Appendix B
Episode 052 -

Doing better with less in Higher Ed marketing

Text reads: Appendix B. A Bravery Podcast. It's on top of a Midjourney generative render of a two story house in a field collapsing in on itself.

How can marketing offices continue increasing enrollment with compressed budgets? Bravery Media suggests optimizing the marketing operations already in place. Speed up your website, take email back to basics, and use AI for more than copywriting.


Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media. This is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman, with me is Kristin Van Dorn, and we’re resuming after a four-part series on the brand equity pyramid; we are now moving on to other topics. So, back to hot topics in higher ed, Kristin.

Um, the thing that has been coming up a ton in the last several months is budget compression, lack of budget for our friends at institutions all over the country, actually all over the world, because I hear this from higher ed friends in Canada and higher ed friends in the UK. It’s just affecting the entire industry. I want to talk a bit about how marketing offices can make the money they do have, and those minimal budgets, go further.

Kristin Van Dorn
I think we saw the same kind of data emerge from that Web Trends Survey we did in January. People are saying that they’re charged with doing more than less, that they’re facing team members or major budget crunches. I think now is absolutely the right time to talk about where this industry is at in terms of market spend because a few years ago, they were talking about how higher education was spending outrageous amounts of money on marketing.

And I think we all know that that’s not exactly the case for every institution, especially now. Especially as we’ve come out of this pandemic, we have, um, you know, FAFSA-related hiccups in terms of our enrollment management. Things are just a little bit different from three or four years ago. And I think that that’s really changed our financial planning for marketing.

I totally agree. And it feels a little bit whiplashy, right? Like, oh, it’s like, we have all this money, and now we have no money and back and forth and, I think the common mantra, the common call to arms, that we hear in higher ed is that, we always need to be doing more with less. And you see it in articles in the Chronicle and inside higher ed; you hear that from people all over LinkedIn. How do we do more with less?

But I. I don’t know that that is the question that we should be asking in this industry, And I say that because there is so much that we can do better with the money we’re spending on stuff, right? We don’t have to do more with less. We just have to do better with less.

And it’s a question of quality for me. It’s how we make sure that the practices that we do have in place in our marketing offices and the actions that we are taking are performing at their peak before we start tossing some other half-filled, half-usable techniques and strategies on top of those.

You know, I think that in higher education marketing, we are all a bunch of Jack and Jill’s of all trades, right? Everyone knows how to do a little bit of everything, but not quite to the quality and consistency that make an impact on the institution’s enrollment or reach or audience building.

Um, it’s just enough to say, yeah, I know a little bit about Google Analytics, or I know a little bit about email marketing, or I know just enough about social media marketing. Or I know just enough about website optimization that I can hold this together and do everything, But I’m not sure that we’re doing any of those things really well.

And that’s the problem. When is that? We don’t have focus, and we are all generalists. Those things that we should be doing well that should be changing the game for us and ensuring the longevity of our institutions are things that don’t get done properly. They get used but not used to their full extent. And so I think my thoughts here are about things we should be doing.

Take the most expensive marketing piece that you have. And no, I’m not talking about paid advertising because it might be the most expensive, but yeah, maybe paid advertising.

How do you get your cost per lead down? I think a big way to do that is to offset where those conversions are coming from and where those leads are coming from. A big part of that is improving conversion metrics on your website. That comes with site speed optimization. That comes with fixing your UX.

You don’t have to completely redesign a website. You don’t even necessarily have to rewrite a whole website. But you do have to take a good hard look at how well your website is performing and figure out what areas are there for improvement.

In my mind, that’s the most cost-effective and efficient way to spend money to get more leads and grow your enrollment.

Yeah, in terms of the things you can do to be more effective, you need very specific feedback loops most of the time. You need to hear from applicants. You need to hear from prospective students who are not applying to your institution about what worked and what didn’t.

And some of that is confabulation. If you ask, did you see that billboard on Route 95? I’m not sure everyone realizes if they did or if they didn’t and what kind of impact it made in terms of reminding them. Is that a valid touch point? Is that not a valid touchpoint? Those are questions that are hard to get at.

However, with web optimization, we have tools that will tell us how well our web is performing without needing to invite a lot of stakeholders who may or may not give you accurate information about their decision-making process. It’s the one thing that we can do absolutely without needing to bring in a bunch of other audiences that support or negate what it is that we’re trying to be more effective at.

Second, I think you should improve your email marketing. It’s a very easy thing to do in-house, and it’s not even that you have to go in and completely optimize it and, you know, get all these data points from open rates and click-through rates and that sort of thing. The simplest way is to pair back and start with something basic.

