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February 29

Standing Out: Differentiating Yourself to Attract Mission-Fit Personas


Your school is unique:  Do the right people know that?

Shane Baglini That was one of the major themes of our conversation with Shane Baglini on our The Higher Ed Marketer Podcast.  Shane is the Senior Director of Marketing at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, PA.  Under his watch, Muhlenberg’s Graduate School and School of Continuing Studies have both seen their enrollment numbers go up in a time when many other schools’ numbers are in decline. 

Our conversation was jam-packed with stories and anecdotes that showed just how effective his strategies are.  Here is just a small taste of the many topics we covered:

A Seat at the Table

What role should a school’s marketing department play in program development?  Usually, they’re last in line:  They are told what the programs are all about, and challenged to find students for them.  But Shane recommends marketing be involved from the beginning:

It’s something that I feel strongly about:  The need for marketing to be involved early in terms of launching new programs, but also to be involved regularly in terms of evaluating program portfolios…  Marketing can really inform how people are searching…we have an intimate knowledge of our audience.  And so, even before we get to the proposal and the formality of a program, bringing marketing in to say, “How is this program going to go over with our audience based on what you know about them?”…can inform things like the structure of the program, how much [it] costs, the time to complete, [and] how we’re offering it… I think it’s a really strong way that you can differentiate yourself on the program level.

Listening to Shane, I thought about the “Four P’s” of marketing:  Product, Place, Price and Promotion.  What Shane was saying is that marketing should be about more than just “Promotion.”  I asked him to elaborate:

I do think [there is] a lack of understanding about what marketing does on a college campus… If one of those P’s is not where it should be, you’re already at a disadvantage.  In this particular case, that P is the Product…  [I]t’s hard to differentiate…if your programs are not competitive from that standpoint. 

When we’re talking [about] adult students, where things like “residence life” and “dining” and “recreation”… are far less important,… the program is really what people are deciding on: The cost of the program, [and] how long it’s going to take…to complete…  If we’re not taking all that into account, and we’re just developing programs based on, “this is a popular field,” or, “we need an MBA,” or things like that, I think we’re setting ourselves up to fail.

A million dollar budget…can only do so much if your product is not competitive from the standpoint of what your audience is looking for…  Is our program giving them that? Because, if not, they’ll find it somewhere else.

This Really Works…

Shane’s ideas about the role of marketing at all levels of program development is not just a theory for him.  He’s lived it:

One of [our] programs is a Master’s in Applied Analytics. From all the market research that we had, from all the different industry trends that we saw, that should have been a really popular program in today’s day and age… [But,] not only weren’t we seeing the enrollments that we expected, we [also] weren’t seeing the interest that we thought we should…  

So my colleague and I…did some, honestly, really base level research…  [We] quickly found out that people were not searching for the term “applied analytics”…  [W]e quickly shifted to not bidding on those keywords at all, and [instead] using things like “data analytics” and “business analytics,” things that were popular search terms.  We went from zero enrolled in [the] fall of ‘22, to seven enrolled in [the] fall of ‘23.

[W]e are launching a lot of new programs going forward.  We have a Graduate Certificate in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging that we’re thinking about spinning up into a full master’s.  Before we even went into any sort of market research, or impact studies, or things like that…our Vice President of Graduate and Continuing Education came to us and said, “Can you do some keyword research on what we should name this program?”  And we came up with “Masters in Diversity Leadership,” [which] would generate the most interest and the most awareness of the program.”

The Key: Good Storytelling

A lot of time, energy, and (of course) money, can be spent going down marketing trails that end up nowhere.  In his work at Muhlenberg, Shane is all about storytelling – but storytelling the right way:

We, as an industry… have done the comfortable thing for a long time in terms of storytelling. And what I mean by that is… “We’re going to try and showcase every aspect of our campus and our institution so that everybody is happy and we don’t get any negative feedback from anybody.”  I think very rarely do we focus on, “Who is this video for?”  We can’t answer everybody’s question in one 30 second spot. So, what stories do we want to tell? 

