Measure twice, cut once: going for fit in academic marketing

by Roger Sametz for Recruitment & Retention (in two parts)

Academic marketing is competitive. More applications and increased selectivity can seem like a win. But if the percentage of accepted students who show up is decreasing—and if you’re admitting students who don’t flourish—the win isn’t so winning. Marketing for fit can change this calculus.

Academic marketing is a competitive sport. To assemble a class that will get the most from what a school offers—and, for some schools, to assemble the class needed to generate the budgeted tuition dollars–– schools are casting ever-wider nets. Getting more students to apply, and then being able to tout increased selectivity, can seem like a good thing. But if the percentage of accepted students who actually show up on campus is decreasing—and if you’re attracting and admitting students who don’t flourish (or graduate)—the win isn’t so winning anymore. Marketing for fit can change this calculus.

Both The New York Times¹ and The Chronicle of Higher Education² recently reported that the number of applications to four-year colleges continues to soar. The Times posits that “applications at more than 70 percent of colleges have increased for 10 of the past 15 years.” The Chronicle cites a 2014 report by Moody’s Investor Services which notes that between 2004 and 2013, “the total number of applications to private colleges rose by nearly 70 percent, while the number of high-school graduates in the United States rose by just 5 percent.”

Students are applying to more and more schools to increase their chances of being accepted by selective institutions, attain the best possible aid package—or both. Unless a school plans to expand the size of their entering class, these higher number of applications also translate to increased selectivity.

The good news, as expressed in press releases, is that schools can tout this increase in applications, and the corresponding lower percentage of admitted students, as proof of their valued position in the academic landscape. This improves a school’s ranking and makes staff, faculty, trustees, and donors feel good. On the other hand, increased selectivity drives increased anxiety in high school classrooms—resulting in students applying to even more schools.

But there’s a number missing here, and that’s yield: the percentage of admitted students who accept a school’s offer and enroll. This number, in many cases, is going down. A student accepted at three of the six schools she applied to can only show up on the campus of one—a verity that generates anxiety in, and increased work for admissions and marketing offices. To assemble the class they desire, schools must cast an ever-wider net, and/or increase the number of students they place on waiting lists. Even Yale, the Times noted, put more than half the number of students it admitted on its waiting list.

There’s a number missing here: yield. A student accepted at three of the six schools she applied to can only show up on the campus of one—a verity that generates anxiety in, and increased work for admissions and marketing offices.

It’s an inefficient process. Yet underneath the anxiety and numbers, there’s a common goal shared by applicants and those recruiting them: fit.

Gauging student fit

At Olin College of Engineering, a “laboratory” for re-imagining undergraduate engineering education, Michelle Davis, Chief Marketing Officer, talks of fit differently: “Fit has to do with whether the learning experience for the student is transformational and also whether the student will make a positive impact on Olin and the world. We want candidates from a wide range of backgrounds with multiple intelligences, who are passionate about being part of an immersive educational community. We seek students who are confident, but also humble.”

“Fit has to do with whether the learning experience for the student is transformational and also whether the student will make a positive impact on Olin and the world.” Michelle Davis, Chief Marketing Officer, Olin College of Engineering

Olin’s unique admissions process focuses on fit. Davis continues: “Candidates are invited to campus to experience Olin: they engage in design exercises as a team and participate in group and one-on-one interviews. Their applications are put away, and faculty, staff and current students focus on the candidate’s fit with Olin. Do they know how to lead, how to follow? Are they passionate about something? What unique skills do they bring to the college? Likewise, candidates can judge whether they want to be in this small college where no one can hide, and where they are expected to take charge of their education.”

For the newly-named and re-launched William James College, an institution that offers graduate education in psychology with a particular tilt towards serving underserved communities, President Dr. Nicholas Covino says that “students who fit must show academic strength, but also give evidence of compassion for others and a commitment to service. We’re looking for students who want to gain the skills and experience to combat mental illness in communities where their contributions can make the most difference.”

Big picture, a good fit, according to Marlyn McGrath, Director of Admissions at Harvard College, is a “student who has the requisite characteristics we know are associated with taking full advantage of what Harvard can offer––who will thrive here intellectually, socially, and personally. We’re looking for academic excellence, talents and interests that will add to the vibrancy to our campus, ambition, maturity, and energy. We’re looking for students who will build on their past accomplishments and will make important contributions to the world and to the communities into which they graduate. And, of course, applicants are also sizing us up: can they see themselves learning, living, and growing here?”

