Successful Messaging Strategy Demands Discipline

Bring an extra measure of discipline to the art and science of higher ed marketing by creating messages that demonstrate these six features.

March 22, 2016

In the daily mad dash to pump information about your college or university into public view, it's too easy for content authors to fall into the familiar who-what-where-when-why routine just to tick off the assignment and move onto the next, and the next, and the next.

Unfortunately, that approach does little more than contribute additional forgettable content to an already too-dull rumble, to which fewer and fewer people are willing to pay attention.

For your next assignment, be it writing, designing, speaking, or even building out a strategic communication plan, bring some discipline to the exercise by considering how your work should reflect and leverage the following:

1. Relevance: Who is your target audience (the more narrowly defined, the better), and does that target audience have a good reason to care about the message you're trying to convey? If not, define your audience more narrowly, or spin the message in such a way that it's undeniably relevant.

2. Resonance: Think of this as emotional engagement. Do elements of your message connect emotionally with your target audience? Will they find what you're trying to convey compelling? If not, soften it up to tap their softer side. Humans are emotional beings. We remember messages that touch our hearts.

3. Audacity: Higher education marketers are among the world's worst offenders of copycat messaging. Ask any prospective student, and she'll tell you she's flummoxed by the vast majority of colleges and universities whose promotional efforts look, read, feel, smell and taste like all the others. "Three under a tree" isn't funny; it represents a tragic waste. Have the courage to create messages that stand up -- and stand out of the blur.

4. Distinctiveness: My friend and colleague Pat Weas, a remarkably successful brand strategist, often reminds his clients, "People don't buy different; they buy special." In a crowded marketspace like higher education, demonstrating how your institution is special is essential. And if articulating that special-ness effectively separates your college or university from your primary competitors, that's homerun messaging.

5. Frequency: At its most basic core, marketing is about conditioning. Think Pavlov and his bell. Through repetitive exposure (a.k.a. training), we're attempting to condition our target audiences to think, then act, in ways that benefit our institutions. How frequently those audiences hear your messages plays a huge role in the success of your conditioning efforts. If your message is only going to be offered to the world once, it will be significantly less likely to leave an impression than if it's offered to its intended audience multiple time, and via multiple channels.

6. Longevity: You've heard the old adage, "Just about the time you start getting tired of it, your audience is just beginning to get it." Too many colleges and universities short-change the ultimate impact of perfectly good messages (or creative concepts, or campaigns) by shutting them down prematurely. If you want your messaging to realize its full positive potential, re-post, re-market, re-merchandise and stay the course until you have hard evidence from your audiences that it's not relevant, resonant, or otherwise working anymore.

For the foreseeable future, marketing resources in higher education are going to be scarce and therefore precious. We owe it to our institutions -- and to our marketing team members -- to bring an extra measure of discipline to the art and science of our work. Maximizing your institution's marketing return-on-investment demands that our messaging strategies are nothing short of top-notch.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.


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