Teachers College, Columbia University is a graduate school of education, health and psychology in the heart of New York City. Even with their name recognition, it is still crucial to market to their potential students. Cutting through the noise in a “buyer’s market” has its challenges. We chatted with TC’s Director of Enrollment Marketing, Brooks Terry, to learn more about how his agency experience impacts his decisions for marketing an Ivy League school. Having access to the data in real-time through a dashboard, allows for Brooks and Converge to make smart decisions sooner based on campaign performance that directly impacts enrollment.
Brooks Terry (BT): As a marketer, you’re not going to a find a more complex and curious environment than that of a college or university. Even when I was at an agency working with higher ed clients, my favorite part was always coming to campus. Like any industry, it has its ups and downs, but there are so many interesting stories to tell. You have faculty who are premier thought leaders in their fields. But you also have the students, who bring a real passion and energy into the mix, that go on to do things that are changing the world. No two days are the same and it really is the only place where you can feel young and old at the same time.
(BT): At the 50,000 foot view, TC has an obvious world class brand and, from an outsider’s perspective you might think, “do you even need to market?” You do. We live in a buyer’s market and prospective students are more savvy than ever when it comes to researching and evaluating one school over another. We’re not going to hide the fact we are in the Ivy League, but that’s not enough. We needed to talk more openly and deliberately about our truths and what makes us unique, so we went and had some really meaningful conversations with our students, faculty, and alumni. They put a personal touch on our our differentiators. It’s things like offering a true depth and breadth of academic offerings, access to resources, lifelong learning, connections to peers and mentors, and becoming a part of a legacy of leaders. Take all that and add New York City as a backdrop and there really is no comparison.
(BT): When I stepped into my role earlier this year, I inherited a bit of a “tabula rasa” in terms of marketing process, policy, and practice. On one hand it’s great when you’re handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, but it’s a huge responsibility when people are relying on you to build an operation that’s sustainable. You have to take it one day at a time but, during my first few weeks, I had to tackle three huge projects: launching a number of comprehensive digital campaigns, producing video assets, and updating the view book. Making things more complicated was the reality that we were partnering with three different external vendors, which meant the potential for inconsistent branding was a real concern. It required careful planning and a lot of gut checking, because there really wasn’t a playbook to speak of and we were basically building the plane while flying it. But, honestly, that’s why I like working with partners and vendors that question my logic. I might be the client, but I need to be surrounded with people who are brave enough to ask if my strategy is the best because it might not be. I can admit when I’m wrong or, at least, not entirely right.
(BT): The beauty of all of this data we’re collecting is that it allows for some very cool analysis. At any given time I can look at a Converge University dashboard and see how click-through conversions compare to view-through’s or how one campaign’s cost per lead might be different than another’s and make adjustments accordingly. It wasn’t long ago that we added a new media element to a number of our campaigns and the results were pretty dramatic. It was a great fit for some, but highly underwhelming and expensive for others. For the latter we were able to basically press pause and put that money back into paid search, where it was limited by budget. It wasn’t always so easy to get that macro view and take action.
But even better, we’re able to use campaign links to track inquiries directly into Slate, which is amazing. Now we’re able to tell which creative and which media are truly the winning combination and understand ROI much more clearly from program to program. It’s one thing to apply UTMs for tracking through analytics and see user behaviors on your website, but being able to see how campaigns can move the needle when it comes to inquiries is next level.
(BT): In general, higher education moves at a pace that is decidedly different from that of an agency. Working in Midtown Manhattan it’s “Go! Go! Go!” and at a university you have to be more open to getting feedback from internal key stakeholders on marketing and mindful of aligning campaigns with institutional initiatives, which can make the process move at a slower pace. I can’t say one approach is better than the other, but they are very different.
In this particular case, I found that some constituents on campus lacked a fundamental understanding of marketing, which meant there was a lot of educating that had to happen before we could launch some high stakes campaigns. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but we’re making gains one conversation at a time. We’re happy to share because we don’t want marketing to be a best-kept-secret and we want to manage expectations.
(BT): In general, having an agency partner that has a real depth of understanding, not just in digital strategies, but in higher education is really helpful. Based on our shared experiences, I think we were able to devise a strategy and move fairly quickly, which was very important for the college. Certainly, at the top of the funnel, we’re seeing activity we’ve haven’t typically experienced in the past and are able to report that activity in almost real time, which is great. We’ve also been able to stage some mid funnel interventions—re-engaging stalled apps and inquiries, for example—that have made a difference.
(BT): The word is out about TC in a new and sophisticated way and really, anything you can possibly measure is going in the right direction. In terms of awareness, traffic on admissions-related pages is significantly up year over year, as are the inquiries, which we can directly attributed to our campaigns. That’s really encouraging. We obviously have a long way to go until the start of the Fall ‘19 semester, but we’re feeling positive based on the early momentum.
(BT): I think we’re going to continue to innovate our marketing beyond top-funnel initiatives. Even after prospective students are admitted, you have to continue to appeal to them throughout yield and melt because, again, prospective students have the freedom of choice. We’ve made gains in the last year, but we need to continue to think about the kinds of messaging that provide the highest impact and the channels that are the most appropriate so messages break through the clutter. There are a lot of choices and, in the absence of an unlimited budget, we need to very thoughtful and strategic there.
(BT): First concert: The Four Tops (I was very young and had no idea what was going on). Tie between Fargo and Kingpin (I’m a fan of quotable movies and both are loaded with them). Something unique? Zac Efron, Lee Harvey Oswald and I have the same birthday (that’s where the similarities end.)
Brooks will be participating in the marketing panel at Converge 2019 in Atlanta. Register now so you can get the opportunity to engage with Brooks and learn more about enrollment marketing.