Elizabeth Keserauskis

Building relationships and making connections

College Rankings: Popularity Contest or External Credibility?

Last week was what many in higher education considered a stressful week. The U.S.News and World Report rankings were released to the schools on Monday (8/16), with a press embargo until 12:00 midnight Eastern time Tuesday. So most college communications teams spent the day either breathing a sigh of relief and sending the release that they achieved a good rank, or frantically scrambling to craft the message drawing attention away from the fact that they slipped in the rankings.

In addition to the usual stress, U.S. News made significant changes to the methodology and presentation of the rankings this year. Full details can be found on their blog, but in summary they:

  • changed the category names
  • listed all schools, not just the top tier
  • increased the weight of the graduation rate
  • included the opinion of high school counselors in the calculation

There has always been a question about whether rankings like these and countless others are just a popularity contest, or rather a valid external assessment of college choices for prospective students and their parents. The subjective opinions of peers, and now this year high school counselors, factor into the rankings. The chief admissions officers, provosts and presidents of all colleges and universities have the opportunity to provide their opinion of the institutions in their geographic region. This peer assessment variable accounts for 25% of the total score–the most heavily weighted variable. If we are trying to assess outcomes of an institution, why aren’t the managers at companies hiring the graduates asked?

You could argue that this skews the rankings, as surely an institution can influence those opinions through a variety of communication channels timed with the survey response due date. Or, you can view this an opportunity to educate your peers on the accomplishments and accolades your institution has recently achieved, and create a communication strategy for this target audience.

Have you ever noticed how the underdogs who make it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament manage to place high in the rankings? (Think Butler, Northern Iowa this year.) And how the tournament is right around the time that the survey is completed? Coincidence? Or is that there is increased visibility and communication about those schools while they are featured on TV?

Assessment is always a big topic at universities. To me, this is one more way to assess success. There are qualitative and quantitive, objective and subjective, ways to measure nearly everything.

Additionally, when you increase factors like graduation rate, your overall score increases. So, in theory, would your rank.

Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, there is something to be said from a marketing perspective about credibility through external validation. Several of the categories, like Up and Comers and Focus of Student Success, are great to use in a communication strategy highlighting recent innovations you have added to your institution.

There are also those schools that do not appear on the rankings who try and use that to their advantage. I have seen taglines such as “awards won’t change the world, but our graduates will” on billboards.

Has anyone asked whether prospective students and parents are using these rankings in their decision making process? If you appear favorably in the rankings, are you calling attention to it and asking your prospective students and parents to pay attention?

An article appeared in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education in 2008, titled De-Mystifying the U.S. News Rankings: How to Understand What Matters, What Doesn’t and What You can Actually Do About It. I highly recommend reading this article.

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August 22, 2010 Posted by | higher education, marketing, public relations, reputation management | , , , , | Leave a comment

How *NOT* to Ruin Your Reputation Online

I work with the student athletes here on campus to improve their skills in working with the media, but also to help them develop their reputation online. Or more immediately- how not to ruin their reputation online. I am always looking for articles, stories and examples of how social media can negatively impact a career, education or reputation to pass on to them. These are the most recent ones I have added to the list.

Do you have any articles that would be good for me to share with our students?

August 18, 2010 Posted by | higher education, reputation management, resources, social media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

SIUE cited again in U.S. News rankings!

SIUE cited again in U.S. News rankings! http://bit.ly/siueusnews! One to watch for “innovative changes” for 2nd year in a row! #siue

August 17, 2010 Posted by | higher education, marketing, public relations | , , , | Leave a comment

What I’m Reading

I like to see the Standing Partnership “What We are Reading” list, so I thought I’d borrow that idea, and put my higher education lens on it!

  • We are in the process of hiring graduate assistants in our unit, so I was on the hunt for writing tests! PRSA had a few tips on how to select the best writer for a job.
  • Obviously, we are dealing with the millenials, Gen Y, whatever you wish to call them today. Many of us are hiring them at our workplaces. The Wall Street Journal published a very interesting article examining what a disservice social networking is doing for them as they enter the corporate world: Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues.
  • Is blogging really good for your business? Hubspot quantifies an aspect of the ROI of blogging for you! Hint: small businesses that blog have 55% more website visitors!

