Becoming a VP (Or Becoming One on Another Campus)

This is the first installment in our VP Summer Series, a podcast mini-series focusing on the unique challenges facing senior enrollment and marketing leaders. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the role of the Vice President–how it differs from other roles someone would occupy on the way to a VP-level position and what it takes to be a strong candidate if you’ve got your sights set on a VP-level job. Joining us in the conversation is Mary Napier, Principal Consultant at Napier Executive Search.

We’re also joined by Echo Delta’s own Laura Martin Fedich, who will be co-hosting each of our VP Summer Series podcasts.

We discuss:

  • The unique dynamics that exist in VP-level roles
  • The kinds of experiences and education that make for competitive candidates
  • How to determine if now is really the right time for you to pursue a VP-level position
  • Common cliches you should avoid in interviews and what to say instead
  • How executive search firms work
  • The right way to connect with an executive search firm if you’d like to be considered for positions
  • How to evaluate opportunities at other schools to gauge if they’re the right fit.

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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 education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts. This is the first installment in our VP summer series, a podcast mini-series focusing on the unique challenges facing senior enrollment and marketing leaders.

In this episode, we’ll be discussing the role of the vice president, how it differs from other roles someone would occupy on the way to a VP level position and what it takes to be a strong candidate if you’ve got your sights set on a VP level job. Joining us in the conversation is Mary Napier, Principal Consultant at Napier Executive Search. I’ll also be joined by Echo Delta’s own Laura Martin Fedich, who will be co-hosting each of our VP summer series podcasts. We start by discussing some of the unique dynamics that exist in senior leadership roles.

And Mary shares her thoughts on the kinds of experiences in education that make for competitive candidates. She also offers advice on how to assess whether now is really the right time to pursue a VP-level position. Then we cover the basics of how executive search firms work and how to evaluate opportunities at other schools to gauge if they’re the right fit. Mary was a generous guest and shared many insights that I know will be valuable for anyone considering a senior leadership position. So without further ado, here’s our conversation with Mary Napier. Mary, welcome to the show.

Mary Napier:
Thank you so much, Jarrett, for having me here today. I’m excited.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, I’m excited too. I think this is going to be a great conversation. I would love it for you to just give us a little snapshot of your background and in the work that you do.

Mary Napier:
Wonderful. Well, I’m here as part of Napier Executive Search. Napier Executive Search was founded in 2014 and we work exclusively in the enrollment management search space. I’ve done that even before we started working with this company, 10 years ago actually, with a woman named Terry Lahti who is a legendary in the field of enrollment management and somebody whose values aligned with my own in terms of making sure that people are cared for throughout the entire search process. Prior to enrollment management search, I was in enrollment management myself.

I was an interim VP for enrollment at Manhattanville College. And then worked 16 years at a variety of institutions. And little known fact about me is that I did a self-designed major to go into college admission work which is very weird, but has worked well for me. So that’s a little bit about me. Our firm itself, we work with practitioners. So everyone who is a search consultant was also in the field of enrollment management, so knows the kinds of questions that candidates are gonna ask and the kinds of questions that institutions need and want answered.

Jarrett Smith:
So I’m wondering if you can kind of talk to us a little bit about how that role is kind of different, because I think when someone’s stepping into that role for the first time, that’s obviously a huge step in their career and it’s not uncommon for them to enter in that role and realize, “Hey, this is a little different than it looked on the outside.” And I wonder if you could just talk to us a little bit about that for the folks who’ve never occupied that seat. What are the things that they don’t tell you about it before you get there?

Mary Napier:
Oh, great. So I think enrollment management search at the chief level means understanding and knowing the roots of the work, of course, but it’s a great deal of collaboration, probably more collaboration than people have necessarily done in their background. So any kind of collaborative work, whether it’s with faculty or whether it’s with boards, whether it’s with alumni, whether it’s with outside entities, that becomes a big part. The other thing is that you become not just someone who can solely think about the recruitment cycle, but has to be somebody who’s a player on the stage of the institution as well.

And so, needs to be deeply aligned with the culture of the institution, but also the culture of the other senior leadership members. So that’s a big part. And typically a big adjustment. I think there’s also that authoritative voice that people ask you to have when the day before they would have listened to you, of course you hope, but they listened to you with different ears and you some times as the person in the role will wonder, I’m the same person I was yesterday, so why is my voice either more or less important than it was? And so, it’s coming to terms and adjustment with that in both a humble, but also in a way that allows you to step up.

Jarrett Smith:
You rise to this role, people view you differently, but you don’t realize that they’re viewing you differently. You’re still, “I’m still me. I was just asking a simple question.”

Mary Napier:
Exactly. Exactly. And Laura, this would be a part, and as someone who was in a senior leadership role at an institution, I’d be curious to know if you had some thoughts about that as well.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s pressure, right? It’s the pressure, all of the sudden, you are the expert and you represent every bit of enrollment knowledge that your team has as well. And folks are always looking for you to have the vision and have all the answers and also keep them updated on the latest trends and what you’re doing and keep them positive as well. They want to know that enrollment’s going to come and strong and goals are going to be met. And so, you feel like you’re a little bit part cheerleader, part statistician and part educator at the same time. Yeah.

Mary Napier:
And you know, I was thinking a little bit about this as in relationship to our last conversation and I felt like there were two words that seem to really underscore the importance of this. And one is communication. And Laura, that speaks exactly to what you were just mentioning is just super-duper over the topic communication, very clear, very concise. But the other word is alignment, and it’s alignment with the goals of the institution, alignment with the responsibilities and keeping as many parts of the role aligned as possible.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Absolutely. So all of these things, and as I was doing my little bit of my list there, it made me think, oh gosh, how does somebody know when they’re ready? How do you know when you’re ready? So maybe you’ve been in enrollment like me, I started right out of college and I went back and forth. I don’t know if I want to be a director and then, yeah, I want to be a director. And then it took some years to really decide. And how do you know? How do you do that self-assessment? Is it a spidey sense kind of a thing? How do you know when you’re ready?

Mary Napier:
Yeah. I think it’s all of those. I mean, I really do think when we’re working with leaders who are aspiring to the position we hear that they go through a bit of a period of discernment all the way along. Interestingly, I think this pandemic and that some of the changes in higher education have provided some of those moments where people are thinking about their own career, what gives them great joy with what they do, what maximizes the skills and abilities that they have. When we’re talking with people who are thinking about aspiring to senior leadership positions we ask them a series of questions about, it’s not a box ticking, but it is one of those situations where we want to know that they’ve had collaborative experiences, that they’ve been exposed to strategic vision or had strategic vision themselves, that they’ve set goals for themselves and accomplish them, that they’ve worked in deep partnership with others on their team.

And that they have that ability to be able to say, “All right, I’m ready to reach for the next thing.” And it will match up with their own goals. The other thing that, there’s the readiness of the individual, of course. But there’s also the readiness of the full self. And that includes who else they’re connected with and who else had impacts. Does a move from the role that they’re currently playing to a senior leadership role entail other people in their lives, whether those are spouses or parents or partners or children and how that’s going to impact. And as with anything great in life you can’t ever predict how that’s all going to go, but I think having given that some very serious thought is a big part of knowing your own readiness moving forward.

Laura Martin Fedich:
I agree. I agree with that. And when you’re at that level there are a fair amount of evening weekend things that are social in nature. There may be a board retreat where a partner or spouse might be invited. There are different things like that. So I definitely think it’s a group decision because a lot of the time in these positions the partner can sort of take a back seat a little bit for priorities at certain times of year. I think that’s really wise. So speaking of checking the boxes, and I love how you put that because it literally feels like that, right. It feels like you’re checking the box. So let me ask you some really specific boxes to check. Do you need an advanced degree?

Mary Napier:
In higher education when education is the coin of the realm, it absolutely to your best advantage to go for an advanced degree. I think in past years people in enrollment and admissions couldn’t quite figure out how to do that and do the travel that was required of them and the job. But fortunately in today’s educational environment there are online options, there are weekend programs. So while what you get your degree in doesn’t always necessarily prepare you specifically for enrollment, someone who is in higher education should love to learn. It’s just-

Laura Martin Fedich:
They go together.

Mary Napier:
It’s a big part of it. That’s right.

Laura Martin Fedich:
That’s right. Yeah. I did mine while I was in career, is what they called it. And it ended up being an advantage to me to do my master’s while I was working full-time because I did a master’s in public administration and we were required to have sort of a practicum or maybe sort of like an internship. And because I was in career, I got credit for that. So there was sort of something that was, I got to skip over, so there is a benefit. Even though it’s a lot to work and do an advanced degree, and we’ve all known lots of people who’ve done that. All right. So the other question I have about checking boxes is supervisory experience. How strong is that in the whole leadership skill thing and leadership philosophy? Talk about that a little bit.

Mary Napier:
Sure. I think supervisory experience is absolutely important. And what is, I think, the most important is self-awareness of your own style and how you think about yourself as a supervisor, what goals you have set for yourself and for your team. All of those are really important elements. And one thing about enrollment management, if you think about kind of the history of it, I would say that an enrollment management when it was admissions was highly relational. I mean, to the point that the pendulum was here, it’s far to the side as you possibly could have in relational. And then for a while the field moved as far to the other side of the pendulum swing, as far to the other side with regards to analytical skills and abilities.

And so, I think someone who is going to really be successful as with everything is if you can come to that middle where you’ve got the connection between that relational, supervisory, people skill orientation but you also can see the data and the trends and the understanding going forth there. I would also say that depending on the level of the position back to that supervisory, specifically that supervisory box, I would say at that dean and director level, it’s going to be absolutely essential that someone already have had some practice in hiring, mentoring, supervisoring, evaluating cajoling, meeting people where they are. And then at that senior level it’s important to see who around you also has those skills that you can effectively delegate that to so that your team feels both supported and fed all along the way of the cycle.

Jarrett Smith:
And now for a short break. Hey, everyone, Jarrett here. The past year has brought so many challenges for the higher education enrollment community. And if you’re like many enrollment leaders, you’re looking forward to being on the other side of census. So you can finally step back and think about your strategy for the upcoming year. That’s why Jeff [Clay 00:15:20] and I will be hosting Post-Up, a free four-part webinars series for enrollment leaders starting September 29th. From search to yield to campus visits, Jeff and I will engage with Echo Delta’s enrollment experts to help you come back even stronger and smarter than before. Visit echodelta.co/post-up to register. That’s echodelta.co/post-up, all one word. I hope you’ll join us. And now back to the show.

You know, Mary, ultimately if you’re a successful candidate you hope that you will get the opportunity to interview at some point. And hopefully have a series of interviews. I’m wondering, assuming you check those boxes and you’ve done the self-assessment and the universe is aligning and you’re like this is right for me. How can they stand out and really be competitive during that specific part of the process?

Mary Napier:
Yeah. Oh, that’s a great question, Jared. Really, the number one thing they can do is do that self-assessment that we talked about. The second thing is to research the institution with Abandoned using iPads, using common data sets for institutions. And so, really studying what the story is of the institution, but then also checking things like their website and being aware of what is going to be a top of mind issue for the institution. And so, will allow you to start connecting right away with people. The other thing I think people can do is as they think about their skillset is to consider what are really great examples of how I do that?

So if I feel like I’m a strong communicator, where are examples where I have been incredibly effective as a communicator and allowed something that might’ve been difficult to explain, I’ve been able to break it down into language or break it down into processes that have allowed others to join in really effectively. And so, typically when those interviews are happening you’re not the only person talking to them. And so, to stand out is to find ways without using cliches of how you are excellent at what you do. So supervisors, please don’t say you have an open door policy. Just don’t say it.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Well, I will say, as soon as you said cliches I was like, “Ooh, Mary, what are the cliches?” So open door policy, check. Don’t say that. Any other greatest hits, team player, maybe?

Mary Napier:
Yeah. Team player without [crosstalk 00:18:12].

Laura Martin Fedich:
People person. How about people person?

Jarrett Smith:
People person.

