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Nuggets from the 2007 AMA Higher Ed Symposium

A field report by Ken Steele, summarizing the best “nuggets” gleaned from presentations at the annual conference in San Diego.

The annual American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education is being held November 11-14 2007 at the Sheraton Marina in San Diego. Besides me, there are only about a dozen registered delegates from Canada, including reps from Memorial, uAlberta, Mount Royal College, Red River College, SAIT, St. Jerome’s, uGuelph, UofT, York, and the Sauder School of Business. (I’m doing my best to find them, but Canadians don’t tend to stand out in a crowd.)


San Diego is a balmy 23 degrees, with 80% humidity and alternating rainstorms and sunshine. The fact is, though, that the conference keeps me so busy I get outside only for a few minutes a day, to wander down to the waterfront and admire the cruise liners sailing past. The organizers announce record-breaking attendance — 530 delegates — because the sector is growing, but I suspect also because the location is appealing.

As I attend sessions and speak with delegates, I am impressed by just how different the US market is for higher education. Not just that private institutions are generally more respected than public ones (the polar opposite of Canadian attitudes), but that with some 3,000 small universities scattered across the country, each of them operates on a much smaller scale than their Canadian counterparts. Very few of them have a national draw — they market regionally, often to a very specific segment. (Xavier University, for example, targets kids in Jesuit high schools within 200 miles.) I imagine they would LOVE to be in a simpler market like Canada, in which less than a hundred universities compete for attention nationwide.

Delegates receive a binder literally 3 inches thick with handouts from the presentations, plus a softcover book containing the presentation abstracts, plus the promise that all powerpoints will be posted to the web. With 55 keynotes, concurrent sessions and optional workshops, I can’t attend it all — and rather than try to share all my notes, I’m going to focus on just a few nuggets of gold, the best points made by the speakers I’ve heard here.



Dr. Tom Hayes, Professor of Marketing, Xavier University, was the founder of this Symposium before the AMA took it on, about 18 years ago. Much of what he had to say in this introductory workshop was, naturally, basic. But here were a few nuggets worth highlighting:

– When selling an intangible service, physical cues or evidence become critical. The best way to persuade prospective students and parents that your campus is safe, without saying a word, is to focus on cleanliness. (Not call boxes, security guards, or statistics.) Adopt a campus-wide policy that “if you see a piece of trash, you own that piece of trash”, from the chancellor down to the groundskeepers, and students will follow suit.

– In the minds of consumers, services are inseparable from the people who deliver them. Colleges need to hire people for the right attitude, develop processes to ensure consistent service delivery, train them to live the brand, and empower them to fix inevitable mistakes when they happen.

– Value = Benefits – Costs.  A simple equation.  But instead of trying to lower tuition rates or increase scholarships and bursaries, look at ways to reduce the non-financial costs — opportunity costs, physical risk, anxiety, hassle, social costs.

– At most campuses, people find marketing like they find religion — only in a crisis. Sometimes if you don’t have a crisis, you need to create one in order to get serious strategic attention and resources. Projections, competitive intelligence, market research can all be catalysts.



Richard Hesel, Art & Science Group, and John Pryor, UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. John Pryor is director of HERI, which has surveyed over 8 million incoming US freshmen over the past 40 years (CIRP). They regard Howe & Strauss’s Millennial theory as “pop sociology, absurd to the point of laughability,” and set about testing Millennial theory against their 40-year longitudinal data:

– Howe & Strauss based their entire theory on very limited quantitative evidence: a survey of two high schools in Fairfax Virginia. Their study is biased toward white middle-class kids, the survey was administered by teachers in the classroom, and “don’t know” responses are routinely discarded in their analysis.

– CIRP data actually contradict some claims Howe & Strauss make for the Millennial generation. CIRP shows no change in time spent socializing since 1988, and a steady decrease in time spent on homework. Freshman preoccupation with material success peaked in the mid-1970s and has stayed high ever since. Since 2005, students have indeed become more focused on helping others, but rather than a Millennial effect it seems to be attributable to the Pacific Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Since the mid-80s US freshmen have been less and less religious.