July 30, 2010 Posted by | higher education, marketing, resources | , , , | Leave a comment

The Rationale for Centralized Marketing Structure in Universities

I recently drafted a memo internally discussing proposed organizational changes. Though targeted toward higher education, the points are well made for any industry:

The rules have changed for marketing and communications professionals both in general, but especially at the university level. We are challenged to keep up with constantly evolving technology and consumer behavior patterns, even more so with the advent of the Internet and the explosion of social media marketing tools. The good news is that we have greater and more direct access to our customers, reducing the reliance on the traditional news media to communicate with our audiences.

The field of traditional public relations has evolved such that greater skills than just crafting the attention-grabbing press release are critical to job success.  Public relations materials are now for more than just mainstream media audiences. Our audiences do not just want to see our organization on TV or in the newspaper; they want to see us on the web. Marketers are now challenged with helping customers move through the decision-making process with great online content; providing authenticity, not spin; and encouraging participation, not generating propaganda.

Communicating in the 21st century requires us to consider the following factors:

  • We are in a competitive, global marketplace
  • This is a 24/7 media environment—not just the traditional 9a-5p
  • The marketplace is extremely consumer-centric
  • Consumers have an expectation of governance and fiscal responsibility

Challenges we must overcome include providing context and perspective, demonstrating our competitive advantage, and ensuring our customers have a consistent message and experience.

In the traditional PR environment, organizations or units at a university could effectively function with a single individual generating press releases and responding in a reactive media environment. Today, teams of professionals are better suited to proactively tell the stories of success, and distribute those stories via all appropriate channels: through the website, video, publications, social media outlets, traditional media outlets, direct-to-consumer communication, and so much more.

All of these advances in the marketing and communications field present opportunities, but also the challenge of remaining professionally current in the field. Being part of a larger team or unit allows an individual to participate in more non-traditional professional development by learning from their teammates.

Given the fiscal challenges of both the federal and state governments (especially my home state of Illinois) and the tough budget times we face ahead, we must find ways to be more efficient and take advantage of existing resources—now more than ever before. We no longer have the luxury of separate marketing teams for various areas of the University. In addition to meeting the new challenges in the marketing field, it is fiscally more responsible to have one consolidated group that can address the marketing needs of various areas and the University as a whole.

July 27, 2010 Posted by | higher education, leadership, marketing, public relations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your Customers Telling Your Story

I am sitting here in Clayton Studios working with Dick Ulett and Brenda Bertts Long to record the radio ads for SIUE. Our first campaign about a year and a half ago told the stories of success at SIUE through the eyes of faculty and students. We had such a quick turnaround time that we chose to use professional voice talent.

This year, we decided to tell the stories of success literally through our students and faculty. We asked for nominations from our staff and faculty of students who had great stories of success to tell. We then auditioned everyone, and selected a great pool of students to be the “voices of SIUE”.

I have to admit, I was extremely nervous about the level of talent we would find in the student body. Boy was I pleasantly surprised! We have amazing talent on campus for radio voices! Now we are in the studio today recording the ads with our students. It is amazing. They are so inspiring and have such great stories to tell with such energy and excitement! Talk about authentic—most places strive to bring this out of their actors. We are getting it right out of the gate!

Having your customers tell your story for you (and yes, students are our customers!!) is so powerful. I am excited to also see how this will play out in the rest of our media—billboards, print ads, blogging, and so much more. I really do hope that this strategy will resonate with prospective students and parents—hearing the stories from our students.

And by the way, Brenda Bertts Long, Dick Ulett and Clayton Studios are absolutely amazing and great to work with! I highly recommend them.

April 26, 2010 Posted by | connecting, higher education, marketing | , , , , | Leave a comment

Tree Pollen Distribution Has Similar Success to Direct Mail

It dawned on me the other day as I was trying without success to get the pollen off my windshield that the pollen distribution strategy of trees in the spring is remarkably similar to the traditional, unsolicited direct mail strategy. My gross overgeneralization of unsolicited direct mail strategy is that you cast a HUGE net over a very loosely targeted area to people who have not tried to start a dialog with your company or about your product/service with your direct mail pieces, hoping you get a response that will eventually turn into a sale.

Trees release a HUGE amount of pollen, over whatever area they can get using wind as the distribution strategy. That area is not necessarily the right area, as much of the pollen lands on concrete, houses, cars, etc. Then the tree has to pray that the seeds can make it into the ground, that rain falls, and then that successful germination occurs. We still haven’t made it to the “sale” part of the equation, because now the tree has to hope that someone doesn’t pull it out of the ground, or mow their grass before it can grow tall, or that some animal doesn’t find it a tasty treat.

