As you mentioned, you previously worked at a University with a strong brand but all the work you did, you tried to deviate from the brand as much as you could to fit your buyer. How did you figure out that the brand messaging there wasn't working?
The brand of the University was really strong and really clear with certain types of high school students, but the students that we needed to be connecting with were in other fields. We took that information and realized we had to build a case for our programs to those students specifically and leveraged what the larger institution was doing to build that brand out and further build the recruitment presence. Once we had a few successes in that area we really saw that was a way to move forward always leveraging the central university brand.
What were some of the biggest obstacles in getting approval to do that?
It's always tough when you want to go off the main strategy especially when you're dealing with a large institution that's very well known, and has a very defined brand. We were able to build a lot of trust with our colleagues and show them real results. It basically comes down to a sales process of getting someone to commit to coming to the institution. You can show real data and how many students you are recruiting through the application cycle and through the confirmation cycle. Once you start showing those numbers and showing what you're doing is working, you gain a lot more trust and you're able to do a lot more. So we did a lot of small pilot programs with individual programs, small groups of students, and different segments within our programs as well. Being able to show success with that really helped us leverage that trust into the bigger programs we were doing.
"Identifying and building relationships with internal champions is key when running pilot projects."
How did you manage the internal decision making process as you're trying to run a pilot and share the results back?
It's along the same lines. We really focused on the champions we had. There were some stakeholders where we knew we could go to them with an idea and they would be ‘gung ho’ for it. They’re the people that are more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Once we had the case built from those programs, we were then able to take that to other areas and say "Look at what we've done. We have a similar thing we want to do with you, let's run with it." and because they have seen the results, we were able to move forward with it. So really identifying and building relationships with those internal champions.
So you're trying to build one evangelist to do a pilot project and then turn that into more...
Yeah exactly. There were some things that we needed those quick wins so rather than put a lot of that energy into working with someone who maybe wasn't too keen to try a new marketing platform, or push through a new way of telling their program’s story, we were working with areas that really were keen to try new things and have a real motivation to improve. Then taking that as a case to other areas that needed a little bit more convincing.
Did you have to push things through at times as ask for forgiveness rather than permission?
I think so. There are definitely times where you might leave a few things out of the plan but i think there was a lot of trust inherent with those projects. Once you have a proven track record within the organization — have the senior leadership's trust and understanding of what you're doing — you’re left to show the results and skim over some of the ways you might get there because there is that level of trust that you're always going to be representing the organization, and the brand in the right way.
You mentioned marketing to students is really like a sales process. It sounds a lot like B2B marketing because you have the parents and schools influencing the decision, you have the actual students making the decision, and it's a pretty long sales process. What can B2B marketers learn from your experience there?
Yeah it is a very similar experience. It is a very long sales process. It can start with a high school student all the way in Grade 9 or 10. Some universities are tracking that early and trying to get contact information and build out different campaigns around that. Students are starting to consider things more seriously once they get into Grade 11 and then get really serious about making a decision once they get into Grade 12. I think the lessons to learn are really around the advantage gained by institutions that identify the student as a person and really make an effort to get to know those students. Whether you do that through granular segmentation or boots on the ground doing face-to-face meetings.
I see a lot of B2B organizations that will try to lump everyone together and not put the effort into fostering and nurturing those individual leads. That's something you have to do in higher education because the students want to feel like they are being attended to, and feel like someone is taking an interest in them to build the trust that is needed to make a big decision in their lives.
"It comes down to your materials being relevant to your primary audience."
So you're marketing to different generations at the same time. How are you balancing the different ways you're reaching those people and building those personas?
It's a constant conversation in higher education. For example; talking to the parent versus the student, versus the guidance counselor, versus the high school teacher. There is a lot of different influencers that are taking part in the process and I know a lot of institutions struggle finding the resources. It comes down to being able to make sure that your materials and what you're putting out to the world is relevant to your primary audience (the student) but it also takes into account the needs of those other influencers.
A lot of higher ed institutions are in a position where they don't have the resources to have a specific person on their team that's focused on parent communications and really understands that thoroughly. Some institutions will have people specifically focus on communications with guidance counsellors and high school teachers but more than that it’s about being constantly aware of those people and not ignoring them when doing research. At the heart of all this is a lot of research that tells you what students are perceiving about your institution, and how they are making their decisions. So balancing that from the students perspective, but also the parents perspective is really important because there are trends that pop-up every few years and will keep changing so you have to really make sure you're on top of what your influencers are thinking about, and how they are perceiving your institution.
It sounds like the levels of persona building and segmentation get pretty deep.
Yeah it can. It's really easy to get lost in a lot of that. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and prioritize things but the more of that you can do, the better. A lot of it comes back to constantly doing research on your applicants and balancing that with what you can actually accomplish in a year.
How frequent and what's the process like when you're checking the success criteria of the applicants and mapping that back to the personas who you thought about a couple years prior?
In the ideal world you would have access to a CRM that would allow you to track a student from their first interaction in Grade 10 to five years out and what are they doing now. Then building profiles on what looks like a successful student, and what someone who might not be as successful looks like. You would save a lot of time and energy, and definitely increase retention. That ideal situation doesn't really happen anywhere because it's a lot to invest when you're trying to build classrooms and research labs and everything else at the same time.
