Insights — AMA 2019: Let’s Try Something New

AMA 2019: Let’s Try Something New

Thought leadership , AMA Higher Ed / December 11, 2019
Jack Edgar
Jack Edgar

If you left the 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education after the first ten minutes, you might have gone straight home to close up shop at the university marketing and communications office. After all, the statistics and trends shown to kick-start the conference did not necessarily paint a bright outlook for the future of higher education. It was nothing we didn't know: tuition and student debt have skyrocketed while graduate earnings remain stagnant, the value of higher education is in question, and the public's perception is at an all-time low. Across the country, we see enrollment and demographic concerns, and looming just 5 years away is the dreaded 2008 birth rate decline that is set to dramatically impact the higher education landscape. 

So, that's it? Time to shut it all down, right? 

Not quite -- I mean, not if you stuck around for the rest of the symposium. 

Because it's the data's job to spur us to action, and the higher ed marketer's job to find the solutions. When confronted with an obstacle and odds we've not yet faced, the status quo will no longer cut it. The familiar will fail us. And for three straight days, we heard from person after person in our field who is changing the game in their corner of the higher ed world. Below are just a few of the audacious efforts being undertaken out there. 

Catching Up to Gen Z

We know that this generation of prospective undergraduate students is different. They're hard to find and even harder to engage. No print, no email, no big screens. This mobile-only audience spends 50% of their time on a screen, has an eight-second attention span, craves engaging video content, and demands a personal touch. So the University of Pittsburgh gave it all to them. They allowed prospective students to swipe right or left on their college interests (yes, just like Tinder), and based on the results, students received a personalized box of materials that reflected exactly what they cared about. They give their honors college admitted students the opportunity to come to campus via Google Cardboard the second they're admitted. And their email to admitted students? It's a personalized video

Betting on a Bold Brand

On paper, Colby College and the University of Wyoming could not be more different. And it was a desire to be different, stand distinct from their peers, and challenge the market that led them each to their current brands: Dare Northward (Colby) and The World Needs More Cowboys (UW). 

Colby's branded Dare Northward capital campaign aimed to remain true to their history and values while establishing themselves as a challenger to the perception of the quiet, New England liberal arts college. They were founded by risk-taking faculty and students, and it is that same daring spirit that they've imbued into a campaign that has caught fire and raised over $485 million to date.

For UW, The World Needs More Cowboys became a lightning rod for controversy early on, demonstrating the potential pitfalls of a gutsy move into uncharted territory. But then, weren't they just doing what the cowboys did? UW captured the spirit of the cowboys and their share of the national limelight with their brand rollout. Along the way, they found their critics, but they also found a new loyal following excited by the future that UW promised. As our CEO Elizabeth said at the time, "Brands that try to appeal to everyone appeal to no one." And now is not the time to blend in. 

Having Some Pun

Breaking the mold doesn't always have to be a massive financial investment. At Emory University's Department of Chemistry, they celebrated April Fool's Day by turning their website into the Department of Cat-mistry. Yes, it's what you think it was: a fake website featuring cats. But the results were real: their stunt drove readers straight to actual research articles, and they had the analytics to prove it. They weren't kitten around!

There are real concerns that face the future of higher education. But we're part of an industry that claims to transform humans and change the world – surely there's some magic we've left for ourselves. Each of the institutions above is setting the bar higher as they do their part to demonstrate the value and relevance of higher education. And there were at least 25 other schools and stories I could have shared here, but you don't have time for that today: you're a higher ed marketer, and you have something new to try. 

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