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Class is in session: Lessons from top university marketers

One of the highest-rated sessions at Marketing United 2016 was a panel discussion between marketers from some of the top universities across the country.

Chelsea Allen (University of Louisville), Ethan Parry (University of Pennsylvania), Nicole Smith (Vanderbilt University), and moderator Matthew Toy (Trevecca Nazarene University) covered subjects ranging from fundraising to recruiting to keeping students engaged and informed year-round. But the takeaways from their discussion don’t just apply to university marketers – they're helpful for anyone looking to improve their strategy and find better ways to communicate with their audience.

Here are some of the biggest challenges they face and the tactics that help them achieve their goals in the current digital marketing landscape. 

(If you'd rather skip the words and watch the full panel discussion, you can view the recording here!)

Challenge #1: Communicating with so many different audiences

It's ridiculous how many audiences universities must communicate with: prospective students, current students, donors, faculty, parents, sports fans, alumni… the list goes on and on. How do you keep things organized and hit the right notes with every group?

The panel’s advice:

Chelsea In the admissions world, we’re marketing to a single, broad group that narrows throughout the year. In the fall, our audience is high school juniors and seniors. As the season goes on, it becomes students from that group that qualify for scholarships. And in the spring and summer, the audience becomes admitted students we’re orienting to the university. So developing the messaging actually becomes easier throughout the year as our audience becomes more and more targeted.

Nicole   The alumni and development world is much more age-based, and that requires a good bit of segmentation and personalization. For the older audience of alumni and parents, we’re asking them to come back for events, volunteer for programs like interviewing potential students, and asking them to give back to the university – surprisingly enough, the majority of the funds we get from that audience come in from direct mail. But our younger audience (students and graduates from the past decade) are way more connected to digital platforms and respond much better to email marketing and social media. So it’s always keeping who you’re speaking to top-of-mind when you plan out a campaign.

Ethan The University of Pennsylvania has found keeping the email audiences for various departments confined to different sub-accounts super helpful for staying organized. That way, our email subscribers only hear from the department that’s actually relevant to them. And our team can segment even further from there – by donor behavior, for instance, or graduation year.

Challenge #2: Jumping through approval hoops

Anyone who’s worked in higher education knows how slow and political it can be. How do you keep your communications strong when you know you have to jump through so many hoops to get it all approved and out the door?

The panel’s advice:

Chelsea Email helps with this immensely. When we were relying solely on print, it was much harder: Things had to be approved, then we had to wait on proofs, then it had to get approved again, then we had to wait for it to get mailed out. But with email, we can put something together and have an administrator give us the “OK” to send in a matter of minutes.

Nicole PLAN as much as possible. That’s not to say that things don’t come up that we have to address on the fly, but for the most part, our team takes a look at our fiscal year and plans absolutely everything we can ahead of time. Automate emails, pre-schedule social media posts… anything you can do to get things approved long before they’re actually launched.

Ethan If our team has a big event coming up, we’ll write out every social post a month ahead of time and get them signed off on, so those posts can go out on time when the event is actually happening. (He also recommended Sprout Social as a useful tool for scheduling social posts.) There are so many approval hoops in higher ed that it’s better to get the big ideas knocked out first and make minor adjustments later.

Challenge #3: Navigating social media

Students (and even their parents) are definitely on social media: But should universities be, and to what extent?

The panel’s advice:

ChelseaThe University of Louisville uses social media to engage and converse with students, but we don’t rely on it as a major communication method. Prospective students don’t care about Facebook. If their mom is on it, it’s 100% not cool. So we regularly play around with new social media trends: Snapchat has worked well for us for big events, like using special filters for sporting events. Students also respond incredibly well to reposted photos of themselves – they all love feeling “Insta-famous.”

Ethan Since many universities are decentralized, it’s absolutely critical that the various departments communicate with one another. At Penn, for instance, all of our different departments have access to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. That requires us to constantly collaborate and make sure what we’re putting out into the world remains consistent.

Nicole We’ve had a lot of trouble with organic reach on Facebook: Not everyone who “likes" your page will actually see what you post. In fact, most of them don't. So I've been playing with promoting Facebook posts and using paid ads targeted to custom lists, like emails of our alumni. Recently, our team used a Facebook ad to recruit volunteers for an event and got a 33% conversion rate. And we’ve even seen success from straight-up asking for money in social ads!

Note: Instead of diving into whatever new social media platform pops up, all of the panelists recommended carefully investigating it first. And most of all, they said to pay special mind to analytics so you can track your efforts and report concrete results to your higher-ups.

Challenge #4: Print vs. digital

The transition from more traditional print marketing to digital has been a complicated one for university marketers. Though the rise of digital is undeniable, print has always been a huge part of the marketing landscape at universities and colleges – think about all the postcards prospective students receive. So how do you find the right balance between the two?

The panel’s advice:

Chelsea We use a combination of both print and digital: The University of Louisville still sends out the traditional postcards during the admissions cycle, of course, but our team primarily uses email to communicate with prospective students. Our prospective students are very young, and they want everything NOW. We know that prospective students aren’t checking physical mail anymore, and email marketing allows us to reach students where they are – their inboxes.

Nicole – There’s definitely a generational gap in print versus digital, so our team still uses a combo of both. But we’ve found ourselves using each medium in surprising ways. Whenever students graduate, for instance, it can be difficult to track down their contact information. So we send a print postcard to their parents' houses asking them to update it. That way, no one has to open anything (we know students never will), and their parents can hound them about it instead of us!

Ethan Digital marketing allows for quicker approval, but I've seen a lot of success from making our print materials (like newsletters and magazines) available online. Slowly transitioning from print for older audiences to digital for younger audiences has helped us avoid any growing pains as marketing trends shift.

Challenge #5: Telling a compelling story despite budget constraints

You want to go BIG with your content… but your budget is anything but. How do you tell a compelling story to your audience?

The panel’s advice:

Chelsea I've found a lot of utility in capitalizing on what’s different about the University of Louisville. Give prospective students a vision of what the university can do for their future with alumni spotlights. Show them the things they won’t get anywhere else. Be honest and authentic.

Nicole For alumni, I try to evoke emotions people experienced while they were on campus and bring back those happy memories. In a university setting, storytelling is all about playing off of nostalgia and pride. Vanderbilt’s alumni are so proud of their university, and they like when we talk about tradition and Homecoming and things like that – both in the digital space and in more traditional media.

Ethan Find ways to tell stories going on all around your school. For the university marketer, a lack of content should never be an issue. Have a monthly meeting so each department can share what’s going on in their world. Share ideas, compare notes and use each other’s resources to tell a bigger and better story.

Can’t get enough tips from our university marketers? Watch the full panel discussion here.