Insights — Research Was Made For Times Like These

Research Was Made For Times Like These

Elizabeth Scarborough , Thought leadership , Research , Future of Higher Ed Marcom / March 30, 2021
Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson
Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson

Last March, the role of the higher education marketer and communicator changed in an instant. Long-term planning went out the door, sacrificed for just keeping up with day-to-day decision-making and pandemic communications. Institutions had to shift to remote instruction overnight. Residence halls emptied. Admission offices had to enroll a class without the ability to hold in-person events for admitted students. All communication with internal and external audiences shifted to virtual. The demands on higher ed marketers became very near-term focused.

At SimpsonScarborough, the regular cadence of research projects subsided while our web & digital work skyrocketed. It’s an understandable shift. Market research is designed to inform strategy, and strategy is a long-term game. The web and digital work our clients were demanding had a short-term and more immediate focus, helping them respond to the virtual environment that had been thrust upon us all. But beginning in Q4 of 2020, clients started pressing play on research projects again, and now research work is surging. That's a sign that higher education marketers are now able to lift their heads above the chaos of COVID and think about marketing strategy again.

The brightest and most effective marketers I know have a voracious appetite for research and insight. We built SimpsonScarborough on that same foundation — with research at the center of everything we do so we can empower higher ed marketers with the data they need to advance their brands and reputations, enroll students, and raise money.


Research Creates Clarity & Inspires Confidence

Years ago, we were hired by a university to conduct a study of alumni. The institution had eliminated the print version of the alumni magazine three years prior and replaced it with an online-only version. On the face of it, you can understand why any institution might consider such a change. The alumni magazine is expensive and time-consuming. But, you can guess what happened to alumni engagement and giving — both went down dramatically. The university lost far more in giving than they saved by producing only an online version of the magazine.

We were brought in to conduct qualitative and quantitative research to explore these issues and devise a strategy to turn it around. As part of our qualitative work, we held several focus groups with alumni. One of the questions we asked participants was, “Do you feel more or less up to date about university news as a result of the magazine shifting to online only?” When we presented all the qualitative and quantitative data to the board, we decided to share an audio clip from one of the focus groups. (Listen to the clip. You won’t be sorry.) When the board members heard it, there was immediate and unanimous agreement that the print version of the alumni magazine should go back into production. This is a perfect example of one of the best benefits of market research: it creates incredible clarity and inspires confidence (in front of the board, no less). There was no debate: producing a print version of the alumni magazine was unequivocally the right decision.


Research Makes the Case for Marketing

The impact of conducting market research often goes way beyond simply providing insights and information. A couple years ago, we conducted an extensive brand perception study for a medium-sized, selective, private university. The institution had a true marketing budget of about $80,000, not including salaries (obviously).

The perception study included extensive qualitative and quantitative research with prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, guidance counselors, alumni, donors, and higher ed peers. The entire purpose of the study was to help the university build a modern marketing program. The board was plugged into the research project from beginning to end — it was the first time in the institution’s history that the board had been exposed to such rich data on internal and external perceptions of the university and they loved it. The board found the data shocking in some ways, reassuring in others, affirming in still others.

In the end, the data was used to build a plan that required a $1.2M annual investment in the marketing function, permanently. I will never forget the ability to hear a pin drop when I recommended that figure to the board. After what felt like an eternity of silence, the board chair finally spoke up and asked, “Well... are you sure that’s enough to accomplish our goals?”

There is zero chance that the institution’s board would have approved a 1,400% increase in the marketing budget without the data to support the recommended strategies and tactics. While this is an especially dramatic example, this type of exchange has happened countless times. Since founding SimpsonScarborough, I’ve never once recommended to the board decreasing the marketing budget — not just because I’m an advocate of marketing, but because the data we’ve collected has never led us to that conclusion.

Consider for a moment who sits on the board of directors for any given institution: leaders of industry. Whether their expertise lies in business, medicine, or public policy, industry leaders rely on veritable data to inform strategic decision-making. So the next time you want to advocate for a substantive increase in your institutional marketing budget, perform market research and present your findings to the board.