Mary Napier:
Right, exactly. Or I didn’t grow up thinking I would be an admission counselor. Well, true, but who grows up thinking that they’re going to be X, Y or Z, it’s just an odd thing. So I think the best thing is if you, and if you are a cliche prone, and I am you, you have to try to also think about what is the really specific example that describes it. And without breaking any confidentiality or breaking any situation that would tell too much about the institution you currently serve, because that’s the other thing you want to do is you want to demonstrate the respect that you have for the people that you’re speaking with, the process that you’re going through. And the fact that you may or may not come out as the person they’re selecting.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a great, great bit of advice. Which kind of sparked to me a thought about internal candidates.

Mary Napier:
Yeah. It’s common that at the institutions who hire us, that there may be someone who is either on the rise or thinking about the opportunity. And so, how we counsel internal candidates is, first of all, we suggest that they think through the entire process. So think it through as if you are going to get the position and think it through as if you are not going to get the position and how will that change, how will your world be different? Most executive searches will guarantee confidentiality through a certain point.

And so, it’s important for an internal candidate to be aware of that. But I think for an internal candidate to really shine they have to know the field. They have to have put themselves into that opportunity of this is what I would do if I’m it, they have to own the process and they have to determine or indicate this is how I would operate, again, with a deviation from perhaps the way it’s always been done at that particular institution. Because what that says is that they’ve thought about what kind of changes they would make, or they have thought about what kind of opportunities are there.

So I think, I always encourage an internal candidate if in fact they’re ready or are hopeful. But I also want to help mitigate their expectations to a certain extent because the reason that a search firm is often hired, even if there’s talent internally, is to make sure that they’re seeking or they’re looking far and wide, that the institution is looking far and wide nationally, internationally for a candidate who’s going to be the next right leader for that particular office or institution.

Jarrett Smith:
So do you see it as being a particular disadvantage to be an internal candidate, or do you think they really have as much of a fair shot as anybody else has? What’s been your kind of experience?

Mary Napier:
Yeah. It’s everyone’s opportunity to win it. But somebody who thinks because they’ve served maybe 20 years at an institution automatically deserves the right or the opportunity to be that leader will find that that is not necessarily the case. And so, being self-aware is absolutely critical. Having people who can help speak to be supportive of you, but also be realistic in terms of the skills and abilities that you’re there. And that’s oftentimes when we are doing intake conversations with candidates who are internal or external, we are thinking about the skill sets that are necessary, that are there.

And we’ve had conversations with an internal or an external candidate and we’ve talked about, we’ve asked a question that clearly they’ve not had any experience with. And how they gauge what they know and how they gauge what they need to learn in a particular area. Oftentimes gives us clues as to how quickly they might move forward. So I mean, we’ve had a couple of searches recently where an internal candidate has gotten the position and it’s been just a joy to watch that person come into their own.

And we’ve had others where internal candidates have struggled to convince their colleagues on the search committee that they’re the right person. And neither of those are… Well, the second one is not a failure. I wouldn’t say it’s a failure. What it is just a reality check. And Laura, you’ve probably heard people say this before, sometimes at institutions you have to move out to move up. And to become the person who brings a fresh set of eyes to an institution can be incredibly valuable at that particular circumstance.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I think that’s what say it in enrollment is that, and why so many of us have moved around is that oftentimes you do have to move geographically too to move up for those opportunities. That’s true. Back to your point about it’s a family decision. That’s for sure. Hey, can I drill down into something that you talked about? You said something that just sort of caught my attention. You said confidentiality, that these searches are kept confidential to a certain point.

So I’ve been on both sides of it, right? Where I’ve been the candidate and then I’ve been on the side where I’ve had staff members who are pursuing other opportunities. And I always wonder about this, from your point of view, Mary, when is the best time and where is the responsibility around informing your current supervisor that you’re looking at something? I think I’m thinking more externally than an internal candidate.

Mary Napier:
Sure.

Laura Martin Fedich:
How do you? In the spirit of let’s not burn our bridges, right? Yeah.

Mary Napier:
And that is something we should never do. We should never burn our bridges. So I actually advise very young admissions staff who feel like its something that they want to pursue to start talking with their supervisor right away. And to say, eventually, I’d love the opportunity to do what it is you do. And by enlisting them early on, you find out what are those skills and abilities you should be able to do. And if your supervisor isn’t responsive, then you find mentors outside of the office to be able to determine that. But I think that is always one of those situations where following the advice of you want to control your narrative.

And that’s another part of the whole search process. So control your narrative means that you’re the one telling your boss, not that it’s coming back through the grapevine and the very small world of enrollment management that you might be applying for a position or might be in strong consideration for the position. And there are different levels and we advise candidates all along the way, because we answer the questions that they’re asking us as opposed to… Because there’s not a blanket that you can put over it and say, “Okay, this is what you should always do.”

But you do want to control. If you keep at the center that you’re controlling your narrative in a way that you feel like you can live with, then that’s the best thing. I think you always want to give people an opportunity to react and to be supportive of you. And that that comes back to one of the things that we’ve already talked a little bit about which is respecting the process and respecting the others with whom you work. Did that answer it? Or was that specific enough?

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah, that was really good.

Mary Napier:
Do I need to give you a specific example? From what I know and don’t know?

Laura Martin Fedich:
Sorry. I was thinking about myself there for a minute. I went into the ether of memory and it was a little bit of a traumatic memory of a staff member who did tell me that he was looking for another position at another institution. And then I told him, and I said, “If you decide to take the position, please let me know before you tell your colleagues because I really want to hear it from you.” So he called me on my honeymoon and told me on my honeymoon that he was leaving. I said, “All right.” That’s not really what I meant. I do think this could have waited. But anyway, that’s just a funny little-

Jarrett Smith:
Timing is everything. A good cliché that’s there for a reason.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Exactly. [crosstalk 00:27:51] And understanding the nuances of communication.

Mary Napier:
And actually, Laura, that does circle back to that air of authority that someone who is in that boss or supervisor position may say something that they definitely mean, but you need more oftentimes, more information.

Laura Martin Fedich:
So you’re telling me that I need to own the fact that-

Mary Napier:
I don’t know.

Laura Martin Fedich:
… he was just doing what I told him to do. Right?

Mary Napier:
Exactly.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Fortunately, I love him a lot so it was all okay anyway.

Mary Napier:
And it makes for a good story at their going away party, too.

Laura Martin Fedich:
That’s right. That’s right. That is right.

Jarrett Smith:
Good stuff. Well, we’ve been talking kind of very broadly about the VP role, a little bit touching here and there a bit on the role of executive search firms. But Mary, I mean, firms like yours play a very specific role in the process. And for those folks who maybe have never engaged with an executive search firm, wondering if you could just outline for us, what role do you play in this process? Where do you fit in to all of this?

Mary Napier:
Right. Well, it’s important for people to know that we’re hired by the institution and were hired for the expertise of the network that we serve and understanding that. So that’s the first thing to do. What I think a search firm can do really effectively for an institution is to provide an in-depth understanding of enrollment management. And that, from our perspective doesn’t just come from our own experiences, but it comes from our day after day after day conversations with some of the best and the brightest who are doing the work well hearing best practices, hearing how people are pivoting during the pandemic, hearing how people are adjusting to online experiences and what they’re learning and all of that. So part of what executive search does is provide a realistic lens.

What we can also do is we can disavow an institution of the hopefulness that there is a perfect candidate for a position, but in fact help them really kind of discern what it is they’re seeking. And hearing that through our understanding of the position and then making sure to feed that back even as we’re writing position announcement and talking with candidates. The other thing that I think a search firm can do for an institution and for a candidate when they’re doing it well is to provide clarity on both sides. So people can oftentimes ask a search firm a question that they would be a little reluctant to ask someone who is at the institution. So it could be about the genesis of the position. Why someone departed? Why the position is open? What the goals are?

Are the goals realistic? Are they something that can be conceived of? So we serve a variety of things. The other thing that I think especially Napier Executive Search does really well is we are incredibly organized on behalf of the institution and that assists the candidates as well. Because our focus is making sure that process continues to move forward and that balls aren’t dropped. As a senior leader whether it’s a president or a vice president who’s hiring us, they’re keeping so many things float and balls in the air and juggling to make sure that priorities are reached whereas our focus is on that search process. And so, that oftentimes means that when you set a timeline that the timeline is achieved as much as possible.

And so, the institution can feel like it’s an opening but it’s an opening for a certain period of time that they know a candidate will be able to fill successfully at the tail end of that. So that I think is as part of what we do. And the other thing we do is we cheer for both sides. We cheer for the candidates who are being brave enough to put themselves out there and to make them feel supported providing with information. Because I think as humans that’s what we want. Right? We want people to tell us either how well we’re doing. Or we want them to say, “All right, good. You completed what you needed to do.” And then we cheer, of course, for the institution to find that person who they feel is going to be a catalyst for providing the next set of changes or the next set of success at an institution. It’s a great job. It’s a fun job. I truly love it.

Laura Martin Fedich:
You know, being on the candidate side I’ve thought about you all in those long days of first round interviews, because typically a first round interview would be at a what they call a neutral spot. Right? Maybe an airport or a hotel. And so, you’re not maybe going to the campus the first time around and usually the search firms, a representative from the search firm is there making sure it’s all organized and that candidates aren’t running into each other, again, the confidentiality. But I think I told you both my embarrassing story of my first search in which I was a candidate. I naively so thought that the executive search firm was sort of working for me.

And I don’t know. And I work with Terry Lahti who you mentioned at the onset and you’re both such lovely people and so generous. And I thought, oh, she’s going to help me with this. And she was very, very helpful. But it’s important to know, I think, that you all you are working for the institution but you will be honest with us. And then on being on the other side and being a member of search committees, I have found the executive search firm representatives just to be very helpful to share little personal bits about a person that may inform different things. So I think a candidate also should be aware that things that they share will probably be shared if it becomes relevant. And it’s not like talking to a reporter where you’re never off the record. It’s not like that, but you all are to a person very warm and open and wise. But it’s a professional relationship.

Mary Napier:
It is. It’s important for a search firm to be neutral. But it’s also possible for a search firm to be supportive of both the institution and the candidates going forward. So yeah, that’s going to be the big part, I think, as people are walking through that for sure.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Mary, is it appropriate for individuals to reach out to a firm like yours or to attempt in some way to establish a connection so they’re on the radar for when searches come up? Is there a good way to go about doing that because you clearly are not offering career services for the individual, right?

Mary Napier:
That’s right.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s very different what your world is, but I’m just curious your thoughts on that.

Mary Napier:
Yeah. That’s a great question. And it comes to that depends answer, so it depends on where you’re headed. But if this is a field that you see yourself rising in the leadership of just people who’ve just started into the field and are asking their supervisor for support and assistance, there are ways in times to do that. I think the ways we find out about candidates first is oftentimes, or two ways, one is if there’s a particular position on our board that is intriguing to someone. And if somebody who wants to call and see if they would be considered for that, there can be a conversation around it.

The closer you are to the pin of what that school is looking for, probably the longer that conversation would be. The other way, and we’ve done this recently. We open up what we call career conversations. So regardless of the positions that are there when our team has time and really bandwidth to be able to speak with who is on the up and up, and who’s coming up is to schedule a 30-minute conversation there to just see how you might be building your resume in a way that allows you to jump off the page that shows the examples of the work that you’ve done.

And certainly any time anybody from a search firm is talking at a public space, whether that’s at NASDAQ or whether it is at one of the local state and regionals and giving out advice, take good note of that. And that oftentimes can suffice in many ways even as the conversation doesn’t happen. So I sometimes think of people who’ve who I consider enrollment superstars, and I can oftentimes remember where I was when I was sitting and talking with them. And realizing as they’re talking, that there’s somebody I’m going to keep an eye on and there’s somebody I’m going to… And it might be for a month. It might be for several years. And so, the fact of developing a long-term relationship with somebody in the search world is not a bad idea if you have the opportunity.

