we doing and what are we not doing to deliver on the brand promise that we are making to people.”
I think if every institution going forward had an execution plan for their strategic plan with part of that being how are you going to market your institution, it would be part of part and parcel of your planning process.
How to Change Your Brand
Established institutions already have a brand, and that can be difficult to change. Your first step is to conduct market research external to your institution. Brand perception is not about what your faculty think, or what your university president thinks. Brand perception is what people external to the university think you stand for – your prospective students, their parents, people who hire your graduates and support your institution.
Most people have the perception that market research can be very expensive and take a long time and it can, but it doesn’t have to. There are both complex and simple ways research can be done. For example, many institutions who already have a good understanding of their brand successfully do online focus groups with parents and students and guidance counselors and even their alumni which is cost effective and can gather good information. For those institutions who are less sure of their brand, we recommend more in-depth surveys and interviews / focus groups. Either approach can work – it depends on how much do you already understand about your institution brand right, how much are you are you trying to change it, and what you need to learn.
Many institutions rely on what appears to be a simple way to do this market research, i.e., asking student applicants three basic questions: (1) how did you hear about us, (2) what did you hear about us, and (3) what attracted you to us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily work, because people have a hard time answering those questions.
Most brands have been around for a long time, so when people are asked about how they first heard about the institution or what they heard about it, they don't give you an answer that you can take to the rely on. For example, if you were asked when did you first hear about Starbucks, you would give me an answer that may or may not be correct, but the problem is I don't have any statistical reliability when or how you actually heard about it.
Marketing experts are students of people, i.e., their behavior and how they respond to particular questions. For example, with Americans, you can ask them a question and it is their nature that they want to be helpful so they give you an answer, but it is not necessarily a reliable answer. Hence, you must ask probing questions.
Instead, we recommend having one-on-one conversations with people in which the researcher asks more probing questions that dive more deeply into their answers so as to get a solid understanding of what people believe and why they believe it.
Red Flags that Suggest Your Branding is Tired
It’s important that you that you understand what the people what people think about the brand and whether it needs to be sharpened, and one of the flags that higher ed marketing people can use is enrollment. For example, if enrollment is declining, that could be a sign that a brand could be tired or that your value proposition is off, i.e., people don’t understand why they should spend the money to attend your institution, they don't know what they're going to get from it in terms of the education they are receiving or the career outcomes they'll get.
Besides declining enrollment, another flag is lack of alignment. Institutions must have their strategies, structures, and processes all working together, and branding is one of your strategies. As part of the structures, institutions must ensure they have the right kind of people in enrollment, that they are well trained, and can take care of the students. All of those things have to be in alignment.
Branding is not the only thing that would cause enrollment decline, but it is certainly something to consider. President should ask themselves what are we doing around brand strategy? When is the last time we did market research? When was the last time we sharpened our brand’s language? What is our value proposition? Unfortunately, most academics don’t understand these basic questions, which is why many institutions are turning to the business community to find their leadership.
Ensuring consistent and well-targeted brand language is critical to driving enrollment, especially when we take into account the number of generations who are currently going back to school. With the predominance of the post-traditional student, language becomes more critical. Not only do you need to figure out how to market to them, you need to understand where to market to them and what attracts them to your institution. Thus, your marketing equation is much more complex than it is with traditional students (18-24 years old).
For example, post-traditional students have busy lives. They have jobs and families; they are looking not only at what is the value of your education at your offering in terms of what's going do for them but also the convenience factor – where your institution is located and can they get there easily on evenings or do their degree via online education.
There are three key things that presidents must be aware of when it comes to marketing and branding.
You cannot be all things to all people – you must know what your one thing is. You’re competing for mindshare, and there are so many different messages out there, what is the one thing you want to be known for.
Branding doesn't have to be hard. It doesn't have to be laborious. It doesn't have to be difficult – it can be very simple and straightforward. There are a lot of really good models out there for how to do and how to do branding, just start and you'll be amazed at how much you learn if you start with good market research, you'll be amazed at how much you learn and where it can take you.
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