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In Conversation

In Conversation: Higher Education Marketing

The world of higher education is rapidly changing. As colleges and universities adjust, how do they keep students and alumni interested and delighted by their educational experience?

July 23, 2020

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The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, SHIFT - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the SHIFT - In Conversation podcast here.

Ian Evenstar - Founder & CEO - UNINCORPORATED
Robert Johns - Director of Operations - UNINCORPORATED
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - SHIFT
Grace:
Let’s start with you introducing UNINCORPORATED and what it is that you do.

Ian:
UNINCORPORATED was founded in 2003. We are a higher education agency, which means we partner with universities, senior administration, faculty, and staff, in order to build awareness and grow enrollment for their programs.
Grace:
For higher education marketing, are there specific needs that your clients have that might be different from a typical marketing agency?

Ian:
Typically a marketing agency has to write, produce, and ultimately record and share content from a content marketing strategy. With higher education marketing, we actually have a plethora of content already available that we can pull from. We can pull from the curriculum, we can pull from the thought leadership of the various programs, and of course we can leverage the instructors or the faculty voices as well. I think that’s a unique advantage that we have over more traditional marketing as it stands for other brands.

Robert:
What's really unique about higher education is how long the sales and marketing cycle is. If you take a piece of clothing or a fast food restaurant, the sales cycle is pretty quick. You see a billboard, you go within the next day or two and you make a purchase. With higher education you're talking about 30, 50, sometimes 100 thousand dollar tuition and all-in costs. And that's going to take somebody a really long time to make that decision. So when we're building out advertising, email automations, and all those different tools and tactics that we use to market different programs in different schools, you have to be really conscious of the fact that they're likely not going to make a decision after seeing a Facebook ad. We're going to have to show them an ad, show them another ad, and then follow up with an email and a phone call. So it's a pretty high-touch sales cycle.

With higher education you're talking about 30, 50, sometimes 100 thousand dollar tuition and all-in costs. And that's going to take somebody a really long time to make that decision.

Ian:
In some cases, we're actually looking at reaching the student in middle school and junior high. Once the idea of higher education is starting to formulate within the families and at home, we really want to be creating some awareness about how the programs are different, and what each curriculum can provide. So the sales cycle is very long, maybe five years, six years, eight plus years before a final decision is being made. That's tremendously long.


Grace:

When you’re thinking about the marketing campaigns that you are launching, what are the measures of success for your clients?

Ian:
I think this is where we are more similar than different, in the sense that it's still a buying cycle. We're still going from awareness, into consideration, into final decision, and then maybe delight once the person becomes a “customer”. And because of the similarities in the buying cycle, we're still measuring the same thing. So an enrolled student, for example, is like your final conversion of your deals won as a key metric. And of course, every university wants more enrollment or at least sustained enrollment year after year, and in some cases growing enrollment. That's certainly the final "be all end all" measurement just as total sales might be a "be all end all" measurement for other brands. But where we specialize and I think what makes us different is more in the awareness stage. Where we really excel is helping universities position themselves to remain relevant, especially now that they're competing with all the digital and online learning platforms. So positive brand recall in particular is one of the key measurements for us.

Robert:
There's one thing that a lot of our clients are coming to us for, and it's that they want to get away from the traditional higher education “look”. If I asked you to picture a college brochure in your mind, I have a feeling you probably just pictured a couple of students walking in a courtyard, smiling. It's a very specific and particular type of brand that universities have had for a long time. So how can we differentiate ourselves? If an admissions team goes to a recruiting fair and they’re competing with ten other colleges, what on your table is going to stand out from the other schools? We take a lot of pride in our design aesthetics and how we put together materials and campaigns for schools to help them stand out.

If I asked you to picture a college brochure in your mind, I have a feeling you probably just pictured a couple of students walking in a courtyard, smiling. It's a very specific and particular type of brand that universities have had for a long time.

Grace:
Can you talk a little bit about how higher education institutions are coming into the digital world?

Robert:
I think what COVID and the pandemic has done has accelerated things that were already happening. For instance, we have a client who provides master's degrees in dentistry. Dentistry is a very hands-on field, how can you get a degree in dentistry online? But they've come up with these really nice hybrid programs where you come on campus for bootcamps for maybe two weeks at a time, then you can do the rest of your studies online. And with 360 degree classrooms where you've got cameras pointed at exam chairs you can do that now, whereas years ago you couldn't. And as far as marketing goes, we now have those assets.

Ian:
With this transition into the digital bubble, students have known for a long time already that they can learn and absorb content through digital channels and digital media. But the administration, they weren't signed off on this. Teachers weren't signed off on this. We knew that teaching was possible and that we could certainly have the tools in place to do it. But only until this has happened did we really prove out that model. And so I think it's accelerated this idea that remote is possible. It's created a lot of freedom for curriculum, a lot of freedom for faculty, and a belief in administrations that are maybe resistant to change (which is another attribute of universities) that this is possible.

Grace:
In the short term, how has your work changed in what your clients are needing and asking from you?

Ian:
One question has been this topic of making sure we don’t appear tone deaf. We don't want to be in the market with messages that just aren't landing because it feels like we don't understand where the students and parents are coming from. So what do we do? We still need to go after our key metric, which is brand recall, brand awareness, and brand lift. So what we've been advising lately is, instead of going for net-new audiences, taking a moment and putting more energy and more resources into engaging your current audience. They have huge infrastructure networks of alumni, current enrolled students, faculty, and all of the parents and families of that group. So why not focus the energy on delighting that audience?

Robert:
The university is not going to be able to convince somebody who's just been laid off that they should come get a degree, so it would be ineffective for them to continue to advertise and market as broadly as they were before. Let's pause our awareness ads, let's pause our Facebook ads to try and generate new leads, because that's not important right now. What is important is making sure that our current students and people who maybe have just started a program or who are close to graduation know that we still care about you, we haven't forgotten about you.

What is important is making sure that our current students and people who maybe have just started a program or who are close to graduation know that we still care about you, we haven't forgotten about you.

Grace:
And how are your customers asking you to plan for the future?

Ian:
Long term, there's definitely going to be a hybrid. Businesses have proven out to a large degree that this works. And not only does it work, but it also decreases overhead in some cases, and it also delivers content better in some cases. So I think certainly a hybrid is the long-term reality that we're facing. Universities at large, at least our clients, want to make sure that they have everything in place so that the next time this happens they're not going to have to respond immediately. What that means is making sure that there's more content on demand, making sure that faculty have digital continuity training that goes along with business continuity.

Robert:
Smaller colleges, liberal arts colleges, and even liberal arts and performance arts programs are going to have a hard time in the short term. And that's why we focus so much on brand. If you think of those schools who are going to weather this storm, they have strong brands. It may be academics, it may be the alumni network, there's a lot of reasons why these brands are established and have the sway that they have today.

Grace:
How has your own marketing strategy changed in these last couple of months to make sure you're still reaching the audiences that you want to reach?

Ian:
Quite frankly, not much has changed for us. We still believe in what we call “knowledge marketing”. There's an exchange of value, you have to give something away in order to get something in return. So we're still producing content that we think is relevant to our target audience. When it comes to day-to-day operations with our current clients, relationships are one of our strongest values at the agency. We're continuing to double down on our stewardship and our partnerships with our existing clients and really continuing to be a champion for their mission, which is that learning needs to happen and needs to continue to happen and how can we be in service for that.

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information.

Grace Amodeo is a program manager at SHIFT, where she oversees the annual SHIFT Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
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