Jarrett Smith:
I want to circle back to something we were kind of talking about a few minutes ago, which is kind of this idea of fit, right? And when I hear you talk about the role that a firm like yours plays it’s really about, it’s kind of matchmaking and really finding that ideal, is the way I would think about it. And finding the kind of that ideal candidate. But fit is kind of a two-way street. And I think that the whole process, of course, is I think by default kind of oriented towards the institution finding the right candidate. And all throughout that process, of course, everybody’s going to be on their best behavior. The institution’s going to be sharing their glossiest version of themselves. And all of the candidates are going to be sharing the best possible version of themselves.

But at the end of the day, someone’s going to get placed and then they’re going to be working together and all the gloss is eventually going to wear off. And so, I just wonder how as a candidate, how do you throughout this process really think about, “Hey, is this opportunity the right one for me?” Because it would be a real shame to go through all of this and then six months into the role realized, “Wow, these goals are unrealistic or the leadership team is dysfunctional or there’s something much larger that I just didn’t pick up on.” Do you have any thoughts about how people can be smart about that? Obviously, during the interview process you don’t want to be off putting with just a barrage of pointed questions and that sort of thing, but you have to do your homework.

Mary Napier:
Right. You do have to do your homework, and it really is incumbent on you to do your homework and to ask hard questions and to figure out who those questions should be addressed to. That’s another role that a search firm can provide. So if someone has questions about the financial health of an institution, something that’s really key. What we often do is connect them with, say the CFO or someone who will be able to provide them with that detailed information. The other thing is that you want people… You don’t want it to be a spur of the moment. You wake up one day and you think, “Okay, I think I need something different and I’m going to look at this.”

So you want to be pointed in your constant discernment about yourself and what’s important there. Once you’re ready, then it’s a matter of really, really exploring as deeply as you can. And the other thing I would say is, and I think this is an advantage actually that people in enrollment management overall have. If they’re really good at the work that they do they have to be, back to that alignment, they have to be aligned with the institution and they have to make sure that as they’re speaking about the institution that they’ve got, they can stand behind it in every way, shape or form.

So if there start to be signs in someone’s head that there is this misalignment or it is not a good fit, even as early as the search process, I would encourage people to slow down. Ask for the time that they need to be able to really examine and explore that and then go forward at an appropriate time. So if you’re someone who is highly, highly big risk taker, maybe put on the brakes of being a little bit more risk averse than you might normally be for something that’s as major as a move to a new institution that in fact could be, Laura, to your point a geographical move or being somewhere where you’re someplace brand new for you and all the ones you love with you, so.

Laura Martin Fedich:
I’ve had conversations in the last, I don’t know, six months to a year, Mary, with colleagues who have left positions recently because what they thought was just a perfect fit ended up after being there for a couple of months realizing that what the institution had talked about, particularly the senior staff members and the trustees and the president, what they wanted to accomplish wasn’t necessarily true. And it was more just talking about, we want to be this institution or we want to look like this or we want this profile. But it was more of they were just saying what they thought that he needed to say. And these people that I have in mind all went there because they thought they were becoming a part of a vision.

And it was really, really important to them. And it wasn’t as important to the institution, it turned out. I don’t think it was in any case, it was intentional, but I guess I want to put you on the spot and say, is there a way that you could really have a filter where you can figure out are they genuine? Is what they’re talking about authentic? Are they being authentic in their communication about the institution’s future or the vision? So that you can align yourself. I guess that’s the point. Because again, all these people that I have in mind went there because this is their life’s work. Right. They really thought they were doing good and they weren’t aligned.

Mary Napier:
Right. Right. Ah, I wish there was a magic pill for that. Just like I went through a magic button for a silver bullet for enrollment and neither of those things exist. Yeah. I know that’s a stumper of how to try to do it. I guess what the only thing you can do is to just keep asking as many questions as you possibly can, keep checking yourself to see if this is realistic about where you’re going. Think about your own powers of persuasion and if you’d be able to change the minds there. And the ultimately I… But I also think it ultimately comes down to then assessing, even midstream of where you’re at about whether that’s an okay fit.

And so, back to my point about what is failure, failure isn’t inability to do the job, but is an inability to recognize that things are just not going to work out. So figuring out how to, if you do find yourself in a situation where it’s impossible odds and unrealistic expectations and no one to assist in the process, then maybe it’s not the place where somebody needs to be. And that’s absolutely okay, too. One of the things that we’ve seen a lot of recently, I think are, and I mentioned it a bit earlier in our conversation is just people taking time to think.

And things that once were taboo like a blank spot on your resume for three to four or 18 months, it’s okay. It really is okay. Because all along the way your content continuing to evolve and contribute and understand more about what direction you should be heading. So I mean, I think a success is when you look back and go ha ha ha, this is why this happened in the direction we were headed. And so, that’s what you really want to have happen both for the individuals, but also for the institution as well.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah. Thank you for that.

Jarrett Smith:
Mary, you mentioned something, you said more recently some things have kind of changed. So having a gap on your resume isn’t necessarily the end of the world, couple of years ago it would’ve been a big deal. Is there anything else that you’ve kind of seen change more recently maybe as a direct result of the pandemic or just something else?

Mary Napier:
Well, I mean, I think an inability to travel has impacted the search world in many ways. Laura, you were talking about the neutral site interviews, and though I think those will continue to be a reality in some instances, I think the fact that people are so comfortable on Zoom with conversations and it helps with expediency, it helps with cost-effectiveness and it can be actually more efficient and helpful to candidates as well. I think we’re going to move more in the direction of those early round interviews being virtual. So I think that’s happening. The other thing that is happening is, and this is maybe an opportunity that each person has is to say, during these past 18 months, what is it that I’ve learned about the way I work or what I value?

And we’ve seen really philosophical people coming out of the woodwork and some have come out saying, I know that I’m better at what I do because I was forced into a situation. And then our whole team was forced into a situation where we just had to think differently. And so, how we came out of that is helping me write my next chapter, whatever that might be. So that to me is exciting both for the field and for higher education. When you think about what will be the solutions, especially for places that are very student oriented. And my gosh, that’s what higher education should be about at all times that it should be student oriented.

Jarrett Smith:
Do you have any favorite resources that you recommend for folks that are aspiring to these positions of senior leadership, websites, blogs, books that you recommend to folks along the way?

Mary Napier:
Oh my gosh, I should, shouldn’t I? But let’s see, what are things I would love for people to be thinking about? Many of the organizations that serve enrollment management as partners oftentimes have best of breed information. So getting to know what each organization might lend to the field, I think, is really critical. So understanding the role that marketing organizations play with as they connect to enrollment or what search organizations might lead to, what technology partners would add to the field.

So I think it’s just a great idea to start every day with Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education and then making sure that you’re up on trends there and then up on trends that are happening in the field. Just to tell a story on myself, when you think of our national conference, the NACA conference and when I was an admission counselor, first I went for the dances and then later on I went for the collaboration and getting to know people. But when I became a dean of admission, I spent all my time in the vendor miserable.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Oh my gosh, I was just going to say.

Mary Napier:
Because you’re just learning, okay, [crosstalk 00:51:13] who can help me? Who is connecting and understands what it is I’m doing? And so, yeah. So that’s hitting a cord there, Laura?

Laura Martin Fedich:
It is. I didn’t hear you say anything about attending sessions.

Mary Napier:
Oh, no. And then there’s attending session. I know. I know. No, I didn’t.

Laura Martin Fedich:
[crosstalk 00:51:34] That was not nice of me.

Mary Napier:
But no, you can never get into the sessions.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Oh, that’s right. That’s right.

Mary Napier:
You know, unless you’re-

Laura Martin Fedich:
Unless you’re early, and we’re never early because you’re still-

Mary Napier:
[crosstalk 00:51:44] busy talking to people in the hallway.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Exactly. And you get there late. Oh my gosh, yes, here we go. Okay. Well, [inaudible 00:51:50].

Jarrett Smith:
Sounds like an extrovert problem to me.

Mary Napier:
Oh, it is.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah, it is. It is. It is. Yeah. I appreciate what you’re saying about the technology organizations and the vendors bring to it, because there’s so much crossover. You’ll find so many former enrollment people like me that are now with an agency or with a consulting firm or college boarder, [inaudible 00:52:23] fill in the blank. So there’s just, our profession is full of just a lot of knowledge people. And I think one of the spirit of enrollment folks is always about, we’re so open about sharing what has worked. I just don’t think you see that in many industries, right? So I think you’re giving some really, really wise smart advice.

Mary Napier:
So I’m going to take that as a personal challenge, Jarrett, and I will report back to you.

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, excellent.

Mary Napier:
And perhaps some reading materials.

Jarrett Smith:
Good stuff. Well, Mary, this has just been a wonderful conversation full of some just fantastic advice. Mary, if someone is interested in learning more about your firm, perhaps connecting with you, what are the best places to do that?

Mary Napier:
Sure. Well, we’ve got a website that I think is excellent, actually. So it’s napiersearch.com. And Napier is N-A-P-I-E-R. Search, S-E-A-R-C-H.com. And then all of us can be reached. Our biographies are there and we can be reached individually through the email and that’s email and we all include our cell phones. So we’re texters and we respond to email and we are constantly keeping our website up to date with opportunities so that we’re currently serving, so.

Jarrett Smith:
Excellent.

Laura Martin Fedich:
And when conferences go back in person, when we get to that point, will you and your colleagues be back at conferences?

Mary Napier:
We will. We will. We’re definitely going to be at the national conference this year. We’re looking at a variety of other of the both state and regional and other levels of conferences that are put on by organizations. We’re excited to get back. I love that you called us out as extroverts because I’ll say the biggest majority of the people on our team are extroverts. And so we’re very much looking forward to seeing one another and traveling again and connecting in pretty deep ways.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s great. I can feel the excitement. I can see the smile on your face. The glow of, oh, to be around people again. I think I’m what they call an ambivert. So I do like talking to people, but conferences, by the end of the day I just flop into my bed and I’m exhausted.

Mary Napier:
Yeah. And that’s okay.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Mary Napier:
Yeah, it definitely is.

Jarrett Smith:
There’s room for everybody. Well, Mary, thank you so much for your time. This has just been a fantastic conversation.

Mary Napier:
Oh, thank you so much, Jared. As much fun as I thought it would be immoral. And Laura, always a pleasure to connect with you. So thanks.

Laura Martin Fedich:
So good to see you and have the conversation. And it’s been fun. I knew it would be very good.

Mary Napier:
Thanks.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us online at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

Understanding Financial Aid Leveraging with Dr. Jimmy Jung

In this episode, we talk about financial aid leveraging—the common and sometimes controversial practice of using data-driven approaches to inform how schools use institutional funds to manage enrollment and tuition revenue.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta data scientist and consultant, Dr. Jimmy Jung. As a higher ed veteran with over 20 years of experience, Jimmy has successfully led enrollment management at multiple institutions around the country and has consulted internationally in the areas of marketing, program evaluation, data analytics, and student success.

We start by covering the basics of financial aid leveraging—what it is, how it works, and the kinds of data schools use to inform their financial aid models. Then, we dig deeper into the impact of financial aid leveraging, including improving net tuition revenue, controlling discount rates, and how it can help schools uncover hidden insights about their institution and the students they hope to attract.

We wrap up by talking about some of the criticisms of the practice and hear Jimmy’s thoughts on the ethical and responsible use of financial aid leveraging.

This was a fascinating conversation full of essential information for anyone looking to understand more about financial aid leveraging.

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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 education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about financial aid leveraging. The common, but sometimes controversial practice of using data-driven approaches to inform how schools award financial aid.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta data scientists and consultant Dr. Jimmy Jung. As a higher ed veteran with over 20 years of experience, Jimmy has successfully led enrollment management at multiple institutions around the country and has consulted internationally in the areas of marketing, program evaluation, data analytics, and student success. We start by covering some of the basics of financial aid leveraging, what it is, how it works, and the kind of data that schools use to inform their financial aid models.

