Small, private liberal arts colleges face significant headwinds as they try to grow enrollment. Despite these challenges, University of the Ozarks, Arkansas’ oldest private liberal arts university, has managed to buck this trend. In part one of this two-part episode, we talk with Reggie Hill, Vice President of Marketing and Enrollment at Ozarks, and Amy Lloyd, Director of Marketing. We touch on how Ozarks has better aligned marketing and enrollment, how they’ve taken smart, calculated risks in promoting the university, and we dive deep into the specific strategies they use to stay connected to the younger generation they hope to reach.

Links in this Episode

Website: ozarks.edu

Transcript

Jarrett Smith

You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in Higher Ed and the broader world of marketing to find actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts.

This is part one of a special two part episode in which we’ll be exploring how the University of the Ozarks, Arkansas’s oldest private liberal arts university, has managed to consistently grow enrollment despite the significant challenges facing small private schools.

We’ll be hearing from Reggie Hill, vice president of marketing and enrollment at the University of the Ozarks, and Amy Lloyd, Ozarks’ director of marketing. In part one, Reggie and Amy talk about the key factors that have allowed their institution to grow. We touch on how Ozarks has better aligned marketing and enrollment, how they’ve taken smart, calculated risks in how they promote the university, and we dive deep into the specific strategies they use to stay connected to the younger generation they hope to reach.

Reggie and Amy were incredibly gracious, and they offer solid insights ranging from the strategic to the tactical. Without further ado, here’s part one of my conversation with Reggie Hill, and Amy Lloyd.

Jarrett Smith

Amy, Reggie, thank you so much for being here.

Amy Lloyd

Yeah, absolutely.

Jarrett Smith

Good deal. Well, really excited to talk about University of the Ozarks, and everything you guys have going on there. To get started, if you could just tell us a little bit about the University of Ozarks and your roles there?

Reggie Hill

I’m the VP of marketing and enrollment, and I’ve been at U of O for two years.

Amy Lloyd

I serve as the director of marketing, and I’ve been there about two years in January as well.

Jarrett Smith

Very good. All right, tell us a little bit about the institution for anybody who may not have heard of you or be familiar with the school.

Reggie Hill

Oldest private liberal arts university in the state of Arkansas. The university actually predated the state of Arkansas. We’ve been providing education to Arkansans for well over 100 years.

Jarrett Smith

Wow, good stuff. I think a lot of folks listening to this are going to be very, very familiar with the challenges facing small privates these days, particularly in the middle of our country, and experiencing it first hand. Of course, University of the Ozarks is caught up in that too. Could you talk a little bit about some of the enrollment challenges you guys have faced over the years, and just set the table for folks on that?

Reggie Hill

For many private liberal arts universities, especially private small liberal arts universities, have faced enrollment challenges over the last 20 years. Declining enrollment, increases in tuition, access and opportunity has been limited for many of the students that we serve, and so U of O was no different from many of the small liberal arts universities across the country, including the ones that have already closed.

Reggie Hill

For us, the challenge is how do we make this university relevant to the 21st century.

Jarrett Smith

Kind of against that backdrop, the university has managed though to buck that broader industry trend, so folks understand in a little more concrete detail, maybe put some numbers around that. What does enrollment look like right now?

Reggie Hill

When President Dunsworth started I think it was roughly 580 students. When we started to really rethink, and reimagine, what enrollment marketing looks like, we started off with roughly 620, 650 students.

Jarrett Smith

Good deal. I know that obviously you guys have changed that trend, and are in a healthier place maybe than a lot of institutions. What do you all see as the key factors that have allowed that to happen? I think, obviously, leadership with Present Dunsworth is key, and I know there’s a lot of things that have to play together, but from y’all’s perspective, what have you seen that’s really allowed the institution to grow and thrive?

Amy Lloyd

Yeah, I think one thing that’s very special about Ozarks, and that’s really benefited us, is the collaboration between enrollment and marketing. I think the norm is to have marketing more in a silo, and enrollment in a silo. I think where we really found, what we would call, our sweet spot is when marketing and enrollment began to work very closely together. Instead of enrollment coming to marketing and saying, “We want to market to these areas, this is what we want, can you help us?” And us as marketing just producing a piece for enrollment, it was us all getting in the room together and Reggie challenging the marketing team to say, look at analytics. We have an excellent analytics person in the office, so she was able to really take that data and heat map it, give us a lot of visuals and then therefore turn it around and say “this is where your conversion is. This is where the yield is, this is where you should be traveling, this is where you should be going.” And then how do we market that.

