Always Thinking

We think (a lot) about everything from sushi to voter registration to SNL skits. Mostly, though, we think about all things branding and marketing. Dive in to some of our latest thoughts.

Data Matters Now More Than Ever

Okay, I confess. As a market researcher, I can’t help but view the world through a data-driven lens. I mean, come on, how could Volvo have placed a drink holder precisely where my drink blocks the clock? Did anyone collect any market research data before making that design decision? Did they know what was important to the customer who wants to arrive on time without having to first take a sip? Sure, they likely knew a lot. It’s Volvo. But was their research current or did they lean on prior assumptions? With COVID and its effect on the college decision-making process, change seems to be the new constant. That harsh reality poses the question: What kind of data do we really need to make smart decisions today?

Campus leaders form strategic plans and expect data-informed goals and solutions. But do higher ed marketing, admissions and enrollment leaders have the data they really need? According to Educase’s Top 10 IT Issues in 2019, roughly half of colleges and university decisions were only partially or slightly informed by data. A 2021 Salesforce report entitled The New U states,Although most campuses have been gathering massive amounts of data about their students, they still have a long way to go to develop the interactions that will give them a competitive edge.”


Beyond the brand platform. Many of you have participated in a brand development project or two or even three. This tried-and-true process is necessary every 5-7 years to refine your brand platform based on legitimate and current strengths and benefits validated by data collected from students, faculty, staff, and alumni. But what about all the other useful and more immediately actionable data needed on an ongoing basis? Yes “brand” is important, but we can’t forget about the data that are crucial to other important decisions. With the repercussions of COVID, much of what we have always known is now unreliable. You need data that hasn’t been collected before. And you need to be prepared for entirely new answers to some of your oldest and dearest questions.


Too much or too little. Some campuses are drowning in data, while others are scrounging to get their hands on any at all. More isn’t always better, but those with limited resources are left to use national prospect studies to make assumptions about how to market to their COVID prospect pool. But your prospect isn’t like every school’s prospect, right? Unfortunately, these national data sets represent the opinions and perceptions of prospects that are likely very different from your own in terms of academic ability, household income, and the competitive set of schools being considered. In lieu of hard data, many are relying on admissions counselors’ one-off comments. This type of information won’t accurately inform targeted messaging and instead will increase the risk of developing ineffective marketing and recruitment materials. And who can afford that right now? No one.


Quiz time. To help determine next steps, take this quiz about prospect data available to marketing and enrollment leaders on your campus.

  1. Are your inquirers more familiar and knowledgeable with your school compared to non-inquiring prospects?  Or is there little difference between inquirers and prospective students who are not formally connected to your school?
  2. Do you really understand how your prospects form their short list of schools?
  3. What matters most to your COVID prospects – cost, the ability to attend in-person or hybrid classes, or the academic reputation of particular programs regardless of delivery mode? Is this consistent when comparing subgroups within your prospect pool?
  4. You may feel confident in your campus’ understanding of your brand strengths, but which proof points are most effective in conveying those strengths to this generation of students?
  5. Does the quality of online instruction matter to prospects? Are there fears or inaccurate perceptions about online education that can be solved? Are prospects aware of schools that are doing an excellent job teaching online? Are you conveying that your faculty are shooting down myths about the limitations with online instruction?
  6. Do you know which of these tactics are most effective at conveying strong outcomes to your prospects – alumni videos; alumni stories written in short, bulleted format; or employment or salary statistics from an alumni study?
  7. In terms of illustrating outcomes to prospects, do you know who is most appealing and effective and why? (A current student with an impressive internship? A 23-year-old alumni enrolled in a well-respected graduate program? A 25-year-old who has been employed within his/her area of study since graduation? A 50-year-old alumni who is in senior management at a Fortune 500 company?)


Don’t wait. The COVID funnel is unpredictable. Applications are up at many publics while down at many private institutions. With an increase in test-optional schools and gap year participants, previous funnel formulas can’t be relied upon. If you answered “no” to two or more quiz questions, consider getting a prospective student survey in the field sooner rather than later. The results can and will impact every facet of your recruitment communications. And it doesn’t have to break the bank: focused, ongoing micro research projects are effective and affordable. Arm yourself and your team with relevant and timely data. It will ensure targeted, effective, and on-point messaging (and that’s priceless).


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