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.

Why we research

How to read between the lines and listen between the words.


Enrollments are down for most schools. If you aren’t at a flagship public institution, fewer students are enrolling, particularly traditional undergrads. If you don’t understand your target audiences to the fullest extent possible, then another school already does. If you want to gain the edge, then it’s time for market research.


We conduct research to understand the opinions and perceptions of your key stakeholders and influencers so that you can improve marketing and recruitment KPIs. But, after more than 20 years in the market research biz, I’m here to tell you that all research is not created equal. While you could rely on data from national studies to inform your major messaging and position, I wouldn’t advise it. I want to push you to collect only the data that matters — specifically to you.  


You need research that’s specific to your needs, questions, and audiences. McDonald’s (yes, the spot with the tasty fries) once conducted market research with a group of adults who were definitely not their target market. Not surprising, the marketing based on that data totally, completely, and absolutely missed the mark. It was 1996 and McDonald’s debuted its tasty, more expensive Arch Deluxe burger aimed at the adult market. Mickey D’s was following market research that indicated adults wanted a burger made for them. There was just one problem: The adults surveyed were not representative of McDonald’s market (Think kids, fast-food, and cheap.) It was a major disconnect between product, audience, and brand promise. To be blunt, it was an epic research fail. What’s the lesson here? Know your audience.


You don’t have time to miss the mark (and you likely don’t have McDonald’s ginormous marketing budget). We know traditional high school prospects are difficult to reach. Getting the messaging right the first time and repeating it will influence behavior. To get there, you need market research designed for you and no one else.  


Let’s talk about finding data that matters.


  1. You don’t have to be the expert, but you need one.

If you’re gearing up to do a big market research data project, chances are fairly good that your institution hasn’t done one in a while. Many higher ed institutions conduct research every 10 years. Most people don’t wake up each day thinking about research. It’s common for it to get pushed down in the list of priorities until there is an emergency (i.e., under-enrolled upcoming freshmen class). And if you haven’t done significant research in roughly a decade, you’re probably unsure how to go about it. Bottom line: You need a partner you can lean on.


  1. Custom is key.
    As you search for a research partner, make sure that partner has a process for getting to know your institution before any surveys are developed and launched. Good research (the kind that informs effective messaging and creative and has the power to move needles) doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not one-size-fits-all. It should be tailored to your specific and unique needs and questions. What do you need this research to accomplish? What decisions are based on your gut feelings but should be informed by actual data from target audiences?


  1. Don’t do it because it was done before.
    Just because someone structured your research one way several years ago doesn’t mean that’s the only way – or the most effective or efficient way. Be open to new insights, innovations, and ideas. The market research landscape has changed. New methodologies and industry restrictions have created the need for evolution in approaches. Often it is better to do the right research for right now vs. benchmarking against previous data collections and not collecting what you really need now.


  1. Only collect the data that matters.
    This is my most important point. You don’t need to know everything about all things with every research project. You need to become clear (with the aid of your research partner) about the problem you are trying to solve with this research. What data is most critical to reaching your goals? Every target audience shouldn’t be a research audience within every data collection. What are your most urgent data needs that will impact goals? Most schools need to refine and update their messaging because they have been saying the same thing for years and no one is quite sure if it still resonates with today’s prospects. Are you saying pretty much what most of your close competitors are saying and is there little difference in perception and reputation within this group of schools? What are the key differentiators that matter and really set you apart? Or what do you deliver better than your competition does? Are your current marketing communications appealing, authentic, relevant, and valued? Focusing on determining the problem that you are solving in the beginning and consistently throughout leads you to the data you need. Just don’t stray far from the concise goals set up front.


I love market research. It’s my jam. It’s not everyone’s jam. I get that. Just don’t be afraid of it. Before you can apply knowledge, you have to go discover it, right? This is where we discover. Research data is always, always needed. But the process, well…it doesn’t have to be something you dread. Remember: it’s hard work, but it can still be fun and help you do great, big things on behalf of your institution.


All about Dana:

Dana Edwards is our resident big data nerd. She’s led research and branding initiatives for educational institutions for more than 20 years. With deep expertise in research design, Dana has provided schools with a thorough yet concise research approach resulting in data-informed strategic recommendations.

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