So, I think it was more of a collaborative effort. And I think that the norm is for enrollment to determine where they want to go, and we kind of reversed that, and I think that’s uncommon.

Reggie Hill

Yeah, and what Amy’s saying is that focusing on your target audience and being great at that. And then also follow up with creative. I think the ability to communicate our brand was something that we had a challenge for.

Jarrett Smith

Could you dig into that a little bit more? About kind of the brand conversation. It’s one of those areas that can be a little murky for folks. I think when some folks say brand they think it’s a logo, it’s your visual identity, which is part of it, but it’s definitely not the whole story, and I know tend to think of it more in a wholistic sense of it’s your broader identity, it’s the emotional connection people feel with your institution and your reputation and it’s how you’re operationalizing a lot of those things, that’s really what your brand is. Could you dig into that a little bit?

Amy Lloyd

Absolutely. So, I think yes, brand is logo. It’s your standard, if somebody sees a billboard and it’s your logo, they recognize where you are, who you are. What we really wanted to do was have a brand … when someone drove by or saw our logo, we didn’t want them to say “Oh that’s University of the Ozarks.” We wanted to go more in depth of we’re going to give you creative or we’re going to give you story telling, video content, the content to let you interpret the Ozark’s experience for yourself. So, I think instead of trying to force this is our narrative, this is what you should expect from Ozarks, this is what you’re going to get when you come here, that we wanted to be authentic and realize that everyone’s experience at Ozark’s is going to be different, and that’s okay and we embrace that.

So, it’s video content without words and very cinematic and emotion and students interpreting what the Ozark’s could be like for them. Not, this is what I should expect, but this is what it means to me. And that’s going to be very different from the person sitting right next to them. Parent’s are going to watch that and they’re going to get a completely different experience beyond students, faculty, and staff. And we have amazing faculty and staff, and I think we’re able to showcase people. So I think what makes Ozark’s very special is its people. That is also a huge struggle, because it’s also the hardest thing to market.

But Ozark’s brand I think is very much deeper than a logo or graphic design. I think it’s the people, it’s the way Ozark’s makes you feel, it’s your experience at Ozark’s. So, if you’ve never been on our campus, deliver the experience to you virtually, or give you that same sense of feeling.

Reggie Hill

And we wanted to inspire people to be a part of our community, and that was one of the most important things. Because if we can have an emotional connection, that emotional connection will last not only four years but a lifetime.

Jarrett Smith

Yeah, gosh, there’s a lot to unpack there, and a lot of questions I have. It’s interesting that you say we don’t want to force a narrative and spell it out, we want to allow them to make their own interpretation and find what’s relevant. And yet at the same time, you have to curate what’s in that video footage, you have to decide what to show and what to bring forward. How have you gone about determining here’s what we’re going to show and say about ourselves, how did you find the right things that you want to present in that video or that email?

Reggie Hill

Trying to find the truest version of yourself. Knowing that you can’t change location, you can’t recreate physical spaces, and then acknowledging that there are students who would value your experience, and finding those students. So for us, we’re situated at the foothill of the Ozark Mountains. We’re not near a beach, we’re not near an inner city, so we had to acknowledge that first and stop apologizing for not being in either a metropolitan area or a suburb, and embrace our difference. Our difference is that we’re probably in one of the best locations between what you would consider the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky’s.

Reggie Hill

Hundreds of miles of trails, waterfalls, rivers, streams, lakes. And for the avid outdoors person, or a person like me who wants to get outdoors …

Jarrett Smith

An aspiring outdoors person.

Reggie Hill

It’s paradise, right? So how do you connect that to the academic institution? Because students go to college in America for the experience. It’s our right of passage, so not only are they going for an education but they’re going for an experience, and how do you tie those two things together is what we’re trying to tap into.

