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Isolated and insulated on campus, there’s a very good chance that decision-makers and their influencers believe your college or university enjoys a much higher level of visibility in your own backyard than is likely the case. Market research may be your best hope for securing a more realistic marketing budget, given the perceptual gaps it can highlight.

For the better part of every weekday—and probably more evenings and weekends than you’d sometimes like—you’re surrounded by the humans who constitute your college or university. To one degree or another, a great many of you share a set of common values, perspectives, backgrounds and interests, along with an appreciation for the special role your school plays in your lives.

A lot of you utter the same words and phrases as you talk about, and engage in, the life of your school. Every day you walk past the symbols of your school’s heritage as you go about the business of living, learning and working together. You share experiences in the conference rooms, classrooms, dining halls, libraries, student centers, concert spaces, galleries, playing fields and gymnasiums. And you see and hear regular reminders of the issues, personalities and activity that define the unique life and character of your institution.

You know your school because you ARE your school. You literally live its brand for the better part of every waking moment. You are a stakeholder with a vested interest in the continued good health of your institution. You care, and you’re tuned in.

But take a moment to consider the “gap” that surely exists between the visibility and accurate awareness you have of your school versus that of someone who doesn’t live your stakeholder life. I can almost guarantee you, it’s probably more accurately labeled a “chasm.”

Occasionally, we will encourage a client school to conduct a study of “pure” prospective stakeholders. These are individuals who have not necessarily expressed interest in enrolling, donating to, or being employed by the college or university. But based on their qualifications, they appear to be the kind of people the school would like to bring into the fold as new students, new benefactors, and new employees.

Almost without exception, findings from these studies deliver a healthy dose of shock and awe to the sponsoring school. Reported levels of institutional visibility, accurate awareness and perceived brand value are usually beyond surprisingly low among every school’s pure prospective stakeholder audiences. For example, a recent study for a well-established, mid-sized private college revealed that among pure prospective in-state students and their parents who lived beyond 30 miles from the campus, the percentage who felt as though they knew the college “well” or “very well” was in single digits.

That’s the chasm we’re talking about.

In my experience, presenting market research like this is the single most effective way to help decision makers—even board members and major donors—wake up and appreciate the basic need for colleges and universities to engage in aggressive visibility building activity in their own backyards.

Your school’s brand foundation must be sturdy. Your story must be compelling and consistent. And if you really hope to capture the attention of the audiences on whom your school’s future relies, your investment in block-and-tackle visibility raising marketing must be more substantial than your campus may be willing to consider.

Market research can help you put this mission-critical topic on the table for an informed discussion.

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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