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Word-of-Mouth Marketing in Higher Education

Posted by admin on Feb 18, 2013 6:29:35 AM

Social media, mobile media, digital media. Use whatever buzzword you’d like, but thoughtful and engaging media tactics (plain-and-simple) are growing increasingly important. Well, sure… that’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.

But, unified agreement on this point indicates an important shift in perception: the words MEDIA and COMMUNICATION mean a whole lot more than what these words used to mean 5-10 years ago.

As Jim Stengel put it: 2013 is the year of “The Drop”.

These days, all media is social. All media is inherently digital. All media is expected to be mobile.

Television commercials are on Youtube. Magazine content is available free, online. Buttons and logos are all floating around in digital formats. Even invite-only events and exclusive members-only publications are kept siloed precisely because the resulting “buzz” or “gossip” has broad, downstream impact.

Media is meant to be shared; our delivery methods (social networks, free video platforms, open-source photo repositories) have finally aligned with marketing’s gold standard: good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

So for administrators in higher education, communication strategies are pretty simple. Step outside of the world of academia and start thinking conversant.

Provocative – Get the Conversation StartedUniversity of Chicago

Gray already pointed out how the University of Chicago’s Admissions Office is using Tumblr to generate awareness, media attention and the adoration of students. They are worth mentioning again – because they get this first point.

How do you start a GREAT conversation with someone you don’t know?

  1. Start with something that demonstrates your personality
  2. Avoid Yes/No scenarios -- make sure there are plenty of opportunities for response
  3. Talk at an appropriate level

For higher education, most often this means meeting your audience somewhere in the middle, loosening the tie and having a little fun.

Attentive – Pay Attention, Breathe + Manage Expectations

Reputation is of great concern in higher education. Rankings, peer reviews, grades… the entire system is built on a sliding scale.

But here’s the beauty of modern communication strategies: if you are listening and attentive, it’s really very hard to mess up.

Digital word-of-mouth happens in real-time. When your staff is conversant on modern communication platforms, you have the opportunity to read your audience and manage any negative perceptions that emerge (and these negative perceptions WILL emerge regardless of your institutions involvement in social media – the question is whether or not you want to have any play in the conversation).

This is just one reason why Andy Shaindlin of the widely popular Alumni Futures blog argues for new development staff roles:

This prompts me to propose a less obvious strategy:

3. Convert staff positions from traditional roles to online support and interaction roles.

What if someone in Peter's situation had 3 or 4 staff "replying to emails in a considered way that deepens the relationship"? His office could keep pace with the demand for written communication and support. This would mean changing some team members' job descriptions to reflect the increased reliance on online interaction (including email, the web, and social platforms).

Intelligent – Use Feedback to Shape Other Conversations

A final point, great conversationalists know how to use feedback and social cues to keep the conversation going, growing and moving in a desired direction.

Have a goal for your media strategy: it may simply be “engage prospective students in conversation”, in which case you want to find ways to keep your campaign fresh and interesting. Or, you may want your communication effort to result in a desired action (for example, “indicate a willingness to give”), in which case there is a series of potential end-points you are working towards.

Either way, understand all potential outcomes so you can anticipate needs and adjust your strategy.

In what not to do, humor and a few salient points from The Continental (SNL video clip):

The Continental

  • Don’t try too hard. Take it easy and don’t oversell.
  • Don’t ignore your social cues. If a campaign isn’t working, back off and try a different tactic. Be sensitive. Continue to optimize your strategies until you get in synch with your audience.
  • Don’t be creepy. There is a ton of information out there about your prospective students and alumni. Use the information to make good decisions about how you approach them, but don’t over-utilize detail or make broad assumptions based on all of the data that’s now at your fingertips.


Author: is Head of Ops & Co-Creative at Verge Pipe Media. Verge Pipe Media assists public institutions, enterprises and the non-profit sector with Imaginative Inbound Marketing strategies + campaigns. We also have a development team chock full of Marvelous Mobile Migrators, poised to help transition our clients into a mobile + social world with custom software, iOS and Android mobile apps.

Topics: social media marketing, higher education, Inbound Marketing

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