Like, get rid of your fancy-designed stuff. We already have plenty of research that shows that plain text emails will get opened more often and engaged with more often than fancy HTML emails. So pair back and then see what it does and build from there. Don’t go spend a bunch of money on a huge direct mail marketing campaign or a massive email marketing campaign, when you can simplify what you already have in house.

Yeah, I think that if you think about the life cycle of marketing to students, a lot of it starts earlier than we’re accounting for. It’s not starting in their senior year of high school. It’s starting a couple of years before that.

People may be signing up to be on your email list. They may be interested in what you have to offer. They may be interested in your programmatic changes, or they may be a returning adult that’s interested in how do I complete a degree? What are my options? I’m still working full-time. Are there opportunities for me here? And that might be longer than a year-long process.

So assuming that it is, the more sophisticated and minimal your email campaign is to them, the better off your audiences are going to be served because you want to make sure that every email that hits their inbox from you is of importance. It provides clarity and it provides actionable steps and it provides that connection point that’s going to matter and make your audiences feel heard.

The next thing is something that I, I think we, shouldn’t do. I think that a lot of marketing offices, I think higher ed in general, is very eager to jump on new shiny things. And even though we constantly talk in this industry about that proclivity to jump on new shiny things and talk about how terrible it is that we do it, something new comes along, and we all jump on it.

Marketing offices need to be wary of just throwing new tools at things and throwing new software at things when they don’t already have a grasp of what’s going on.

So, in this case, like, I don’t know that the focus in most marketing offices should be trying to get more time back by outsourcing work to AI, outsourcing work to ChatGPT, or other large language model software.

Like, I think that there are things that it can be useful for, but I think in most cases in higher ed, we’re probably wasting more time trying to figure out how to do prompt engineering for something that is still not mature enough to make a real difference in the way that we go about work, rather than focusing on fixing the things that we do have in place and then finding intelligent ways to incorporate new technology.

You know, this isn’t me being a Luddite. I mean, we use AI every single day in our offices and in the work that we do, but we’re not just using it to summarize content for blog posts and, you know, and we’re always putting a human, eye on it and a human editing process on top of it.

Sometimes, it’s quicker; in some cases, it’s not, but we already know our processes internally. Higher ed is grasping, I think, at the AI trend without knowing how it will work and affect their day-to-day and extended outlook on reaching students.

Yeah, I think that as helpful as An AI assistant can be in providing you with quick drafts of copy, what it can’t do is give you insight because the insight It’s basing its intelligence on is all stuff that already exists. It’s not something that you can mine from what is preexisting on the internet.

The quality is not there to the extent that it will provide something that is better than humans or equal to average humans.

I think one thing to remember with AI is that not all the AI engineers in these proprietary companies understand exactly how their models are working. They’re just trying to get their models out to market as quickly as possible, gather a lot of data. And see if they can retroactively figure out how their models are working.

But so there’s a lot of weird stuff out there right now. I was listening to a podcast last week about how AI has already internalized Winter Break. I understand that we have a lot of holidays during that time. So it degrades the quality of the output that it gives you during December, because it’s basing that on the work output of lots of humans during December when they might be taking time off or preparing to, go shopping for holidays or something like that.

So, I think that we’re still discovering how AI can be the most helpful and the most useful. What I don’t think that it behooves us to do is jump immediately into; I have to master prompt engineering. I will tell the AI that I am a Starfleet Commander and need it to get the top 10 things that higher education needs to do in marketing. I need to write that out now. Otherwise, the ship is going to go down, and I hope that I have somehow spurred on my AI companion to treat this with more intensity and accuracy.

In short order, these AI models will understand us better, and we won’t need to prep it so closely to respond to us in very specific ways in order for us to improve our output.

And I think part of that is that most of us are just getting started with AI right now, and large language models don’t know how to prompt engineer. And so it’s a lot of trial and error. So you could start something that you think will help you, write a quick news story fast.

And it takes two hours because you’re sitting there just trying to revise a command rather than just writing it, you know, or rather than taking the first draft and then editing it and putting your voice on it. I think there’s too much temptation to get distracted with new technologies that seem fantastic and that everyone is talking about how they’re going to save us time and all that kind of stuff.

You know when you don’t have the budget, that also means you don’t have time. You need to make sure that any time you spend is spent on very useful stuff. Not hoping that you can pack more into it. Again, it’s about raising the quality level of what we’re doing with less money rather than just raising the amount of output that we put out there.