March 28

Your 2023 Higher Ed Marketing All-Star Team


Tapping into the aura of “The Great American Pastime,” we decided to put together a special edition of The Higher Ed Marketer Podcast: our “Fastball Special.”  

Every one of our guests has brought great value to the table, so picking just a few to represent an “All-Star Team” was no easy task.  Nevertheless, we have selected a handful of topics and moments that stood out to us over the past two years of podcasting and compiled them together into one episode.

Brian Piper: Effective Content Marketing

Brian Piper is the Director of Content Strategy and Assessment at the University of Rochester, in upstate New York.  “Content Marketing” is his thing – he, along with Joe Pulizzi, literally wrote the book on the subject: Epic Content Marketing.  Brian discussed with us the role that tracking metric data plays when creating strategies for content marketing:

People always ask me, “What data should I be looking at? What metrics should I be monitoring?”

The first thing…is understand what your strategic goals are.  The second…is identifying who your users are, who you’re talking to.  Then you can start coming up with all the different tactics that you’re going to use to have those users take some action that’s going to help you reach your strategic goals.

That’s when you can start figuring out what data you’re going to be using, because the data will tell you how effective each of those tactics are, how impactful each piece of content is, and how much it’s actually helping your users to know, like, and trust you…

 If you’re creating content that’s not directly tied to a specific goal, or not focused on a specific, very particular user, you’re kind of just throwing it out there. It’s very difficult to measure if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish with each piece of content. When you really start specifically looking at the users that you’re trying to target, and specifically looking at what action you’re trying to get them to take and what goals you’re trying to reach, then you can start to measure things and track your metrics.  And that’s what’s going to allow you to find those insights so that you can pivot and change and A-B test, to figure out what works best on each platform…for every different user.

Jaime Hunt: Using AI to “Hyper-Personalize” Your Communications

Jaime Hunt is the Chief Marketing Officer at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia.  She believes in the power of personalized communications to move prospective students to become enrolled students.  For many years, she has been learning to incorporate AI into her communications processes:

One of the things I really want to do is be able to have truly personalized email and text communications to prospective students. We have all kinds of information about them in our CRMs… We know what majors they’re interested in…what activities and sports and clubs they were members of.  We ought to very easily be able to use something like ChatGPT to craft a message that is targeted specifically to a student, their interests, and what they are concerned about.

[For example], if you’re a… female student coming from a rural area, and you’re looking at an institution that’s urban, in a large city, you might need some reassurance about campus safety. So, you could probably even put in zip codes and say, if they’re from this code, make sure that one of the messages in their comm flow addresses campus safety…  I have figured out that you can be really specific with the prompts.  I will say, “write…this many words, for this audience, in [this] tone…”  It’s not like you’re going to just copy / paste that… but it gives you something to work from…  This saves mental bandwidth as well as a ton of time.

Walter Kimbrough: Using Social Media to Your Advantage

Walter Kimbrough is a Consultant at The Registry, a firm that is devoted to help higher ed institutions seamlessly find well-qualified people to fill vacancies in senior management positions.  Walter sees social media as a real asset for a school to share stories and expand its message:

One of the things that helped is that…media companies started to make it easy for you to amplify your stories via social media.  If there’s a great story about the institution, all I have to do is go on, and click, and then I’ve amplified that story for free…  All I have to do is point and click and now I’m telling other people about what’s happening here.

So, a lot of this is just being practical… Sometimes people feel like if they don’t have an account on social media, they’re not “on” social media. That’s a mistake. Everybody’s “on” social media.  [Y]ou can’t avoid it. You’re a part of that conversation. So since you’re already a part of it, it’s better to play an active role, so you can decide how you want to participate in that and not just…be a bystander…  [I]n the end, can you leverage it to really get out stories about your institution. And it might spur additional people to write stories about your institution.

