Counting Down to Success: Getting the Most Out of Your Marketing Campaigns

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)November 16, 2023

How do you ensure the success of new program launches? Well, while there are no guarantees, you can take steps to improve your likelihood of success. In fact, my colleagues who work with the Duke University Pratt School of Engineering recently sat down and developed a 10-step process that will help to ensure the success of their higher education marketing campaigns. This month we will look at the first five steps, and we’ll follow up with the second five next month. (You can also watch their presentation.)

Ben Miller, Pratt’s marketing manager, says that the 10 steps are “a combination of trial and error and the application of best practices.” RNL and Pratt have been working together for more than five years, and in that time seven new programs have been launched. RNL’s veteran graduate marketing consultant Vaughn Shinkus echoed Ben’s comment: “We start every campaign with the current ‘best practices,’ but with each application, we learn and adapt. It’s a continuous feedback process.”

Sabrina Brown is Pratt’s master’s program marketing specialist, and she has been keeping her own list of the “must dos” as she has been involved in launching master’s programs that range from Artificial Intelligence to Engineering Management, Cybersecurity to Financial Technology, and most recently Climate and Sustainability, Design and Technology Innovation, and Game Design. She said, “These programs may all be in the engineering world, but every one of them has required a complete re-think of what will work. But, while this is true, the care processes we lay out here will help you surface all of these nuances and ensure that all launches are consistent.”   

“The partnership works because we all bring something distinct to the table,” says Vaughn Shinkus. “The RNL team brings the collective experience of working on dozens of programs and seeing what is working best today (which is often different from last week or last month), while the Pratt team knows their programs, their institutional culture, and the University’s mission.”

For those reasons, Ben and his team maintain ownership of the creative process and approve all decisions recommended by the RNL team. The RNL team monitors the performance of all channels, platforms, and tactics on a weekly basis and recommends (in monthly reporting reviews) strategic optimizations aimed at providing the best ROI and the highest quality leads.

What do Ben, Sabrina, Vaughn, and Lori think are the 10 steps critical for campaign “lift off”? Let’s count them down.

10. Take Stock

Taking stock is where you start and is often the overlooked step. However, it may be the most important step in the process. Ben describes this step as the way you “set yourself up for success for the rest of the launch.” You’ve got to take a good look at your current ecosystem and identify key stakeholders. Who are the people who have the decision-making power, the influence, or who manage the institutional bureaucracy? Who are the gatekeepers you could call on as you go through the process? Identifying as many of these people as possible and involving them early in the process will be a huge benefit to moving the process forward. It also reduces both internal and external surprises that occur throughout the launch.”

Ben added this step to his process after a hiccup in one of his program launches: “We were building the program landing pages that people are pushed to through our ads. These pages are used to sign people up to receive more information and thereby become leads. It never occurred to us that those landing pages would need to be reviewed by our IT department, then approved by our accessibility office, and then moved to several other offices at Duke. It ended up delaying the campaign launch by a couple of weeks. It all worked out but added time to the process. Lesson learned!”      

9. Assess Demand

At some institutions, new programs are developed because somebody (typically a faculty member or other academic leader) wants to do so. Ben says that this method of program selection is “like throwing darts at a wall and seeing if they land on a bullseye.” Other institutions spend considerable resources and time conducting a full market analysis for each new program. Most institutions – Duke included – are somewhere in between throwing darts and conducting detailed research. Sabrina indicated that their process includes a topline market analysis and a feasibility study focused on surfacing data to inform estimates of student enrollment. She concedes, “This is not a full-scale demand analysis or business plan, but it gives us a data-informed start for the development of realistic goals and plans.”

Assessing demand should not only include the gathering of relevant data but also more qualitative information gathered through conversations with leaders in industries related to each program. The Duke team talks with people both locally and nationally (and sometimes internationally) about the level of unmet employee demand in that industry, the types of people they’re looking for, and the skills they need in eligible employees. This feedback is then used to inform the marketing strategy (as well as the development of the program content). It is particularly useful in the development of the student personas that will be used to attract the right people to the program.

8. Refine the Target Audience

No program marketing campaign can be successful without defining who the ideal student is. Typically, there are multiple student personas, but whether it is one or multiple targets, these must be defined before going any further. The best personas combine the data and information gathered in the previous step and a collaboration with the program and other stakeholders identified in earlier steps. This process provides the internal and external points of view necessary to ensure that the program works for both the institution and the job market.

Ben says he has refined this process with every program, and the best results have come when they build the personas using the data and stakeholder input and then return to the employer/industry experts to confirm whether the personas they developed match what they need in employees.

The Duke team has also learned that there are times when program stakeholders have no idea who their target audience is. They may not even be sure how to approach this question. In these cases, Ben suggests that you start with brainstorming sessions with program stakeholders to surface all they know and think when they envision the perfect student for the program. You continue with discussions of what the employer community has told you they need. Ben said, “Perhaps the best thing about this process is that it ensures that these important stakeholders feel that they are a part of the process.” Another lesson learned by experience.