Then we dig deeper into the impact of financial aid leveraging from improving net tuition revenue and controlling discount rates, to showing how it can help schools uncover hidden insights about their institution and the students they hope to attract. We wrap up by talking about some of the criticisms of the practice, and we hear Jimmy’s thoughts on the ethical and responsible use of financial aid leveraging.

This was an interesting conversation full of essential information for anyone looking to understand more about financial aid leveraging. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Jimmy Jung.

Jarrett Smith:

Jimmy, welcome to the show.

Jimmy Jung:

Good to be here.

Jarrett Smith:

Jimmy, I would love it if you could just start off by giving us a quick snapshot of your work and expertise in higher ed and financial aid leveraging.

Jimmy Jung:

Definitely will do, Jarrett. Spent the last 20 years working in higher education. The first job I ever had was as an analyst creating these financial aid leveraging models and looking at the impact that it had on institutions, driving of course their revenue model up and impacting students. Allowing students to have a chance to go to college because financial aid leveraging gives additional aid to students. My passion began there. I saw the policy changes that financial aid leveraging can do to help students and institution. Now I’ve been doing it for 20 years for many different institutions.

Jarrett Smith:

Good deal. For those who might not be familiar with the term financial aid leveraging, how do you define that? What do you mean when you say that?

Jimmy Jung:

Financial aid leveraging is a pretty simple concept. Obviously, it gets a little bit more complicated in how an institution applies it, using institutional aid or financial aid strategies to impact enrollment and retention and attracting students. Something as simple as scholarship offer on the website is technically financial aid leveraging because you’re trying to drive some type of student behavior.

Jarrett Smith:

It’s interesting you kind of mentioned that because I know in the past you’ve told me, in a sense everybody has a financial aid leveraging strategy where they’re doing it, whether they realize it or not. Based on that definition, I see how you get there. But when somebody is engaging in the practice, kind of formally, of financial aid leveraging and really trying to use that as a tool to shape a class, can you give me a sense of what kinds of schools are using it? How is it actually done? I also want to preface that by saying, I realize that practices evolved over time and gotten increasingly more sophisticated. I think I just bundled like three questions up in one for you.

Jimmy Jung:

I’ll try to deconstruct it.

Jarrett Smith:

Okay. Thank you.

Jimmy Jung:

Bring me back to questions or pieces of it that I don’t catch.

Jarrett Smith:

Sure.

Jimmy Jung:

I think the first part was talking about what types of schools should do it. The answer for that is many types of schools are doing it. I think the key difference between a scholarship strategy that is put out there versus financial aid leveraging, I think the key piece is are you using data, right. A lot of times, in the past, scholarship strategy is based on what you hear from the market, “Hey, students that are asking for this,” or, “Hey, our competitors are doing it.” Then institution choose to do it. Financial aid leveraging begins where you’re looking at data and say, “Hey, is this scholarship having an impact? Is there something the data tells us how to structure the scholarships so it has impact on a yield where in students are applying.”

I think that’s the key point between coming up with a scholarship strategy versus the technical term financial aid leveraging, right. I’ve seen financial aid leveraging used at all different types of schools, private, public, small, large, medium, public flagships. Once an institution realize that they have data and they can use this data to look at their aid strategy, they often continue to do so and allows the school to really think about and develop reports to track how students are responding to the financial aid offer or the scholarship packages they’re giving students.

Jarrett Smith:

Right. What I take away from that is really it’s about making data-driven decisions. Kind of digging into the data aspect, for a minute, I mean, what kind of data are we talking about? It’s historical data, so how far back does it need to go?

Jimmy Jung:

Let’s tackle what type of data, because every institution in some way collects data. I mean, it’s impossible not to nowadays because you have these sophisticated student information systems developed by Oracle, Banner, Campus Solutions, just to name a couple. They’re very good at collecting data. Data have become cheaper to collect over time. Storage has become cheaper. Processors are faster. Data analytics has become a thing in the last five years. Institutions are sitting on [inaudible 00:05:57] and institutions collect a lot of data. The data that’s used for financial aid leveraging is no different than the data you use to track students for retention, track when students registers. A demographic data, the characteristics of students at your school is one big one. The admissions’ data, like get which students came or did not come to your school, whether or not they put it in a deposit, whether they melted.

When they applied, when did a financial aid package gets up to them. Finally, some financial aid data, whether or not they apply to the FAFSA, things like whether or not they will offer a scholarship and the loans and the state aid and the federal aid they qualify for are all important data that schools use for leveraging.

Technically speaking, we could go as far back as five to 10 years, depending on how stable you want to look and answering bigger questions of like, which academic program has been attracting students over time, right? Or looking at how effective the different changes in each tragedy were over time. To start up, you need at least two to three years of data. One, anything with data and trends, they’re kind of sometimes spurious, right. One year you’re up maybe 5%, next year, you’re down 5%. You want at least three years of data to solidify any type of strategy you’re putting up there, or at least look at whether or not there’s drastic changes in trend, because if you’re looking at just one or two years of data, the market can change that quickly, right. You don’t want to make big financial decisions on like one or two years worth of data.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. When you’re thinking about the data that you’re feeding into a financial aid leveraging model, how do you think about a year like we just had, right? 2020 is anomalous. 2021 could be equally as anomalous. How do you account for a year like that? How do you control for that so it doesn’t just like wildly throw off your model or should it wildly throw off your model? I mean, how do you navigate that I guess is my question.

Jimmy Jung:

Two thoughts. You’re right. I mean, nothing like this has happened before, at least in sort of data tracking history. The best way to go about it, and me and my colleagues in higher education has been talking about this like, “Hey, what kind of financial aid model? How do we offer this?” Based on my experience and what people have been talking about this particular year is that your market doesn’t necessarily shift drastically even in the pandemic. The students who knew about you still know about you and students who want to come to you will come to you. What we take a look at is maybe the economy, right? Higher education generally has a decent sense of how the economies impact a moment, right? One, the freshmen students, the incoming students, we leave them more price sensitive. You’re going to have to guess that some things are happening where the income is lower.

That’s given. It’s going to be lower. It’s going to disproportionately impact folks, parents, and families. They’re going to be more price sensitive. Discussion becomes, “Do you provide more aid upfront to attract students?” On the other end, the graduate end, is that in times of economic downturn, people are going to retool. Older students that are going to be getting a graduate degree who have been impacted negatively by this pandemic will want to retool. There’re government programs that sort of support that. You expect an expansion of your graduate programs.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. That’s an interesting point you bring up there. I came across a little data point the other day saying law school applications and admissions where way up year over year. A perfect example of exactly what you’re talking about, people going back to retool in times like this. Is setting aside sort of the current immediate challenges that we’re all facing and what does that mean for the models in the financial aid leveraging strategy? Just in general, when schools are adopting financial aid leveraging for the first time, what are some of the more common sort of frequent challenges that they tend to encounter as they think about doing that?

Jimmy Jung:

One of the most common one is even though we’ve been collecting data in the student information system, getting the correct data out is always the longest. It’s 90% of the work when you first start financial aid leveraging. Taking out the right data, making sure that the timing of the data is correct to make sure you have the most accurate model and working with financial aid and admissions offices to ask them those questions. “Hey, does this really reflect your admissions of behavior of your students and the financial aid offers are they correct? Is the timing right?” That’s the biggest upfront challenge.

The second piece is less of a technical piece. It’s the sort of campus cultural piece. Financial aid leveraging is not something that an institution goes in to likely because there’s investment, generally an investment of institutional funds. The senior level of the university started to be on board like, “Hey, here’s the risk. We’re offering more aid. We’re expecting this return. This is the model it’s built on. These are the assumptions that we are creating this model for. Getting buy-in from the president, the CFO, and even the VP of marketing, it’s going to be key in terms of a successful leveraging strategy.”

Jarrett Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s so many different types of schools out there and financial aid leveraging can be applied in so many different ways. I know historically financial aid leveraging has been used by private schools. It’s becoming a lot more common in the publics. Can you talk to me a little bit about how the leveraging strategy might change based on some institutional characteristics?

Jimmy Jung:

One of the most interesting part of financial aid leveraging, helping different schools developing financial aid leveraging strategy, especially for me, is that you never know what the data is going to show you. Doing it for over 20 years, there’s no one sort of financial aid leveraging model that fits another one. Our schools are unique. The markets in which they are sort of placed are very unique, right? A financial aid leveraging model shows that, right. Developing these models in the different types of schools, sometimes the same program at one school is not going to yield as good as academic program in another school for many reasons, right. You might not leverage off the same programs. You might not leverage off the same characteristics. Certainly, you have to think about the different rules that exist in terms of leverage strategy.

I think you mentioned public versus private. At a public institution, the leveraging model’s the same, but things you have to keep in mind are particularly different. Different states have different rules about how an institution can use its own aid. For financial aid, got to be sensitive to that. Of course the equity piece, is the model built that it gives everybody a fair chance at the aid of a certain characteristic, right. Of course at a public institution, you have to be politically sensitive about offering aid to out of state and international students. These are some of the additional things to think about in private versus public.

Jarrett Smith:

I want to go back to an interesting point that you made that the data is going to surface things that are unique to that institution that you did not expect. I think that is the value of any type of research that you’re doing, is surfacing something that you did not previously know, shining light on something. When you surface these kinds of insights, I imagine that there are times where the institution is kind of confronted with the truth or a reality that maybe they hadn’t thought of before. Can you talk to maybe some of those things that you’ve observed over the years? Any surprising insights that maybe have come out from any work that you’ve done with the school and kind of the sorts of things they’ve discovered along the way that were a little counterintuitive or unexpected?

Jimmy Jung:

Definitely. I’ll talk about my most recent example. This particular institution wanted to create a financial aid leveraging strategy to attract more freshmen students. In looking at that, we found out they’re doing extremely well in attracting freshmen student. A financial aid leveraging strategy is going to change how they attract freshmen students, right? That tool isn’t for me. Instead, it was one of their graduate programs, which they thought was doing extremely well in terms of leveraging strategy that would have worked better if there’s a change in financial aid strategy. For this institution brought into context like benchmarking, right?

They didn’t think outside of the institution. What is the standard historical yield for a public institution for their freshman class? When they took a look at that, they were like, “Hey, this is a core strength. We’re going to keep an eye on this and work on these graduate programs,” which they could gain a larger market share or more revenue from. That’s something they never considered just because they had this assumption that and what they’re hearing is, “Hey, let’s work on the freshman class.” That gave them more to think about. That gave them options to focus their institutional resources to do something that will have a bigger impact.

Jarrett Smith:

When we talk about leveraging, it’s obviously a very technical topic, but when you’re engaging in that sort of initiative, ideally, you’re going to have stakeholders from a lot of different areas around the school. You’re going to have financial aid at the table, obviously enrollment at the table. Even your institutional leadership marketing maybe at the table. As you engage in financial aid leveraging, does it have the potential to change the way those departments interact? Have you kind of seen it alter the way that those departments work together?

Jimmy Jung:

Oh, absolutely. Best cases of financial aid leveraging works when you get a lot of different departments working hand in hand. Of course the biggest two departments, admissions and financial aid. In traditional terms, admissions generally thinks it’s just as recruitment. Once we got the students to apply and admit it, we’ll hand it off to financial aid and financial aid offices think, “Okay, until they’re admitted or deposited, I’m not going to think about giving them a financial aid offer.” Leveraging works best when these two departments sort of collaborate with each other. “Hey, we’re going to meet the students. They’re going to get a financial aid offer,” but then it goes back to the admissions to maybe engage with the students and ask them the questions. “Hey, did you get a financial aid offer? Do you have any questions? How do you feel about it, right?”