– A survey of 1228 applicants for the College Board asked them to compare their generation to their parents’ generation. Today’s applicants said their generation was more likely to use profanity, under greater pressure to achieve, more interested in money and wealth, more likely to wear suggestive clothing, more likely to cohabit before marriage, more willing to take risks, and more likely to experience emotional problems.

– The Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood (RNTA), funded by the MacArthur Foundation, has found that the current generation is less connected to society, more cynical about people, more liberal, but also have a greater expectation of a world war 3.


Brother Basil Valente, Dr. Pauline Hoffman, Heidi Ofinowicz, St. Bonaventure University.

– Research showed that faculty, students and alumni felt that Franciscan values were what distinguished St. Bonaventure — but that prospective students and the general public had no idea what that meant. The new marketing materials make Franciscan values more concrete, as embracing all religions, service work, respect and dignity of the individual.

– Even St. Bonaventure students were not strongly attracted by religious affiliation. But they were attracted by the sense of community, human interaction, and international service work — specific manifestations of the religious foundation of the institution.


Dr. William Durden, president of Dickinson College, has turned the institution around in just 9 years at the helm, reversing a deficit and declining enrolment, creating a strong sense of institutional identity and brand. He considers himself “an academic entrepreneur.”

– The best marketing doesn’t show the effort.  PR has been successful when the national media call YOU for a story, and when donors call YOU to offer money.

– Effective brand marketing has to tell a story, and it has to connect to the larger world. A story requires a protagonist (hero), antagonist (foil), and clear goals. At Dickinson, they uncovered the founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who advocated for minority and women’s rights, and founded Dickinson College because he felt the other US colleges were too colonial, too tied to Britain.  He wanted Dickinson College to be “a petulant brat.”

– Dickinson’s new brand ties this brand narrative together with patriotic pride and youthful rebellion. “The revolution is never over — we have to live it every day.” The fundraising campaign has raised more in 2 years than Dickinson raised in its first 223 years. And the video he played for us was uplifting and exciting — no wonder it worked! (If you don’t have 12 minutes to watch it straight through, watch the first 2 minutes and the last 2 minutes to get the brand message straight.)


Justin Gillmar, Director of Marketing Strategy, DePaul University, presented results of recent research he conducted to understand the decision cycle of part-time adult undergraduates and part-time masters students applying to DePaul.

– Faculty often get new programs approved in Spring, and approach marketing to fill their classes by fall.  In fact, the decision cycle is 3 to 9 months — and having the research evidence has made it much easier to refuse to run advertising with just 2 months to go.

– Whether students applied for fall or winter semesters, they all described a key trigger at Christmas or New Years. Talking with co-workers at holiday parties, letters from high school friends, interactions with family, or new years resolutions were precipitating factors for deciding to go back to school and finish an undergrad degree, or start a graduate one.

– DePaul has compressed awareness-building advertising into the October to November period, and the January to March period. Hands-on recruitment efforts are focused on the April to September period. Recruiting events have been rescheduled accordingly.


Mont Rogers is responsible for market research at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia. He commissioned a national awareness survey of 1,000 US households, dialed at random, and weighted to reflect the US population by age and region. Some key findings of general interest:

– Only Harvard and Yale had consistent top-of-mind awareness across the country. Other institutions were top-of-mind in their regions, such as UCLA, MIT, Princeton, or Duke, but ultimately “education is a regional business” (at least in the US).

– The top 20 US colleges in unaided recall all had NCAA Division I sports teams, except MIT. In the US market, college sports is a vital part of awareness building.

– There is a statistical correlation between aided public awareness and US News & World Report rankings for peer assessment and graduation rate. Could peer assessments really hinge on awareness? Could enhanced selectivity lead to greater awareness?



Lois Kelly is co-founder of Foghound and author of Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word of Mouth Advertising. She delivered this morning’s keynote address to the conference.

– Her main message was that marketing is moving from one-way to two-way communication, a dialogue, a conversation, which can build relationships. (This is what’s called Web 2.0, if you haven’t heard!)  Lois observed that it’s difficult for big business to surrender control, the habitual “command and control” mindset, but she is astounded how many voices of caution appear in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

– Don’t kid yourself — you have never actually been able to control your brand, which is in the minds of consumers, so Web 2.0 is no different, except that now you can hear what they’re saying about you.

