Sophomore Everton Molina from Brazil choose to attend Lindenwood University because he wanted an academically strong school that meets his major requirements.
Based on multiple recent researches, choosing a university based on its academic strengths only like Molina did, has become much less common. In fact, changes in higher education marketing lead to a more student-focused marketing approach, leaving less focus on education.
Some schools have begun to take on a corporate mentality in order to attract and retain high-quality students, according to research conducted in November 2015 by Hanover Research, a market research firm. In fact, universities are recognizing that students are also customers and that they need to provide an excellent customer experience.
“I am not sure if it is a radical change, but it is certainly a continuous evolution,” said Kyle Coble, professor of marketing at Lindenwood University.
Coble said this trend is something that has been going on for a while. Some people are even tracing it back to the 80’s and 90’s.
“Overall, I think the trend is a negative, Coble said. “That doesn’t mean that there are no positive aspects. Fit with University is very important, otherwise, attending college can be a horrible experience and you might not graduate.”
Lindenwood University has done some recent changes in marketing and branding as well. The school just launched a new website during the past semester fall 2016, dismissing the previous website and marketing goals.
“It is far more user friendly and was built around prospective students,”said Scott Queen, director of PR at Lindenwood. “In fact, we were so focused on prospective students that our current students complained they don’t find their resources right away, so we are now revising with the website design company.”
Lindenwood President Michael Shonrock added that “a website is just good if what you need is two clicks away.” We therefore made some changes based on student comments.
More competitive environment now
Hanover Research states that the higher education landscape has become increasingly competitive, as schools strive to recruit and retain students.
Queen agreed that higher education marketing has become a far more competitive environment. According to a demographic projection by the technology service for higher education enrollment management Ruffalo Noel Levitz, the number of high school graduates continues to decline for the next three years in Missouri from roughly 66,000 to 64,000 students due to a declining population, therefore, the school has to do a better job in attracting students.
“I think every school is looking for a way to get an edge, to get ahead, said Scott Queen, executive director for PR. “You can’t keep doing things the same way as in the past.”
Coble agreed. Once one university is starting to do that, others have to follow, he said. People like to be treated as customers, to be waited on, to be valued. Colleges can and should do that, but they should be mindful that there are important distinctions. There is room for customer service through marketing at universities. It just should not be a complete experience as it is with a product or service.
What students are actually looking for at a higher education institute differs on a wide range by student, many students at Lindenwood are actually looking for good athletic programs to become a part of and receive a scholarship, others do not want to move to far away from home and found a reasonably priced option to study the major they want at Lindenwood, according to various students.
While cost is not the only factor, Coble said that a lot of student experiences do drive up cost and a “resortification” of colleges occurs, amenities and comfort become more and more important. Who can have the best food, who can have the prettiest buildings, nicest student center, resort-like dorms. Student comfort is good, but some universities take it a step too far, Coble said.
In terms of academics, new modes of delivery, such as online or hybrid classes, may be tried in order to make classes more attractive to students, Coble said. However, universities need to be careful to not water it down in order to be customer centric.
From the other perspective, Lindenwood wants to be viewed as a student-focused institution, Queen said. In addition, the PR department mentioned the goal of Lindenwood being respectful, professional, visionary, student centered and passionate.
The PR department at Lindenwood has been working hard in order to achieve being viewed as student-focused, Queen said. They were making sure that faculty and staff understand and know how to deliver the slogan “like no other,” as well as implementing new signs, pictures, etc. on campus. In addition, brand and social media training were offered to faculty and staff.
‘Marketing is always a good thing,” Coble said, “because it connects consumers with the product they want.”
Coble said it is important for universities to market themselves. The way the marketplace is, it is impossible to move forward without letting customers know what is out there.
Even though most people think that the students are a university’s customer base, Coble highlights that they are only one of three major customers: students, parents, and most importantly the society and future employer.
In general, Queen described Lindenwood’s marketing approach as integrated.
“What we want people to feel is that we want to deliver the ultimate student experience inside and outside the classroom,” Queen said. “We want to paint an accurate picture of what campus life, the student experience, the cafeteria, activities, academic experience are like.”
In today’s technology-driven environment, higher education institutes have to keep up with the latest trends, according to various researchers, including the publication University Business.
Technology plays a big role in today’s marketing environment, Coble said. Students expect personalized information brought to them, for instance through social media.
In addition to the new website, Lindenwood’s PR engages a lot more in digital advertising, such as social media or display advertising, Queen said. The whole marketing approach became much more prospective student focused.
At Lindenwood University, 150 students enrolled through social media accounts, said Shonrock.
Lindenwood is leading in social media measures, such as Facebook and Instagram followers, page views, etc. compared to its direct competitors, for example Maryville or Webster University, according to a marketing research conducted by Digital Marketing Manager Rachel Johnson. More than 140 approved Lindenwood social media accounts currently in active status have more likes than those of direct competitors, such as University of Missouri St. Louis, McKendree and Maryville.
“I have seen some stuff lately from LU’s marketing team that I have been pretty excited about,” Coble said. “The admissions is starting to really take off and I think our marketing office is starting to look at variety of different media that we have not considered before. I am excited to see from where we started with social media, which was relatively late, to where we have ended up so far.”
It is unclear how this trend will continue in the future.
It will mainly depend on the development of cost, Coble said. One scenario could be that a push back occurs and fewer amenities and a good fit with the university’s academic programs are being sought by students. The other possibility would be a continuing rise in cost due to an increasing focus on amenities and good academics would become available only for a wealthy part of the population.
“I hope that we are going to see more focus on academics,” said Coble.