We’re looking for academic excellence, talents and interests that will add to the vibrancy to our campus, ambition, maturity, and energy. Students who will thrive here intellectually, socially, and personally. Marlyn McGrath, Director of Admissions, Harvard College

Without fit, a negative return

“It’s certainly in a school’s best interest to market with a focus on fit,” Dr. Covino adds. “You’ll increase yield, save time and money, and assemble a class where students will enthusiastically learn from each other and, looking to the future, be strong ambassadors for your school.”

While some schools have a firm grasp of where the intersection between what their school is looking for, what applicants are looking for, and how both school and student can flourish, there is often still work to do to translate this understanding into communications that will reinforce these points of resonance for prospective applicants and parents. For other schools, work is needed at a more fundamental level: what is fit for your institution?

Part 2

Marketing for fit—and, ultimately improving yield, graduation rates, and the efficiency of communications—needs to be based on a solid understanding of the intersection between your school is looking for, what applicants are looking for, and how both school and student can flourish.

Some schools have a firm grasp of these points of connection, but haven’t translated them into effective communication strategies. Other schools may have to dig deeper to first identify the opportunities and concepts they can build upon.

Getting started…

Research and analysis

A school’s image and reputation—its brand—is “out there,” whether managed with intent, or passively accrued over time. Comprised of your history, implied or explicit promise, offerings, stories of campus life, alumni success stories, hard statistics, behavior, airtime in both traditional and social media—and its generally-understood position among its peers—your school’s brand is meaningful to prospective applicants.

But recruitment materials can’t, and shouldn’t, try to capture all that a brand comprises. The job of admissions or marketing professionals is to distill what’s valuable and differentiated, find where that intersects with what students you’d like to have on campus care about, add a credible amount of aspirational thinking, and then promote an authentic, resonant case for one’s school.

Distill what’s valuable and differentiated, find where that intersects with what students you’d like to have on campus care about, and add a credible amount of aspirational thinking.

To assemble this case, we recommend listening and looking inward and outward: inward to those in leadership, staff, faculty, and board positions; outward to students, prospects, their parents, and recommenders; and at the line between inward and outward, alumni from different years.

Through one-on-one, group chats, or small surveys—on your own or with the help of outside consultants— learn from the internal group what your school is known for now, and what it aspires to be known for:

  • its strengths and weaknesses;
  • how its history informs the present—and future;
  • any differentiated pedagogy / model;
  • position—and desired position—in competitive landscape;
  • brand attributes—those to reinforce, those to earn, and those to manage away;
  • how it prepares students for whatever comes next;
  • value of degree(s)—and where and how alumni are excelling; and
  • characteristics of students who have been successful (in different dimensions).

Through interaction with current students, learn:

  • what they were looking for, and why they chose you;
  • other schools that interested them, and why;
  • what is / was being / delivered / fulfilled;
  • their level of satisfaction;
  • brand attributes they associate with your school;
  • how they think they’re being prepared for whatever comes next;
  • how they learned about your school; and
  • their “sales cycle” through to enrollment.

Reframe the above questions in conversations with parents of current students, and add questions around their expectations for their investment. Through conversations with alumni, you can also learn much of the above. Pay particular attention to how responses change based on when a student graduated: does the alumna who graduated in 2012 see the school similarly or quite differently from an alumna who graduated twenty years earlier? And, if different, is there a through line somewhere that connects their answers and experiences to an essential aspect of your school?

For alumni who graduated twenty years apart, is there a throughline that connects their answers and experiences to an essential aspect of your school?

From guidance counselors and other recommenders, gather perspectives on comparative positioning, understood strengths and weaknesses, preparation for life and work, and degree value. And, lastly, if these insights are available, learn from those students who were accepted, but who didn’t matriculate, why they chose another school.

With all this input in hand, you’ll be able to see if what you think you’re “selling” is what prospects and students are “buying”—or if there is a disconnect that will most certainly not equal “fit.” You’ll find out if the directions your leadership desires to move your school are in sync with what prospects and current students are looking for—or not. You’ll discover if how the internal group understands your school is, in fact, how it’s perceived by applicants and students—or if you’ll need to correct misperceptions.

