Marketing and branding has taken its place among the key strategic functions and objectives at research universities around the world. And while we’re in the midst of the annual release of rankings and “best of” lists, university leaders would likely rather find themselves listed among the top schools in research expenditures, grants awarded, and sponsored research that will follow the rankings hoopla later in the year.
Think your research brand isn’t big business?
- Have you followed the battle between UC San Diego and the University of Southern California over the Alzheimer’s research institute? Seems that USC—described as running a “massive fundraising machine in a quest to raise $6 billion and add to their $4.5 billion endowment—lured away expert faculty member Paul Aisen, key staff, research data and about $100 million in research grants.
- Or maybe you saw how the University of Washington and Tsinghua University are launching the Global Innovation Exchange with $40 million in support from Microsoft?
- How about the story of Monsanto and other corporate influences actively seeking faculty as “independent voices” in the fight about genetically modified foods?
- And one of the nation’s most recognizable higher ed brands, the University of Oregon, is fighting to improve its reputation as more than an undergraduate institution in order to attract more research funding, ensure its capital campaign success and keep its status in the AAU intact.
Make no mistake. Research reputation and the funding that follows it is a critical imperative for top universities. And as federal investment in basic research falls, getting grants, attracting innovative faculty, and luring industry-sponsored research have become key goals of every research university’s branding effort.
Building a research brand requires different approaches than building an institutional brand, supporting fundraising, or driving enrollment. Here are three tips to get you focused.
- Hey marketers, don’t underestimate the value of PR. For most colleges and universities, traditional methods for building research reputation centers on a drumbeat of pitching media and placing stories of breakthroughs, big grants and star faculty in media. In our study for Stevens Institute of Technology, a survey of university presidents, provost and admissions deans (those same people who vote reputation in rankings), cited media as a key influence. In the onslaught of new marketers and marketing tactics, do not undersell the role media relations has in building your research brand.
- Go to where the action is. Your offices of research, technology transfer, or corporate relations are the places faculty go for policies, process, and guidance in attracting and learning about research opportunities. The grant writers and support staff can be great sources for guiding where the latest wins and superstar faculty are hidden on your campus. Don’t wait for faculty to knock on the marketing communications door.
- Tell stories of impact, not of dollars. Often university research stories focus on the dollars granted to support the research. But they rarely tell of the impact or the real people passionate about doing the work. With the rise and opportunity afforded through content and digital marketing, you’ve got the opportunity to use your own channels to build research superstars.
Consider these terrific examples of innovative ways colleges and universities are trying to build their research brands:
- The University of California’s research Tumblr blog is a great example of curating and posting social content designed to be shared and followed. UC also has the terrific Fig 1 video series with animated shorts on various research topics. Several posts have topped more than 100,000 views on YouTube. A personal favorite, “We are Built to Be Kind,” has nearly 200,000 views.
- Colorado State University animal science professor Temple Grandin earned a Webby and broke the internet with the highest-rated “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session. It became the most popular and highest-rated in Reddit’s Science section.
- Florida International University developed a web app that helps local residents visualize the impact of rising seas on their neighborhoods.
- Finally, don’t be afraid to put faculty voices front and center. UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Blog has been pulling in faculty voices on newsworthy topics and op-eds for years now. These posts often lead to media placements and help establish experts and further the reputation of the campus as a true innovator.
As interim University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce said, “These days geeks rule.” Make sure your university brand strategy has research at its heart.