See how this is remarkably similar to unsolicited direct mail?? The advantages that the trees have that has allowed this strategy to remain successful are:

  • They have a lot of time to be patient and wait for success. Their life cycle is long. If they don’t have successful germination and growth in one spring, they can try again for likely several hundred more springs.
  • There are a lot of the same trees out there doing the same thing.
  • They have “ambassadors” in that people are actively planting trees in the spaces they would like them to grow.

So can you and your business afford to spray your direct mail once a year, hope something sticks  and if not, just wait until the next spring? I would venture to guess not. Just one more piece of evidence why unsolicited, unqualified direct mail cannot be your only strategy.

April 26, 2010 Posted by | connecting, higher education, marketing, sales | , , , | 2 Comments

Convincing the Curmudgeon

What happens when someone in your organization, particularly someone who has decision making authority or budget control, is not convinced that the rules of marketing and public relations indeed have changed, especially with the advent of the internet and social media tools available to you?  What do you do, especially when they adamantly argue that if the process isn’t broken, why would you fix it?  How could you convince that type of curmudgeon to start employing some of the new techniques that will allow you to reach a greater audience, in a more authentic fashion, resulting in a greater return on your investments?

It is indeed a challenge and one that I recommend you tackle by starting with small victories and small samples of success.  For example, if your organization has never attempted to deploy a Google AdWords campaign or other search engine marketing strategies, perhaps you’d start with one small product or program, build that case and work then to show that there is value and a return on investment with a Google AdWords strategy. It doesn’t mean that you have to stop doing everything else that they’ve always been doing to promote that particular product or program, but you do this in conjunction with it so that you can compare the results of both strategies.

Interestingly though, if you’re embarking on a new strategy like Google AdWords, you’re often going to find that there are some other key pieces of your communications program that are not up to snuff in this case.  For example, when you’re starting a Google AdWords strategy or an SEO campaign, your website has to be written such that humans actually want to read it, but also contain the key phrases that are relevant to your particular search strategy. You’re going to have to start creating several variations of landing pages to test effectiveness of copy, call to action, and other parts of the sales process.

Almost equally important is whether your website or that particular micro-site or section of your website is doing a good job of moving people through the sales process. Traditionally, especially in higher education, people have been resistant to consider the recruitment and enrollment process as a sales cycle.

The reason it is important for everyone to understand that your website is a part of the sales conversation is that if you’re suddenly driving all of this great traffic to your website – potential customers, potential students, whoever it might be – but your website does not do a good job of converting them into true leads for your business or, ultimately, purchasers of your product or service, then you might as well burn a pile of dollar bills . If, when they get to your website, they are not converting, it’s like opening the doors to your business and allowing a bunch of people to come in the door but then telling them that we don’t want you to buy anything.

So, you really need to pay full attention to your web content before you embark on the search engine marketing strategy or search engine optimization strategy. Not only are there practical implications of your Google AdWords quality score getting slapped if the key phase is not on the page, etc., but also now that you have the great inquiry coming to your site, potential customers want to make sure that you’re converting them and leading them into, ultimately, sales – however you might define that.

It is mission critical to be sure and convince that program or service area of your website that it needs to a well oiled sales conversation machine and moving people though that great content. In a later blog post I will discuss how to develop the best content to move people through that great sales conversation.

In the meantime, be sure to create a few small victory opportunities to convince the curmudgeons in your company!

April 8, 2010 Posted by | higher education, leadership, marketing, sales | , , , | Leave a comment

The Immeasurable Success Measurements

I often wonder how you can determine whether your brand has become successful, and whether your current customers, or in our case, our current students, have truly embraced what we are trying to establish as the brand of our organization.

One example that I found recently is that students are clamoring to become part of our advertising campaign.  We do feature real students and faculty in our advertising, prints, billboard, radio, and their stories – their actual stories of success, or the path that they have taken to get to SIUE.  And recently, I have heard that there are students that are asking how they can get involved and be on a billboard, or be one of our student testimonials on our website.

I understand that part of that is their vanity and wanting to see their face on a billboard, but it does tell me that they are extremely proud to represent SIUE. No matter how vain you are, if you don’t believe in what you are representing, it becomes very difficult to slap on a logo and associate it with your face. So, it made me quite happy to find out that there are students who are truly interested in becoming the face and voice of SIUE. That is just one very intangible way that I measure whether what we are trying to do with our brand is being successful. In a series of later posts, I will talk about some specific measurable returns on investments that you can take a look at to see if you are being successful with your brand advertising campaign.