When stakeholders have a more advanced understanding of the target market, ask them for the details marketers need: the characteristics, the demographics, and the psychographics they see as the ideal fit for the program. Ask them what they think would be the primary motivations of the typical student who will enroll in the program. Ask them what they think would be the main hesitations in enrolling. Ben thinks that sometimes these conversations are as interesting, eye-opening, and thought-provoking for the faculty stakeholders as they are useful to the development of the marketing campaign.

7. Identify and articulate your value proposition.

Typically, the marketing team knows why the program they are working on is going to be a great offering. But before you turn those thoughts into actionable value propositions that can be used to drive interest in the program, you need to get input again from your stakeholders. Sabrina says that this is among her favorite steps in the rollout. “I feel like Sherlock Holmes as I get into this process. I know why the program is great, but why does the faculty think it program is great? We’ve also got to consider what the audience will think of it. You then must piece all of these perspectives together into workable value propositions.”

The value propositions need to not only describe the program but also sell it, so faculty and staff insights are of critical importance. While the dialogue starts in the “Who is the ideal student?” phase, this “What is going to sell the program?” phase helps these stakeholders move from “We ought to have a program in XYZ” to “Why should we have a program in XYZ and how can we help ensure it is successful?”

Sabrina outlined several questions she asks program stakeholders in order to develop value propositions:

  • What is the program structure?
  • What is the learning environment?
  • What are the learning objectives?
  • How do these objectives help students succeed?
  • Are there particular resources or benefits that the department provides students during the program?
  • Are there specific resources/benefits offered to program graduates?

From there, she recommends asking them to identify what they think the primary value propositions are. Over seven program launches, Sabrina says that most of the time they easily come up with a set, and they are often very good. These ideas often provide the basis of a deeper conversation that adds to the marketers understanding of what needs to be done. She said, “In one of these conversations, the faculty member easily identified a key value proposition. It was solid, but when we asked him how he thought a student would respond to the proposition, or what the student’s reasoning would be if he or she didn’t “buy” the proposition, he had no idea. There was a disconnect that we had to work through. We did so and arrived at a proposition that balanced both the faculty and student perspective. The disconnect was ironed out. Lesson learned!”

6. Develop the Digital Advertising Strategy

After establishing the target audience and message strategy, it is time to develop the specific digital advertising strategy and paid media plan for the campaign. While each step toward lift-off builds on the one before them, this is the step where you see the most tangible application of all of your hard work toward the success of your launch. The digital strategy outlines the channels to be used, develops the plan that will be deployed to target the identified audiences, and identifies how the media spend will be allocated across the best-fit channels. The entire strategy is underpinned by an understanding of the nuances of the recruitment cycle, the institution’s goals, and relevant industry data.

The digital media plan starts with building awareness. You build interest in the program by building awareness – using display ads that target audiences based on the content they are engaging with or based on their online behaviors. Effective execution relies on using what you learned in Step 8 (Refine the Target Audience) and Step 7 (Identify Your Value Propositions).

From awareness, you move to active lead generation. This is where you add social media advertising. Social media ads target audiences based on the key demographic and behavioral characteristics that were identified in Step 8. These include the target age, educational background, previous fields of study, previous schools, job industry, and employer skills groups and interests. If you can’t identify these things, review the processes associated with Step 8 and refine the process.

Digital Strategy: Consideration and Intent. Slide describing how to target users searching keywords related to your program or similar programs for your competitors.

Google search is also critical in driving audiences that are specifically searching for programs using keywords that relate to your program. The keywords you use are another outcome of Step 7 (Identifying Your Value Propositions) and to a lesser extent Step 8 (Refine Your Target Audience). Prospects are served your ads and when they click on your ads they are directed to your landing page (which needs to be ready for them without any hiccups caused by insufficient attention to Step 1 (Taking Stock).

Vaughn Shinkus indicated one more tie-in with the preceding steps to launch. In Step 10 (Taking Stock) the marketing leader has to think through the institutional stakeholders that need to be involved in the process from the beginning. But in doing that, don’t forget to include the people who will be implementing the digital strategy and executing the plan. “All of the discovery work, persona development, and messaging architecture is integral to the development and execution of the strategy,” he said. “Having your digital strategist and the other ’doers‘ who will execute in the room from the beginning will give you the running start you need for success.”

Read the last five strategies for getting the most out of your marketing campaigns, or watch the webinar now

Be sure to look for next month’s blog, where we will describe what Vaughn, Lori and the Duke University team determined to be the five other ingredients in successful program launches. What will we cover?

5. Gather Assets

4. Get Creative

3. Calaborate and Refine

2. Build in Platform

1. Launch

You can also watch the webinar now to hear all the strategies for your marketing campaigns.

About the Author

Scott Jeffe

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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