June 16

One-of-a-Kind: Marketing the Uniqueness of Your School

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The key to successful higher ed marketing is discovering who you are as an institution and capturing that uniqueness in your marketing content.  

You can devise a powerful marketing strategy if you embrace what makes you unique and use it to attract prospective students.  

In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the great insights that Lindsay Nyquist, Director of Marketing and Communications at Fort Lewis College, shared with us on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

Fort Lewis is a public liberal arts school situated in Durango, Colorado in the middle of the ski mountains.

Their uniqueness doesn’t stop with geography – 59% of their student population are students of color and come from various backgrounds, including Native American.

As you’ll see, Fort Lewis College is an exceptional case study in recognizing and marketing the uniqueness of your school. 

Discovering Who You Are

In the episode, Lindsay told us how when she began her work at Fort Lewis, there were only two people working in the marketing department. 

Overwhelmed with daily creative tasks, this barebones team had not yet been able to identify the key concepts behind their education brand.

Because of a lack of resources, both human and financial, we didn’t have a lot of clarity around who we were and what our brand was. So in 2018, we started really addressing that. 

It started with a website audit, where we just wanted to update our website. But the company we worked with for that audit said, “You can’t even start on your website yet. You need to figure out who you are first!”

That’s when Lindsay brought in a branding company to help them work through their self-discovery process. 

Even with the help, getting to the core of who they are was difficult.

Our students come from such diverse backgrounds [which resulted in] a lot of different conflicting messages [from them about who we are]. A lot of times people on campus have the right concept. It’s just struggling to articulate it consistently.

Some people believed we were a very classic liberal arts institution. Others thought we were more of a ski and adventure school. 

Landing on the Core Brand Identity

While not a straightforward process, Lindsay and her team finally landed on the common denominator among their diverse body of students. 

[With a lot of work,] it came out to this common thread of grit. 

Whether our students are coming from inner city Denver, – a reservation in New Mexico, or Marin County in California, they’re all bringing a certain amount of grit with them. That’s what led them to Fort Lewis. 

This discovery led them to adjust their messaging to reflect this challenge to new prospective students.

It’s interesting to find that commonality among our very disparate student group. So the pillars of our brand speak to that. They speak to working through challenges and finding your own way, things like that became the [core] of who we are. 

We’re a small rural school, [which means] we’re not for everybody. We don’t have Greek life. We have a lot of great sports, but it’s very different than a big state school, as we only have NCAA Division II level sports. 

[Despite these challenges, defining our brand] has really helped us. Our increased enrollment numbers speak to finding students that are excited to be here and want to connect with it. 

I love how even that word grit gives Fort Lewis a framework for their messaging. 

It doesn’t show up in their headlines, but it is the feeling, the core concept, behind all their copy, imagery, and video content.  

Authentic Storytelling

Something that came up in our conversation reminded me of our interview with Dr. Mark Jobe of Moody Bible Institute

When you discover who you are, it’s important to use authentic stories to convey your uniqueness as an institution. 

Authenticity is the name of the game. We try not to stage too much, leaning closely into representing our real students and their real stories, the same way we did with The College Tour. 

[This is also] reflected on our social media. We’ve got a new social media coordinator in place who’s coming up with all kinds of amazing new video series that show our students’ stories. She is pushing us way into more video. We used to [rely] heavily on photography and let the video creep in on our social. Now I’d say it’s an 80/20 split in the other direction. 

We’re incredibly heavy on video making sure that the student story is told by students. Also, we’re doing a lot more “A Day in the Life” videos with students who are shooting their own content. 

We continue working with our influencer and ambassador programs as well as starting a new series called “College Cuts” that will highlight our student research in the words of our students.

Strategically, I think Fort Lewis is on the right track bundling their authentic stories into video series. 

This gives their diverse stories something that pulls them together thematically while still conveying their uniqueness.

Go to the Right Watering Holes

So where are Lindsay and her team sharing their student stories?

I find still far too many schools are relying on Facebook to try to recruit students. 

While Facebook makes more sense to marketers with a bit more mileage (*ahem*), it’s not the right watering hole if you’re looking for prospective students.

They are not [on Facebook]. 

I mean, we’re absolutely putting content out there, but we’re angling it more towards influencers like parents or high school counselors. I always say that it’s better to be on fewer platforms and get it right than to try to be everywhere. 

When we’re reaching students, we’re making sure that we’re hitting the right demographics of those [on the media platform].

We rely heavily on Instagram, mostly on Reels these days. Instagram is pivoting sort of within itself. I think it’s a very interesting platform. 

TikTok is another really fun one for us. That’s where we push truly student generated content, because you don’t want to look like the old guy who doesn’t know how it’s supposed to be working, or the one taking itself too seriously. 

We’re soliciting ideas from students actively. Also, we hire a ton of student interns so we can make sure we’re using media in the right way to reach our prospective students.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Later in our interview, Lindsay explains more how they use social media tools to create community among students at the top of the funnel. 

Listen to our interview with Lindsay Nyquist to get even more insights into:

  • The experience of being featured in the first episode of The College Tour
  • Strategies for ensuring you authentically reflect the makeup of your student body
  • How to develop and refine a consistent school brand

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Featured image via fortlewis.edu

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