It’s certainly been a turbulent past two years in the landscape of higher education but it hasn’t been all negative! We’ve talked to many of our college and university clients and other higher education marketing partners to learn their best success stories from the past two years. Here’s a look at the top unique insights we’ve heard:
1) Honor Tradition
It’s human nature to yearn for a deeper connection to something larger than ourselves, and reaching students is no different.
At Ramapo College of New Jersey, in Mahwah, NJ, first year students participate in an “Arching Ceremony,” in which they walk through the iconic iron arch at the front of campus and shake the hand of the college president. Then, before commencement, each graduating student walks back through the arch in the opposite direction in full regalia. “It signifies their journey—the start of their journey and the end of their journey—and it’s a very much loved tradition here at Ramapo that makes a big impact,” said Melissa Horvath, Ph.D., Assistant VP of Marketing & Communications at Ramapo.
During the pandemic, the presidential handshake was replaced with a foam finger touch, to keep the tradition alive and add a little humor amidst circumstances. “People who know Ramapo know our arch is our logo,” said Horvath, emphasizing the importance of tying in the physical structure on campus with the overall brand and the student’s journey and experience.
As the old saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. Even where traditions are sparse or new, the ground is ripe for planting.
“Creating traditions really makes the students want to be a part of things,” said Kyle Hastbacka, Associate Director of New Student Experience at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH, noting that Plymouth State doesn’t have a ton of traditions and that some faded away as a result of the pandemic. Hastbacka and his team have created a successful “Apple-Palooza” tradition over the last three years, and counting, involving a series of apple-themed events in the fall, and expanded the docket this year in an effort to bring more traditions back.
Plymouth State has a “First Fire” tradition, during which a longstanding professor reads a poem when the fireplace in the Student Center is lit for the first time in the fall semester, and everyone receives a “First Fire” mug commemorating the event. And in another tradition that has been running since 1975, at some point during October everyone finds the spires of the clocktower to be adorned with pumpkins, mysteriously placed in the night by an unknown party.
These traditions help to build community, welcome new students into the fold, and create a broader identity for students to connect with. And with clever use of social media, there has never been an easier way to leverage traditions for maximum impact…
2) Trivia? Hardly Trivial.
“In what year did the clocktower pumpkin tradition originate?” was one of the trivia questions broadcast on social media that drove the most engagement at Plymouth State University this semester. Hastbacka and his team used a weekly trivia competition featuring fun University facts in an effort to build a following to his department’s new social channels. Popular swag items like socks and bucket hats served as prize incentives for correct answers, and helped Hastbacka’s team capture a sizable percentage of the student body as followers in a very short amount of time, no small task given that individualized department social media accounts were a new undertaking for the University this year…
3) Divide and Conquer
While Marketing & Communications typically manages the main social media accounts for a school, several administrators we spoke with found it particularly useful to focus the approach and create department-specific social accounts to reach their target audience on a more granular and personal level.
“In addition to the University’s main account, our Admissions team has created our own Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tik Tok accounts to connect with prospective students,” said Kelsey Dennehy, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Felician University in Rutherford, NJ. “We also do social media giveaways where we try to boost engagement with our followers and in turn, a winner receives a box of Felician swag. This has not only helped us engage more, but has allowed us to expand our reach into territories that we wouldn’t have been able to recruit in in the past.”
4) Stay on Brand
With the great power of enabling multiple departments to engage in marketing efforts also comes the great responsibility to ensure that everyone is on the same page with messaging, brand identity, logo usage, colors, and fonts. In our work with promotional products for various departments at colleges and universities, we sometimes see departments ancillary to core marketing initiatives unaware of proper brand standards and usage guidelines, and we’re particularly attune to looking out for this in an effort to help our clients maintain brand consistency. This was actually the impetus for our “Doubletake Defenders” mascot and “Defending Your Brand” tagline for our “Doubletake University” moniker!
“It’s important that the brand is expressed consistently,” said Horvath of Ramapo College, “because that’s really how external people identify with you. It’s all about connection, so if people understand who we are from everything from our voice, core values, colors, and logos we use, that all works together to create a unified image of the College, and that’s important.”
It is vital to help administrators in traditionally non-marketing roles to understand this. What may seem like trivialities are actually subtle ways of conveying a much broader story of what the school stands for and whose personality and interests are in alignment.
“Brand is more than just the colors, the logos and the designs,” said Horvath. “Your brand really should convey your core values, and who you are as an institution, and what makes you unique, because ultimately that’s what makes a student choose your institution over another.”
5) Be Authentic
In this effort to attract the best fit students through conscious branding, showcase actual students in advertisements! There’s no better way to forge a personal connection and create a genuine experience for the viewer of the ad campaign.
Cornelius Holt, Director of Business Development at Creative Marketing Resources, Inc., a Wisconsin-based marketing agency with extensive experience in the higher education industry, recently discussed a campaign for the University of Wisconsin-Madison with us. The campaign featured a series of printed posters and digital ads featuring a diverse representation of the student body with images of actual students and lists of their well-rounded interests, in an effort to connect with a diverse (both culturally and intellectually) recruitment pool.
