Recruiting The Next Class of Brand Advocates
How Higher Education Institutions Can Create Lifelong Relationships With Key Audiences
There are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities across the U.S., and with online education programs on the rise, prospective students have more choices than ever when it comes time to select where they will spend the next four years. While sports championships, academic rankings and amenities matter, one of the biggest factors is the brand experience, like an undercurrent that touches every aspect of the school.
The economic health of higher education institutions relies on attracting quality students, faculty and staff. But how do we foster brand engagement when so many schools tout similar benefits and the competition is stiff? It all starts with the experience.
Today’s consumers, especially the millennial generation, are savvy, mindful, skeptical and armed with research about brands that align with their interests. They don’t want commoditized goods and services anymore. They want a connective experience, especially with the destinations (homes, communities, vacations, schools, etc.) where they choose to spend a lot of their time and money.
In an effort to create better experiences, college campuses have transformed themselves with upgraded athletic facilities, better landscaping and walkways, new amenities and gathering spaces for students. If you went to college 20 or 30 years ago, you probably wouldn’t recognize the place you called home for four years (hopefully your favorite dive bar is still intact). And while these updates definitely make an impact, perceptions are developed well before anyone sets foot on campus.
They have already formed distinct opinions based on what they hear, see or read, and their choice to make an actual visit will be based on whether or not your brand aligns with their personal values and interests. So how do you engage them in this way?
The User Continuum
As a higher education institution, you likely have multiple audiences, such as prospective and current students, parents, faculty, alumni, donors, administration, etc. While each audience has a different set of preferences and motivations that you need to understand, they all share a common ground. Every experience can be defined in three time-specific categories – Before, During and After – that we call the User Continuum. The more you manage your brand at each of these stages, the more successful you will be.
The Before stage is when you have an opportunity to set expectations. Visitors have pre-conceived perceptions of your place before they arrive. Disney World equates to family memories. Paris evokes thoughts of romance. La Guardia Airport instills feelings of anxiety.
You can help formulate positive perceptions and expectations through your brand, which is more than a logo or signage. It’s the promise you make to your audiences, told directly and subconsciously through all communications and channels. You have a brand that makes an impression, whether you manage it strategically or not.
Consider how your audiences are forming perceptions of your school before they arrive. They look at your website, talk to their parents and alumni, and hear about you in the news. You have an opportunity to align the messaging across these outlets with the actual experience you are promising to deliver through marketing and communication efforts. For example, if you have state-of-the-art facilities and see them as a key differentiator, you need to showcase them across key channels. Even better, get your best destination stewards, such as other students or faculty members, talking about how the facilities contribute to their success and day-to-day experience. Your brand promise becomes more credible when you have others who are willing to testify to it.
Whether you promise a beautiful walking campus or a great social scene, consider how you can share real examples of how you deliver on that promise. When it comes to your place, first impressions are everything. Take some time to set the tone and strategically align it with the real experiences in the During phase.
The process of arrival, which occurs within the During stage of the User Continuum, is one of the most underutilized touch points. Your audience’s mood is largely dependent upon how the first few hours of the experience play out. Consider the last time you traveled to a new place and got lost. You probably had a lot of anxiety and arrived late and flustered, which is never the right foot to start on. Beyond that, your entire visit is now overshadowed by that experience, as is your memory of the place. This is why wayfinding is so essential to a good brand experience on campus.
A few things are needed to get your visitors to and around campus comfortably, including maps on your website, distinguishable entry points that alert visitors of their arrival and parking signs. Depending on your campus, you may want to use signage to steer people away from underdeveloped areas and direct them to the central gathering areas where you’ve focused a lot of your dollars. While good signage won’t directly generate more visits, they create better visits and are key to architecting a positive experience.
Navigational tools are vital to the During phase. Maps should be given out freely in print or easily accessible online (with a school app or website). They should be easy to read and comprehensive, anticipating visitor needs and directing them to all the must-see places. Many campuses struggle with frequent changes, such as donor name changes, facilities that switch usage, and new construction. As a result, signs on buildings, streets and maps may not match, making navigation a nightmare. Combating this issue can be difficult, but developing sign standards that help you establish consistency will keep this risk in check.
Another source of navigation information is people. They should be confident in their ability to answer questions such as, “Where is the bookstore?” or “Where’s a good place to eat?” Student Ambassadors offer support, but also become the face of brand embodiment.
How are you empowering your current faculty members and students to be brand advocates for your campus experience? Are student guides equipped with the information and messaging needed to deliver a campus tour that aligns with your Before messaging?
Navigational tools are vital to the During phase.
Other factors include well-maintained grounds and campus safety. In particular, parents of prospective students will want to know if a campus is well lit at night and where the emergency alarm stations are located along walkways. Additionally, the overall friendliness of the people your visitors encounter can make or break the experience.
Schools are doing everything they can to secure tuition dollars from prospective students. While financial aid, academics and athletic programs may be deal breakers; students are also selecting a new home for the next four years. The campus tour helps them imagine what it would be like to live, learn and play on your campus. You have one, maybe two, brief opportunities to make a good and authentic impression that could turn them from visitors to students, and ultimately to supportive alumni.
The journey is far from over. The After phase is often overlooked on the User Continuum, but it’s the opportunity to extend the brand experience even further. Most schools take the time to capture contact information through newsletter subscriptions, social media, student applications, etc. But how you use that contact information is what matters.
Regardless of whether the prospect turns student or not, they have information that you can use. Survey results shed light on their willingness to continue having a relationship with your school, but they also reveal opportunities for improvement, and further refining the campus brand experience.
In addition to collecting insights, these touch points can help prospects envision a life at your school. Consider all the activity on campus concerts, speakers, sports events the happenings that define the student experience beyond the academics. Sharing stories and photos of these events further demonstrates your brand promise, the life that takes place in your space, and gives prospects a window into the next four years.
Prospects are not the only beneficiaries of the post-visit experience. Proud alumni and donors like to see the school’s growth and improvement too. Demonstrating the campus experience in your communications can give rise to a happy nostalgia and bring back memories, many of which shaped the course of their lives. The feelings associated with experience are powerful, and if harnessed well, can support development efforts and turn alumni into advocates.
Like many higher education institutions, you probably measure success based on a variety of factors, including enrollment, student retention, grants, major gifts, overall revenue, etc. Better experiences along every phase of the User Continuum will yield better returns. People will stay longer, give back more often, buy your apparel, bring their family for a visit and share their stories across social media and with friends. Your reputation and economic vitality is built on favorable impressions. Your cities and communities may be more willing to support your development through dollars or partnerships because of the mutually beneficial relationships you share. If your entire institution is living the brand to the fullest, you’ll create lifelong relationships with people who will invest in your bright future.
Need support through your school’s User Continuum? Guide Studio understands and consults on all areas of the process. Check out some of our case studies to see our Work.
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