If you want to take a temperature reading of higher education marketing trends, there may be no better gathering to do so than Converge Consulting’s annual inbound digital marketing conference, which I recently attended in New Orleans. (Yes, I actually did some work.)

Nearly 200 marketing and admissions executives convened in the Big Easy to share best practices on the not-so-easy way to clear through the clutter for undergrad and graduate-level students in college.

As you’d expect with a digital in-bound marketing conference, this group of college marketers leans forward on content marketing. Like their for-profit corporate compadres, they aren’t afraid to be results-focused.

Let’s dig in on the key takeaways from the Converge conference:

1. Marketing still faces internal headwinds.

Several years ago, the mere mention of the title “CMO” was enough to stir controversy within higher-ed administrative ranks. The pervasive old-school mentality was that universities didn’t “sell.” It was scoffed at, thought to be beneath the pipe-smoking, elbow-patched academic elites.

But today, with competition fiercer than ever and ballooning tuition sticker prices, progressive marketing personnel has become a necessity for survival and growth. Still, the tension remains palpable within collegiate and post-graduate administrative ranks. Marketers are having to throw down the gauntlet of “measure what we do, and we’ll prove our worth” to their more “tenured” colleagues.

Converge attendees didn’t necessarily exhibit bad blood, but they had a few war stories.

UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business

Best practice: UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School CMO Michael Schinelli shared how he approached admissions with the approach above. He had a vision for how to move the needle with admissions yield, but had to get decision-makers to underwrite the budget for his plan and get admissions to trust him. It worked. (More on that in a bit.)

2. Brand personas are a hot starting point.

“Mary,” “Jose” and “Angelica” may not be actual applicants, but they are believable, humanized versions of them. They’re brand personas — aggregate compilations that represent a swath of prospects.

TWM_higherEdMany universities are segmenting their potentially matriculating students into different brand personas so they can get a better understanding of what is connecting with them and customize their marketing to ensure they hit their emotional buttons.

Best Practice: When creating brand personas, be sure to dive deep into the descriptions. It’s more than just the demographic profile — it should include hobbies, clubs and passion points. When sharing them internally, folks tend to respond to realistic profiles, so try to create brand personas with multiple photos that include various genders and ethnicities. If you don’t, someone in the room will call you out on the student-population representation.

3. Content marketing is gaining legitimacy and traction.

I was perhaps most surprised at how “all in” so many higher-ed marketers were regarding content marketing. There was little debate that high-quality, targeted storytelling was generating quantifiable in-bound leads for colleges. The pain points revolved around securing more financial and human resources to supercharge successful efforts to date.

“High-quality content” was talked about as an assumed commodity, yet this is the area that most people struggle to produce. TeamWorks Media, the company I run, was asked to present on “What Stories You Should be Sharing with Your Prospective Students and Probably Aren’t.”

The essence of our presentation focused on emotional engagement, what makes for resonant messaging and where — from your online presence through your campus tour — you should be cranking the dials between information and inspiration. Based on the packed session and anecdotal feedback, this is a subject that needs to be addressed, and it’s one this blog will be focusing on for weeks to come.

Best Practice: You can download our presentation HERE and take your knowledge to the next level by downloading our white paper “Winning the Hearts of Prospective Students in 5 Steps.”

4. Measurement of the prospect journey has rapidly evolved.

Man, was I impressed. Session after session pulled back the layers of metric-laden reports tracking prospects’ journeys. The ability to directly correlate digital-marketing activity and nurturing prospects was quite remarkable.

The higher-ed space has a reputation for being slow to adopt to new technology, but this conference showed that’s not the case for leading institutions. However, this is a great starting place to measure up where you are relative to the competition. Have you done a website audit? Do you have an SEO strategy in place? Can you correlate year-over-year increases in prospect conversions to your marketing efforts? Depending upon how you answer these questions, you can determine if your expertise in these areas are at 101, 201 or 301 levels. The next step … ?

Best Practice: Contact Ann Oleson and Jay Kelly at Converge Consulting for an initial conversation. The founder and president of Converge were hosts of this impressive conference, and the entire time, I was bumping into happy client after happy client singing their praises. They’ll help you whether you are just starting the journey or trying to fine-tune the well-oiled machine. They also happen to be two of the most genuine, nicest people you’ll ever meet.

5. Authentic content is stretching marketing teams. Know and own your niche.

Creating consistent, high-quality content is tough. It’s something that every school knows they need, but they often can’t quite articulate what is really good and puts them above the competition. As content marketing slowly gains traction outside of marketing departments in higher ed, the resources to support it lag.

Here is what’s hard for many marketers to hear: Just because you’re creating blog posts and video content and targeting it, that doesn’t make any of it good. Below is a one-minute video we produced as part of BTN (Big Ten Network) LiveBIG, an exhaustive marketing campaign that includes 84 video vignettes, 500 original articles and thousands of social media posts.

We think this is “high quality.” As you can imagine, a great deal of work goes into finding the right stories, capturing them in right tone and voice, and putting that pixie-dust “touch” on them to make them resonate.

It’s not easy. American University CMO Terry Flannery presented on her pilot program, which involved four programs and two original blog posts per month. This is on top of the duties her team had in place for their fabulous “Wonk” campaign. But creation of blog posts is just the start. Connecting with relevant media partners and social-media influencers who care about your subject matter is where the magic happens. It’s also time-consuming and highly variable in terms of success if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Best Practice: My suggestion is to find ONE niche and go all-in. UNC Business School CMO, Michael Schinelli, did just this on the subject of leadership. It wasn’t about UNC’s leadership teaching, it was on the subject matter. His team created and curated content that spoke to and supported audiences that found value and relevance in it. It is this nuance that’s the difference-maker. It is this level of specificity that enables you to focus all of your efforts as well.

6. Internal accounting lessons are a necessity.

Content marketing is working. Terry Flannery, American University’s CMO, opened the book on her teams’ efforts. The year-over-year increase in conversions to the programs they piloted netted 40 additional students. She shared her investment dollars to get there. Then, she said, “We’ll need to get closer to 100 new students before we start seeing a significant increase in financial support internally.”

At that point, I became like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Big.” I raised my hand and said, “I don’t get it.” I asked Terry to explain how the 40 students she could connect to her work weren’t tied to gross revenue, which would be a 10X return on investment. She explained that the total investment costs were divided by the 40 students, and administrators looked at it as cost per acquisition, which in this case would be deemed “high.”

We as marketers need to have immediate sit-down meetings with financial administrators and get our accounting practices in line. These are incremental revenues. The sunk costs are already invested in buildings, professors and the like. Each incremental student should be revenue, assuming it is north of the baseline costs.

Best Practice: Be proactive and get in front of financial administrators at your institution. If you have a program that is stagnant, open the conversation with “What is the lifetime value of each incremental student for this program?” Make the case for incremental student conversions having a higher return based on sunk costs.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Drop me a note at Jay@TeamWorksMedia.com or on Twitter at @_JaySharman.

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