An audit is your next step in information gathering. Again, look inward and outward: assess what your print / digital / social communications are communicating both verbally and visually, and whether they’re reinforcing how you’d like the school to be understood. Then audit the communications of your peers to get a firm grasp of their value propositions, positioning, and verbal and visual discourse. Does one of them already “own” an attribute that you aspire to own? Does one already strongly attract students who possess characteristics that you’d like to see on your campus?

Synthesis and articulation

Through these chats and surveys, and through audits, you’ll gain an understanding of how your marketing aligns with the goals and aspirations that leadership and staff have, where it aligns with what prospects are looking for—and where misalignment or gray areas are. You’ll be able to identify both challenges and opportunities for marketing and communications. You’ll have an authentic story to promote.

Through chats, surveys, and audits, you’ll be able to identify both challenges and opportunities for marketing and communications. And you’ll have an authentic story to promote.

With all you’ve learned, craft a top-line value proposition for prospective applicants—and build out supporting storylines that speak to resonant aspects of your model, offerings, resources, history, campus life, and culture. With a better grounding in what a good fit looks like, you’ll be able to marshal messages and proof points to advance and support it.

If your visual audit reveals that you are not reinforcing the attributes you want to be known for, are not in sync with what desired applicants find compelling, or are not differentiated within your competitive set, evolve your visual presentation.

How you use type, color, imagery, and composition sends a strong message to prospective students––one that is either aligned with how these prospects see themselves, or not.

In years past, visual presentation might have been equated with one’s logo, shield, or seal. Today, it’s much more than that. How communications were designed might have been thought of as just a carrier and frame for headlines, text, and imagery; today, how you use type, color, imagery, and composition sends a strong message to prospective students—one that is either aligned with how these prospects see themselves, or not. Your visual presentation is not just a frame for your messaging, it’s content.

Similarly, technology is also content. How your website functions—how it feels to a user—sends a strong message. You’re setting up barriers to attracting applicants who might be a good fit if:

  • your website doesn’t work equally well on a laptop, smartphone, and tablet;
  • its dimensions are clearly those of a bygone era;
  • there’s nothing intriguing about it; and
  • it doesn’t move a prospect closer to you.

Results

The benefits of working through the above process can be evaluated in different dimensions. For instance:

  • hard—there’s an increase in applications and, more importantly, increase in yield;
  • soft—applicants capture your meaning and value in their applications, or you’re being talked about differently in traditional and social media;
  • immediate—you see the results quickly;
  • longer-term—you’re positioned for change, but it takes a few cycles;
  • internal—leadership, board, and staff have a better understanding of the school and are more effective, comfortable ambassadors;
  • external—prospects, incoming students, parents, and recommenders “get it.”

“At Olin College,” says CMO Michelle Davis, “new materials prospect for, and reinforce, fit. The two viewbooks we’ve done with Sametz Blackstone have both been interactive: they’ve allowed prospective applicants to experience Olin on a number of levels: through written stories, photos, statistics, and quotes––in whatever sequence a they choose. The admissions microsite similarly allows applicants to pursue paths that they devise.”

“Our stats are excellent. With the understanding that there was never a goal to increase class size, over the three years since the new brand and marketing program was launched, Olin has seen a 61% increase in applicants, 75% increase in women applicants, 114% increase in underrepresented minority candidates, and our yield is excellent. We also have a 78% alumni donor participation rate—the highest in country. 95% of our students graduate in six years—the national average is 50%.”

“Olin has seen a 61% increase in applicants, 75% increase in women applicants, 114% increase in underrepresented minority candidates, and our yield is excellent.” Michelle Davis

Commitment

Digging in and figuring out who you are, what applicants need and want, where the intersections are––and then marketing for fit—will work. You’ll be able to forge connections with the students who will profit from the education you offer, and, in turn, advance your school. And while being focused and thoughtful could yield results quickly, it might also take a few admissions cycles. No strategy will succeed if it’s not given a fair chance, so it is important that senior leadership have the confidence to stay the new course for at least a few years.

In the meantime, however, trust that the effort you’ve put in will enable you to serve both your community and your prospective students more effectively—right now, and well into the future.

 


1 “Greater Competition for College Places Means Higher Anxiety, Too”
The New York Times, April 20, 2016

2 “Record-Breaking Numbers of Applicants? Don’t Gloat”
The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2016

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