To get the market sort of feedback, right. Because sometimes you make that phone call and it’s like, “Hey, a different institution offered me more and I love to come here, but your offer is less than this other institution.” You bring that feedback back to financial aid to see if there’s anything additional that they could do about it. That type of financial aid leveraging allows for a more market feedback if admissions and financial aid talk to each other. One more piece, which is the insights that you bring back when you’re doing financial aid leveraging changes marketing, right? The institution I just gave an example, for freshmen, we’re actually doing really well. We don’t need additional financial leveraging strategy there. It’s the graduate programs and marketing we’ll switch the focus from marketing potential freshmen students to these graduate programs. That type of feedback loop allows an institution to pivot their resources and allow different departments to really begin communicating and working together to achieve the institutional goals.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. That’s a really interesting point, Jimmy. It makes me think that especially so many schools are trying to be smarter and more data-driven about how they approach marketing. This is an interesting source of information and insight. I’m wondering if you can dig in a little more on the sort of broader impact that financial aid leveraging can have though. I mean, it’s certainly an important tool for driving net revenue, but it’s not only an exclusively about maximizing net tuition revenue, is that right?

Jimmy Jung:

Absolutely. That’s where I think financial aid leveraging gets a bad rap. Yes, I think maybe most important outcome, depending on who you’re talking about, who you’re talking with, is the net tuition revenue. It’s a data process, right. How with a lot of variables essentially provides a market demand study. Another way to look at it, it’s a market demand study that allows you to put financial aid on top of it to shift the behavior of students, right? The market piece cannot be discounted because that’s where you get the insights. That’s where an institution learns most about itself and its students it attracts, right? Like the topic we just talked about, how does it drive business process changes between departments. Those insights allows you to look at certain market segments and how they’re doing, right. Because a lot of times those are sometimes more important than the financial aid leveraging part, right?

Here are things that we could change or focus on without investing a lot of money to yield students. Here are some process you change. Do we want to work on that first before we invest a lot of money in to the leveraging part? What doesn’t get told is the times when you look at leveraging. Maybe the financial aid doesn’t get applied yet. It’s the marketing changes that come first because you get very good data about how certain academic programs are doing. They get very good data about whether or not you’re attracting enough students that you want to attract, right? Definitely the process itself is worth going through because it’s a market demand study. The market demand study then sort of flows into this, can that market be impacted by financial aid, right? If the answer’s yes, the outcome is a net tuition revenue, right?

Jarrett Smith:

I do want to talk at least a little bit about some of the criticisms financial aid leveraging has received over the years. For instance, there are those that would say the practice can put certain groups of students at a disadvantage. It could ultimately hurt diversity and access. Obviously that would run counter to the mission of so many schools. How do you think about that? How do you help the schools you work with navigate those issues?

Jimmy Jung:

That’s a great question. A couple of thoughts on it. The first thought is financial aid leveraging is a tool. It’s statistical analysis that tells an institution more about SAF. That’s a way of self reflection, [inaudible 00:19:55] if I was philosophical. It will allow institutions to really take a hard look at what students are looking for in their institution. The results of it is a choice, right? If anything, that’s a tool, whether or not it’s your iPhone or your car, how you choose to use it is going to be key, right? Financial aid leveraging is a big part of that. But the reason I fell in love with financial aid leveraging as a driver to benefit institutions and students at the first institution where I learned this is the president of that institution took a look at the leveraging model and he said, “Jimmy, how do we help inner city, low income students? Because it doesn’t look like our model’s doing enough.”

He made a choice and it was the mission of that school to provide opportunities for these students. He says, “We need to invest more. Your model is telling us that we need to invest more.” He made a choice to do that. But that was only possible because the model showed that these students wasn’t benefiting as much as it should. Financial aid leveraging is a choice, an institutional choice. If you don’t think the model is telling you that it’s gearing towards your mission, you can make these policy decisions to make it so it aligns with your mission.

Jarrett Smith:

That’s such a great point, Jimmy. What I hear you saying is the model is essentially values agnostic. It’s a spreadsheet. It’s a machine learning model. It’s a whatever fancy software package you want to run on it. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the humans running the model to decide how to use it and what they’re going to optimize for.

Jimmy Jung:

It gives institution leadership choices, right? I think that’s a very good thing in terms of planning in terms of making decisions about where your institution is headed and whether or not you’re aligning to your missions of values.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, Jimmy, thank you so much for sharing all of these, your experience and insights about financial aid leveraging over the years. Before we go, I’m wondering if you could just give any sort of parting advice for folks that might be listening to this and considering whether financial aid leveraging might be right for their school. Any advice you might give them?

Jimmy Jung:

Well, if you’re an institution that are looking to become more data-driven, to think about how financial aid is impacting your enrollment more deeply, potentially, right? From a data perspective, from market perspective, then doing the financial aid leveraging process is something that you want to do. It’s a choice, right? First, it’s a market demand study. Taking a look at which students are you attracting and how they are choosing your institution and then leading on the financial aid to see how that has impacted your enrollment in the past. There’re potentially thinking about policies that you might want to change looking into the future. Obviously, I’m a big proponent of financial aid leveraging, especially for institutions taking a data-driven look at themselves, thinking about what we could do to help institutions and students enroll.

Jarrett Smith:

Excellent. Thank you for your time today, Jimmy. I really appreciate it.

Jimmy Jung:

Okay. Thank you, Jarret. Great to be talking to you about this stuff.

Jarrett Smith:

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. As always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

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How to Give Better Feedback on Creative Work

Whether you’re working with your internal team or an agency partner, giving good feedback on creative work can be surprisingly tricky. Do it right and you just might unlock new levels of creativity and motivation to get the job done. Do it poorly and you’ll risk sending the team spiraling off in unproductive directions.

In this episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast, we’re joined by Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. As an internationally awarded creative leader with years of experience guiding creative work for some of the world’s most respected brands, Rachel has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to critical feedback on creative projects.

We cover:

  • How to effectively prepare to deliver feedback before you even walk into the room
  • Rachel’s simple framework for identifying the right issues to focus on
  • How professional creators plan for and manage the “creative thrashing” that can bring creative projects to a halt
  • Why it’s usually more helpful to focus on problems rather than solutions
  • How to have a positive and productive conversation without over-relying on formulaic techniques like the “feedback sandwich”.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to uncover actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about how to give feedback on creative work, whether you’re reviewing designs for a webpage or draft copy for your next recruitment campaign, the quality of your feedback can be the make or break factor that elevates the work and energizes the team or sends them spiraling off into unfruitful territory.

Joining us to help get on the path to better more constructive feedback is Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. Rachel is an internationally awarded creative leader whose work includes some of the most recognized brands in the world. We cover how to prepare to deliver feedback before you walk in the room, how the idea of creative thrashing can help you avoid drastic feedback late in a project, Rachel’s go-to framework for evaluating creative products, and how to lead with positivity without over-relying on formulaic rules, like the feedback sandwich. This was a great conversation and will be helpful for anyone looking to hone their ability to deliver solid feedback that keeps the work moving forward. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Rachel Newell. Rachel, welcome to the show.

Rachel Newell:
Well, hey, Jarrett, thanks for having me.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I’m excited to have this conversation, and we’re like in person.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. I’m feeling good about it, feeling good, still transitioning, but it’s lovely to see you in person.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s good to be breathing the same air and not totally freaked out about that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, I’m mildly freaked out, but it’s good.

Jarrett Smith:
It’ll take another year to get over that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
So super excited about today’s topic. We’re talking about how to give better feedback on creative work. Before we jump into that conversation, I’m wondering if you could give us just a quick little snapshot of your creative background, because I think it’s super relevant to this conversation and what you do here with us.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So from the top, my name is Rachel Newell. I’m the Creative Director here at Echo Delta. So I come from a graphic design background. So went to school for graphic design, absolutely fell in love with it. I love the range that it is. So I’ve been able to do editorial design, packaging design, found my way into advertising, which that’s a huge beast in itself, and started doing all sorts of integrated marketing. Did some work in New York City, done some work here in Central Florida. So definitely have worked with a lot of different interdisciplinary teams from different creative backgrounds. So yeah, I’m with you honing your skills of giving constructive creative feedback. I don’t know. It’s a tricky thing and it’s a lifelong skill worth honing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, when I was prepping for this conversation, I was doing a little bit of homework and I’d forgotten about all the websites that are out there about bad creative feedback that designers and copywriters have gotten over the years. There’s some really hilarious stuff out there.

Rachel Newell:
There’s some good tumblers.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Okay. So the format for our discussion, I’ve challenged both of us to come up with three things that we would want or suggest that other folks think about when they’re delivering feedback on creative work to their teams. I’m going to let you go first. And we have not for the record compared notes beforehand. So we might have, I don’t know, we might have identical topics.

Rachel Newell:
Or I might’ve just gone rogue and not understood. Anyway-

Jarrett Smith:
We might have some serious editing to do is what you’re saying.

Rachel Newell:
Yes.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. All right. I’ll see if I can diplomatically deliver some feedback after this.

Rachel Newell:
See, this is a meta episode.

Jarrett Smith:
This meta episode. All right. All right, Rachel, you’re up first. Okay.

Rachel Newell:
All right. My initial things, if I had to boil it down to where to start to give better creative feedback is actually with yourself and to make sure that you’re going into critiquing whatever project, knowing as much of the history to the project as possible. So often hopefully, the designers or web designers or whoever have a creative brief. And I think it’s super, super helpful just to take a beat, do your own homework, read through that creative brief or remind yourself, refresh yourself about that creative brief.

So right, you can jump into the conversation with the creatives with the same background knowledge of what are the limitations? What was the big ask? Maybe what’s the big problem? That way you can skip over saying like, hey, well, why didn’t we do this? And then they’re like, well, they said not to do a postcard, or they said not to do X, right? You can kind of not have to have that sort of stumbling into having to catch up, because that’s actually been, I think, something that I’ve experienced is the biggest hiccup and getting into a good trustworthy flow of giving creative feedback is just jumping in, doing your homework and not having that creative who’s having to receive the feedback have to start to explain the why’s and the why’s not, if that makes any sense.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s going to have a lot of that kind of foundational knowledge. And I feel like that gets just more and more important, the more projects you have in the queue, if you haven’t seen it in three weeks and you’re circling back for review, just kind of refreshing on what were we doing? Why were we doing this? What did we all agree to?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Rachel Newell:
Should I keep going?

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, I want to go next.

Rachel Newell:
Okay, I like this. I like this.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. All right. Well, I’m picturing, oh, you’re a Jimmy Fallon fan, right? So the musical wheel. Yes.

Rachel Newell:
I’m into it.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. So I’m the big Seth Godin fan because he’s written a million books, but years and years ago, I read this book from him called Linchpin. And he talks about this idea of creative thrashing. And so imagine in your mind, there’s like the timeline of your project, this nice little thin line. Every time you have a peak, or sorry, a tweak or a pivot or a change or some discussion about different alternatives and that sort of thing, it creates a little ripple on the line. And he was like, it almost looks like a seismograph. He said like, if you think about the timeline of your project, you want all of that seismographic action, all the creative thrashing to happen on the front end of the project. And it should slowly shake out as the project progresses and you have less and less thrashing. And he said like, this is how professional creators create.

They know to get all the messy conversations done on the front end, because once you’re in an execution, big changes certainly can have a big impact on like time and budget and that sort of thing. But it creates opportunities, increases the chance to miss deadlines or introduce, if it’s a technical project, maybe introduce bugs that you didn’t think through. And honestly, I think we’ve both seen that if there’s a lot of thrashing towards the tail end, it just demoralizes the team because they lose energy.

And this one I think is so important in that it’s going to make your conversations easier if you keep this in mind from the start of the project. So I think there’s a couple of ways teams end up thrashing. The first one I thought about was just the old classic swoop and poop or maybe some really influential, important person was left out of the process and they get brought in right at the tail end and they say, whoa, whoa, hold on. This is horrible. How did you get here? I feel like most people listening to this probably aren’t making that mistake. They’re organizationally savvy enough to avoid that one.

