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September 22

Amplifying Student Voices for Higher Ed Marketing Success


One thing I love about private higher education is the variety of schools I get to work with. Even with all the diversity, there are challenges to raising brand awareness that everyone faces in this sector. 

Two big problems all marketers face are raising brand awareness (unless you’re Harvard) and clarifying your school’s distinctives. 

That’s why I was really impressed with the results that Delaware Valley University was seeing over the past year with their digital campaigns, organic social media efforts, and even getting an episode on The College Tour.

If there was ever a Higher Ed Marketer episode to give you a roadmap to success in higher education, it’s this one!

In this conversation, we spoke with Kathy Payne, VP for Enrollment Management, and Kathy Howell, Associate VP for Marketing Communications at Delaware Valley University, about their roadmap to success by amplifying their students’ voices.  

Name Recognition

For most private colleges and universities, this is the first uphill battle you’ve got to win. 

But for some institutions, the issue is complicated even more by confusion around their geography.

For example, Miami University could easily be mistaken for a school in Florida if you don’t add “from Ohio.”

Similarly, Delaware Valley University has to fight through the confusion to gain higher brand awareness.

The first [challenge we faced] was name recognition and visibility. We’re in a very crowded higher ed market here outside of Philadelphia. 

Our name Delaware Valley University gets confused a lot. People think we are in Delaware, but we are not. We are in the Delaware Valley outside Philadelphia.

While not every school is going to struggle with geographic confusion, it’s important to relate to how they recognized the big challenge they faced in raising brand awareness. 

It’s also important to see how intentional they were about identifying this problem and coming up with ways to break through the confusion.

Later, they show how they did just that.


Differentiating your school from other schools like yours is a key component of higher ed marketing. 

I meet with many different schools, and when I ask them how they are different from other schools, the first thing many say is that they are a small college with very intimate relationships between the professors and the students. 

That’s great. The bad news is that everybody else has that as well. 

Having small, intimate classes is how you’re different from the big state schools, but the real question is…How are you different from the other 3,000 private schools out there?

Delaware Valley had to face this difficult reality specifically in regards to their Experience 360 program.

The second [challenge we faced] was the really important point of differentiation. 

[One] of the unique programs that we offer is our experience 360 program. [This idea] really started with our founding in 1896, on the basis of science with practice. 

[This] was really a visionary [program] because other schools were not looking at this idea of science with practice at the time. 

A lot of schools now have experience learning or experiential learning, but most of them have what’s really an internship program.

At DelVal, E360 is really something much more [than an internship]. It starts with the first day of class and goes through all four years. Students actually are doing not only internships but research, civic engagement, study abroad, and various leadership opportunities. They’re really building their resume from day one. 

This culminates in a co-curricular transcript that supports their preparedness and success beyond graduation.

Raising Brand Awareness by Clearing Up the Confusion

So going back to the first real challenge of name recognition, how did DelVal tackle this issue?

First of all, they got intentional in their messaging concerning their location. 

People just don’t know about Bucks County, PA, but since it’s Pennsylvania’s “best kept secret,” they decided to take the mystery out of the equation.

One way they did this was by “marketing” Doylestown, not just Delaware Valley University.

DelVal shows us how they are raising brand awareness by educating their prospective students on their location Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania.

Besides giving an introduction to Doylestown itself (in the photo above), they are also raising brand awareness by offering prospective students guides to all that Bucks County has to offer and the many ways that Bucks County connects to the big cities nearby.

DelVal shows us how they are raising brand awareness by educating their prospective students on their location Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania.

Something else I really like is how in The College Tour episode, they made sure there was a segment about Doylestown being described from a local student’s perspective, Parker Kilkenny.

Standing Out from the Crowd

Of course, there is so much to be said on how they differentiated themselves, but here are some highlights of our conversation.

[The College Tour episode] project featured 10 of our students covering different majors, different types of backgrounds, and different interests. What we found was they really did the most effective job of explaining our story. 

So that challenge of really differentiating E360 was so clear when the students told their stories and explained what they were studying, what their passions were, and what they were doing. It really brought [E360] to life in a way that only video can do. 

But we didn’t stop there! We marketed [The College Tour videos] everywhere. We marketed it internally to our faculty, staff, students, and board. Also, we marketed it externally through press releases, and with a launch party on the quad when the kids came back for school in the fall with a big screen television and popcorn and a red carpet and social influencers. 

They’re posting [on social media] all throughout the night. A lot of local media [outlets] came [to the party as well]. It was an amazing party and really gave a fun start to the fall season. 

The way DelVal stood out from the crowd was by amplifying their student’s voices. 

Using these stories, they were able to communicate clearly what sets them apart. 

Not only that, they also learned from these stories how to optimize their messaging strategy.

We then took the messages and phrases that came out of The College Tour – the students’ words themselves – and integrated those into our entire recruiting campaign for the last eight months. 

[We took phrases we heard from the student videos] like “be a wildlife warrior,” “best decision I ever made,” and “a great place to call home” and integrated those into an outdoor campaign with pretty extensive use of buses and billboards in our core market area. 

We also had a very aggressive digital campaign through a number of platforms, probably the largest being Google, but other platforms as well. And then we also had an organic social media campaign. 

So we created toolkits for each of the 10 students who were part of this project, and gave them frames to use and ideas, and they pushed out their story to their friends to get that more organic sharing going within their age group. The success was wonderful!

New visits to our website during this period were up 74% over the prior year. Web traffic conversions from organic social media posts were up 43% versus the prior year.

This is how you amplify student voices to raise brand recognition and differentiate your school from the rest of the pack. 

But there’s so much more in the podcast conversation itself! Please take a listen or two to this episode. 

You won’t regret it. 

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.

Listen to our interview with Kathy Payne and Kathy Howell to get even more insights into:

  • Their road map to success at Delaware Valley.
  • How The College Tour played a role in the success of the school by emphasizing the students’ journeys.
  • How Delaware Valley has been able to differentiate itself with robust experimental learning systems.

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Images via delval.edu

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