Lessons in Higher Education Marketing from Bob Dylan

Lessons in Higher Education Marketing from Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan wrote the academy award winning song, “Things Have Changed” in 1999. The chorus goes:

“People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed.”

Dylan’s sentiment could well be said of today’s marketplace.

People are crazy? Check.
Times are strange? Check.
Things have changed? CHECK!!


Things Have Changed

There was once a time when grandparents could speak wisdom into the life of grandchildren having lived in the same world. This is no longer the case.

1950-2010 saw more societal change than any previous 60-year span. Our world may never change so much so quickly ever again.

Academy award winning songs (like Dylan’s) could be heard on vinyl records → then 8-track tapes → cassette tapes → CDs → MP3s → streaming audio on your smartphone all within this timeframe.

As soon as we embraced one technology, we were on to the next.

Families gathered around one black and white TV in the 1950’s. Then TV’s moved into every household bedroom, so you could watch whatever you wanted by yourself. They were added to kitchens, waiting rooms and even restrooms. Next came flat screens plastered on every sports bar wall. Now they fit in pant pockets and have customizable features. I sometimes watch spectrum TV on my phone on lunch breaks.

Families and communities have been fragmented by the technologies that once connected us. What was once used for mass communication, one dose at a time, now represents the most individualized, instant and constant aspects of society.

The marketplace thrived on individual customization.
“Have it your way” became Burger King’s most successful campaign. Subway’s create-your-own model exploded. Build-a-Bear (toy store where children build their own personalized stuffed bear) was founded in 1997 and is now worth over $200MM. The toy industry was one of the first adopters with customizable Mr. Potato Heads and Barbie Dolls.

The marketplace thrived on being instant.
The internet was created and connection speeds increased. Software that was point-in-time/manual is now real-time/automated. No need to wait for your TV show—just Netflix it, YouTube it or watch it “On-Demand”. The most used terms in marketing copywriting became “now” and “today.”

So what does this mean for marketers?

Business models should cater to the “have it your way” and the “now.” This will become more prominent as generations Y and Z move further into the marketplace. We recently applied this notion with our online genetics program in my role at Southern California University of Health Sciences. Instead of offering a full package at $5K, we busted it apart into a-la-carte options, 100% online, “on demand”.

SCU found a niche in accelerated one-off science courses that meet the market need for future health professionals looking for pre-reqs. We are moving courses online and looking at a lab-in-a-box shipping model opening the market and allowing students to take courses how/when they want across the continental US.

There are endless options to personalize emails these days. At SCU, we set up email flows with merge fields to auto-populate prospective students’ info. Email messages and experience differs based on the status in the funnel and previous activity.
While email can be useful for customization, it can also employ the “now” tactics. I have seen off-the-chart results with salesy emails by using a value+urgency=conversion formula. I create an offer that is hard to refuse, set a strict time limit, and watch the conversions roll in. These tactics can be executed in other mediums like social media and inbound marketing content offers as well. Read this article for examples of this strategy with results.

How could your business benefit from more customizable/instant options?

Consider the instant nature of marketing.
In the digital marketplace, every action you cause someone to take exponentially decreases the likelihood of conversion. Evaluate your websites, landing pages and ad strategy. Are there too many clicks? Build your request info/purchase forms into the product page—don’t make them look for it. A/B test your landing pages for every variable including special attention to top of page content. Bounce rate will increase if you don’t capture attention quickly.

Make sure page load speeds are optimized using Google’s Page Speed Insights. Search engine algorithms favor pages that are instantly accessible and most likely to meet your personal needs. Page speed and bounce rate are major factors in increasing your top of page rank.

This is an example of a landing page test we ran recently with focus on top of page content.

I switch out landing pages and do rigorous A/B/C/D testing every month. I change text and photography every 14 days for certain campaigns at higher spend levels.

Consider Facebook and LinkedIn’s new(ish) lead generation forms that auto populate customers’ first/last/email/phone. We have had outstanding results using these platforms at a low cost per lead.


Avoid the “See-What-Sticks” Method

The movement from traditional to digital marketing has helped with ad messaging in many ways. Now more than ever, platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Google give countless testing options. Ad managers have learned the throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method.

If that keyword doesn’t work, pause it.

If one of the A/B tests doesn’t perform, turn it off.

I have even seen companies swipe out one website for another real quick, just because they can.

While the “ad-copy-thrown-against-the-wall” method has some benefits, I suggest it has also created a lazy and often ineffective marketer.

Back in the day, marketers relied on deep research, methodical long term planning, qualitative focus groups, and quantitative surveys to inform campaigns. Once you printed the billboard, you were stuck with it. It forced you to think critically, know your audience, and live and die by your marketing decisions.

I considered many options when I was searching for an online MBA in marketing program. I found that many of today’s MBA programs exclude crucial research and go-to-market planning methods and jump straight to execution theory. Maybe this is in response to the “see what sticks” generation?

I have witnessed this mistake countless times. The first marketing ideas are often “website!”, “SEO!”, “instagram!”, “video!” – if this is the planning process, you’re on the wrong track!

We must resist the “see-what-sticks” method. Every go-to-market strategy should begin with deep research and a true marketing plan. It should be customized to the product; however I always use the analysis of industry, competition, market and current customers. Execution of messages and mediums comes last in the marketing plan.

Try to avoid marketing every product all at once hoping something works. This will waste your marketing dollars. Before deciding which product to focus on, you should analyze your business lines. Be strategic in selecting the product or business to push first. Look at the units driving the most revenue and get the most out of them before pulling the next lever. When I joined SCU, we had a limited marketing budget. I built a year over year strategy with heavier spend on high return programs in the first year. I always say it’s easier and more cost effective to take something from 80-90% than it is to get from 0-10%.


Think Outside the Digital Box

Don’t get me wrong—digital marketing is great. And as an EDU marketer, I highly recommend digital as one of the first options. But there are other methods to consider as part of the marketing mix. Certain market-capturing strategies will be left out if you have an exclusively digital mindset. Being practiced and comfortable with old school marketing tricks will give you an edge, especially if you surpass the law of diminishing returns on your digital spend strategy.

I have been fortunate to experience unprecedented results with growing institutions and businesses across a variety of sectors including higher education, consumer products, services and non-profits that have used outside-the-box methods. Many highly successful growth plans have included complete product and operational restructuring to meet market demands such as curricula changes and product offering adjustments. Don’t always accept the product you’re given. Marketers are a valuable resource in informing leaders on how to be most viable in the marketplace. I have also seen results from changing packaging, increasing customer service training and implementing call centers. We have identified and executed new lines of business altogether to capitalize on market opportunities. I helped bring a 5K run from around 1,000 to 5,000 runners through influencer targeting, partnerships and guerrilla/boots on the ground campaigns. We have also looked to secure federal, private and creative sub-prime financing options to increase revenue at SCU.

[Article: How to Market to Multipliers]

How can your business benefit from thinking outside the box?


People are Crazy and Times are Strange

The first words of Dylan’s chorus should resonate with 21st century marketers “people are crazy and times are strange.” Yes— this age of new media is still changing rapidly. We should be prepared for the New & Next by staying on top of the changing landscape.

Dylan’s chorus ends with “I used to care, but things have changed.” Marketers “used to care” about certain concepts that I would encourage us to embrace. I hope this article will help you think of new ways to evaluate your products and marketing plans to respond to the instant, customizable and outside the box nature of the 21st century. I’ve thrown a lot at you—and I would love to “see-what-sticks.” Please tweet me or send a direct message with your thoughts!


Luke Phillips
Luke Phillips
May 31, 2018