Rising costs, dwindling confidence in its value and necessity, and a barrage of controversial incidents populate public perception of higher education. Demographic trends point to stagnation and eventual decline in the number of high school graduates. From that perspective, the situation seems rather bleak.
On the other hand, it’s a great time to be in this business.
That’s not simply a daily affirmation to help diminish the very real challenges facing higher ed marketers. It’s true. We’re helping to put a phenomenal product in the market. Our products help to create a promising future not just for those we serve directly, but for everyone. No amount of cynicism can change that.
But it is up to us to make the case. And we can, by looking for ways to imbue our marketing with optimism.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Bad things happen, and institutions absolutely must be prepared to respond and mitigate all kinds of crises. Don’t neglect this important responsibility: but be careful not to nurture a crisis mentality and breed a perpetually defensive posture that makes the great stuff hard to spot. In times without a significant crisis (and for many institutions, there are far more of those than moments with a crisis), celebrate everything. Fill your channels with positive, brand-enhancing stories, content and engagements. That allows you to build a consistent narrative that can help offset those unfortunate moments if and when they occur. Be aggressively positive. Reputational hits are a lot easier to absorb when you’re always ahead.
Let Students Inspire You
Perhaps the easiest place to embrace optimism is through the students you serve. As cheesy as it sounds, the future is unfolding right in front of you. Some people cast current college students as clueless, entitled, tech-addicts whose social shorthand reveals a lack of intelligence.
Prove them wrong. Find one, two, five, seven — or more — students and talk to them about what they’re discovering, learning, experiencing, pursuing and struggling with. You’ll find thoughtful, articulate, smart, driven and purposeful individuals who stand as testament to the truth that we’re all gonna be ok. Many, even most, of the people coming through our programs will go on to do great, great things for us all. Celebrate them. Support them. And for your own sake, remind yourself how lucky you are to work with students who challenge you and force you to reinvent yourself every day.
Like students, faculty can inspire endless optimism. They are some of the smartest people on the planet who have decided to devote their lives to teaching, researching, sharing, mentoring, supporting and improving the lives of others. Every institution has its rockstar faculty. Find them. They are among the greatest marketing assets that exist at any institution. Develop ways to showcase their work, expertise, influence and passions. Not only will faculty help sell your institution to prospective students, they will—and do—cultivate the institution’s reputation.
Dilute your Doubt
In addition to improving your marketing strategy for various constituencies, optimistic marketing will, undoubtedly, improve your belief in the work you do. Find and celebrate the best of the brand. Stay firmly committed to a strategy powered by optimism. Learn from students, learn from faculty, and become the type of marketer who is as enthusiastic about the brand as the most passionate consumers.
Optimism is infectious. Be willing to spread it.
Tim Jones is the Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College in Wisconsin.