Ethan Braden: Driving the Story

R. Ethan Braden is the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Purdue University.  He told us about how he transformed the marketing department at Purdue, from being “the driven” to “the driver,” in terms of promoting the Purdue brand:

We’ve got a tremendous product…  It’s a really busy, noisy world, so what we need are a thousand people…sharing the…same story with the world over and over for some sort of saturation. So, we start with an amazing product, with amazing support from our board of trustees…  Our [marketing] group…has really pivoted, from being the driven on campus…to the driver…to the chief storyteller.  [W]e’re a driver of inspiration, of prosperity, and growth at Purdue University, by deliberately Positioning our brand, Promoting our brand, and Protecting our brand. And then that spreads: “I know [I am] coming to Purdue University, [and] I’m going to get a rigorous education that will pay off…when I graduate.  I have that great brand. I have that great alumni network. I have that great training to live out the future that I’m aspiring to have; the ambitions that I want to achieve.”

Jenny Petty: Branding and Organizational Change

Jenny Petty is the VP of Marketing Communications at the University of Montana.  When she first arrived there, U of M was still reeling from an unfortunate scandal that was exacerbating already slagging enrollment numbers.  Her task was huge, to re-create U of M’s image.  And, she succeeded:  U of M has since experienced multiple semesters of enrollment growth.  Jenny shared with us how she did it:

We created a brand advisory group that was brought in at certain points of the process. I did a roadshow [for] nine months when we were working on this, and the culmination was what we called “Brand Camp”:  a day-long event that was really focused on introducing the campus to this new platform and position, but also providing education.

There were four separate tracks that looped all day long..:  Writing for the Brand; Designing for the Brand; Brand Experience; and then Branding 101…  We had planters on every single table, and…everyone was handed a piece of seed paper.  I asked them – I challenged them – I said, “Before we get started today, I want you to write down one thing that is keeping [U of M] stuck.  What is the story you’re telling yourself about this place that is keeping us stuck in the past?”  When people were done with that, they buried their seed paper in the planter. And then we had those planters around campus during the spring, and they bloomed and they were beautiful. And we followed that up by…saying, “I want you to go to the back of the room; there’s post-it notes, and I want you to tell me your greatest hope for this place.” 

And so we set the tone right away: This is not about a new color palette; this is not about new fonts. This is truly a moment in time that we are stopping, we are reflecting, and now we’re moving forward.

We’ve had four straight semesters of growth… It really was that visible – proof that things were changing, and that there was something to be excited and hopeful and joyful about.

If there’s ever leadership that claims that branding can’t drive organizational change, I would love to speak with them!

Carrie Phillips: Keeping the Student First

Dr. Carrie Phillips is the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock.  Like many schools, Carrie’s was facing a slump in enrollment.  She and her marketing/communications team realized that the enrollment process itself was overly complicated – it alienated prospective students.  So, they decided to do something about it:

[W]hen you look at the “Four P’s,” “Product,” “Price,” “Promotion,” and “Place”…higher education marketing teams, for whatever reason, [are historically] just in the conversation about promotion. We need to be in the conversation about the product itself.  We need to be in the conversation about the pricing strategy. We need to be in those other places, in those other conversations.

[Our] university was seeing a drop off, and we realized a problem: If “Sally Student” decides they want to come to the university, what are the steps they have to take? Well, [they] crossed 17 departments and 5 divisions!  No wonder a student had trouble navigating that! So we just decided, as the MarCom team, that we were going to take that on. We started bringing that group together… [and] we started building this conversation around the student:  How can we group the content together in a way that they need it? How can we make sure that they’re not getting conflicting messages from Department A versus Department B? Can y’all work together on that? 

We really started to build that relationship with everybody…that was in one of those steps, making sure that we were working together.  And [we started] to see some really positive impact when we really focused on that student-centric piece.

Santhana Naidu: Surprise in Social Media Marketing

Santhana Naidu is the Vice President at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.  Schools like his are often the subjects of particular stereotypes which may, unfortunately, impact enrollment. He has learned the value of using the element of “surprise” – telling stories that obliterate the stereotypes – in creating his marketing strategies:

I believe that surprise is a powerful marketing tool. And, if executed well, that element of surprise can change behaviors.  Oftentimes, I believe that people tend to think about what we need to say when it comes to marketing conversations. Instead, let’s focus on what expectations and perceptions people hold about us… [and] how [we] can…turn those perceptions around. That’s a guiding principle, if you will, that we’ve tried to keep in mind when it comes to our marketing efforts overall.