But I think the sneaky way this works in is that in a good creative process, you’re not going to jump right into execution, right? It’s going to be kind of baby steps towards some sort of finished product. I feel like if you did it right, then nobody’s going to be super surprised about how you got to that finished execution. But here’s the thing. The people that commissioned the project, the project sponsor, they’re never the people doing the work. So, if you’re like a senior leader at a school, you probably had to fight. You first recognize that there was a problem that was worth addressing, you probably had to go through all sorts of, jump through all sorts of hoops to secure the budget and the will and the focus to solve that problem. And then you finally bring it to your internal team, your agency, and you’re like, let’s go, I’ve been waiting forever. We need this like yesterday. And well, what do you mean you want to do this concepting work on the front end?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, talk about it. And let’s explore.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, let’s explore different alternatives. I can imagine that can if it gets excessive could feel a little bit like nails on a chalkboard. So I feel like sometimes, not always, but sometimes there’s a little bit of pressure to maybe cut some corners on the front end, come on, or even if they agree to go along with the process, they may not give the early stages the focus it deserves and they might save some of that because it doesn’t look, it’s hard to see where it’s going, but sometimes I don’t know, I feel like that early part of the project, that’s where you eat your vegetables. It’s not necessarily good-looking, but there’s a lot of that foundational work.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Well, and it’s like you’re saying, but that’s where you need going back to the schism sort of chart visually that you painted. It’s that thing too, where it’s, leaders, the people who are involved in sort of the leadership level of either motivating the creatives or even that liaison between the client and account and everything where we do need to encourage those conversations and that questioning and everything like that. So all those schisms, all that conversation does happen on that front. And I mean, I know now we’re going into like, how do we even get to critiquing creative work? Without even talking about that step before, we start critiquing creative work. I think that’s part of totally respecting all the work that happened before we even got the creative brief, right?

And yeah, and I think it’s just about, I think even what I was talking about with like doing the homework, I mean, even encouraging the client to share all of their homework. So we have a better understanding that we don’t spin our wheels in an area where they were like, whoa, whoa, why did you even do that? Hold on. We shouldn’t have even touched that area or hey, we’ve done that five years ago, we want something new. So again, I think it’s just that homework, like kind of digging in the homework too of, we get really excited about the creative, we get really excited about, okay, how does it come together? What is that final polished thing? But it’s interesting that both of us, our first points were, hold on before we start even talking colors and type, let’s get everybody in the same brain space, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s surprisingly hard to do, especially when you have lots of different folks from lots of different disciplines. And I think like you and I, of course, we’re operating within an agency environment, but all of this totally applies to the internal team. Sometimes I think even more so, because I think when people hire an agency, they expect, yeah, there’s going to be a process and there’s going to be a thing that they’re doing. And that’s why you brought them in. But sometimes the internal team is almost more like the creative vending machine of we’re keeping the trains moving on a day-to-day basis. And so there may be even more of a temptation to skip over some of that preliminary, let’s just all get on the same page, let’s share the same brain space and make sure we’re all online.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Cool.

Rachel Newell:
Before we move on to the next, you made me think about vocabulary too. And I didn’t write this down and I should have, so I’m going to sneak it in-

Jarrett Smith:
I have got a whole [inaudible 00:12:07].

Rachel Newell:
Oh, man, do you?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. All right.

Rachel Newell:
Because I think it dovetails, I think what we’re starting to talk about like if it’s, we talk about the sort of like high level philosophical, we all need to be in the same brain space and know the history. It’s like, okay, how do you make that tangible? And the first way, and I think this happens, I think with an internal team, you start to get that shared language that we can just get each other a little bit quicker. And it’s not thinking the same way. We’re always challenging each other’s perspectives and challenging different and better ways to leverage technology to get to better solutions. But right, there’s just a shorthand that helps.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. That I think just naturally arises when you have a team that’s worked together for quite a while. You just get there faster. Number two, but you got-

Rachel Newell:
Okay. Well, I’m wondering if yours is vocabulary. Okay. Well, number two.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s you.

Rachel Newell:
So think, because we’re doing a lot of website redesigns as of late, my brain immediately went to visual design for creative feedback, but also the supplies to copywriting, the supplies, even though some people might not think it’s like sexy, creative, but like wireframes and everything. The good old hierarchy, like what is like the core goal, what is the core messaging? What’s the core visual? And then what needs to be secondary elements. And so with giving better creative feedback, I think walking into it, asking yourself when you review work, what’s creating clarity, another way of saying what’s working, right? What’s creating clarity for me? What am I understanding? And then what elements are causing confusion? And you just need to note it. You don’t need to fix it. You don’t need to tell the UX designer or the copywriter or the designer like, this is how I would change it, but maybe just tee up, hey, this is causing confusion for me, help me figure out why that is.

But all of these things, I have clarity around, all these things are making sense. I feel like they’re working well together, but this is creating some confusion. And I think using that language for me helps create a dialogue where you’re not dictating how to fix it, but you’re just opening up for that person who’s actually creating with all the considerations that went into that project to kind of be like, okay, cool. So, if that’s a sticking point, how do I need to re-imagine this whole project potentially o, oh, that sticking point. Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, move that over this way, or put a comma here. Maybe it’s a quick fix, but you give that power to them, it kind of solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yep. No, I think that’s a really good one. You bring up the point of when you recognize something that needs to be addressed, not jumping straight to the solution.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I think I had a bad habit of doing that, I still do that sometimes, but I try not to, I try to be very aware of it when I do, because I understand that that can be really overwhelming for a designer. And then, or any anybody who’s invested years and years in honing their craft and they’re probably thousands of decisions that brought them to the point where they are now, and there’s things that you’ve never even dreamed of that they were thinking about that are culminated in this end product. And so you think it’s a simple thing. Why don’t you just make that red? And they’re like, They could probably-

Rachel Newell:
ADA compliance. [crosstalk 00:15:37].

Jarrett Smith:
There’s 25 reasons why I ruled out making that background red. All right. So you brought up vocabulary. The one I thought of was the value of learning a little bit of lingo. I feel like no matter what your role is, it’s just really good to understand a little bit about the big, important things about your counterparts world. And you don’t have to be an expert in every discipline that’s represented the table. I describe as like cocktail party knowledge, like you’ve got a good working knowledge. You don’t know enough to actually do it yourself, but you understand what the big ideas are. So like if you were talking with a designer, it means to me having just a working knowledge of things like alignment and contrast and a little bit of knowledge about color theory and maybe just a little knowledge about typography in different categories of typing, some of the principles that designers use to make the choices that they make. If you’re talking copywriting, maybe understanding a little bit about headline tactics and social proof and calls to action and stuff like that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I think just showing some copywriter love, I think also thinking through different adjectives that they use to describe different writing tones. I know sometimes we say friendly or welcoming, but then we run short. And so reach out to your copywriter and say, hey, what are the different ways that you describe tone so I can be better at facilitating and critiquing?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, totally. So I think when you have a little bit of knowledge, I think that does a few things. Number one, I do think it just gets you a little bit of credibility and respect from the team because it’s showing respect for their craft. And from more pragmatic standpoint, it’s just more efficient and precise to use the language that a particular craft uses. So like I thought of some examples of things you might say to a designer, you can let me know what you think about this, but I was like, you might be looking at a design and say, think to yourself, man, this really hard to read, but you don’t want to, again, stopping short of teeing up the solution, you might be able to say something a little more precise like, hey, the tone of that background color is very similar to the text that’s overtop of it. And it just, it feels like it’s a little muddy. You’re zeroing in a little bit more on like what you think the underlying issue might be. And then you can have a conversation around that.

Proximity is a big thing, right? Like showing that two things are logically related, you could say, hey, the proximity of that text or the image suggests that they’re logically related, but they’re actually not. And I’m finding that to be a little confusing or maybe that vibrant color you’re using in the subheadings is maybe actually distracting. It’s throwing off the hierarchy a little bit. Designer can hear that. You’re not telling them how to solve it. You’re just telling, I think I’m putting my finger on what it is and it saves you. I think, actually, I think is a more polite conversation than saying like, this is a jumbled mess and I don’t know where to look.

Rachel Newell:
Well, like you just said conversation. And I think that’s the thing that I have found to be the most fruitful in critiquing creative work and trying to get better creative feedback. I mean, what we’re trying to do is facilitate alignment, facilitate everybody feeling like the choices that we’re making are the right choices, we’re having the right conversation. So yeah, having that vocabulary, I think, enables you to have that conversation, you’re being able to actually exchange words and get to the heart of what the problem is or be able to praise like, oh my goodness, the color palette here is striking, the contrast is amazing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, that’s-

Rachel Newell:
And even with copywriting, it’s like, ooh, I know in the brief it said to have to be charming and whimsical, but I totally didn’t know how you were going to do that. And you did that. And so I don’t know, it also facilitates not only critiquing, but also I think praising and building up that trust to where you can have these vulnerable conversations when you need to problem solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s such a great point. And it reminds me of something. I didn’t write this down as one of my things, but it was just the idea of leading with the positive.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. There’s a lot of, like through the years, I’ve, I mean, you can hear my voice. I’m like, there’s philosophies about, what is it? Like the sandwich-

Jarrett Smith:
I hate the sandwich.

Rachel Newell:
[crosstalk 00:20:30]. You have a critique, not a negative, but a critique. And then you end with, it’s like we’re all human. I think it’s like, I do think that there’s great value in giving praise and everything. But sometimes it’s like the designer has been beating their head against the wall, trying to figure out the right composition, the right layout. And it’s like you telling them, hey, you did really, really great. And they’re like, thanks, thanks, thanks. But what’s going on? Would you tell me [crosstalk 00:21:00]?

Jarrett Smith:
I feel like there’s definitely when you treat like the feedback sandwich, I have uglier names for it, but if you do that in a formulaic way, people are like, okay, now’s the part where you say something nice and you’re going to hit me with it and you’re going to follow something. So it’s like, hey, Rachel, I love how you thought to put the logo in the top left corner of the navigation-

Rachel Newell:
In my head, I’m like, okay, where’s it? Okay. What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?

Jarrett Smith:
And then we call it like the $10,000, but… And so, yeah, I think that’s really bad, but I do find sometimes when I’m giving creative feedback and I actually love like a million things that are going right with this, but now I’m zeroing in on this specific thing. I don’t think it’s quite working. Sometimes I occasionally catch myself and I’ll make sure and say something like, hey, I know it feels like I’m nitpicking you, but I just want you to know it’s because so much of this is so right, now I’m zeroing in on little details that I think it’d be just a little bit better. And that’s just a way to tee up. I just want you to know you did a great job, but there’s some specific things that I think we should talk about.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I really appreciate you doing that because I mean, you do that so many times in meetings and it’s so reassuring because I even catch myself doing it, not here at Echo Delta, but in another job, in another team dynamic, I had this just one stellar team, like this great copywriter, art director combo and they amazing ideas, always knocking it out of the park. And they always came with so many options and all of them were always so good. And just how the day the workday goes, we would have only an hour to critique things, pick a direction. And then we had to toss, keep combined certain things. So it was a bit rushed and I caught myself kind of being like, okay, I only have 30 minutes. We went through all this presentation. It was really, really great. Have 30 minutes. Okay, pick this lane. And so I started critiquing it, but I had so much pride for this team.

But a few months in, I remember the copywriter came to me and said, “Hey, am I doing all right?” And I was like, “What do you mean? What do you?” Well, I feel like we just, all I’m getting is like I’m getting better. I feel like I’m honing my craft and everything, but what am I doing right? And I had to catch myself because I was like, oh man, I forgot to just hold space to say, this is all amazing. Hold on. Now we’re honing in on this one thing. So I’m with you. It’s like, so for me, because of that experience, I’ve gotten a little bit more intentional about giving feedback, be it praise or critique, even outside of the hustle and bustle of getting a job done, if that makes any sense, just to hold space for like, I don’t want you to think it’s a feedback sandwich, right? I want this to have a genuine-

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s so provocative. I’m not.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So anyhow, just little side story there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, just giving a little context for the critiques that you do have and that reassurance, because I think, I mean, you can speak to this more than I can because you do this more professionally than I do. Well, I don’t know. We all have our different work product. Well, no, we all have our, I guess what I’m trying to babble my way through is that we all have our different work products that we put out there.