Amy Lloyd

And I think it’s a lot easier to say we want to be authentic and we want to own it. I think that everybody truly wants to do that, and that’s what feels right deep down, and that’s your gut feeling of [inaudible 00:10:01] you feel like it’s what you should be doing. But I think it’s a lot harder to actually do it. And I think that it wasn’t a walk in the park for us to do that, internally, just for transparency. There are a lot of things you have to work through.

So, when we delivered our admit pieces, which I know we’ll talk about in just a little bit probably, and dive into that more, but when we delivered the pieces to our students or when we did create that content, it was very reflective of where we were, what our space is like. And presenting that, that’s not going to appeal to everyone. And presenting it to administration, it may be only one person in the room, but that one person says “this wouldn’t appeal to my son or daughter. This wouldn’t appeal to my niece or nephew.” Are we okay with going full blown this way? And I think we were, we had to be at that point, right? But we had to communicate that, and we really had to own it in the sense of no, it’s not going to appeal to every person and that is okay. We are owning it, we are not apologizing because this one person, these five people don’t like it.

We’re owning it and knowing that we have to play the long game. So how does this affect retention? Something that I think Reggie really brings to the table is it’s not about this incoming class, it’s not about just meeting admission goals. It’s about what does enrollment look like over four years? What’s that four graduation rate? How does the students that we recruit for this incoming class affect retention, affect the health of the university? The environment on campus for all our students, what does that demographic look like? What does the diversity look like? And say okay, we want students that we know they’re going to love this, this is what we’re marketing, if this appeals to you, we want you here.

We want students that love to be there, we want students that love that environment and then by default they all connect with each other because they have similar interests, and then there’s five of them that will take off and go hiking together. There maybe five of them that does drive into town and do something every now and then or you see seven of them hanging in trees and hammocks, and I think that’s something that’s really special about Ozarks, is when you put a common passion in a space like that, a geographic location, you get something really special which I think we’re just beginning to see at Ozark’s.

Reggie Hill

And, as Amy mentioned, being the truest version of yourself but also being relevant to the students that you’re targeting, right? And some of us in higher ed don’t want to believe it, but you have to scrap the traditional forms of higher ed marketing to be relevant to 16, 17, 18 year olds. And that’s important. Most of us don’t get it, because that’s not the world we live in, and trying to get into the head space of a 16, 17, 18 year old is very different. So, looking at what they’re doing, looking at the trends, understanding that the mailbox as a concept is less relevant to a 16, 17, 18 year old. They don’t go to the mail, they don’t receive mail. Everything is in messenger, everything is in app.

So why are we still delivering things to their mailbox? When Amazon is delivering things to their doorstep.

Amy Lloyd

Yeah, and I think we have to truly know what our target audience is doing. And I think that it’s really easy to say “you’re young, what are you on.” And then it’s been a very personal realization for me as I say, I’m transparent, I’m 26, so I’m young. And they’re like “Amy, you’re young, what would you …”

Jarrett Smith

You must know what all the kids are doing.

Amy Lloyd

Yes I’m a cool kid. But then I go home, and I have a 19, 20 year old brother. And my first year in a bigger marketing role, my brother was 18, going into college. So he comes home on the weekends and I’m like “what did you say?” Like I’m Urban Dictionary-ing what he’s saying to understand, and I am young. And I say “Hey, Ethan, I tagged you on this on Facebook, it was hilarious, why didn’t you say something?” He’s like “Amy, I don’t have the Facebook app on my phone.” And realizing that Facebook is my top platform, I love Instagram too, but I’m on Facebook a lot and I’m tagging and I spend a lot of time on it, and realizing that Ethan, being just a few years younger than me, has a phone and he has so much storage and he has so much going on that there’s no room for Facebook.

And how does that affect me saying “oh we’re doing good stuff on Facebook,” and I’m like “I’m not getting in front of any of them.” So I think it takes research. I think it’s not enough to say “this is what the young people are on.” I think there’s a very fine line between millennials and gen z, and that we’re just starting to dive into the research of gen z.

Reggie Hill

And that divide, right? That divide between the mailbox and the doorstep. Or the radio and streaming platforms. That divide between digital marketing or in app or social. So those divides are very real, and many of us, who are higher ed professionals, higher ed marketing professionals, we do what? We do things that are relevant to us, because we understand it.

