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We all sell education. We target the same audiences. We use the same marketing tactics. We struggle to break through the clutter, as we like to say. Despite the sameness, this year’s AMA symposium offered a glimpse into where marketing higher education is heading.

The Brand Differentiation Race Is On

Every marketing textbook says a brand is the foundation on which all marketing efforts are built. Brand comes first. It’s the one thing that ties marketing together.

Most institutions have brand fundamentals in place. We embrace our school colors and use the same logo consistently. But very few have taken brands to the next level with eye-catching visuals and memorable messaging that expresses the true essence of the institution. Those who have infused their brand into every touchpoint are light-years ahead. Those still pitching faculty that care, small class sizes and cutting-edge research have work to do.

Websites Are Evolving Quickly

Websites are still the most important marketing resource we have. (Disclaimer: If you don’t have a responsive website, stop reading, drop everything and work on it now! You are five years behind your peers. Nothing else you do will matter until you have a usable website.)

Marketers have an endless suite of tools available at our fingertips to improve our websites:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO) tools show us what we can do to beat our competition in the search game.
  • Accessibility checkers ensure our sites are meeting required federal accessibility standards.
  • And let’s not forget there’s artificial intelligence and an app for everything.

None of these tools operate on a set-it and forget-it basis. We need humans to actually make these tools work for us. The salespeople neglect to remind us of that. Choose wisely for the long term.

Data Is Our New Best Friend

All things digital can be measured. For-profits and online program management providers have figured out ways to capture marketing data to make marketing more effective. The rest of us are still measuring the effectiveness of our digital efforts in clicks, impressions and cost per conversion.

What we really need to know is did these touchpoints produce an enrollment? This requires a massive investment of time and money in a customer relationship management database. Those making this investment now will soon be making data-informed decisions.

Listen to Students

We were all shocked when Boston University came out with the “F*ck It Won’t Cut It” student-led COVID-19 campaign. Few of us would have the guts to stand behind this campaign. It should be a wake-up call for all of us, because it worked. Dare I say it was the most impressive body of work at the symposium.

If given the opportunity, our students will impress. They know better than any of us or any survey what students want. It’s our job to listen to them. Be open to venture into new territory.

Embrace Transparency

Brian Communications presented their study on the impact of COVID-19 on college decision making. The findings were predictable, with one exception: there is an abiding desire for transparency from colleges on key decisions and guidelines.

Never before has there been such a strong desire among prospective students and parents to know what’s going on in the executive suites of higher education. They crave being in the know. Let’s give them what they need by being open and honest.

Break Through

Higher ed marketers are a supportive bunch. We share the same struggles and understand we can’t do it all. None of us get it exactly right. We must work smarter, not harder, to rise to the top of a sea of sameness.

Tera Buckley is the director of web and multimedia marketing at the University of North Dakota.