– Consumers are delighted just to be heard. 82% are more likely to recommend after being heard, and 52% more likely to purchase. They love the opportunity to rate stories or links. They are motivated to interact in order to express their own identity, gain a sense of belonging, achieve some kind of status or esteem, and to help other people.

– Social networking requires marketers to be good dinner party hosts: telling a few good stories, listening with genuine interest, drawing people out, and introducing them to one another. It you don’t do it well, they’ll move on to a better dinner party.

– Be sure that your messages are real, genuine, and not too obviously stilted or scripted. Lois thought that, of the thousands of college videos on YouTube, this Memphis College of Art video was among the best:


Tim Copeland (now at SunGard Higher Education) was at Georgia Tech when he conducted a survey of undergraduate enrolment leaders at 251 colleges across the US.

– The top pilot projects right now are in online video, blogs and podcasts. Expect to see these multiply rapidly on college websites next year. Many schools are uploading their TV spots to YouTube.

– 30% of respondents think social networks aren’t appropriate for recruitment activity, and another 28% say there’s not enough proof that it will work to get involved.

– A simple website,, started by a high school dropout, gets 7 million visitors a month, just selling graphics to personalize MySpace pages. More schools should offer downloadable items to augment people’s MySpace and Facebook profiles.

– Email is not dead. Recent surveys show 61% of kids aged 14-17, and 70% of kids 18-20, use their email daily. The trick is to establish a relationship, get permission, so your email doesn’t end up in the spam filter.

– Instant Messaging was a really hot trend 3 or 4 years ago at US colleges, but most schools found they couldn’t staff the IM service when the students wanted to use it, in the middle of the night.


Andy Sernovitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking, delivered the lunch keynote address today, and had some great observations about how to generate WOM:

– Most importantly, give people a reason to talk about you. People love to share news, secrets, insider information. They like to look smart, important, and to be helpful to others. A good reason for WOM is not obvious, and it generally won’t look good in a brochure or ad — often it’s a tangent from your core brand messages, and that’s OK.

– Make it easier for them to talk. Use email, which is eminently shareable. Include links to “share with a friend” on every page. Give people something that creates a conversation. Never let them leave your booth or your campus without cool things they can share with their friends.

– Don’t use incentives: they backfire. Offer people a reward to talk to their friends, and they will decide not to jeopardize their friendship and will ignore your program.

– People love to belong to a group. Microsoft had 5 million people sign up to beta-test Microsoft Office.Makers Mark whiskey has an ambassador program with 500,000 members, who hand out cards in bars and know that their name is on a brass plaque on a barrel of whiskey somewhere (in 12 years they will get the first bottle of whiskey from the barrel).


An interesting workshop facilitated by Laurent de Janvry (UC Berkeley) and Robin Wray (Johns Hopkins) on the perennial challenge of campus structure, budget and controls. Two hours with lots of interesting stories shared, but here are a few highlights:

– Marketing structure typically mirrors brand architecture. The brand spectrum runs from a “branded house” like Toyota (which has many cars but advertises under one brand), to “sub-brands” (say, the name of your business school runs as a line under your university logo), to “endorsed brands” (your university name runs as a line under your business school’s logo), to the “house of brands” (like Procter and Gamble, in which individual brands are marketed but not the overall brand).

– Most universities and colleges have a hybrid (compromise) structure. It is almost impossible to fully centralize or fully decentralize, and there are pros and cons to each. Typically the deans or departments should be given a good deal of control over text content for messages.

– To create greater centralization, typically you need unflinching support from the very top, and some kind of crisis as catalyst. Or a major capital campaign.

– The best way to get units onside is to provide them with market intelligence they cannot afford to gather themselves, to offer expertise they don’t have, and to promise them enhanced results they care about.

– You need to decide whether you want your marketing communications office to be a strategic driver or simply an order taker. It will take several years to move from order-taker to strategic driver. Most schools wind up with some sort of compromise.

– The group seemed to agree that external costs should be charged back to campus units, but that charging back the time of people in the mar/com department is a recipe for trouble.

– In a decentralized model, colleagues across the campus won’t get together to talk unless the central marketing communications office organizes a get-together. These can be invaluable.


