Why your great marketing campaign isn't getting results

A few years ago, I was working as a marketing AVP at a small, private university in Texas. Our MBA program was struggling to find students, so we launched a marketing campaign to promote our program.

We came up with a great concept, based on the movie Office Space. We focus-grouped the creative to fabulous feedback. We ran billboards, sent out postcards and served digital ads. Our brand was already known for its funny, irreverent voice, so we had a lot of freedom to create a winning campaign.

It was great stuff. Funny.

What was really funny was how the campaign launched and it went … nowhere. Enrollment stayed roughly flat. Inquiries peaked a little and then dropped again.

Why? We did everything right. We had attention-grabbing copy. We tested it. We knew the type of messages our audience responded to. This should have been a hit.

The problem? Our program.

Does that sound familiar to you? Our marketing was stellar, but our MBA program was a good, strong program from another century. It met in the evenings, required several leveling courses for students without undergraduate business degrees and took several years to complete. In the meantime, the National Center for Education Statistics predicts that online enrollments are expected to grow by 1.8 million students between 2013 and 2020. There were better programs on the market, and they weren't ours.  

So we went back to the drawing board.

Thanks to our visionary leadership (that’s important), effective consulting (that’s a big one) and our strong, collaborative relationships (yep) with the business school, we were able to make the case for online graduate programming as a strategic priority for the university’s revenue growth. Within two years, we launched a fully-online MBA that could be finished in as little as a year and had starts every seven weeks. This time, the creative landed. We exceeded enrollment goals about halfway through the first year.

You see, it’s not enough to be clever. You have to be good. If you’re in the higher ed marketing game, that means you have to understand your target audience better than anyone else at the university. It means you have to take a collaborative role in the entire funnel, from prospect awareness right down to the phone call an admissions counselor has with that student.

In theory, we all know the Four Ps of marketing: Product, price, place and promotion, but for too many higher education marketing organizations, the Four Ps of Marketing are promote, promote, promote … and pray it works. Higher education marketing offices must reject the idea that they are simply the promotional wing of the university. If you want to do meaningful work, you have to engage with all four Ps of your job. There is no other way.

Your job as a higher education marketer is so much more than promotion. You are the conduit between your institution and the marketplace. It’s your job to align the two. This isn’t easy work, and you can’t just charge into a board room and start spouting statistics (but if you do, invite me!) and expect change. This requires, sustained, strategic thought and effort.

Here are some key questions to ask if your marketing isn’t working:

Am I aligned with my target market?

Launching creative without research is like driving to the office with your sunshade up -- you may get lucky and make it to work unscathed, but, more than likely, you’ll crash. Make sure you understand what your target market values. Is it a clear path to completion? Is it price? Is it prestige? Contract with a market research firm or use the plethora of secondary research available online.

Conduct focus groups. You’ll be shocked at what you learn. Is your tuition too high for what you’re offering? Is your degree plan too inflexible? Maybe you’re launching a graduate degree in marine biology in a landlocked state and the demand isn’t there. The point is to never guess; always know as much about your audience as you possibly can and communicate it to your decision makers.

Is my lead capture process seamless?

Great marketing points viewers somewhere, and that place should be your website, where you can collect their information and connect your prospect with an admissions counselor. Both your website and your counselor interactions have to be seamless and spotless. If you’re moving into the online graduate programs space, remember, it’s a competitive game. Your competitors call prospects within 10 minutes of them submitting an inquiry form. When we looked under the hood, we found out that our lead capture process was inconsistent. Calls were made irregularly and without process. To paraphrase W. Edwards Deming’s famous quote -- if you don’t have a process, you don’t have anything.

Is my marketing really that great?

This can be a tough pill to swallow, but maybe it’s time to revamp the marketing. Here’s how I used to settle creative disputes in the office: We tested it. Pretty simple. We went out and found 15-30 people that fit our target demographic, both on campus and off, and we asked them what they thought. Oftentimes, they revealed to us concerns, objections and insights we would have never known about otherwise. Too many marketing professionals never leave the office. And yet, one of the great things about working on a college campus is access to a community of people who can help you.

Am I spending my marketing money in the right place?

Look at your marketing spend and focus it where your target market is and where you can own the medium. A few years ago, I was at an institution with sagging enrollments. Most of their budget was in newspaper advertising (a spouse worked there). The average newspaper reader is about 53. Quick quiz: Find the disconnect.

We landed on a mix of traditional broadcast advertising and digital advertising to promote our new program, and it was the right choice. Your students live their lives online, and that’s where you should be, too. Most marketing budgets die by 1,000 cuts -- a print ad here for a professor or a magazine ad because “everyone else is in it.” I can assure you that this isn’t a winning strategy. Your job is to get noticed. You won’t do that looking like everyone else.

Darren White is the founder and principal of D. White & Company. D. White & Company is a higher ed marketing consulting firm that helps universities align their marketing with strategic, revenue-driving goals. They provide help with program positioning, strategy, marketing positioning, creative and process development.