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With a new normal that gave a whole new meaning to the term "virtual reality," gaining important industry insights at at in-person conference was especially exciting.
Image of student wearing mortarboard graduation cap while making a surprised yelling face

After nearly two years of Zoom meetings and virtual conferences, my colleagues and I were probably too excited for a trip to the airport, Uber rides and hotel check-ins in Colorado for the 2021 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. It was incredible to meet so many people that I’ve only seen through a computer screen and reconnect with higher education friends. Some of the handshakes and hugs were actually quite emotional!

Campuses have dealt with a wide range of challenges since the last in-person AMA symposium in November 2019. but most conversations had in Colorado centered around three main topics. It seemed each of these topics could be directly tied to the challenges presented during a pandemic, while also providing a road map for how to move forward in the months and years ahead.

Authenticity matters.

Higher education audiences are incredibly savvy when it comes to receiving marketing messages. Any subset of a higher education target audience has been marketed to constantly; they understand the difference between an authentic message and one that has been workshopped 15 times by internal stakeholders prior to appearing on their feeds. No matter the age, audiences want a realistic representation of the benefits you offer and the value you bring if they choose to partner with you in their journey. This isn’t a transactional relationship; this is about a student, donor, potential faculty member, etc. deciding to bring you into their life.

It's hard to focus on messaging and positioning when it seems like each day over the last 18+ months has presented a new challenge to combat. This is why it’s extremely important to have a data-driven strategy to lean on. This strategy is informed by the messages your audience wants—or needs— to hear and, more important, how they want to consume them. During the symposium, higher ed marketing leaders discussed projects that focused on collecting data around the health of your brand, audience preferences and website usability.

Key Takeaways

  • Establish your message and make sure it's genuine
  • Find where you audience consumes content and meet them there
  • Lean into data-driven strategy

Useful data... or distraction?

Every strategy we deploy as marketers has some level of trackable action attached to it. The wealth of data available through social media platforms, Google Analytics, CRMs, etc. can be overwhelming. Data-driven decision-making is important, but at what point does data become distracting?

Many of the conversations at AMA's symposium revolved around tracking appropriate goals and analyzing the correct data related to those goals. Are you being asked to market every single academic program? Conduct an academic program demand analysis to see which programs should be receiving the largest portion of your marketing budget. What digital advertising metrics be reported to the president and/or cabinet? Decide on two metrics for both brand awareness and lead generation that make the most sense for your campaigns. Use other metrics to inform your optimizations, not in your summaries to campus.

Narrowing your focus on the right data can help you tell the story of what you are accomplishing while avoiding the rabbit hole of reporting on endless strands of data.

Key Takeaways

  • Narrow down data to what you need to reach campaign goals
  • Choose two metrics for brand awareness and lead gen
  • Other metrics can be used for optimization

Staff burnout is happening across the country.

Departments of one” and “wearing many hats” were issues higher education marketers faced prior to the pandemic. The constant strain of not having appropriate staff to handle needs—not to mention having no time to develop strategic ideas—has become even more apparent now.

Campuses have an opportunity to shift messaging and strategy to meet the needs of a changing market but don’t have the staff (or time) to accomplish the goals written on Post-it notes on the corners of their desks.

One of the biggest takeaways on this topic came from opening keynote speaker Sara Watchter-Boettcher of Active Voice. Sara states that it's important to look at what's draining you emotionally—not just from a project perspective—to understand what activities will bring more joy to your work environment. That joy will lead to staff investment, better work and, ultimately, a happier staff.

While this may seem like an unattainable goal in higher education, with massive initiative and daily "hair on fire" requests, setting aside personal and staff planning time to identify projects that could lead to more team investment are absolutely critical to combat burnout.

Key Takeaways

  • Look at what's draining you; use insight to develop solutions
  • Uncover ways to bring joy to the workplace for a happier staff and inspired work
  • Combat burnout with bliss!


Are you shifting your approach to higher ed marketing strategy this year? Have any predictions or insights? Let us know!


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