Tips for Finding an Authentic Voice in Higher Ed Marketing

find your authentic voiceWhat do you say when a prospective student asks, “What makes (insert your college or university here) different?” It’s easy to tout the low faculty to student ratio or list off a long inventory of degree programs. While these are important, most higher education institutions can proclaim the same thing. How do you show what makes you, well … you?

As higher education institutions make the shift toward inbound marketing to tell their tale, how do we use content to draw people in without it sounding like a sales pitch? Finding an authentic voice not only provides a more genuine representation of the university, but it also attracts quality prospects that may not have found you otherwise. So how do we do this?

Here are five tips to help you find your organization's authentic voice.

1) Know Who You Are

It’s sometimes easier to know who you want to be rather than who you are. But it’s important to discover (or rediscover) what makes your university unique. What draws people to your university? Is it your Ivy League pedigree, SEC titles, academic rigor, STEM programs?

Not sure? Ask. Get a group of students, alum, faculty, and staff in a room together (with the bribery of free pizza of course) and just ask. Ask what drew them to your institution and what keeps them loyal. Ask what makes the institution distinctive. Ask what they brag about to their friends -- and maybe even more importantly, what they complain about, too. Take some time to recruit people on campus who are less engaged and who have probably never been asked about their own institution. All of this information and feedback will be crucial to helping you identify what makes your university different. 

2) Embrace Curation

We often hear about the power of storytelling in marketing -- so much so that it has almost become another checkbox to complete, along with a Facebook Page and a blog that you don’t actually use to its full potential. To help you make the most of this trend and still have time in your day to accomplish other crucial marketing tactics, it’s time to promote yourself from storyteller to story curator.

And who better to tell the story than the people living it? Set up a section of your website devoted to student stories, quotes, and photos. Try out having a new question every week that students can answer by submitting their own captioned photo or video. Then share it on your social media channels or spotlight a particular submission on your website. Whatever your method, you should be gathering a stockpile of stories and marketing collateral directly from your audience.

3) Get Inspired

If your only view of your university on a regular basis is the worn pathway from your parking garage to your office, you’re missing out on the energy reverberating around campus. You might miss the Quidditch match on the quad, or the drum line practicing outside, or the student-made robot races meandering down the sidewalk, or even the recent influx of tightrope walkers (and yes, these are all things I have personally witnessed). Be part of the community you’re endorsing.

Once a week put your laptop away, bring some walking shoes, and use your lunch break to just walk around campus and soak it all in. When you get back to the office, take 10 minutes to make some notes and write about your experience. Incorporate these observations into your editorial calendar -- block out time in your schedule to create and share these photos and anecdotes through your various inbound channels. By building in this time for spontaneity, you'll ensure you can publish timely and relevant content. 

4) Build Personas

Invoke your best UX design alter ego and use the information you’ve gathered from your focus groups and weekly jaunts around campus to create a few personas that represent your key audience. Who are your constituents? Why might they be interested in your institution? What would make them choose you? Having that kind of information about your personas will be key to design your content strategy and messaging matrix.

Still having trouble with figuring out who your personas are? Brainstorm the qualities of your target personas, and then bring them to life by having your team role-play a persona interacting with an admissions counselor. You might be surprised at what you discover.

5) Stop Peddling Education

Stop writing like a marketer and start writing like an educator! Your job is to promote the college experience to students who would be a good fit for your university. Yes, you want more leads ... but do you really want a pool of prospects that you know wouldn’t be a good fit? The pressures of enrollment numbers and donor dollars make it easy to forget why you got into the higher education field in the first place.

This is an easy one to solve: Remind yourself every day why you do what you do. Don’t refer or think of incoming students as “customers” or you might as well just prepare your best stock elevator pitch and have a BOGO coupon on your admissions page. When you’re developing content, remember they are students looking towards the future. How do you plan on helping them get there?

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