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Insights in Higher Education: Wheaton College’s Gene Begin

by Don Martelli | Thought Leadership
September 15, 2016
Gene Begin, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Wheaton College
Gene Begin, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Wheaton College

There’s a saying, “There are no challenges, just opportunities.” That’s exactly what Gene Begin thought as he was considering a great opportunity to join Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts as its Vice President of Marketing and Communications.

“Like many industries, liberal arts colleges could be considered a crowded marketplace of sameness. Wheaton had not recently considered differentiating their brand among other liberal arts schools in New England,” Begin said. “The first step we took when initiating our brand strategy initiative was to find out where we stood in the marketplace and understand why students selected our school against our competitors.”

The position Begin took was a new one for the College, and in his nine months to date, he has worked to establish an internal agency approach to tackle the myriad of marketing and communications priorities they face.

“We partner with our admissions, advancement and other divisions across the college to help them reach their goals and objectives by providing an integrated approach across a number of marketing channels,” Begin said.

To get ahead of it all, Begin said, it all comes down to leveraging analytical intelligence and smarter prioritization.

“Our role is to ensure the effort meets institutional goals (enrollment, retention and advancement), yet also extends the Wheaton brand and difference in a positive way,” Begin said. “It’s not an easy job by any means, but it all starts with a strong messaging framework and a cohesive and in-sync brand strategy.”

One of the key things that Begin and his team are constantly thinking about is the influencer set that comes with each potential applicant. After all, it’s not just the student that makes the decision.

“Over the years, our industry has learned that that each individual’s college search process can be unique. There is an influencer set, including family members and counselors, that is different based on each family dynamic,” Begin said. “Colleges also have a built-in network of advocates – alumni, past parents, past employees – that can be extremely influential if activated successfully. We are constantly thinking about these areas of influence within the prospective student search process and how we may influence the influencers, if you will.”

Wheaton's Mary Lyon Hall
Wheaton’s Mary Lyon Hall

On top of taking on a new position nearly a year ago, competing in a tough market and dealing with the prioritization of college priorities, Begin says there are three areas that higher education marketers need to contend with:

  1. The rise in the influence of the mobile engagement experience
  2. The increasing need and expectation for personalization among prospective and current audiences
  3. The importance of creating advocates for your brand

“If done right, advocacy marketing can extend your brand’s reach and affinity in ways that are far more efficient, impactful and long-lasting than any marketing expenditure,” said Begin. “Your institution’s students and alumni are ideally with you for the long haul, as their personal brand is tied to your college brand for the rest of their lives.”

Begin ended with, “The great thing about working in higher education is that you have a variety of audiences to work with and market to, and reaching one group can be vastly different than how you may reach another. The challenge of marketing is it’s constantly evolving, but it’s a challenge that I will always be up for.”

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