This is where data comes into things. Using data to decide what stories we want to tell, and really standing behind those as marketers, and say, “We’re telling these stories because these are our personas that we built out”… [We use] that data, and then use our creativity – our art and our talent – to tell those stories compellingly.  

We get asked about how…we differentiate ourselves as an institution…  [O]ur academic offerings are very much the same as many of our competitors.  When you really look at it, we’re all doing pretty much the same thing…  So I think we differentiate ourselves by showing prospective students what it’s like to be on our campus. “What does it feel like to be at Muhlenberg College?” is a question we ask ourselves all the time in our marketing.  We hear stories about adult students waiting in the parking lot for an hour because they’re hesitant to even come inside for a meeting because they don’t know if they can do it.  So, if we tell a story about somebody that had those same emotions…that’s the way we connect with that person…

The transactional nature of higher ed marketing can turn some people off.  The more empathetic approach that Shane advises can more easily connect with people.  But the ideas of using data to guide our marketing, while also showing this empathy, seem to be incongruent with each other.  We asked Shane to elaborate:

We’re doing an audit of all of our communications to prospective students.  We’re actually having somebody come in and audit our communications to say, “you’re too transactional here and not empathetic enough”…  Part of the way we decide on what stories to tell is looking at where people [are] falling off of our communications flows…  Are people falling off at that first “Apply Now” email? Okay, then we might be…overly aggressive there.  [It] might be overwhelming for somebody to get an “Apply Now” message…within three days of submitting [an] inquiry form.  [B]ut really, a lot of it, honestly, is intuition, in terms of what data is the right data for us to be using.

I think that’s where good marketing really comes into play. But also, knowing the behaviors of your audience, and knowing the student “decision life cycle,” so to speak, and finding ways to…get somebody over that hump.   

I think telling stories about people overcoming challenges is really important because everybody experiences [them].  Think back to…going to undergrad for the first time ever.  It’s the most exciting time of your life, but it’s also really scary…  So, let’s address that in our communications and our storytelling. 

I think it’s a combination of art and science…  [Not] just telling stories to tell stories and trying to include everything, [but] using data to decide who our audience is, who are our demographics, who’s interacting with us, and then telling stories that match that data.  I think [that’s] really important.

Sometimes Less is More

Muhlenberg College is not a large institution.  Shane does not have a large marketing budget.  He has only three people working for him.  But that doesn’t seem to matter:

[S]ometimes we equate spending more money to better storytelling and better finished product. I don’t think that’s necessarily true… [P]eople are used to being filmed on their iPhone or in selfie mode on FaceTime.  They’re not used to coming into a huge set with three cameras, a stylist, makeup artist, lighting everywhere…  I remember during my time at the community college level we did a video series where we wanted it to be a very intimate interview.  We had students looking directly into the camera to try and connect, and creative things like that…  But every student that came into the interview room, their reaction was the same when they saw the setup:  “Wow! This is like lights, camera action!”…  [H]onestly, it took away some of the authenticity right from the start.  It was the opposite of disarming somebody…

 So, I think that’s an important point I would make for the folks on a smaller budget – and, actually, the folks on a larger budget.  If you want authenticity from students that aren’t experienced on camera, maybe think about scaling back your camera crews and your equipment and things like that. You might be surprised at the results… 

Make Yourself Stand Out

The combination of the enrollment cliff and the ever-increasing field of competitors is making the recruitment challenge even greater.  Schools must find ways to highlight their strengths, to differentiate themselves from their competitors:

This is probably one of the more challenging questions to answer as a marketer:  How do we differentiate ourselves?  I think it’s challenging in a large way because when we work at our institutions, we…feel very strongly that we are the best thing since sliced bread.  We don’t often look at the realistic picture of who we are, what we are, and what we’re trying to do.

