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Show Don’t Tell: Marketing in the Modern Community College

The EvoLLLution | Show Don’t Tell: Marketing in the Modern Community College
Today’s community colleges are working hard to shake off the misconceptions that paint their institutions by delivering on students’ academic expectations while providing a strong customer experience.

Community colleges have a tough job in the higher education ecosystem. While trying to serve a diverse audience with a wide range of expectations—some students are looking to enter the labor force, others want to transfer to a bachelor degree program and others didn’t think of applying at all—they’re constantly working against societal misperceptions about the quality of their programming. In this interview, Jeff Fanter shares his thoughts on the role community college marketing departments play in helping colleges deliver on their mission while navigating some of the challenges they face.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When it comes to messaging for Ivy Tech, is the focus more on convincing students to enroll at Ivy Tech over other institutions, or convincing students to enroll at all?

Jeff Fanter (JF): It’s a mix, especially here in Indiana. We have upwards of 25,000 students out of high school who don’t choose to go on to college, so the choice for a large number of our students is enrolling in college or entering the workforce right away.  For that audience, we need to educate them on the value of a college education and why the community college is probably the best choice for them.

The second part of that is, since here in Indiana the community colleges have evolved over the last decade or so, we have gotten more focused on the discussion of how Ivy Tech compares against other colleges in the state. People have started to understand and embrace the community college in Indiana—more than they have in the past—because of how it evolved in recent years. We’re definitely more competitive than we used to be.

So we’re serving both audiences in Indiana—those who are deciding between colleges and those thinking about whether to go to college at all.

Evo: Community colleges today are serving two diverse missions. How do you develop messaging that appeals to students pursuing career outcomes as well as students pursuing transfer to four-year institutions?

JF: Creating messaging that appeals to both groups is one of the challenges that we look at as an opportunity. What really helped was building awareness that community college credits conferred by Ivy Tech can transfer on to four-year institutions. When we established about five years ago, it created a whole new audience for us that didn’t exist before when our outcome was just that one-track of sometimes terminal degrees that just resulted in career placement. That didn’t create opportunities for people who wanted to go on.

This transformation allows us to speak to two different groups who do, frankly, have the same end goal. They want an outcome—with this credential they get from higher education—that provides them currency in the labor market allowing them to get a job. In some cases they can achieve this with a two-year education from a community college. In other cases they need four years or more but they use the community college as a launching point to get there by doing two years with us and transferring. But ultimately the outcome is still the same: earning a credential that makes them employable.

This similarity in end goals allows us to package our messaging quite effectively that the outcomes still the same but we can get you there a variety of ways. Whether they want to earn a credential with us and go right to a career, or start with us and transfer to a four-year institution, we can still speak to them.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges facing community college marketers today?

JF: The biggest challenge community college marketers face is one of perception. There is a perception as to what community college is that maybe comes from a lack of knowledge or lack of understanding. When people think about community colleges, they think, “What kind of job could I get with a community college degree?” or “I should only go to community college if I can’t go somewhere else.”

That’s not the reality of who our students are or what they accomplish. Our students get good-paying jobs the first year after graduation. In fact, our graduates out-earn many of the four-year institution graduates here in Indiana, including those graduating from the two big four-year institutions, in the first year. That’s because of the types of high-paying careers we train people for.

It’s a misconception. There was sitcom on NBC called Community that basically just made fun of what a community college was. You’re fighting that stigma of a sitcom whose premise is that community colleges are last resorts. That stigma has existed for decades, but community colleges have changed a lot. However, many of the people still have this misperception about community colleges. That perception is our biggest challenge. Changing it won’t happen overnight but we strive to make people understand the place is a lot different than they may think.

Evo: To your mind, how effective is social media as a marketing tool for institutions trying to speak to prospective adult students?

JF: Social media is a very effective tool in a variety of different ways. Individuals—we as marketers—can’t do all the speaking on behalf of our institutions, our product, our offerings or our services via social media. What we can do, though, is empower others to do it on our behalf.  That’s where I think social media is most effective. Everybody likes to run with a big crowd and when they see that we have a big crowd that either follows us or talks about us, people want to associate with that. That is where I think social media can certainly play a role in marketing.

Evo: What are a few other marketing approaches that you have found to be highly effective in speaking to this audience?

JF: We’re unique when it comes to social media. We use social media in a way that’s different than others.

We were not using Facebook to serve as some ad campaign, as a platform through which we would constantly talk about how great we are. Instead, we looked at the fact that—at the time we adopted it—Facebook was the third largest search engine in the world; that’s where people were looking for information about companies and schools. We also know that one of the big things people want to know is how good the service is at a given school and what kind of attention they are going to be given.

So we looked at our social media presence, from a marketing standpoint, as a way to make it known how much we care for our students and how responsive we are to  students’ questions. We used social media as a customer service tool. We encourage students to ask questions on there, ask questions about the community college, ask questions about Ivy Tech, ask anything they need help with. What people that came to the site saw was our focus on helping students. That’s a different approach to just us putting ads up on our Facebook page about how great we are. We could show our level of customer service to the outside world, and it resonated because people want to understand what their service experience might be like.

That’s one way to market using social media and, just in general, it reflects our whole customer service mentality. For us, it’s important that when you ask for information about our institution through our website, you get a phone call from us within seven minutes. We’re very focused on this customer service approach because it’s not something higher education has paid attention to. We think it’s pretty important and we want people to know that we provide good customer experience.

Evo: How important is customer service as a differentiator for higher education institutions?

JF: Customer service is something that higher education is starting to become more aware of and something they’re focusing on more than they did before because of the fact that today’s students are so used to being treated the right way in a variety of other different things they do in life.

When people apply to our college, they’ll call our call center and say, “I applied and I would like to know if I’ve been accepted because I haven’t heard anything.” Our recruitment team will respond by asking, “When did you apply?” And then the individual will respond, “20 minutes ago.”  Today’s students’ expectations are no different for us than when they make a hotel reservation: They’re looking for immediate feedback.

Customer service is critical. It’s a good thing that colleges are starting to pay attention to that because I’m not sure they always have, which is why the for-profits grew so quickly. Their numbers have changed in recent years but it was their focus on outreach that made a difference for them. They connected themselves with the students much faster and provided, in some cases, better and more immediate customer service that others in higher education overlooked and underestimated.

People’s expectations have changed in terms of what they expect from colleges because they can easily compare to the service they expect to get from any company.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the role that marketing teams play in both the recruitment and the retention of non-traditional students at two-year colleges?

JF: To do this well, it’s more than just a marketing department. There’s a marketing message, there’s a marketing campaign, there’s a concept as to what it is that makes this place special. But to make that really resonate, the people need to embrace and deliver on that brand promise.

Institutions need to take the steps to train and educate people internally—faculty, staff, everyone—on what it is that the customer, be they a student or potential student, is interested in and why and how you deliver that effectively.

It’s not just about a TV spot and it’s not about some brochure. All these things have to connect and I think that’s the hardest part of marketing—it’s how you make sure you connect everything together and get people to embrace and understand they’re part of delivering this message. In many cases, those frontline people deliver the message ten times better than some ad campaign does. You have to train them, equip them and empower them, on how to deliver that message and that promise effectively.

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