Jarrett Smith

Right, the things we know. And I want to dig into that a little bit to hopefully help listeners get an idea of, in a very literal concrete sense, how do you stay up to date? How is it that … reminds me of the joke, marketing is about the four to five year old telling the 30 year old how to talk to an 18 year old. But how do you break out of that personal bias towards the platforms? What does that look like?

Reggie Hill

Many of us in our position, we remove ourselves from students. And what we do is we reverse that. We keep a lot of students around us. And they become our focus group, we observe them. So, if you look and see what a student is doing on a daily basis, you’ll understand or if you’re listening you’ll understand exactly what you need to do to connect with them. So once you become a director, once you become a vice president, you end up isolating yourself not only from your core audience, but also the people around you. That’s probably one of the worst things you can do because they will tell you what’s the trend and what students are on and how can you buy attention.

Amy Lloyd

And I think it’s the mindset. Marketing is so much fun and it’s so exhausting. You sit down in the summer to start planning April, may, for our next fall class, not 19, but 20. So we do all this and you’re exhausted and you’re like “Yes, okay,” but we know if we just do this and get it right we won’t have to do it again next year. That is not true. Oh my goodness, so wrong. But I think at the point that Reggie and I are constantly, and even Taylor and our admissions team are constantly tagging each other in stuff and constantly seeing stuff and seeing what is this. It’s kind of like a game. I’m trying to figure out something that Reggie doesn’t know.

He’s really good about listening and reading and we’re always diving in. So I’ll wake up and Reggie has sent something at like 4 AM because he doesn’t sleep, and he sends this and he’s like “did you see where Zuckerberg does this on Facebook and this owns this and how does this affect us in the long game?” And I’m like “I’ll text you back at 6 AM when I wake up.”

Jarrett Smith

When a normal person would be awake thinking about this.

Amy Lloyd

But you have to be open to that. A lot of times it’s a risk, and I think that we are very blessed at Ozark’s to have Rich Dunsworth, to have leadership that is okay with us taking a risk and that believes in us and even says “you’re not perfect.” I had to tell Rich, “sorry, next time I won’t do that again,” but he’s okay with that. And I think to have a leadership that is empowering of take a risk, if we get this right we’re going to be set, if we don’t, we’ll find something else. I think coming from other institutions or being at other places where that wasn’t the case, that I’m very appreciative of the leadership that we have at Ozark’s to take a risk.

I still think it’s not just because it is okay to take a risk and try new things, it’s okay. So we know where the students are. The students are here, we’re targeting students X, and then you’re in an administrative meeting and you hear “well, my daughter’s 17 and I’m not seeing your ads. Is she getting those?” Enrollment, yeah enrollment is great, we’re seeing social and this and that, but senior staff hasn’t seen an ad in two years probably? And they’re like “we’re not seeing this, can you screenshot it and send it to me?”

And I’m like “you’re not supposed to see it.” If you start seeing my stuff, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do. If you want to see it, we’ll shoot it back and forth all day long in transparency and that’s appreciated, but it’s like at the point of if leadership is seeing our stuff, we’re not doing our jobs, we’re not hitting our target audience. Because they’re not our target audience. So, I’m thankful for leadership who trusts in that even though they can’t see it. And I think that’s always a lot easier when Reggie brings in a great class and enrollment’s inclining.

Jarrett Smith

To jump in, I just want to say what I think y’all are pointing to, is that … and I think many folks probably listening to this are thinking, okay that all sounds great, embrace your true identity, wow that’s really scary. And they may be at an institution that maybe isn’t as receptive to taking those risks and maybe having the opposite reaction where as professional marketers we know that when you try to appeal to everybody you can’t. It’s an impossible task, that is a recipe for failure, but it feels so logical and it’s the instinct that we all have, and I know you guys have acknowledged that, hey that’s risky.

Reggie Hill

And taking risks, right? One of the most important things that we know is that we’re quick to make a decision, and if it doesn’t work, we can retreat from it. Right? And many times in higher education, you want to think through the process for months before you pull the trigger. And a lot of times you’ve lost time. So, being able to make a decision, move on it, and realize whether it’ll work or not, because then you can pivot it and move in another direction.