Applying it to social media, let’s take STEM:  What expectations and perceptions do people hold when it comes to STEM? Oftentimes, people think: “STEM is not creative; people in STEM don’t like to interact with people; they sit in a dark room and do research and code all day long.”  But in reality, I’d argue it’s totally the opposite. And if you don’t believe me, I invite any of you to come to spend a day at Rose-Hulman, or any STEM institution near you…  [H]ow we’ve utilized [social media] is to show people that these misconceptions or perceptions around STEM [are] not true.  [We] have the element of surprise, and show them [that] STEM is a creative field; they’re curious about how things work and how it can be improved. They work hard, and play hard, and it’s a fun environment to be around.

Alex Boylan – The College Tour

Alex Boylan is the Founder/Executive Producer of The College Tour, a television series that tells the stories of colleges and universities around the world by highlighting the stories of their students.  Alex gave us a little “insider information” about the show, what goes into it and the effects that it has:    

Seeing our process of how we…identify stories, [how we] film, [how we] get that talent…it’s amazing. There’s a lot of content out there, but when [people] watch The College Tour, a lot of times…I would get questions.  Are those actors?  No…that is really the student telling their real story…  I think that it’s fun for the universities to be part of that process, to learn from that and then take some of these skills and…make more content…  [W]hether it’s the smaller university that just has…a part time camera guy…[or] a big one with massive media teams: no matter who it is, it’s a pleasure throughout the process, and everyone’s learning through it.

Teresa Flannery: Seizing Opportunity

Teresa Flannery is the Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).  From her position in an international organization, she sees both the challenges but the possibilities for higher ed marketing in the future:

Opportunity is better than it’s ever been in higher education. We’ve been able to demonstrate, particularly during the pandemic…how integral [the marketing department’s] role is to meeting institutional priorities and strategic goals.  Institutions are getting it… People who’ve developed this area of expertise and have a track record of demonstrated experience are going to be…in the driver’s seat in terms of opportunities…[to] be a critical part of the team at their institutions.

I think that’s tempered, though, with something that’s really challenging… The Great Resignation is really affecting us. The latest survey data that’s coming in from…different sources is saying that half of our professionals in higher ed are thinking about leaving the higher education sector entirely. They’re not leaving work; they’re going to work somewhere else. And so you’ve got this great opportunity at the same time that you have real potential loss, because the challenges and the rewards are not in a balance that people find attractive.

Kyle Campbell: Creating Community in Marketing

Kyle Campbell is the Founder of Education Marketer, a U.K. based higher ed marketing firm.  He has witnessed the changes in the ways people use social media, and sees great potential for higher ed marketers to advance their message by creating communities:

[W]hen social media first entered the market, it was about taking people you met in real life and connecting with them online.  But now, and certainly the way I use it, I use platforms like LinkedIn to scale ideas, make connections, [and] build community.  On the community angle – I just find this fascinating – the big trend of 2023, and…a lot of people talking about it…is, suddenly, people are really interested in setting up communities. And I think we’re missing a very important point with this.  A lot of the chat you see about a community in digital marketing, and marketing in general…[is] about…creating community in a space, a private chat [or] a LinkedIn group, [and] inviting people to it.  But, actually, “community” [is] a feeling, and it doesn’t need to exist in one space…  What I mean by that is, you won’t have someone who goes, “Our audience is interested in this. We can tell from our audiences on this platform, say YouTube, what this is in terms of meaningful value to [the] recruitment pipeline, [or] how we’re generating interest in that respect.”  We’re all focused on the “one off” campaign… We run campaigns at key points throughout the year…we do a lot of activity, it’s very focused, we generate leads, and then we convert those leads.

That’s a very expensive way of doing things. You’re essentially going out to the market and buying your audience every time. 

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

We have given you the highlights, but there is so much more to get out of the podcast itself.  Listen to the full compilation here, and you’ll hear even more anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom from our guests about marketing strategies, establishing priorities, effective communication tactics, brand promotion, and much, much more.

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