2016 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education: A Recap

Last week, we sent our partner and chief strategy officer, Erik Norsted, to the 2016 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. The American Marketing Association hosted more than 1200 attendees from hundreds of colleges and universities in Orlando, Florida, where they explored innovative strategies and tactics that would help them Stand Out and Connect against the crowded higher ed landscape.

When the chance to leave Minnesota for sunnier ground arose just as December reared its wintery head, I immediately began packing my bags. The fact that the opportunity was linked to the largest higher education conference in the marketing industry was de-icing on the cake.

I spent four days surrounded by some of the most respected, forward-thinking, and brightest minds in the field. Factor in the wealth of data and research they brought with them and you’ve got one of the most impactful events available to higher education marketers. One I couldn’t possibly sum up completely in a single Olive blog post, but, in an attempt to spread the knowledge efficiently, I would like to share a few of the biggest themes and takeaways from the event.

1. The Forces of Competition are on the Rise

The higher ed space stands out from other industries in terms of the sense of community that surrounds it. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that everyone is in this together. These schools are here to educate, not to compete. That being said, the landscape has shifted in recent years. The sense of competition has grown significantly and we’re seeing more and more marketers reacting to this shift.

The strategies, tactics, and expectations surrounding higher ed marketing are evolving in response to the increased sense of competition. Institutions are readying themselves to adapt and revamp in order to keep pace. Those that don’t risk being left behind.

This agility requires a concrete foundation, which ultimately means institutions need to develop an understanding of their customers and they need to clarify their brand as it relates to those customers. Once this foundation is in place, they need to optimize every touchpoint within their marketing to better engage audiences with their brand. It’s not enough to sit back and wait for the perfect students to come to you. The vast majority of higher ed institutions need to find a way to rise above and make an absolute impression.

2. Students Want Stories, You Need to Tell Them

In his opening keynote address, Richard Edelman, president and chief executive officer of Edelman communications marketing firm, addressed the need for transparency, primarily through content and storytelling, within higher ed marketing. Audiences no longer trust the mass media, so they’re seeking out their information from other sources and other channels. He went so far as to say that postsecondary institutions need to become their own media company in order to not only connect, communicate, and engage with communities and audiences, but also to earn, build, and maintain a trusted reputation within these circles.

A number of presenters added their own perspective on this topic of storytelling throughout the other sessions, but every last one agreed content needs to be a central component of any higher ed marketing strategy. Regardless of what that content is (blog articles, video, social content, or anything in between) or how it is being distributed (inbound marketing, PR campaigns, social communities), content is absolutely critical.

3. .EDU Websites Need More Work

Despite 70 percent of teens using a college’s website throughout the admissions process, 74 percent of teens stating that college websites make a difference in their perception of the school, and 81 percent of teens using a mobile device to visit a college website, it’s been reported that a whopping 40 percent of college websites are still not responsive.

Meanwhile, 72 percent of teens said they did not download or use any college apps. The obvious lesson here is that websites serve as the central hub of any college’s marketing. The Gen Z audience is on mobile devices, and they expect your school’s website experience to align with how they want to use it. If you’re a higher ed institution and you haven’t already gone through the process, now is the time to convert your website into a responsive experience. College apps may have value for current students and faculty, but if you have to choose, spend your money on a website, not an app.

4. Embrace Research, Research, and More Research

It’s no secret, postsecondary institutions and their marketing teams have a strong affinity for research. A likely side effect of operating within an academic environment. This fondness for exploration, investigation, and examination informed nearly every session of the symposium. High-level market research highlighted data and information on prospective student audiences. Institutions discussed how they uncovered insights and perspectives from internal and external stakeholders (students, faculty, staff, leadership, alumni, community members, etc.). Marketers shared how they used tactical research to evaluate performance of campaigns, channels, content, CTAs, and more.

Naturally, research is valued within the realm of higher ed for its ability to focus and optimize marketing efforts, but more than that, it helps teams validate their work to other stakeholders. If someone questions a strategy, tactic, or message, higher ed marketers want to be able to point to data that unequivocally backs up their approach.

One aspect of research that becomes important in this discussion is the sheer number of options higher ed institutions have when considering research projects, in terms of size and scope but also approach. While some schools can afford to undertake massive research initiatives with focus groups, sweeping stakeholder interviews, and wide-reaching surveys others need to be more economical. Fortunately, schools with smaller budgets have the option to execute scaled down stakeholder research or surveys and rely on high-level market reports to inform their marketing strategies.

5. Higher Ed Brands Need to Be Bold, Authentic, and Consistent

For higher ed brands to stand out and connect with their varied and diverse audiences, they are expected to be bold, authentic, and consistent across every step of the donor/student/alumni journey. This is no easy feat considering the complex, sprawling nature of postsecondary institutions and the many departments, organizations, and initiatives that fall under their umbrella. This has long been a challenge the team at Olive has helped schools overcome, so I found the University at Buffalo brand story to be a uniquely powerful one. It was an excellent case study about overcoming the obstacles nearly every higher ed institution faces when building a brand.

The University at Buffalo invested heavily in research that included in-depth stakeholder and audience interviews. This research fueled a robust and compelling brand strategy and a bold, authentic, and consistent identity that resonated with all of their audiences, including the larger Buffalo community.

The entire rebrand demonstrated just how impactful a clear and consistent brand can be especially when it’s backed by the research, research, and more research I mentioned earlier. It was a significant investment of time, effort, and budget but one the school found to be entirely worth it given the increasingly competitive nature of the higher ed industry. Still, it should be noted that even institutions without a University at Buffalo level budget can take smaller, more manageable steps toward building a brand that highlights exactly what it is that makes them stand out among the crowd.

6. Always Be Learning

Threaded throughout all of these takeaways, and the many I don’t have time to enumerate here, was the general sense that higher ed marketers should always be learning. Again, a natural philosophy given the academic environment, but I appreciated the sentiment given how well it aligns with Olive’s commitment to evolution. Higher ed marketers (and their partners), like many in the marketing sphere, need to continually push to understand and connect with their audiences, to implement new strategies and tactics, to adopt more efficient technology, to improve, optimize, execute, repeat.

Transformation is a recurring theme throughout higher ed brand messaging. Messaging that promises to transform students. Transform futures. Transform education. But, this transformation should also be a theme for the marketing teams themselves. Institutions, and marketers, that learn to adapt will always thrive, no matter where the trends may take them.

We’re already looking forward to next year’s AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Atlanta.