Editor’s note: Hey, hey! Our team at Blackwood has launched a podcast called The Big Brand Theory! This episode, our host, Ryan Zerfas, spoke with Terry Linhart, the Executive Director of Extension Studies at Bethel University, about the long game of building business relationships, getting on the first page of Google search results, and how vital it is to establish brand equity. If you’d prefer to listen to the episode, you can do so at this link. Enjoy!!

Though it seems rather specific and niche (and in some ways it is), marketing in higher education isn’t all that different from marketing in any other industry. Of course, there are plenty of industry-specific tactics and various methods of getting work done. All in all, the truths you learn in marketing for academic institutions can be applied across the board. Besides, who doesn’t love getting a glimpse into another industry every now and then? As with most things in marketing, this is more of a long-term project than an instantly gratifying result, but worth it. Let’s dive a little deeper.

What is the difference between marketing in higher education versus other industries?

Perhaps one of the most apparent differences between marketing in higher education and in other industries is that students are the main demographic of academic institutions. So, to quote Terry Linhart, Executive Director of Extension Studies at Bethel University, “you start with your students, and you work backwards.”

If you don’t know if your students are growing, then you need to start there and figure it out. When students are your priority, you should know pretty much everything there is to know about them. That means you may be looking at data and demographics that other industries wouldn’t care about; maybe your institution wants more students to declare English as their major, so they run ads that would appeal more towards students with that particular set of interests.

Marketing in higher education differs from many other industries, but this idea can be applied to any business’s specific mission. You need to know who you are, what your goals are, who you’re trying to reach. Then, filter out everything you do as to whether or not it’s aligning with that mission. Be okay with letting things go! How well are you doing with it now? What about five years from now? Make sure you’re set on exactly what you’re looking to achieve; that way, you can stay on target for the length of your campaign or project.

Some specific challenges arise when you’re working with an institution that has been around for a long time.

For academic institutions, especially ones that have been around for decades or even centuries, the communities surrounding each campus become interwoven with the school; there becomes a much deeper connection to navigate between the brand and the surrounding neighborhood. For example, here in Mishawaka, Blackwood is right down the road from Bethel University, a well-known and well-established Christian University. Being that it has been here since 1947, Bethel has become a household name in the area. 

With that comes the challenge of upholding that existing (hopefully) positive reputation and striving to make it even better. The level of difficulty in achieving this will no doubt vary from brand to brand. For the most part, it’s just important to stay true to the mission of your specific institution throughout your messaging. 

Along the same vein, if the institution is religiously affiliated, that brings along its own unique subset of challenges.

“When you’re a faith-based institution, navigating cultural realities is ongoing,” says Terry Linhart. “We’ve all had to navigate some of the dynamics related to federal funding, and who [to] hire, and the government’s been very supportive of religious institutions being able to hire along religious lines, for instance.” This is just one example of a difference that arises among universities with religious affiliation. Many schools, regardless of denomination, require their professors and faculty members to practice the same religion that the school is affiliated with. 

Additionally, many institutions try to avoid having many political conversations. Especially in our current political climate, it can be difficult for academic institutions to voice their support for certain causes when it either doesn’t represent the entire student body’s opinions or does not align with the mission statement of the school. The most important thing to keep in mind in all aspects of marketing in higher education is that you just have to stick to what you feel is right. Have plenty of mission statement meetings; participate in tough conversations and really question who you want to be as a business. 

What kind of role does social media play in marketing in higher education?

For the most part, you just have to be present. Of course, that sounds much simpler than it is; an academic institution should definitely have more than just a reserved Instagram handle and no content on the page. Every business nowadays needs social media, especially when you’re working directly with younger generations. If you are missing from an important channel, people will notice that. Secondly, if you are on a channel and there’s huge lapses in your activity, people will also notice that. When you see a company whose last post on their page was four months ago, that’s a bit of a red flag.

Students who are currently looking at colleges to attend have been raised around the Internet their entire lives. As such, they’re going to call out a bad website when they see one. If you want to be immediately dismissed by a teenager…have a bad website. It’s crucial nowadays to have a solid online presence, and social media is a part of that. If you don’t know where to start, our team at Blackwood is ready and willing to help you out. 

Ultimately, marketing in higher education is (and should be) focused on the reason these institutions are there in the first place: the students. 

“Always stay true to being student focused,” says Terry Linhart. “Like, it doesn’t matter what’s being taught, what’s in the curriculum.” It’s so true; the students are the reason anyone is at the institution to begin with, so to shift focus anywhere but the students not only would be a disservice, but just wouldn’t make much sense in the grand scheme of things. 

It all goes back to consistency, which is a point we emphasize pretty hard here at Blackwood: the messaging of an institution for students should communicate to students, and if that’s not happening, something isn’t working. 

If your current marketing strategy just isn’t cutting it anymore, you’ve come to the right place. Our team of experts here at Blackwood Creative would be more than happy to work with you and help you meet and exceed your business goals. We’re in the business of building remarkable brands – yours could be next. Reach out to us today!

Interested in listening to this episode and more of The Big Brand Theory Podcast? Visit this web page for streaming options!

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