Sleepless in New Orleans – The Biggest Marketing Challenges Keeping NAGAP 2015 Attendees Up At Night

Posted: April 21, 2015

Matt Walters Vice President of Client Services


Two weeks ago, VisionPoint had the privilege of spending several days with graduate school marketing and enrollment officers at NAGAP 2015 in New Orleans. We asked NAGAP attendees to tell us their biggest marketing challenge by asking, “What keeps you up at night?” (beyond the delicious jambalaya and gumbo that had Justin and me reaching for the Tums).

Just like at the 2014 AMA Higher Ed Marketing Symposium, the response to our question was huge. More than 70 attendees filled out cards explaining their most critical marketing challenges and, as promised, we’ll use the next few months’ blogs and newsletters to address some of the most daunting.

While it would take us pages and pages to share every challenge we heard at NAGAP, here are the most common themes that emerged (any of these sound familiar?):

Branding and Awareness

By far the most common theme among the challenges we heard at NAGAP 2015 had to do with branding. From brands that are constantly shifting, to brands that are simply misunderstood, brand-related challenges accounted for more than half of our total responses.

For some, the issue centers on increasing awareness, ensuring that more people understand your brand promise and consider your program as a compelling option. For others, your institution or program may not really have a compelling brand promise in the first place.

And it’s not just the small, relatively obscure schools dealing with brand frustrations. Some of the most sleep-deprived NAGAPers were from schools with extremely well known institutional brands. For many of those folks, an overarching institutional brand (which is often tilted toward the undergraduate experience) overshadows and sometimes obscures the brands, so to speak, of specific graduate programs or of graduate education in general.

As one representative from Harvard told us, “Prospective students who might be great candidates never even consider our program because they assume we’re exclusive and maybe even a bit elitist, just because we’re Harvard. Actually, the culture and the admissions process within our program isn’t elitist at all.”

Targeting the Right Students

NAGAPers were quick to tell us that having a compelling brand message is only half the battle. The second most popular response had to do with targeting, reaching and then actually engaging not just more students, but the right students, those with whom the brand promise is most likely to resonate. Many graduate enrollment marketers (and higher ed marketers in general) are faced with the unique challenge of targeting niche audiences, people with highly-specific backgrounds or skill-sets or who are pursuing relatively specific professional trajectories. Others are hoping to increase the relative quality of their student population, or to reach international audiences, or to enroll a more diverse cohort, or…you get the idea. The list of specific audience subsets goes on and on. Despite the pervasive nature of this challenge, almost none of the graduate enrollment marketers and recruiters we met had an effective strategy for targeting and engaging with specific subsets of their audience group, those who are really the right fit for the institution or program.

Bad Website

Your website is one of if not the most valuable marketing tool at your disposal. A truly successful website should be well organized, beautifully designed and serve the needs of the users. Based on what we heard at NAGAP, navigation and making it easy to find information is an extremely common challenge.

We’ve found that information architecture (IA) is one of the most frequently overlooked phases in the website redesign process. These usability challenges prove that IA is worth the investment to insure that your site is accomplishing user goals and providing a delightful user experience.

If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some of our favorite higher ed websites:

Data Management

The collection, storage, organization and use of student data have become increasingly complex. Has your technology kept up with your evolving needs?

NAGAP attendees: we heard you loud and clear. You need to wrangle your data. You need more contacts. You need to be able to send beautiful, HTML rich emails. Your need to automate more of your communication and touchpoints. And you need to centralize the storage of your contact data so the people who need it have access.

Some challenges could be resolved by more or updated programming within your current databases. In the case of limitations in functionality (HTML emails, marketing automation, lead source attribution) you might want to consider investing into a marketing-style CRM. Many databases utilized in higher education are more focused toward managing your internal data – aka a traditional ERP system. A good CRM will give you the flexibility to integrate with email service providers, website forms and allow you to scale your efforts in marketing and recruitment with automated workflows. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is to think of your data processes as an ecosystem. It’s hard to make a change to one component without disrupting another. To get you started, here are some notes you can take and questions to consider:

  • Identify all of the moving parts (including marketing CRMs, application management systems, an internally focused ERP system, and even those wonky spreadsheets you keep that aren’t a part of any official system).
  • Who uses these various databases?
  • How is this data used?
  • How does data move from one system to another?
  • What fields are collected at different stages in a student’s life cycle with your institution (think from the point where they become an inquiry all the way through enrollment)?

Once you’ve got a comprehensive picture of your data ecosystem, you can confidently communicate your needs with the bigger picture in mind.

The Scarcity Problem – Budgets, Time, Resources

“We need more money.” If we had a dollar for every time we heard that at NAGAP 2015, we could probably underwrite a small program’s marketing operation. For boots-on-the-ground marketing and enrollment officers, resource limitations can seem impossibly overwhelming. You have great ideas, risks you’d like to take, strategies you’d like to try, but no margin with which to try any of them. We hear this predicament so often at conferences that it inspired the persona for one of our giveaway t-shirts. “The Guru” is the marketing professional who can do it all, so is therefore expected to do it all (with too little budget, too little time and too few people to help).

It can be a tough sell to convince leadership to invest in a new marketing strategy. Tough, but not impossible. The key is to demonstrate a return on that investment. Make the case for what specific problems you are planning to solve, and how solving those problems will bring a measurable return (for pointers on building that sort of case, check out our blog on “selling upward”).

*Authors of comments have again been redacted to protect the innocent.

There’s an interesting narrative arc that emerges through these themes. Graduate enrollment marketers need a clear and compelling message and an opportunity to share it with specific audiences for whom their offerings are best suited. Furthermore, they need websites that are capable of facilitating a meaningful, positive interaction between the message and those audiences, not to mention a way to seamlessly track how (and with whom) the conversation is progressing. Finally, they need the resources, the tools and the processes to allow for more of these conversations to take place on a broader scale.