Muhlenberg is an…excellent institution. [But] we are not Princeton.  We are not an Ivy League school.  And that’s okay.  So…we need to be sure that we’re differentiating against our competitors and not our aspirations.

[W]hen I look at our competitors, I often look at…what [they are] offering to students that we’re not…  Let’s say, we cost more than another school:  what’s another message I can send that doesn’t have to do with cost, and that is going to get somebody’s mind off of just the cost of something?  Keeping perspective is really important when we differentiate.  And I…think [that] the best way to differentiate, when all else fails, is our students.  We just wrapped up a video shoot last week with one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.  She’s a mother of four, [and] she’s a 25-year military veteran.  She just graduated with her master’s degree from Muhlenberg…  And, to me, that differentiates Muhlenberg beyond any sort of metric I can possibly throw out there in terms of cost, or caring faculty…  [S]omebody watching that video, and seeing this person accomplish what she did with all of the life circumstances that she’s had, I think is one of the most compelling messages I could ever put together as a marketer.  [U]tilizing your students’ lived experiences is really important [in] differentiating.

Attracting Your “Mission-Fit” Students

Finding just any student to fill a vacant seat is not in a school’s best interest.  Schools should seek students who will excel and thrive because of a deep sense of personal identification.  That’s what we mean by “Mission-Fit.”  Attracting those students is the key to everyone’s success.

[O]ne of the interesting things that we’ve been doing…[is] working with a partner on…”enhanced personas.”  With those personas, we’re going a little bit deeper than just demographic information. We’re able to look at things like employer, industry, seniority, experience level, and how that fits with our program and our intended student…  We’re trying to really get granular in terms of who our programs were intended for, and who would benefit the most from our programs; and then marketing to not only those people that come back from our data, but building lookalike audiences based on that data… [W]e’re not just casting a wide net and hoping [that the] extremely limited number of people [who] are going to go back to school come to us. We’re targeting people on a really granular level:  We know that our program is a fit for them just based on their characteristics and their profile…

Sometimes, a school’s leadership may ask why they are not seeing more ads for their school, or more billboards along the road.  When Shane gets asked those questions, he answers very directly:

Good!  You’re not supposed to see our ads!  I’m happy to show them to you, but if you’re seeing my ad on your LinkedIn or Google search…then my targeting is off.  [And] b]illboards…[are] really expensive.  People on a tight budget like myself cannot necessarily afford a 12-month outdoor campaign…  

Yes, I can put a billboard on the interstate here… and a million people will probably see it in a week or a month.  [But] I’m assuming that those people: One, live here…; two, they have the education level that we need; three, they’re interested in coming back to school; and four, they’re going to remember my ad.  [T]here’s just so many variables that make them hard to measure. 

Certainly, results speak for themselves. Our enrollment is going up because of our digital ad efforts, and we don’t do really any out-of-home other than a couple things here and there…  I think billboards are effective in some ways, but really they just make us feel good about where we work…

My biggest piece of advice would be to…check your keywords that you’re bidding off.  It’s something that anybody can do if you’ve got access to Google ads or Google trends.  [J]ust make sure that you’re bidding on the right keywords that people are searching for.  Just because your program is named what it’s named, it does not mean that people are searching for that. So go check your keywords and make sure that they are matching what people are searching, not necessarily what you’re calling your program or how you’re messaging 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 Shane Baglini to get even more insights into:

  • Enrollment marketing from the student’s perspective (11:32)
  • Getting marketing a seat at the administrative table (14:15)
  • Connecting with students through empathetic brand storytelling (17:40)
  • How smaller institutions can differentiate themselves (29:58)

Chasing Mission Fit

A Marketing Guide To Fill Your Institution With Students Who Will Succeed.

The essential marketing book every higher education institution needs! If you are a higher education marketing professional seeking a fail-safe plan to make your institution stand out, “Chasing Mission Fit” is your guide.

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Featured image via muhlenberg.edu

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