The final day of the conference. Quite a few people have left early, either to get back to work or to go off and explore Mexico (20 minutes by trolley car) or Las Vegas (a bit longer drive). But your diligent reporter stuck it out to see what else was worth capturing for his Canadian readers!


Joe Hice, AVP of PR and Marketing at the University of Florida, was previously a VP at Hill & Knowlton and a marketing executive at Harley Davidson and Segway. He captivated the audience by sharing with us the story of how UF capitalized on the NCAA success of the Gators basketball and football teams, and coped with the less happy addition to campus lore, “Don’t Tase Me Bro!”

– The media impact of NCAA sports leaves us Canadians dumbfounded. 1400 media outlets cover the game, 58.4 million Americans tune in, and its broadcast in 88 countries, on cruise ships, in virtually every corner of the world. 70 media trucks came to the UF campus. They would be foolish not to try to capitalize on it, even with only 5 weeks’ notice.

– The UF Gators are a strong team that has a massive national fan following. But most people have no idea where UF is located, much less what it does. The campaign slogan works to reinforce both: “The University of Florida is in Gainsville. The Gator Nation is Everywhere!” Through multiple channels, UF repeatedly emphasized some key research advances that supported the NCAA theme — the invention of Gatorade, air-chilled shoulder pads, etc. They sent engineering students on a road trip to display them, on their way to the big game.

– With thousands of alumni in Phoenix for the big game, UF bought TV spots and mobile billboards to promote their research, and the microsite, (Traffic hit 12,000 unique visitors A DAY on the microsite, and 400,000 on the main UF site.) This 60-second spot is fun and effective, integrating “Go Gators!” with “Go write the great American novel” and “Go cure cancer”:

– UF encouraged alumni, students, and fans to create their own “Go ___” videos, and a staggering 18,000 videos were submitted!


Kevin Mark Drexel, of the Princeton Review, shared the results of a survey of registered users of his education portal. Many of his findings reinforced findings of Academica Group’s UCAS surveys, but some findings were particularly useful for undergrad recruitment:

– Two-thirds of applicants spend more than 50% of their search time online. Social networking is rapidly climbing as a key forum, and may be edging out blogs as the preferred source of “real” perspective. Facebook is far more important than MySpace.

– 30% of students who drop your college from consideration say it’s because you don’t offer the program they want. But 94% of the time, you actually DO offer the program — they just weren’t able to find it quickly on your website. It is critical to offer students redundant ways to access program information, using language that is meaningful to the students (not just officially-sanctioned program names).

– Undergrad applicants start out thinking logically, about “investment benefits” like successful alumni, career outcomes, and return on investment. But later in the enrolment cycle, they are thinking much more emotionally, about “consumption benefits” like campus, residences, athletic facilities, and the like. Grad applicants, on the other hand, never seem much interested in consumption benefits at all.

– Critical content on your website is admission requirements, program offerings, reputation-oriented material, and the opportunity to communicate with an admissions officer. Don’t hide these functions behind flash and glitter.


Laurent de Janvry (UC Berkeley) presented a useful overview of qualitative and quantitative research methodology, tips, and examples from his work at UC Berkeley. He offered some useful ideas:

– When conducting research, always develop a handful of guiding questions that represent the broad subject areas you need to explore. Reprint those guiding questions at the top of all focus group discussion guides, survey drafts, and reports, to keep research focused.

– Academics are trained nit-pickers. It’s far better to get their input, revisions, and buy-in up front with the instrument, than to suffer all the same criticisms after the field work, when they will regard the shortcomings as invalidating the study.

– To test your website, use a call centre in reverse. Bring students into a call centre, and have them “think out loud” into a recording while using your website.

– will only do anonymous surveys. This allows respondents to complete the survey multiple times, and also makes it impossible to tie responses back to alumni or student records in another database.

– Lo left us with this haiku:

Data shines from the screen
As a wave turns rocks to sand
At last, buy in.

That was it for the conference. After 4 days, 40 Top Ten items and this oh-so-long blog, I’m ready to hit the airport tomorrow at 5am and head home.  Next year’s AMA Higher Ed Symposium will be held in Chicago.

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