Posted: May 4, 2016
Asking questions is the foundation of understanding where someone else is coming from. Listening builds empathy and forms valuable connections. As a marketing agency with a genuine passion for listening and understanding, we often ask other higher education marketers to tell us their biggest marketing challenges. Several times a year, we categorize what we hear, identify major trends and share the results with anyone who’s interested in better understanding what sorts of marketing obstacles their peers are facing.
Our methodology is simple. We ask: “What keeps you up at night?”
We recently asked this question of over 100 attendees of the NAGAP Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Here’s what we heard.
#1: Lack of Understanding Regarding the Importance of Marketing Strategy
Why do we need marketing? Our focus should be on providing students with a sound educational experience.
For those unfamiliar, NAGAP is an association consisting of individuals in the graduate enrollment management field. Members include a mix of marketing, admissions and even academic directors. With so many disciplines engaged at one national conference, we weren’t shocked to discover that not everyone shares the same level of experience when it comes to the actual marketing of their programs. After all, many NAGAP members are (rightfully) more focused on shaping and delivering the academic experience to their students.
That said, the marketing challenge most frequently overheard this year at NAGAP was a general lack of understanding of integrated marketing strategy amongst people who don’t do marketing exclusively.
Programs who lack an overarching marketing strategy will often see their challenges manifested in the tactical execution of specific initiatives. “Getting more interaction on social media” and “getting students to open and read my emails” may SEEM like major challenges (that rightfully keep marketers up at night). But the deeper question marketers ought to be asking themselves is “how do I know if these are the right channels to achieve my goals?”
If you’re not quite sure what we mean by “integrated marketing strategy” here are a couple of resources that may be helpful:
#2: Brand Awareness, Name Recognition and Perception Challenges
Many institutions and graduate programs struggle to communicate the value of their offerings.
It didn’t surprise us to hear the word “brand” muttered so frequently at NAGAP. While we’ve heard before that brand-related struggles are common in higher education, for the graduate admissions professional (and those charged with driving enrollment for groups of interrelated programs), the concept of brand is especially complex. For NAGAP attendees, brand struggles aren’t about creating a compelling brand message for their institution as a whole (that’s a marketing challenge worthy of its own discussion!). For NAGAP attendees, the challenge is knowing how to leverage an institutional brand to elevate perception regarding the value of earning a particular graduate degree. Whether or not a student enrolls in your program usually comes down to the ROI they can expect to receive, and the extent to which students know and understand the unique benefits of your program.
#3: Institutional Culture and Working Across Teams
“Nobody ever built a statue to a committee.”
One of the challenges we’ve heard again and again at conferences across the country is the notion of “silos” in the workplace. Many decisions which ought to be made at the strategic level are being made in a silo – without the involvement of other teams who are eventually impacted by the decision.
At many institutions, the idea of “let’s name a committee for that” has become the defacto “solution” for this challenge. When asked to share her biggest marketing challenge, one frustrated NAGAP attendee reported: “trying to survive the politics of higher education.” We can’t help but speculate this challenge is closely related to higher education’s complex, multi-layered and committee-driven model of making decisions.
#4: Not Enough Resources (Time, Money and People)
Many graduate programs struggle to find adequate time and money to actually complete the marketing initiatives they KNOW will serve their goals.
“We need more money” is a challenge that’s plagued higher education marketers for decades. This resource scarcity predicament is especially strong for those charged with building awareness and interest for graduate programs. There’s a deeply-rooted cultural issue across higher education that graduate programs’ marketing budgets are generally more restrictive than those of their undergraduate counterparts. But this scarcity predicament isn't solely a fiscal challenge. Several attendees told horror stories of how they’ve been forced to “fight with other departments” to secure the resources they need to execute on the marketing initiatives they KNOW will bring more students in the door. There’s simply not enough money, not enough people and not enough time in the day. Amen.
For anyone faced with this type of challenge, it’s easy to focus on what you DON’T have. The real question marketers should be asking themselves though is: how can we be certain the limited resources we DO have are focused on those initiatives which have the greatest impact toward achieving our goals?
#5: Reaching the Right Audience
Who is my audience and how can I reach them?
As graduate enrollment professionals, the majority of NAGAP attendees are charged with driving admissions for niche programs. Criminal justice, social work, music, law, engineering...Regardless of the field, almost every program shares a common marketing challenge: how to reach the right audience. After all, you want students who are not only interested in your unique offering, but who have the skills, experience, qualifications and ambitions that make them the perfect fit.
The good news is that most marketers understand who their audiences are. They know their qualifications, their background and what a graduate degree can do for them. The challenge here lies in knowing how to reach them. What channels will be most effective? What information are they looking for? What questions do we need to answer in order to make our program stand out? What content should we be creating to motivate our audience to enroll in our program over another?
My website sucks.
Institutions spend lots of money redesigning their home pages and admissions sections. While focusing on these “most important” pages helps build brand awareness and elevate the perception of a university as a whole, several NAGAP attendees told us that their graduate program pages are often overlooked.
If your website is confusing, out of date or difficult to navigate, prospective students will formulate negative perceptions about your program or institution. While program pages may be buried several layers deep, program pages on a website are critical pieces of the recruitment puzzle. The challenge is turning a page that may be outdated and overloaded with content into one that becomes a positive factor in the decision-making process for selecting an institution or a program to study.
If you’re looking for inspiration, Johns Hopkins University Engineering for Professionals does a great job of displaying relevant program-specific information in a reader-friendly format that’s appropriately tailored for their niche audience.
Now that we’ve analyzed the trends in NAGAP 2016’s biggest marketing challenges, it’s time to get to work on some real solutions. Stay tuned for upcoming articles that address the specific marketing challenges listed above – and beyond.