Amy Lloyd

We jokingly, but this is probably one of the things I tell Reggie most frequently, is something goes wrong or something goes right for like two weeks and then it goes wrong, obviously we don’t let it stay wrong, but our internal joke is fail fast, adapt faster. That is our slogan. Because it’s not that we’ve gotten it right every time, it’s not that we haven’t had resistance, it was not unicorns and rainbows the whole way. And it’s easy to make it sound that way, but that’s not real life. You will have resistance, but I think it’s taking small risks along the way and being able to show that data’s important.

Our data analytics person has been crucial in being able to visually help tell us that story, for our board of trustees, for our board of administration. Being able to show that we are ethically responsible with data, being able to show we’re being strategic with where conversions come from, I think that’s been crucial. So, to have some of those assets I think is what aids you in some of that resistance and getting over that hump.

Reggie Hill

And those are some of the sexy things, right? And what we don’t want to talk about is the non-sexy stuff. And that’s being on the ground. And the ground is important, and being close to your audience is important. People criticize us for having the constant rotation of students in our office, and say “How can you ever get anything done with students in your office?” But they’re part of your network, your internal and your external network. And linking yourself in those networks yields dividends for recruitment. So, having an amazing ground game is vital to enrollment growth.

Amy Lloyd

I think it’s so important, just an example of having a relationship with a student. There is one student who, she came in, she helped me a lot with marketing things, overachiever, really wanting to learn, so now even though she was a sophomore and she’s moved up into junior senior, so she’s a little busier and she just doesn’t have as much time. Whenever there’s a buzz going on around campus about something negative being talked about about marketing, or maybe students are hesitant about what we’re pushing out and they’re seeing, then I get a text from her. At 10 o’clock at night, she says “Hey Amy, I just want you to know that word on the street is x.”

And I say “Yes that is true,” if it is ever true, yes that is true. But let me tell you the context in which that was said. Or thank you for letting me know, that is something that’s out there, I had no idea, so now we can be proactive. Instead of getting to the point of yes it’s already out there, but we’re not having to wait until it blows up on social media …

Jarrett Smith

And then it’s out of control. And you’re behind the ball.

Amy Lloyd

That’s another layer that those students really add value to us. And the most recent Snapchat ad or video concept that we had that we want to push out came from my student, and she’s not even in the office anymore. She’s like “Amy this hit me.” I’ll give away her great piece of advice. We were looking at Snapchat and we’re like “Okay, how do we get people to watch our Snapchat stories?” We know our Snapchat ads, we know that we have not even three seconds to get their attention, but we know that’s where a majority of our population is, so how do we make that effective?

At first she kinda didn’t know, and then two days later she walks in and she says “Amy, I figured it out. Because I accidentally watched an ad this morning.” But here’s what happened. She said “I was clicking through my friend’s stories, I wake up before class and I’m clicking through social media, and I click and I’m watching this ad for probably a solid second or so, and I don’t realize it’s an ad until three seconds in and I see their logo.” She said “I just thought it was another one of my friend’s stories.” And I’m like “great, we do not start an ad with our logo.”

And if they don’t watch it for three seconds and they never get to the logo, that’s okay. But we have more of a chance of them watching it and so I’m like “Okay, that is genius.” She did it on accident, because she’s been in our office and is subconsciously aware now. So whenever she realized it’s happening to her, she comes and says “This happened to me, this is how you get to happen to other people.”

Jarrett Smith

Yeah, it’s such an interesting point. And what I like about that, hearing someone spell it out for you. “Oh, it was the logo teased me off that this is an ad and I’m going to skip.” But if you’re leading, depending on the content you’re leading with, you’re creating that emotional connection first.

Amy Lloyd

And that’s exactly what happened. So she’s sitting here saying “I respected that. I respected that they got me almost, so I appreciated the deeper content, so I watched the whole thing.” She’s like I watched it all, even after I realized it was an ad, I continue to watch because I respected it. And that’s where we want to be, so that’s how we change based on the feedback we’re getting from constituents.

Jarrett Smith

Yeah.

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service marketing firm dedicated to helping higher education institutions drive enrollment, increase yield, and capture donor’s attention. For more information, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. And as always, if you have questions, suggestions, episode ideas, or just want to reach out and say hi, drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co. See you next time.