Don’t be distracted by shiny objects

by Meg Fowler Tripp for Inside Higher Ed

Four tips for strengthening your brand in a tech fad-obsessed landscape

The pressure is on for college admissions and marketing departments to stand out from the crowd of options prospective students have today. If your numbers aren’t where they need to be, the temptation to pull out the bells and whistles can be strong.

Do you have a live chat feature on your website to answer questions on the spot? Did you heat-map your key pages to make sure your CTA isn’t an inch in the wrong direction? Is there a Twitter feed for each department? Have you created a series of high-energy viral videos to welcome newcomers to your campus? Is your viewbook available in an interactive format online, complete with a Spotify playlist to soundtrack each turn of the page? Do you have an app with dorm maps and custom emojis? Will there be a Snapchat GeoFilter waiting for their campus tour? And can anyone figure out if QR codes are still cutting-edge? (Spoiler alert: nope.)

Social media account proliferation. Shiny object syndrome. SEO wizardry/panic. Step-by-step content plans for a staff of eight, when you have a staff of one. There are a lot of voices telling you what you need to do to find the students you want. But no amount of tips, tricks, or whizz-bang apps will do the job if you haven’t laid the necessary groundwork for resonance.

Here are four best practice questions to ask yourself before you ponder expanding your marketing and admissions toolbox.

Do you have a compelling and flexible messaging architecture?

A comprehensive messaging architecture is the first stop on the way to great communications. Your architecture should include:

  • a high-level or “elevator message” that gets straight to the heart of your school’s mission, vision, and values;
  • a set of “tilts” that tailor your main message to your core audiences: students, parents, gatekeepers, etc.;
  • “Storylines” build out your main message to articulate the different aspects of who you are, what you do, and how you do it; and
  • Finally, reach across campus to collect the facts, figures, testimonials, and stories to bring color and flavor to your messages and storylines.

Your architecture is now ready to support everything from recruitment copy to website headers to tweets and Facebook updates, and to ensure that everyone who communicates on your behalf is on the same page.

Do you have a consistent visual approach across communications?

A visual approach is more than just your logo or your school colors: it’s a series of choices that are uniquely yours. Granted, you can’t own Canary Yellow or Helvetica Neue—but you can use the same mark, palette, typefaces, photographic approach, and design moves everywhere you opt to communicate.

Together, this series of deliberate, thoughtful, consistently applied choices becomes an unmistakable visual brand that your prospective students will recognize across channels and platforms.

Are you cultivating an always-growing set of student, alumni, and faculty stories?

There’s no better way to tell your story than through the voices of those who make up your institution, past, present… and even future!

Make a point of actively pursuing experiences and testimonials from past classes, with a particular focus on how their time at your institution prepared them for the future in expected—and unexpected—ways. Ask your newly matriculating students to share why they made a choice in your favor, and what they’re most looking forward to in the years to come. Speak with current students about how their experience has or hasn’t matched their expectations, and what they’ve learned so far. Talk to your faculty about their students, and the exceptional things they’ve observed in their time as educators.

Yes, you’ll have a wide selection of testimonials and quotes to add color to your communications, but you’ll also learn a tremendous amount about the good, the bad, and the ugly of your institution; you’ll make your newest recruits feel like a part of your community before they even get there; and you’ll have an ongoing excuse to connect with alumni of all ages—something your advancement team will love.

Do you have a content strategy/editorial calendar that enables your communications to build on, and reinforce one another?

Content strategy plans for the development, publication, and management of content. It’s a term used most often to deal with web content—but an organized, methodical approach to creating, placing, and governing content is worth adopting everywhere you communicate.

Content strategy breaks down:

  • the messages you want to distribute (as defined above in your messaging architecture);
  • the topics you want to focus on, and the information you need or want to distribute;
  • the purpose of each content type (mapped to your admissions / marketing goals);
  • the people/departments that will supply the content;
  • the people who will edit/place that content; and
  • the people who will approve it all!

Editorial calendars put your content strategy into day-by-day, week-by-week, month by-month action, ensuring that you’re communicating the right stuff in the right place at the right time to the right folks, to achieve your goals. There are many different ways to map out your calendar, but it should be granular enough that no one is left wondering if they’re supposed to be sending out an email to prospects, tweeting a new open house date, or updating milestones on your website.

Will last minute needs put a wrench in the works now and then? Sure. Will folks forget their piece of the puzzle? Sometimes. Will you need to recalibrate or rework, now that you’ve tried to live your calendar for a while? Possibly. But a thorough editorial calendar goes a long way toward taking the mystery and guesswork out of your job—and that’s a very good thing, especially during your busiest moments.

When will you be ready for shiny objects?

When you’ve worked through each of these best practices, the shiny object question shifts from “Is this our only hope?” to, “How does this support our overall strategy?”

There’s nothing wrong with trying out a new tool or adding the latest thing to your marketing mix—but it won’t fill the gap left by muddled messaging, visual disharmony, and a chaotic approach to communicating.

So the next time you feel pressured to focus hours of your time on an untested tool or platform in a fit of desperation, pull up your editorial calendar, and see what you could be doing right now to advance your plan.