And we, I think, try to be professional and somewhat dispassionate about I’m going to create my work product. And then I’m going to turn it over to the jackals to tear it apart and poke holes in it. And whether you’re sort of the creative and the conventional sort of classical sense or you’re strategist or you’re somebody’s manager, I mean, but we’re all invested, we’re all a little sensitive about our work and just that reassurance of, hey, you did good. 99% of this is great. I also feel like if you do the things on the front end that we were talking about, you’re far less likely to have to deliver devastating feedback to someone late in the project.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. And then, anyways, mission control has to happen. And yeah, [inaudible 00:25:25] and reset, realign, all this other stuff. But no, but it sounds like what we’re saying, sort of that initial, if somebody is going into this being like, okay, how can I be better at giving creative feedback? A part of me thinks if somebody is pondering that, it’s because they’ve gone to a creative critique or something and maybe emotions bubbled up a little bit, or maybe there was a miscommunication. And then we were doubling back to clarify and all this other stuff. So I think there’s no surprise that both of us went to conversations, how do we lay the groundwork? How do we share vocabulary?

Jarrett Smith:
How do we prevent problems before they arise in the first place? All right. I think we’re on number three for you.

Rachel Newell:
For me?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Make it good.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, it’s really nothing.

Jarrett Smith:
I’m never doing a podcast with you again.

Rachel Newell:
No, I love it. So how to give better creative feedback? Don’t be, I think we were talking about the sensitivities and everything. I think it’s about just slowing down and just not being afraid to just speak your mind. And I think a theme that we’re talking about here is opening up that conversation. And I think giving good creative feedback is about building that relationship with your creative so they understand where you’re coming from, you understand where they’re coming from, but you got to speak up, you’ve got to start somewhere and just, you may not see the right thing, you may not understand something, you may misunderstood the brief and you were interpreting it this way or that way.

Again, I’m sure somebody listening to this was like, oh, I wanted to say, I need to know the pixel width of this and the location of that. But I think giving better creative feedback is about just being vulnerable yourself. So you allow other people to be vulnerable and just to get to a good solution. So I think it’s just about putting yourself out there as much as you’re making other people put themselves out there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. One thing is I was preparing for this that I kept coming back to is when you receive that feedback of like, I don’t know what’s, something is not quite right, but I’ll know it when I see it. But if that’s how you feel and you can’t pin it down and you’re like, I don’t have the knowledge or I haven’t been able to articulate what’s not working, but throw that out to the team and say, something doesn’t feel right about this, can we work through it? And can we talk about why that might be? Can you help me work through this a little bit? My ideas are a little half-baked, but I think I’m onto something.

That’s kind of like demonstrating a little vulnerability, help me problem solve this, rather than saying that doesn’t work, I’ll know it when I see it, go back to the drawing board, just like the team can’t do anything like that. So, if you learn a little bit of lingo, you have good alignment on the front end, that kind of stuff and then get helps prevent. You’re less likely to end up in that place. But if you ultimately find, I don’t have the words, it’s okay.

Rachel Newell:
And I think that’s where that sort of framework of what’s clear and what’s causing confusion. I think in lieu of having that vocabulary, having the lingo helps facilitate a conversation to kind of, well, this is working, but this isn’t working. Sometimes that’s tricky, depending on who you’re working with. That phrase, hey, this is working, this isn’t working, you may get a little bit of, well, I think it’s working, but if you’re able to say, hey, this is clear to me, but this is creating some confusion, I think it sparks, again, empathy conversation of like, well, we don’t want anybody to be confused. So hold on, let’s talk about it, what’s confusing about it and stuff.

So anyhow, so my three things were know the background, I teed it up with hierarchy, because usually, when I look at the order of events or order of elements or something, I’m trying to think through, okay, what do I need to see first? What do I need to see second? If it’s that sort of project, but then dovetailing straight into that, I’ve started to say, okay, what’s clear to me? What’s confusing to me? And then facilitate that conversation. And then the third thing of, just showing up, making yourself vulnerable, will facilitate a better vibe, working through creative feedback.

Jarrett Smith:
So you kind of that last piece that you said about saying, hey, this is, or is not working for me, and can we talk about that? And so that kind of segued into my last piece, my last little piece of advice, which was trying to keep your personal feelings in check and understand where you try and be aware of when you may be veering off into your own idiosyncratic feelings about something. And I feel like there’s kind of a lot to unpack there because I don’t know what popped into my head when I was thinking about that was like the movie Zoolander, everybody I know loves that movie. I can’t stand it.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, okay. Why?

Jarrett Smith:
I don’t know. It is so stupid. It’s so stupid. When they’re at the gas station spraying each other with gas, I’m like, I can’t watch that. Okay. But Anchorman totally on board with anchorman, also equally stupid.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah. But that’s a great point, though, is like, I think that’s why I always go back to like what is the creative brief? Like what is the bigger ask? Because I think that is the tricky thing too, is this notion of creatives being a certain stereotype, like they’re artistic or like they have-

Jarrett Smith:
Supersensitive.

Rachel Newell:
Supersensitive. We’re all human. We’re all sensitive. If you’re proud of your work and you’ve put a lot of time into it, of course, anyone’s going to be potentially defensive, because again, they thought about it, they invested. But I think going into giving better creative feedback is also trying to toss the stereotypes out the door and just meet somebody where they’re at, because at the end of the day, it’s like a lot of the creatives that I work with, yes, they have their personal style, they have their personal preferences, they have done projects that have been very successful in the past.

So maybe that’s kind of they lean on those certain little shortcuts or those sorts of tricks, but we’re in a very interesting, cool industry where it’s not necessarily all about us, we get to learn so much. I mean, just with us, depending on your brief, I’m always learning something new about either a school or a certain audience or a certain interest area. And so I do have to be a little bit of like an actor or a theater person where you have to really dive into that world and-

Jarrett Smith:
And realize, hey, I’m not my target audience. It’s convenient when I am, but-

Rachel Newell:
But let me learn about it. And let’s almost just explore that in a way. And so I don’t know, again, that’s why go back to what’s the creative brief? I think to your point, like about vocabulary, like what are the technical parameters to where we can? It’s not about what do you like and what do you dislike, but it is about what’s working, what’s satisfying the brief, what isn’t satisfying the brief and how can we get closer to that.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I feel like this thing, the personal preferences can come up in sneaky ways. One thing I’ve noticed, I think this is an advantage we have on the agency side is we get to jump between a lot of different brands, a lot of different types of projects. But when you’re on an internal team and you’re working with the same brand day after day, I’ve observed that very quickly, there’s like a boredom that sets in. It starts out as efficiency, look, we’re all doing the same kinds of work over and over again. And it is efficient, but then I think there can become a level of boredom and dissatisfaction with it.

We’ve got to stretch out and break into something new. And that’s not really driven by a strategy, that’s not really being driven by the recognition of a need. It’s just more like, no, we need some novelty here. And I think that can be channeled in productive ways, but I’ve also seen schools that maybe have like a really distinctive asset, something that appears throughout their marketing. It’s like just something that’s really unique and interesting. And they should be just shouting it from the rooftops and never stop. And then they’re like, oh, but I’m so tired of seeing this thing in our marketing materials. It’s like, really, because your target audience was just now starting to tune in and pay attention. I realize you’re so done with it, but actually, you need to repeat it. And that’s hard. That’s really challenging.

The other thing I thought of was I wish I came up with this phrase, but it’s like the hippo effect, the highest paid person’s opinion. If you are the hippo and you know you’re the hippo, be really careful about when and how you weigh in because your opinion might have 10 times more impact than you really want it to. Sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes it was like, hey, I can get what I want. But sometimes the little side comment really throws everybody into tizzy, and maybe it didn’t need to, maybe it was just a side comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I mean, even within your internal team, there’s just going to be different personalities and everything. And even with myself sometimes, I love collaborating and I’ve come up with collaborating with other creatives and it’s just you mind-meld and you explore different things. But in the last few years, being in more of a creative director position, as much as you want to pal around with everybody and collaborate, there is a little bit of weight to anything that I say. I mean, case in point, sometimes I’ll ask a question and my creative team is like, okay, we’ll do that. And it’s like, that truly was a question. Hold on, hold on.

So again, I mean, totally to your point, if you are the hippo in the room, being mindful of that. And again, encouraging, hopefully, you have the time span to develop relationships and encourage a sense of trust and encourage open understanding of like, hey, when we’re in this phase of the project, this is exploration, like, yes, we’re critiquing the work, let’s push it. When I ask a question, I’m really asking a question, but that dovetails into you as a person that you’re critiquing work really be self-aware of if you’re asking a question, are you leading the witness?

So maybe just say what you want to say versus like, I don’t know, there’s different, if whoever’s listening, if you’re in a field of being a creative director, creative mentor, there definitely is avenues of thinking to help encourage creative thought and encourage creative problem-solving by asking questions, but just check yourself, are you in a position of mentoring and nurturing creatives? And so you want to mentor and nurture different avenues of thought to land at different problem-solving styles, or are you a CEO coming in and you’re like, why is it this green? And then they’re going to be like, oh crap, we need to make this green, hold on.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, everything is green now.

Rachel Newell:
So I don’t know. Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s interesting, the hippo effect. But so what is your take on that? How have you seen that played out in different recent projects?

Jarrett Smith:
Well, I think in some of the ways that you’ve pointed out where maybe you think you’re offering a simple question and you really come at it from a place of honest questioning, but people think there’s more here, you just want me to get to your answer. And you’re like, no, no, no. And you have to reassure people, I’m really just trying to engage in the thought process with you. And may be again taking what to you felt like, well, on your personal scale of one to 10 of caring, it might be a two for you, but because you said it, everybody thinks it’s a seven or an eight and we need to get this fixed now. And it’s like, well, okay, relative to all the things we’re trying to deal with, this is not a big deal for me. I can let this go. And it might even be driven by personal preference. I don’t know. So I feel like sometimes it’s helpful, you don’t want to have to caveat everything you say. Sometimes a little bit of that can be helpful.

Rachel Newell:
I would be interested to see if, because right, I’m coming at it from a total standpoint of critiquing the work in preparation for client presentation, but it would be interesting considering the audience of this podcast, if upon hearing or sort of insider agency conversations about critiquing work and everything, is there a line of questioning or is there a certain creative aspect that they’re like, cool, cool, cool, you guys were talking about super high level like briefs and stuff, but from the client side maybe or from somebody working for, not necessarily working with an in-house creative team, what their job has them bumping up against having to critique or give feedback to creative work? What are their particular pain points? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see right into Jarrett Echo Delta.

Jarrett Smith:
Right in. Yeah. Yeah. Actually, you can email me. You could email Jarrett, J-A-R-R-E-T-T, and Echo Delta, or podcast at Echo Delta, or visit our show notes and leave a comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. Yes. But no, seriously, it’d be interesting because such a head space of like agency critiquing work, but I wonder, I don’t know, I just wonder.

Jarrett Smith:
How does it? How does that? What are the maybe nuances of how that plays out in-house when you’re actually in that, because I do think that context matters a bit for sure? Well, cool. Well, Rachel, thank you so much for the conversation.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. And we’ll do a movie night of Zoolander and I’ll see you cringe.

Jarrett Smith:
Cringe. Thanks. The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcastatechodelta.co.

 

Marketing Analytics: How to Build Your Team’s Credibility and Data Savvy

Digital marketing promised to make our marketing measurable with clear lines of connection between the dollars spent and the results produced. Yet, as any data-driven marketer will tell you, tracking and attributing marketing activities in the real world is far from straightforward.

Today’s guest argues that it is actually possible to get analytics right and that moving past “true but useless” metrics is essential for building marketing’s credibility within an organization. His name is Chris Sietsema. Chris is a 20-year agency veteran and analytics expert who’s advised some of the most recognized names in both industry and higher education.

Why is Measuring Marketing So Hard and How Do We Get it Right?

According to Chris, when people think about the challenges of marketing analytics, they tend to list things like budget, technical difficulties, and the inherent limitations of the available tools. While these challenges are real, Chris argues there are deeper issues that are often never discussed. Among these lesser-discussed challenges are a lack of well-defined goals, inconsistent processes and vocabulary around measurement, and marketing workflows that turn measurement into an afterthought.

