Published on 2012/08/17

Marketing Bricks and Mortar

Marketing bricks and mortar higher education is similar to marketing in a mall. You have to emphasize the value of the programs and services offered inside, while maintaining the value and legitimacy of the institutional name. Photo by Photocreo.

Perhaps it is because I began my career in shopping center marketing, but I see many similarities between marketing a bricks and mortar mall and marketing a bricks and mortar university.

There are many entrances to the mall near my home. One can enter the Battlefield Mall through the outer doors of the major department stores, one can enter at the food court, or one can enter through several other outer doors that open into the mall itself.  In addition, there also is a section of the mall that is designed like a strip mall where each of the stores has its own entrance, but they do not connect to the indoor mall. When I shop at the mall, I enter through the doors that make the most sense depending on the destination.

The university where I work also has many entrances aimed at different groups of students. Some of our traditional-age students enter through our competitive sports teams. Others enter through our computer information science or accounting programs. We also have a school of theology and ministry that is an entry point for many students. We also have non-traditional students enter our nursing or graduate degree programs, but they do not connect much with the programs aimed at younger, more traditional students; similar to the strip mall.

So how does a bricks and mortar institution market to these different segments, knowing that they will enter the university through different entry points and have very different destinations in mind?  Again, the mall metaphor comes in handy.

Most shopping centers have an overall marketing plan that brands the mall as a destination location. A number of malls are marketed as a singular entity, even though they have many individual merchants. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Drury, and Missouri State all market the whole university as a destination, but they have many individual majors, professional programs and extra-curricular activities to attract students.

How does a mall become such a strong brand name that shoppers of all ages are drawn to that retail destination? Not unlike a bricks and mortar mall, universities have many audiences to reach with their branding messages.  How does a university attract the traditional 16- to 18-year olds and the ever-increasing population of non-traditional students (22 years old and up) simultaneously?  How does a mall or a university compete with all of the online destinations seeking their target market?

With talented designers and photographers, the higher ed (or mall) marketer can create brand images for promotional and marketing materials, but ultimately it is the customer or student’s experience of the place and its people that build the institution’s reputation as a great education (or shopping) destination.

A university builds its brand on the deliverable of graduates who do well in their chosen profession or life path.  Traditional and non-traditional students alike want to know that their investment of time and money will result in graduation and a good job. Individual departments and programs need to know where their graduates are so that they have success stories to tell their incoming students.

University branding can bring the students in the doors, but the individual departments and athletic teams have to deliver in order to keep the students coming back year after year to get their degrees.  Whether a community college or private liberal arts institution, it is important to understand what each segment of the market needs and determine whether the institution is capable of serving that population.  If 75% of the market for your institution is non-traditional students, for example, your institution will not attract this segment without an array of online and evening options for working adults.

While I am convinced that non-traditional students can benefit from a liberal arts education, I am a firm believer in complementing a liberal arts or career-specific curriculum with practical professional development for students of all ages. Creative faculty recruit advisory boards of employers to learn what their staffing needs are. In turn, the employers are allowed to recruit employees on campus. Since the employers have had a hand in shaping curriculum and career services, they know the kind of graduates they will be hiring.

When students shop for a university, not only are they looking for a brand they can trust, they are looking for individual programs they can rely on to help them launch their career and prepare for their future.  Extra-curricular activities complement strong academic programs and provide additional entrances into the university, especially for the traditional student. Non-traditional students sometimes just want to know what they have to do to get a certification or piece of knowledge as soon as possible!

So what, specifically, are some of the differences between typical traditional and non-traditional students, and how can you attract these audiences to your campus? This is a question each institution needs to answer for their particular niche of students. One of the major mistakes institutions make in difficult times is to trying to be all things for all students, and thus, the marketing dollars are spread too thin trying to reach diverse audiences.

A better question to ask is: What are some of the differences between the typical traditional and non-traditional students who would be best served by your school?

If your school has great facilities for athletics, your school needs to seek out the typical 16- to 18-year olds who want to participate in or watch competitive athletics.  If your institution has world-class faculty who have perfected the blend of liberal arts plus real-world internships and career counseling, then your institution needs to seek out the traditional-aged undergraduates who thrive in an academically rigorous campus-based liberal arts program.  If you are able to offer financial aid packages without loans, there are many undergraduate students who would compete for that privilege.

While there are some traditional-aged students who would thrive in an online program, if your school is not prepared to offer the specially trained faculty, up-to-date curriculum, and technology support services such a program requires, no amount of marketing will help these programs survive.

On the other hand, if your school has tech-savvy faculty who are trained in andragogical methods to teach adult learners, your school needs to seek out the prospective adult students who want an online graduate degree or undergraduate degree completion program that is 100% online.

If you are in a metropolitan area and have the market to support a hybrid program (online classes with an occasional on-campus class), then seek the non-traditional student who is willing to devote time away from home to travel to your school.  Hybrid programs may fill a void for students who have to work in excess of 20 hours a week to finance their schooling as a result of the economic climate.

Some older students are seeking a purely vocational opportunity and need the hands-on learning traditionally provided by a community college or apprenticeship program. Some younger students are not ready for the academic rigors of a liberal arts education, and they need to remediate deficiencies in English, science, or mathematics at a community college.

All of the above individual programs can be instrumental in marketing the university and creating destination shopping by the students.  In an era where students perceive themselves as consumers with many choices, universities and colleges need to do what successful stores do: know their customers, perfect what they do best, and innovate the rest.

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Readers Comments

Zandra Thomas 2012/08/17 at 11:52 am

I’d be interested to know what avenues are best for accessing the adult student. I mean, an institution can have the best adult-focused programming in the world, but if adults don’t know to look for them, it doesn’t really matter…

    Sharina Smith 2012/08/17 at 3:02 pm

    The short answer, is “It depends.” A longer answer is to know where your adult student is looking for the types of learning opportunities you have available.

    For example, print and online business journals in your community are good places to earn media coverage about your programs that you can then link to your social media presence. If you are marketing a bricks and mortar university, having name recognition in your local community is essential. The local prestige also can be leveraged nationally through social media. Make sure to research the social media avenues that are seen by your target student.

    If your program is 100% online, where do busy adults look for information about 100% online programs? Major corporations with human resources support for professional development often display literature regarding adult learning opportunities in their break rooms or in the HR office.

    Career fairs are another great way to promote your adult learning programs. For brick and mortar programs, local career fairs or nearby career fairs are essentials. For online programs, connecting with LinkedIn would be an essential part of your marketing plan.

    These are just a few ideas, but the most important thing to consider is who your “most likely to succeed” students would be, then find out where to reach them!

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