April 6, 2010 Posted by | higher education, marketing, reputation management | , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s Driving the Email Bus?

I was recently quite surprised to find out that several people who are responsible for sending out email campaigns to their list of customers have not learned much about when you can expect the best open and click through rates.

Now, I find it interesting that the folks who have the best of intentions, want to build relationships with their customer base, and are ultimately responsible for the email marketing campaign haven’t been taught how to maximize their return on their investment. I think it’s fantastic that we’re actually sending emails versus relying on printed letters or direct mail, but there are a few ways that we can improve on the open and click through rate, which are very important measurements of return on investment for an email marketing campaign.

Some of them seem to be just logical, if you sit and think about the behavior of your customer when they’re at their computer or reading their emails. For example, if you are trying to attract the attention of someone while they’re at work; you have their work email address. Perhaps it’s apparent, or you’re in the business of B2B sales. They’re usually sitting at their desk at work reading their emails. If you think about it, an email that arrives either during the night or first thing in the morning is going to get lost among the many emails that have accumulated over the overnight and need to be waded through first thing in the morning. If you send it over the lunch hour, they’re not going to be at their desk, and then when they get back, there’s going to be a list of emails to get through, so your email may not get the attention that you want it to get. That same idea applies to emails delivered after 5:00 PM or normal business hours. Your email is going to get lost in a pile of emails the customer has to wade through in the morning.

So, what does that leave us? 10:00 AM – after they’ve gotten through the morning pile of emails, and before they go to lunch. Or at 2:00 PM, which gives them enough time to sort through the list of emails that have accumulated over lunch and pay special attention to yours. So, 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM tend to be the best times to attract business people, or people in their place of business.

Now, you also have to think of which day of the week. For example, Monday, a lot of emails have accumulated over the weekend and it takes people a little bit of time to get going and get reengaged into the work week. Mondays are probably not good days. Fridays, people are either taking off for a long weekend or working quickly to wrap things up so they can actually enjoy the weekend. Fridays are probably not the best days. If people have off-site meetings, typically they’re going to happen on a Thursday. Now, that would leave us with Tuesday and Wednesday, 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM for our optional time to catch people at work.

Let’s think a little bit about trying to catch people at their home email address. Today, many people do check their home email throughout the day at work, but we can’t bank on that. So, let’s think about user behavior. You get off work, you pick up your kids, you get home, and you fix dinner. You may get to sit down at the computer by say 6:30, 7:00, 7:30 at night. So, if you send your email to arrive before that, it’s going to be in the pile of emails that they need to wade through, and you may not get as much attention. So, if you send it to arrive or schedule it to arrive right about the time that they’re going to be on their computer and looking at their emails, probably 6:30-7:00 PM, you have a better chance of them giving their full attention to your email.

We can also think about day of week and optimal open rate for people in their home. Weekends, they’re probably either busy with family activities, or they may spend more time looking at their email, rather than during the week. The beginning of the week is probably a little more rushed with getting reengaged in the work week. Try to think about the people you want to reach.  Is your target audience focused on kids’ sporting events and things like that? When do the activities occur most often? Probably, Saturday during the day or Wednesday, Thursday, Friday during the week.

Though I can’t give you the magic silver bullet to reach consumers in their home on the best day, I can say, really think about the audience that you’re trying to reach, what their behaviors are, and when they’re most likely to give email the most attention.

The beauty of email marketing is that we can test campaigns. Do some A-B testing of various emails and times of day to determine which is best for your target audience. If you have a substantial list of people that you’re emailing to, or even if you only have ten: split the list in half and test two different times, but only test one variable at a time. So, for example, either vary the time of day or day of week, or vary the look of the email that you send, especially if you’re sending HTML-based emails. You can switch up pictures, and the layout of your email, and do some A-B testing between two different segments of your target audience to find out which one gives you the best return on your investment.

Which one causes people to open it more? Does your subject line grab them and cause them to want to open the email? Also, which stories, or which links do they click on most frequently in your emails to get more information from your website?

So, that’s the best advice I can give. If you don’t know what the optimal time is for your audience, start testing some of the variables and see which works best for you and your audience.

March 29, 2010 Posted by | connecting, higher education, marketing, sales | , , , | Leave a comment