I think that you can do a lot of gut checks along the way. It's not hard to pull together a group of ten students and ask them how they feel about things, or pick up the phone and call 50 students to talk to them about the material they were sent. The more of that you can do and build into your process, the better. I know colleges that regularly meet for dinner with students to see how they are using instagram, email, and how things are hitting home with them in today's world.
"If you're not out there actually talking to people, it's a struggle to stay on top of things."
It's funny how much research you do on the students but you look at B2B marketing teams, and they build their buyer personas once and then never go talk to another prospect again.
You just can't do that. Things just change so much. I talk to a lot of students about how they use different apps to communicate. You look at something like Instagram. It is being used completely different by a 15 or 16 year old user now than it was six months ago, or a year ago. Then you look at what a 25 year old uses Instagram for and it's completely different. You really have to stay on top of that when you're focusing on digital marketing. There's other things like the perception of how a student looks at their influencers, and their parents — that role has changed a lot in the last couple years — if you're not out there and talking to people to understand that, then it's a struggle.
Relating it back to the B2B sales side, if you're not connecting with your sales staff then that's an easy way to get useful information without having to go out into the world. There's a lot of that type of research that needs to be done in order to keep on top of things.
How much does progressive media play into marketing strategies?
It's something you have to be aware of constantly. There's a rush for people to jump on these things when they come out, like "Peach" for instance — but outside of a lot of people that work in tech media, it's not really that applicable to a lot of people.
Yeah, we don't have a FunnelCake Peach account yet...
You should get the name at least. Everyone has to get the name.
But I think you need to understand these technologies and how they're actually being used by your demographic and then align them the same way you would align your other marketing mediums. Maybe Instagram isn't for everyone, and SnapChat isn't for everyone, but maybe you have a problem you're trying to solve and you need some tactics to do that and Instagram or SnapChat (or whatever the next big social media craze is) will help solve that problem.
I've had really big successes with doing targeted direct mail campaigns even though I have colleagues that would say that direct mail is dead for 17 year olds. I think that you just have to have all those tools in your toolkit and then evaluate them case by case depending on the strategy you're trying to implement.
"People are lost with all these tools and don't have the times or energy to really understand them."
How do you evaluate those if you don't even understand the tools?
That's the tough thing that consultants deal with in higher ed. People are just lost with these tools and don't have the time or energy to really understand them. It really comes down to the marketer trying to put themselves in those shoes and filling your iPhone with all these apps because you'll have a better understanding if you're engaging with them. I think the best thing you can be doing is using them yourself so you can see how advertisers are using them, and talking to the people you’re marketing to about how they use those apps.
Emoticons and memes are starting to become prevalent in advertising now, and then there's things like the Drake effect. How do you get involved in that, and start thinking in that way?
It's a really fine line. You need a balance of trust within your teams to really implement things quickly and be responsive because the whole point of those things is you need to get out at the right time. You also need to understand where your place is.
Two example come to mind. During the Jays run with the bat flip, you had a tweet from the Maple Leafs saying something like "You can come get your bat off our roof anytime." which was a perfect tweet, perfect timing, everything was great about it, and it aligned well to Toronto sports teams. Then recently David Bowie passed away and Crocs tweeted out something to the effect of "The world loses another..." or something like that then a picture of Crocs with the Ziggy Stardust symbol over top of it and that was removed within an hour because of the backlash they received. So you need to know what your place is, who your demographic is, what they align with, and then decide if it is the right time to reach into what's happening culturally or if you should just take a step back. Another example is when the Supreme Court ruled on gay marriage in the states, a lot of brands changed their social media avatars and then having really serious discussions on when to change them back, or whether to change them back. Which I think is fascinating because there were probably boardrooms of communications professionals debating what the message would say if they changed it back in 3 days, compared to 5, or 10 days... [both laugh].
I think that it's a lot more complicated but you just need to trust your team and really understand who your buyers are, who your stakeholders are in that situation, and decide if it's going to resonate with them.
"Things we're talking about today might not have any relevance five months from now."
How do you build that trust with the higher ups that you're not going to go ruin the brand with some errand tweet?
The Supreme Court — social media profile thing is a good example of that and caused a lot of brands having that exact discussion within their organization. I think it really goes back to proving that track record and having a senior team that understands what marketing is today compared to what it was 10, 15, 20 years ago with this crazy cycle of digital marketing. Things we're talking about today might not have any relevance five months from now. They really have to put trust in their team and equip their team with the right tools. There isn't a clear answer out there. There are teams out there that do it really well and then teams that do it not so well but I think it comes down to building a certain level of trust on your team.
Last question — what's your favorite 90's dance song?
I still have a cassette of Muchmusic Dance Mix 95'. Front to back, that is cassette is the best dance mix ever created. I don't have anything to play it on but I will always keep it. I think I have somewhere a digital copy of like an hour and twenty minute long mix it. It's the greatest.
Thanks for taking the time with us today