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Enrollment Marketing: Brand vs Program?

by Belfort Group | Thought Leadership
February 27, 2017

Colleges and universities are constantly in a push and pull battle when it comes to enrollment marketing. Should we promote the brand or should we market our degree programs? The truth is, marketing the brand and your college’s programs are inextricably linked. But sometimes, one needs to supersede the other.

Your brand is the perception you leave in the minds of your prospective students and what you stand for. It’s your promise of what you will deliver. When students, parents, alumni and others see your logo, they have an image of what being a part of your institution means. If you’re Harvard, just seeing crimson activates your base; if you’re Michigan, blue and gold gets your heart going. You are your brand—and that brand attracts—or pulls in—a certain student. And if that brand has been in the market for a hundred years, you have lots of built in equity.

But what if you’re not an Ivy, and students and parents are not familiar with your brand? And what if you don’t have a football team and haven’t spent millions on brand advertising? How are you going to attract students to your school? And what if your school is really similar to many other schools; how are you going to differentiate?

By promoting programs—you can deliver on your school’s promise—by pushing out information that is relevant to your key constituencies. While students are not sure about which school to attend, they know they want to be a nurse, in criminal justice, a chef, engineer or in business. Marketing programs that speak to specific student interests use real students (not stock photography) and that offer motivating content will yield inquiry and applications.

If you are doing “Search and Replace” brand advertising, which means your marketing could be from any college, it’s not going to work. We develop as many as 20 personas per campaign to ensure we are creating advertising that speaks directly to every type of student that might be interested in the classes being offering. Yes, that’s a lot of work. But we know that GenX and Millennials demand personalization, they want to feel special and respond when you “know them.” We strive to understand our potential students and speak to their needs and dreams—and they respond back.

Of course getting students to respond is part of the magic. They hate to fill out forms, and like to be stealth—look around your website, click on an ad—but when it comes to providing their name—or calling on the phone, good luck. But we have learned that texting with potential students is the most effective way to get them engaged. Texting is their life, and texting extends to applying to college, or degree completion programs or certificates or even graduate school. And texting should be part of every enrollment campaign because if you’re not texting—you’re not communicating with potential students.

So what’s the right percentage of brand vs program marketing? While there is no fixed formula, we think it’s like having a balanced marketing portfolio. You need to assess your current situation, the risks, the number of students you need, the efficacy of your recent campaigns and decide—what’s working? What’s not working? How much time to you have to attract the next class? It’s using the same methodology you would use to build a balanced financial portfolio: most portfolios are 60% equities and 40% bonds; if you’re more aggressive you might have 80% equities and 20% bonds and if you are a middle of the road investor, you might choose 50% equities/50% bonds.

If the 50/50 brand vs program promotion isn’t working, change up the ratios. Start doing 60% programs, and 40% brand—and see if that helps. If that is working, move the ratio to 80/20% –it’s all about balance and results. And if the traditional methods like radio and transit advertising, billboards, media relations and direct mail aren’t working—stop doing them and invest the money in digital and paid social media campaigns.

Change up the formula and it’s sure to yield different results. You don’t have time to wait.

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