Looking Back on our Community College Work

Posted: October 8, 2015

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Last week, one of our community college clients launched their new website. Carroll Community College. It’s a huge accomplishment for the college and represents a tremendous amount of work by their internal team. Seeing this all come together caused me to think back on all the great work we’ve done with community colleges over the years.

Here at VisionPoint, our deep appreciation for community colleges first began in 2007, shortly after earning the right to work with Community College of Baltimore County. Candidly, at the time, we were naive as to the relevance and power of what community colleges offer to their students and communities.

In working with CCBC, we swiftly learned just how vast a community college target audience is and, consequently, how very complex the college’s messaging needs to be. Like most community colleges, CCBC truly served all people and organizations within its community—current and prospective students, their parents, faculty, staff, alumni, potential employers, public policy makers, and the general community of Baltimore County. Throughout our engagement with CCBC, we conducted more than 100 interviews with all of these stakeholder groups in an effort to better understand their individual needs and their goals for engagement with the college. Based on our research, we developed over 40 personas—too many, in fact, to actually inform specific marketing choices, but enough to give us an eye-opening look into the breadth and depth of CCBC’s constituents.

At the time, very little research of this nature had been done on behalf of community colleges. Together with CCBC, VisionPoint built the strategy, structure and plan for what eventually became the current ccbcmd.edu. While we’re incredibly proud of the work we did (for example, many of the information architecture models we developed for CCBC have since become industry-wide best practices), we’re even more proud of the lessons we learned through the experience. In brief, we went from being naive to raving fans and advocates for community colleges.

Community Colleges Lead the Way

In 2011, like many community colleges, Wake Technical Community College was suffering from a public perception that failed to match the College’s remarkable impact on its community. On the eve of the College’s 50th anniversary, and poised to take the reins as North Carolina’s largest and most comprehensive community college, Wake Tech engaged VisionPoint to rebrand the College and to lead the complete overhaul of its public-facing website.

Through our engagement with Wake Tech, we became even more convinced of the transformational power of community colleges. During a listening tour with the College’s key audiences, we heard story after story of the ways Wake Tech was changing people’s lives for the better; how Wake Tech was a guiding light; how Wake Tech was enabling students (both degree-seeking and continuing ed) to launch their careers and build their businesses; how Wake Tech was not a second-tier institution but rather a pillar in the community and the state, educating a large majority of our community’s nurses, law-enforcement officers and emergency services personnel. From the College’s passionate leaders to its capable students, its invested donors to its community partners, all those who engaged with Wake Tech found themselves on a life-changing journey (for their own betterment or that of the community).

The process of branding Wake Tech gave us a deeper appreciation for the foundational attributes that are true of almost any community college—attributes like diversity, value, accessibility and responsiveness. Community colleges are equally devoted to serving all people. Regardless of your age, educational background or experience, community colleges offer high-quality programs at a tremendous value, bringing a world of potentially elusive possibilities within reach. 
In fact, we came across a quote from former US Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, who said community colleges are “one place where we are out in front of other countries.” We couldn’t agree more.

Understanding Credit vs. Non Credit

While Wake Tech’s primary challenge related to brand perception and awareness, two projects in 2013 gave us an opportunity to take on a new challenge systemic to community colleges: how to present the complex array of a community college’s offerings in ways users can easily understand. For both Carroll Community College and the College of Southern Maryland, web users—especially those first-generation students or users without extensive academic backgrounds—frequently misunderstood the difference between credit and non-credit programs. To solve this challenge, we created a website navigation model which relies on plain language and clear calls-to-action to distinguish the two pathways and propel visitors directly to the information they need.

Onward

Presently, VisionPoint is engaged in ongoing partnerships with College of The Albemarle (North Carolina), Anne Arundel Community College (Maryland) and North Orange County Community College District (California), just to name a few. In a world where many marketing agencies tout their agility across multiple industries, our commitment to serving higher education is not only rare, it’s intentional. Beyond our passion for higher ed, we’ve discovered over the years that our core competencies in 1) strategy, 2) building consensus, and 3) proficiency in all marketing disciplines align perfectly with many of the most daunting marketing challenges faced by colleges, universities and community colleges across the country.