Strategist says college and university messaging should help prospective students become better engaged with institutional mission.

human-design-studentsNo amount of CRM or marketing tech wizardry can overcome or compensate for messaging that doesn’t resonate.

Historically, as unemployment goes down, the number of people seeking additional training through graduate and adult education programs flattens or even declines, and competition for those students increase. A mistake many institutions make is to adopt techniques of their strongest competitor, resulting in multiple institutions all saying the same thing about their product.

We can call this idea of many programs shouting the same thing at the same prospect pool “noise”.

These institutions would be better served by working to understand who they are, what makes them different from their competitors, who their current and prospective students are and what those students need. Then, the program can be positioned to speak to those people in a way that resonates instantly.

Understanding your user’s needs is something that goes beyond technology; for example, a new website might be in order, but it’s just a delivery mechanism. Resonant messaging, the kind that helps prospects know whether your program will help them reach their goals, is the result of human-centered design: of taking a disciplined, structured approach to understanding who your customer is and what their decision factors are.

(Next page: How to achieve human-centered design for students)

Getting past institutional bias

To achieve this understanding I recommend starting with what my company calls a “discovery engagement.” During a discovery engagement we work with the client to understand what they want their customer to know about them—what promises do they want to make? What impressions do they want to leave? Does your presentation of your services support the brand or detract from the brand? Does it clarify who you are as an organization, or does it create confusion?

For institutions of higher education, indeed with any organization, ideally this process will be guided by an outside expert, in order to overcome the institutional bias and limited perspective inherent in an organization trying to understand itself from the inside in.”

The end goal: to succeed in getting that professional graduate student and that mid-life career switcher to identify with your organization and enroll, and not least importantly, that current student to feel confident in their choice. Successful institutions will have created fully defined personas for their prospective and current students – What are their goals for the program? What costs can they bear? What are their definitions of success? – and will present messaging that directly addresses them.

We are currently conducting discovery engagement activities for the University of Houston (UH) and Western Michigan University (WMU), evaluating their user experience from three viewpoints: people, process and technology. Both institutions are seeking to create more meaningful engagement between themselves and their audiences.

Reducing risk in the student-consumer

Story+Structure’s work with UH shares a common unstated ambition—reducing risk. Student needs are no different from any other customer needs in the market today: they can change quickly, and, furthermore, there is an expectation that a university, like any other organization that provides a service, will figure this out.

This combination of unpredictable changes in needs combined with the expectation that new, unstated needs will be met, creates an immediate risk: if you’re not meeting the needs of your student-customer then you risk losing them to someone else who will.

We help clients like University of Houston reduce this risk by creating feedback loops between the institution and the student-customer as well as determining observable metrics to evaluate the response of a customer base to any changes which are made. As a first step, this is crucial to understanding if the solution we ultimately implement will prove effective.

“In this first phase, Story+Structure is helping us to refocus our operations and processes, with the goal of improving our students’ experiences” said Diane Burkett, director of marketing for UH. “The way people look for education, their expectations for access to learning opportunities, has changed. This project will enable us to truly respond to the needs of today’s marketplace by building out an optimized student experience based on the information we learn in this initial discovery phase.”

Understanding the complex university environment

Our work with Western Michigan University, in many ways, presents some of the unique challenges of working within an environment that has many stakeholders who can sometime seem to be engaged in a tug-of-war between academic rigor and market demand.

In these cases, we have to understand the importance of all the voices, faculty, students, administrators, and work to find the common ground, no matter how narrow, that the solution will have to exist within.

“The human-centered design approach has great appeal to us, as we work to better understand the wants, needs and likely behavior of all our key stakeholders,” said Lisa Emery, Executive director of enrollment management and marketing, WMU.

The graduate or continuing education program that thrives in the next five to ten years is going to be the one that clearly states how they can help students achieve outcome they want. If you show people that you care, and you engage them, that increases revenue. And so, human-centered isn’t just a design approach – it’s a culture that needs to be fully embraced. Do that, and success will follow.

Guy Felder, Chief Strategist for Story+Structure combines his experience in marketing and recruiting with Story+Structure’s human-centered design ethos to help clients build systems that identify and engage desired audiences with authenticity and empathy. Prior to joining Story+Structure, Guy worked for the University of Houston, where he led marketing and recruiting for adult professional and workforce development programs. 


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