“It’s intentional—most of our campaigns use actual people in the landscape we’re working on,” said Holt. “Instead of using models or clip-art they’re out there having conversations and doing interviews…and using them in creating the content.”
Who would have thought that talking directly to your target market would create a deeper connection with your target market?
Horvath echoed this sentiment surrounding a recent shift in Ramapo College’s strategy for developing their virtual tour of campus from a series of videos featuring models, to a skateboard tour following actual students skating around campus.
“The students we’ve asked to be a part of it have been very enthusiastic,” said Horvath. “They call it getting ‘Ramapo famous!’”
6) Use Health & Fitness
Skateboarding isn’t the only way to get much-needed exercise and overcome “Zoom fatigue,” and Hastbacka’s team at Plymouth State University has had success developing outdoor fitness related events for students to partake in as they’ve transitioned back to in-person events.
By combining fitness classes and mini workouts with orientation programs, and partnering with other organizations on campus to cross-pollinate audiences, Hastbacka said he’s seen increased success disseminating important information to first year students.
7) Leverage Current Events
Throughout the 2016-17 school year the University of Wisconsin-Madison faced a stream of racially motivated incidents on campus that called for the administration to better communicate its values around inclusion and unity in the student body. Rather than spinning a short-lived public relations campaign to attempt to escape public backlash, the University took a more long-term approach and engaged Creative Marketing Resources, Inc. to develop an entire campaign around increased campus unity.
“A lot of times when you work on a campaign to address diversity,” said Holt from CMR, “it’s focused at one particular group and I think what the goal was here was to speak to not just the audience of color but to speak as the school as a whole, so that people started to change their behavior to come together to communicate as one, and that’s where I think ‘#IamUW’ was born out of.”
This campaign involved students as ambassadors and used a combination of promotional products, wearables, digital advertisements, posters, on-campus activations, and off-campus extensions, to successfully advance deeper unity in a way that would enact a long-lasting cultural change on campus.
In a somewhat similar vein, Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, NJ embarked on a new strategy for reaching students at the beginning of the pandemic, and it may be a strategy they stick with in the future. Seniors graduating in the spring of 2020 each received a personal swag package along with their invitation to their virtual commencement ceremony. Supplementing the invitation with promotional items dramatically improved the response rate, so Bloomfield College employed this same strategy for care packages sent to students who were part of grant programs, and again for welcome packages sent to accepted students upon payment of their deposit.
“The deposit campaign project turned out really well,” said Amaryllis Bonilla, Interim Director for Enrollment Marketing and Social Media at Bloomfield College, “and I think that’s something we’re going to continue moving forward with.”
8) Get Personal
In a similar effort to reach out to individual students, part of effective marketing is knowing your audience inside and out. Bloomfield College features a substantial population of first-generation college students and is planning to proudly boast their stories.
Accompanying photos, Bonilla said she intends to include a blurb as to “what that title means to them, and how they got to this point and how it’s inspired them.” This initiative already proved successful for Bloomfield, highlighting the predominantly minority-serving College’s many impressive students during Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month.
At Ramapo College, accepted students receive a personalized video using variable data technology to place a student’s name in various components of the video, such as on a student ID, on a sign on campus, on a white board hanging from a door to a residence hall room, and on a diploma.
“The students get really excited because it’s personalized,” said Horvath, “and it makes them realize that we understand that they’re not a number but they’re a name, and it goes along with our brand of individualized attention and small classes. We’ve really that that has made a huge impact.”
Horvath said the students who view the video statistically have a higher enrollment rate than students who do not.
Even a broader top-of-funnel strategy can employ a personal element. LocalIQ is a digital marketing agency that has run approximately 5,000 campaigns related to higher education using demographic data to develop unique personas, and Nick Mpistolarides, Strategic Account Executive, recommends identifying the specific personas and setting up a multi-channel campaign including social media, site retargeting and geofencing.
“An overall theme though,” said Mpistolarides, “is that people like seeing and hearing people, so whether it is current students or alumni or pictures or videos, it’s really important to find and plan around getting actual people involved with these ads or organic posts.”
9) Just Text Me
When administrators disseminate information to students, it’s not always the most glamorous form of communication, but oftentimes this type of contact needs to be approached through a marketing mindset to ensure the appropriate method of communication is being used. Text messaging platforms can be used effectively to reach students with engagement or informational content.
Hastbacka’s team at Plymouth State University uses Mongoose (and there are others), and he said he found success in increasing attendance at orientation events through this multi-disciplinary communication approach. He also said he’ll sometimes follow up on an important email to a student with a text message let them know to check their email.
At Bloomfield, this strategy was also successful during direct mail campaigns to mail branded t-shirts to students. Text message reminders were an effective method to prompt students to access the t-shirt redemption site and place their order.
10) Make it Fun!
It probably goes without saying, but that’s why it’s worth saying! We in higher education marketing all work in an incredibly dynamic and fun industry. The palpable energy present on any college campus and the aura of possibility and growth are exhilarating and inspiring! Whether it’s goofing around with a mascot, filming outtakes from a student interview, or challenging someone to see how many items of school spirit clothing they can wear all at once, keep higher education marketing fun for the most effective results!