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At a recent higher ed marketing conference, I repeatedly heard variations of the following question:

“How do we do the market research required to inform brand strategy when we have no budget?”

Before I answer that question, I want to say that I am a huge fan of brand strategy development that starts with sophisticated market research.  If the budget allows it, I think that sophisticated market research can provide tremendous insights that can both inform and support brand strategy.

In the real world, though, many institutions don’t have the budgets that allow them to do it. And marketing people in those organizations are often left thinking that they can’t begin to do brand strategy without the sophisticated market research.

In my experience, market research doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated to be insightful. There are effective shortcuts to gaining audience insights that can be done by just about anyone, just about anywhere, and they can provide a way to jump-start brand strategy work. The most important thing is that you look for insights beyond just your faculty, staff, and administration. Their viewpoints, while important, may not match those of students, prospective students, alumni, and other important stakeholders.

Conduct Focus Groups with Current Students

Good brand strategy is the right mix of reality and aspiration. It has one foot in the present and one foot in the future. And current students are a great source of information about the present student experience at your institution. Invite them for lunchtime focus groups and offer them pizza and a $10 gift card. Here are some things you can ask them:

  • Why did you choose this college?
  • How has your experience of the college compared to what you thought it would be like?
  • What are the characteristics of students who succeed at this college?
  • What does the college do well?
  • What could the college do better?
  • What are the three words you would use to describe the school?
  • When you describe the college to your friends, what do you say?

You’ll likely want to conduct multiple groups. You’ll want to talk to a group of freshmen and a group of seniors. You’ll want to talk to students who started as freshmen and students who came in as transfer students. Also, depending on how much the student experience is likely to differ, you may want to have different groups by major and/or school.

I recommend that you either tape the sessions or have someone taking copious notes. You’ll want to use (unattributed) quotes in your summary so that you can help others to “hear” the voices of the respondents.

Listen in on Social Media

An intensive search of social media outlets and online college guides will give you great information about how prospective students, current students and alumni describe your school. Make social search part of your daily routine and capture what’s being said. Compare it to what you hear in the focus groups, and use the focus groups to probe on the things you don’t understand.

Conduct Your Own Survey

If you want to get more responses than are feasible with focus groups, you can use one of the free tools, like Survey Monkey, to conduct surveys. The downside to surveys, however, is that they’re not very useful for answering “why” questions. For instance, you may have respondents tell you that they don’t think your college is good at preparing people for careers, but without the ability to ask follow-up questions, you won’t necessarily know why. For this reason, I recommend pairing a survey with focus groups so that you can dig deeper on some of the survey responses.

With a survey, you can ask many of the same questions as in the focus groups; however, you’ll need to develop lists of possible answers for respondents to choose from.

To develop and execute a new brand strategy, it’s likely that you’ll want and need to do more sophisticated market research at some point. But sometimes it’s easier to get the support and the budget for it later in the process, when senior leadership can see the beginnings of a brand story. So if you’re putting off starting brand strategy work because you don’t have the budget, wait no longer. These shortcuts are a place to start.

Deborah Maue is the vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Columbia College Chicago. 

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