Published on 2012/10/25

Who Are You Marketing: Your Unit or Your University?

When marketing continuing education, it can be difficult to know whether to focus on the capacity of the division itself, or to ride on the larger name recognition of the university.

Recently, while giving a presentation at a continuing education conference, I received a great question from a colleague from a different region of the country, which I feel bears more discussion. The question came as a response to a show-and-tell of marketing items—and the question went something like this:

“Some of your marketing items have your university logo on them, while others have both the logo and your department name. Who are you marketing; your unit or your university?”

I think she wanted to add “Are you confused about who you are?” but she was polite and restrained herself. Yet my esteemed colleague is right; the marketing items sometimes had just the large logo of the university, while others had just the logo and university name, while yet others had the logo, university name, and finally the department name. Confusing!

The marketing message we send as continuing educators typically leverages the brand of our host institution, but also includes a department or unit name of continuing education as well. At times, it seems as if we do this to appease the academics who don’t want our offerings confused with the “true” university; but in many cases, we might feel we need to separate the identities to build brand loyalty.  I, however, look at it from the perspective of the student.

When the continuing education student says “I’m taking at a class at the university,” do they delineate which department, college, or organizational unit? Most likely not, unless pressed further as to “what class” or “what topic?” So why do we force our students to indicate they are continuing education students, and not traditional degree-seeking students? Either way they are taking classes with our overall institution, they are furthering their education, and hopefully giving back to the community. We should treat them the way they likely feel they are: as college students.

On the other hand, as a continuing education leader, I do believe it’s important to highlight that you are with the continuing education department when marketing your program within the wider institution. During discussions of internal units within the institution, the continuing education department name should be used—and embraced—as an enabler and perhaps a revenue generator for the institution.

For about two years, I worked within a continuing education unit that used its own logo, separate from the university’s, to brand itself. The unit is no more, not due to poor logo choice per se, but I don’t think using a separate brand identity helped the cause. The reincarnated unit, with mostly new staff, has wisely chosen to embrace the university logo as a whole, with their department name attached the logo when necessary. That’s the right decision.

The bottom line for my unit is to put the focus on the continuing education unit when communicating internally in our large, public university. When engaged with the community and external to the university stakeholders, we market the university as a whole while still mentioning our continuing education unit.

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Readers Comments

Daniela Thomas 2012/10/25 at 2:20 pm

I believe it is shortsighted to think that continuing education students “just want to be treated like college students”.

Any study of these students will tell you that they are a very different set of students with a very different set of needs. The most important thing when marketing a Continuing Education Unit is to be aware of the unique needs, barriers, and challenges for these mainly non-traditional continuing education students, and cater to and support them in specific ways. I don’t think anyone who is engaging in Continuing Education feels as if there is any stigma around that department or field of study, and whatever small such feelings there may be are far outweighed by the advantages gained by targeting precisely and in a focused way the non-traditional students who are seeking out your university’s continuing education department.

John DeLalla 2012/10/25 at 3:03 pm

Daniela –
Thanks for starting the discussion!

Yes, each continuing education student is different, and targeting your marketing to those students creates a unique challenge. My group of CE students are non-credit, professional development students (about half already have an undergraduate degree) so they are looking to be back on the campus, relive the ‘glory days’ of college, engage in campus special events, etc. That’s a much different set of desires and needs than a degree-seeking, non-traditional student. Adjusting the student experience for your specific student population is a must. For example, I found my 50-something year old engineers would tinker with my computer classroom wiring, desk setups, etc. during day-long sessions. This wasn’t out of malicious intent, just fidgety in a lecture / theory class. The final solution to keep the idle hands from rewiring the room? Silly putty. I put a jar full of plastic eggs (with our school logo printed on the side) filled with silly putty, in the back of the room, and the idle hands fidgeted with the putty instead of the wires. Yes, adapting to your students comes in all types of solutions – including silly ones!

The diversity of our respective student populations, program offerings, and community is part of what makes continuing education such a fun field to be involved with. Thanks for your engaging comments Daniela, and being part of such a dynamic field of education!

    Daniela Thomas 2012/10/26 at 9:03 am

    “They are looking to be back on the campus, relive the ‘glory days’ of college, engage in campus special events, etc”

    I really haven’t seen this from many adult students, either on the degree-seeking side or on the professional development side.

WA Anderson 2012/10/25 at 3:48 pm

I think John makes a good point. Often Continuing Education departments of universities are set apart or “ostracized” in a way that may give the impression that the larger university is trying to distance itself from that department. Ultimately, no student, adult or teen, traditional or non-traditional, wants to feel ostracized from that institution; especially if it’s an institution whose name might inspire pride, loyalty, etc.

Also, from a financial perspective, the way things are going, higher education institutions should go ahead and embrace CE as an integral part of what they’re offering and right at the heart of it–as it gains popularity and traction across the US, they could do very well by making CE a central part of their marketing and outreach strategy, taking it more “under the university’s wing”–while of course hopefully still being aware of the unique needs of adult and ongoing learners.

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