Research Encourages Data-Driven Decision-Making

Over the years, we’ve studied prospects, parents, and guidance counselors hundreds of times to help institutions improve enrollment results. We’ve conducted countless alumni studies to improve performance on engagement and giving.  We’ve partnered with institutions to conduct studies that explore the viability of changing the name of an institution. And, we’ve conducted many, many research projects to generate the foundational data that leads to the development of an institutional brand platform and creative platform.

We were brought in to conduct qualitative and quantitative research with prospective students to assess the impact of an institution’s recruitment marketing campaign. The campaign had been in the market for three years, and enrollment was increasing. But, over time, faculty and staff began to question the messaging of the campaign; they worried it portrayed the institution more like a technical school than a liberal arts college.

We conducted interviews and a survey with prospective students and found that literally no one who viewed the campaign concluded that the institution sounded like a technical school. Like actually zero. Faculty and staff were asking the marketing department to develop a new campaign when the one they were using was working, driving results, and sending exactly the intended message to prospective students. Thankfully, the campaign’s most prominent critic stood up in a large meeting after I was presented the findings and said, “You know what? I was wrong. I can see clearly from this data that this campaign is telling the correct story about our college. I think we should continue using it.” 


Consider for a moment who sits on the board of directors for any given institution: leaders of industry. Whether their expertise lies in business, medicine, or public policy, industry leaders rely on veritable data to inform strategic decision-making.

So the next time you want to advocate for a substantive increase in your institutional marketing budget, perform market research and present your findings to the board.


Research Dispels Long-held Anecdotes & Misperceptions

I once had a president tell me, “Our [California-based] university is better known in the East than we are in the Midwest." Three months later, we were able to show that was not true.

I once had a group of faculty insist their institution was well-known for the service orientation of their students and campus community. Turns out that wasn’t true.

I once had a client tell me his institution was perceived far more positively out-of-state than it was in-state. That wasn't true either. 

Yet, one of the most alarming trends in our Higher Ed CMO Study is that "Anecdotal Opinions of Reputation" continues to be the first or second-most used metric by University Presidents to gauge the success and impact of the marketing department. (Shameless plug: The 2021 Higher Ed CMO Study is coming soon — signup to stay informed here.)

That’s not to say that our findings never reinforce was already seems to be known. Many times, participants in presentations of our final research report will say, “Well, we already knew that.” And, my response is almost always, “That’s a good thing! Now you have the confidence to act on it.”


Research Informs Strategic Decisions

  • What is the demand for new graduate and certificate programs we are considering building?
  • How can we best capture and convey what is unique about our brand?
  • How can we best integrate the messaging of the colleges and schools within our university for maximum impact on awareness and visibility?


Research Addresses Tactical Issues

  • What messages about our college resonate best with alumni?
  • What tactics can we use to build our reputation among our peers in higher ed?
  • Which key target audiences should we target with each of our social channels?
  • How are alumni and donors responding to our campaign creative?


Research Was Built for Times Like These

Marketing programs built on gut instinct, creative energy, and past experience alone are not as effective as those that are research and data-driven. Regular and on-going qualitative and quantitative market research are essential components of an effective marketing program. It’s not a luxury and it’s not an expense — it’s an investment and an insurance policy. The power and impact of primary research data are undeniable so long as we have the fidelity to follow where the data lead.

The pandemic has substantively and permanently changed the ways we live, work, and learn — but research was built for times like these. And the institutions collecting new, relevant, and actionable data to inform and design their institutional strategies are the ones who will thrive as we adjust to the next normal.


Elizabeth Johnson needs no introduction here, but we'll give her one anyway. As Founding Partner and Chairman of SimpsonScarborough, she's helped more than 300 institutions increase visibility, strengthen enrollment, raise money, and advance their brands. A staunch advocate for the role of CMO within higher ed, her work is fueled by an enduring belief that higher education changes the world. When she's not working, you can usually find her outside — hiking, golfing, or skiing with one of her four college-aged kids. Learn more about Elizabeth & the rest of our team here

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