In seven years at mStoner, I’ve had one‐on‐one conversations with no less than 700 higher ed marketing, communications, enrollment, and advancement professionals to discuss their challenges and opportunities. (In fact, that estimate is probably conservative.) From those conversations I’ve learned, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that at least one of the following four factors is present when an institution is compelled to take on a brand‐to‐website project:
- New leadership: There is nothing like a new president, the first ever chief marketing officer, or a new VP of marketing, admissions, or advancement coming on board that will spur a brand research or a website redesign project. And it usually leads to both.
- Institutional shifts: These are great windows of opportunity for rallying people and saying, “Wow! As we change, we need to know how to talk about ourselves.” What can cause this? A name change, milestone anniversary, significant enrollment growth or shrinkage, or a merger. The latter is can be particularly tricky as leaders work through questions such as, “How do I talk about my merged institution?” and “How do we visually present it?”
- Seismic shifts: Changing demographics often spur brand projects. For example, most are worried about the drop in college‐aged traditional prospective students across the country. And everyone is excited about the increase in the nontraditional and continuing ed learner. Employment rates are another factor: When they go down, people tend to work; when they go up, people tend to go back to grad school.
- Issues with numbers: Senior leaders are concerned with what they can measure: enrollment and retention issues, drops in giving or alumni engagement, and the need to either hold their place or climb up the rankings. When there are issues, leaders will question if the institution’s brand positioning or marketing channels are part of the problem … and how they can become part of the solution.
Considering that you’re reading this post for tips, I’d wager that you already know it’s time for an overhaul from brand to web — and now you need to build your case. Can you diagnose one or more of these factors at your institution? Look at them as windows of opportunity, because the timing might be right to pitch a brand‐to‐web project.
How do you get your senior leadership to understand and buy into the time and resources necessary for a branding initiative and website redesign done right?
We offer five tips:
1. Play the long game through education
Educating key stakeholders is a crucial step toward project buy‐in. There’s a lot of pregaming that takes place before a proposal for a brand strategy project formalizes. The four questions you must answer for your stakeholders are:
- What is a brand? You’ve likely heard (or said), “We need a new brand.” And if you ask 10 people what a brand is, you’ll likely get 10 different answers. Some people think a brand is a logo, a font or color, or a tagline. But really, a brand is none of those things. We believe a brand is what you stand for in the minds of the people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. A few years ago, we produced a guide on defining your higher ed brand to help educate stakeholders on this very question. Download the guide to start the education process.
- Why is it important? Help stakeholders understand why branding is important by relating its immediate impact, plus the long‐term benefits, and the cost of not doing this work.
- What are the elements? While there is no universal list of elements included in a brand strategy project, it’s almost guaranteed your brand project will include positioning, strategy, toolkits, and training.
- What is the process? Senior leaders want assurance that this project, which is a significant resource investment in both time and money, will be inclusive and serve the needs not just of undergraduate admissions but also the entire institution. A good process includes qualitative and quantitative research, secondary research, stakeholder meetings, and all‐campus engagement — not just at the very beginning, but throughout the process. It’s important to reassure people, particularly your most important stakeholders, that they will have a voice and be part of the process.
2. Cast the vision by painting a vivid picture of success
Show senior leaders the possibilities:
- A campus community with swagger: One of the major promises of a brand‐to‐web project done right is that you will all be able to tell your story with pride and confidence.
- Communications that reflect you: A major and frequent complaint that we hear from colleges and universities is, “Our materials don’t reflect the quality of our institution and don’t communicate with authenticity.” Part of the promise of a brand‐to‐web project is that, finally, you will have materials that truly reflect your institution.
- Best‐kept secret, shared far and wide: Is your institution a hidden gem that no one knows about? Given the seismic shifts already discussed, it’s well past the time to raise awareness and build prestige.
- One voice, one look, one feel: Higher ed is siloed; that’s just a fact. But it doesn’t give permission to admissions, advancement, and alumni relations to present the institution in three different ways. A great branding project gives you the tools to talk with one voice, to have one look and feel, and to create that seamless experience whether you’re a prospective student, a current student, an alum, a donor, or an ambassador for the institution. As a result, everyone will have a shared understanding of what your institution is, why your institution matters, and why it’s important for you to be engaged.
3. Mind the “must‐haves”
There are four important levers to keep in mind as you’re putting together your pitch:
- Focus on larger institutional goals: Your brand, website, and digital communications are essential to developing and fulfilling your institution’s strategic plan. Showcase how a brand‐to‐web project will help everyone, not just the marketing team.
- Preach scalability and sustainability: A well‐planned solution will work now and will scale in the future as you grow. Three years down the road, you don’t want to have to re‐pitch the president on another brand and website refresh.
- Highlight the pace of external change: Connect back to the demographic shifts that are happening to create urgency. The world moves faster than your college or university.
- Research competitors on the move: It is imperative to understand what your peer and aspirant institutions are doing, as well as where the industry is moving. An institution that isn’t on your prospective student’s radar today could become a national player in the coming years if they are also focused on a brand and digital overhaul.
4. Convince through collaboration
Whether your institution has a centralized or decentralized marketing environment, you’ll still run into silos. Brand‐to‐web projects are incredibly effective at bringing everyone together, but you must keep this important fact in mind:
This project is about more than just enrollment and advancement. Everyone will want a seat at the table, from athletics to student life to faculty and beyond. And having the community’s understanding of what you’re doing and why will be a huge help down the road. When collaboration doesn’t happen, it’s a train wreck. When it does happen, the process is much smoother.
5. Invoke the success of others
While a brand‐to‐website project can’t guarantee immediate results, it absolutely has an effect on the perception of the college or university. And we believe it does lead to greater enrollment, giving, and pride in the institution. (FYI: We believe values‐based positioning gets the best results.)
Here are six micro case studies that you can use to showcase successful higher education brand and web projects to your senior leaders.
Where do you go from here?
To recap, here are all the resources I’ve mentioned in this post:
Why do we recommend a brand‐to‐website approach? Simply put: Your website is your institution’s No. 1 marketing channel. We believe no other medium can be as fast as your website in generating strong results across admissions, alumni relationships, development, brand reputation, and ranking.