In contrast, analytics-savvy organizations do three things exceptionally well. First, they place a strong emphasis on process and organization, which tends to clarify thinking and align the team’s analytics vocabulary. Second, they work hard to avoid “true but useless” scenarios by identifying meaningful metrics that will actually inform decision-making. Third, they carefully craft reports to align with the unique needs of the different audiences that will be reading them.

Building Your Team’s Analytics Capabilities

In Chris’s view, many organizations already have all the analytics talent they need to be effective. However, when managers are evaluating which team members to grow into analytics roles, they’re often faced with a common question: is it better to train a marketer how to do data science or train a data scientist how to do marketing? Chris suggests both are viable options if the person in question has the right characteristics. First, they must be curious and sufficiently motivated to learn the other side. Second, they must be stubborn problem solvers–almost to a fault. Third, they need to understand how their activities contribute to the organization’s bigger picture. “You don’t need a nerd with a calculator,” he explains, “You need a nerd that can eloquently articulate the core reasons your organization exists in the first place.”

Chris wraps up by describing a straight-forward 8-step process to make sure your next marketing initiative is set up for measurement success from the start.

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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 bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about marketing analytics. If you’re like many marketers out there, you’re sold on the value of data-driven marketing, but actually, doing it in the real world is easier said than done.

Today’s guest argues that getting analytics right is not only possible, it’s essential if you want to gain credibility and prove the value of marketing. His name is Chris Sietsema, and he’s a 20 year agency veteran and analytics expert who’s advised some of the most recognized names in both industry and higher education. Chris starts by outlining some of the sneaky reasons measurement is hard, and then he explains the three things analytic savvy organizations consistently get right.

Chris then talks about how to cultivate analytics talent in your organization and he gives his take on the age old question of whether it’s better to teach a marketer to do analytics or teach a data analyst to do marketing. He wraps up by describing a straightforward eight step process to make sure your next marketing initiative is set up for measurement success right from the start. Chris is a deep thinker on this topic and he provides a ton of useful insight for anyone looking to do analytics better. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Chris Sietsema.

Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris Sietsema:
Thank you for having me.

Jarrett Smith:
Absolutely. I’m really excited to dive into this analytics conversation. Before we get there, could you just give us a quick snapshot of your background and the work you’re doing today at Teach to Fish Digital?

Chris Sietsema:
For sure. It’s been about 20 years now that I’ve been in the digital marketing space, pretty much all I’ve done since graduating school. I started off by doing a little bit of everything, a little bit of search marketing, digital advertising, ton of email marketing. When social media came around, that was definitely kind of added to the repertoire. Over the past three years, I’ve really kind of focused on analytics because I feel that, while I love all those disciplines, it’s like picking amongst your children, who do you love more? Analytics is basically the layer over everything.

That’s really allowed me to still be involved in every aspect of digital marketing, but really help my clients focus on what all these numbers mean and what we can do with them and what we do next. I do a lot of audits, a lot of configuration projects, some training, stuff like that.

Jarrett Smith:
Very cool. Yeah, I mean, I feel like, to piggyback on what you just said, analytics is kind of where the rubber meets the road. You’re trying to distill it down into something useful and say, okay, now what? How do we act on this? Where do we go? I know we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about all of that, but I guess I want to headlong into sort of the core challenge, I think, will be familiar with anybody who’s tried to measure their marketing efforts. Digital marketing kind of carries with it the promise that everything can be measured, but the reality is implementing that in the real world is actually pretty difficult and not everything is as measurable as you would like it to be. It’s just not as straight forward. Could you talk to us for a minute about what makes measurement so challenging? Why is this so difficult to get right?

Chris Sietsema:
Well, first of all, I would say, for anybody who has had that conversation about measurement being challenging, and perhaps someone is talking to someone where the response is, what are you talking about? It’s easy. I don’t know what you mean. That person’s off the rocker. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be difficult. I think one of the reasons that, that’s kind of a tease is that, when you compare digital marketing specifically to other more traditional marketing, whether it be broadcast, or print, or whatever, direct mail, you’re right, it does kind of have that promise of being so much easier to measure, but when in practice, it’s not.

One of the reasons I think is that not every marketing program is uniform. We’re all a little bit different. We have different objectives. We’re working in different environments. Because of that unique quality of our own marketing program, the measurement program has to then reflect that as well, and thus the measurement program has to be very unique and specific to whatever it is that we’re trying to accomplish with our marketing goals.

When you look at the analytics space, are there standards? Kind of, there’s tools that everybody utilizes that are pretty consistent, but the manner in which we utilize those tools is completely frayed and totally different from one client to the next or one marketing program to the next. Part of the reason too, I think is that when we think about analytics, we think about a report, like we think about the finish line, or the final state. Where really, if we’re doing it correctly, we have to start way at the front and talk about, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish? What are the true goals that we’re trying to measure? What’s our business objective.

If those are undefined or poorly defined or not shared amongst the entire group of people that are working on a singular project, we’re in trouble from the start, and so is the measurement program.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. It brings to mind the idea that doing analytics right looks like a lot of things that don’t look like a report, if I can say that the right way. There’s a lot of activities that don’t look like a nice report that ultimately result in that hopefully, but there’s a lot of work to do on the backend.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. There’s a lot of background work for sure. There’s a lot of setting up of dominoes. In terms of like just the whole, I thought this was going to be easier, why is this so challenging? I’ve had that conversation a lot with a lot of people. How I equate it would be like, I’m sure the first time Orville and Wilbur Wright had their maiden voyage in Kitty Hawk. They brought a lot of promise for things like transportation and supply chain and exploration and measuring weather and all the different implications that flight has. But when you look at where we came from then and where we are now in aviation, we’re not even into jet engines yet in terms of like the comparison from analytics perspective.

We’ve got so much ways to go, and it’s a challenging thing. Despite all the promise that digital marketing has for measurement, we still have to pilot the thing, we still have a navigation, we still have to have a strategy, we still have to have equipment to get us from here to there. It’s a lot of work we still have to do yet. We’ve already come such a great distance so that’s a good thing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. That reminds me of another sort of challenge here is that the tools that we’re using are changing. I know that we’ve talked a little bit, prior to this conversation, about Google Analytics is getting a major overhaul. We’re coming out with GA4. That’s going to kind of upend everybody’s boat, and of course, one of the most common measurement tools out there in digital marketing, so there’s a lot there. The other thing I think that’s tricky, that’s kind of higher ed … Maybe it’s not really higher ed specific, but institutions, they’re large complex organizations, and so just the people involved, right?

Getting appropriate goals set up on your website, it may be enrollment management that’s really super tuned into conversions on your online application, but it may be marketing who actually owns those properties and they may not always play well together so that even if you straighten out all the technical aspects, there’s still the human element that can make things really difficult.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah, and with higher ed, which you and I have both have a ton of experience in, for some of these institutions that are massive, like you said, there’s a lot of different hands in the pot. One thing that I would say that’s a challenge for a lot of folks is that enrollment does analytics a little bit different than marketing does analytic, especially now with all the online learning, the manner in which students are actually utilizing the applications to access courses and syllabus and assignments and all those different types of things, and whether those things are being utilized properly.

There’s a lot of different ways to look at it, but I think that as long as we are kind of utilizing a common language or a common dialect with the manner in which we are measuring, that’s really key. Sometimes from department to department that language or that dialect changes, which can cause challenges. Still, part of it is just really kind of speaking the same language from a measurement standpoint. Oftentimes, that language, unfortunately, does not exist when you start to building the tools or building the processes and you have to create it and adopt it and make sure that everyone can speak that language.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a really interesting point. I think one of the core traps that I see people falling into is that any analytics package, whether you’re looking at what’s available on your social media platform or what’s available out of Vanilla Google Analytics, or whatever tool you’re using, is that it’s going to serve up some things to you automatically. They may or may not be useful. You’ve talked to me about say something like time on site in Google Analytics being a problematic measure. Interesting to look at, but there’s a lot of nuance there and it’s not as straightforward as it seems. I guess my question to you is, where do you see the danger in focusing only on the things that we can easily measure.

Chris Sietsema:
It certainly limits us. The things that we can easily measure aren’t necessarily indicative of success and they don’t really provide a good representation for whether we reached our business goal or not. Some things like brand awareness, like how do you use Google Analytics to measure that? I don’t know that you can, quite frankly. When you have a specific goal that you’re trying to measure that the standard tools do not provide an easy answer for, you’ve got a few approaches. One is just measure what you can, which is not my preferred method, which is basically giving up. Let’s just deal with what we can, right?

The other method is to go to great lengths to configure measurement tools or processes that truly answer the most important questions. For example, to use that brand awareness, like maybe we don’t use a digital analytics tool set. Maybe we actually do a study with real people like a survey, right? Like unassisted brand awareness type study. The challenge there is that those are time consuming and expensive. Another approach would be, as opposed to just dealing what we have to deal with the tools we have, or we’re going above and beyond and finding the metric that we’re looking for no matter what, no matter how expensive it is and how time consuming it takes to get that answer, is to use more attainable metrics as a proxy.

For example, to use like brand awareness, perhaps we look at branded search volume, right? How often is our brand searched for on the Google and other search engines today versus when it was six months ago or a year ago or 18 months ago, those types of things, and that’s just one example, right? From an analytics perspective, oftentimes, we’re thought of as the pocket protector kids and the nerds and very left brain thinkers, and that’s totally fine. That’s what we are. But at the same time, analytics requires a great deal of creativity in terms of how to get the answers that we’re looking for to some of the tough questions that are being posed by leadership, by ourselves, by marketing managers, marketing directors, etc.

So, it does take a bit of creativity to think through like how we can find a real good answer that provides at least a clue as to how we’re performing in that respect.

Jarrett Smith:
To kind of serve as a reasonable proxy.

Chris Sietsema:
Totally. Yeah. That can be difficult because sometimes that, yes, that’s a proxy, but is it really a good indicator? Does it provide a factual representation of the question that we’re trying to answer rather? The most often discussed issues with analytics is that it’s expensive, it’s difficult to configure, or just, like you said, just simply not available. It’s not easily attainable. However, I think the least discussed problems, but more like symptomatic to the actual core issue, is that measurement is often an afterthought.

Sometimes I believe, at least in my experience, I don’t know if you’ve found this as well with some of your clients, not to name names, there’s a need to work backwards. What I mean by that is from a marketing and advertising perspective, we tend to think in a very linear fashion, like, all right, see audience, create ad, choose media for ad, deliver ad. Then at the very end, oh yeah, we should probably measure this too.

Let’s figure out how we’re going to prove that we were successful. When in reality, it’s often necessary to ideal or to identify the ideal scenario in which we can prove success, almost start with the number, or the metric that we’re trying to attain, or the answer that we’re trying to get at and work backwards a little bit from that. Now, should that sway your marketing strategy or your approach to how you put a message in front of your audience? No, but if you’re thinking about it from the outset, it can solve a lot of problems later on that often manifest when, oh, shoot, we should probably create a report for this, two months into the campaign.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Well, and that allows you to really have that conversation around what metrics are truly going to be useful, how would this guide our decision-making if we knew this and we were able to measure this, and you could even ask yourself in advance. It’s like, okay, if we’re underperforming on this particular metric, once we launched this, what does that suggest? I mean, you could start to pressure test your thinking a little bit. Would we actually find that useful? Might we change our plans or activities? On the flip side, if we’re doing really great, what does that suggest? Might that also guide our efforts once we actually get into full swing on this campaign or whatever it is that we’re doing.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. I think once you’ve got everything configured and you’ve got a dialect and a language that you’re relying upon for this metric is going to tell us that, and we measure this way because it’s going to provide an answer to this important question. It’s a never ending process, right? A lot of what my work is, and what it involves, is once everything is configured from a marketing standpoint, sometimes a lot of times my clients will have me just hang out. Help us read the tea leaves a little bit here. Help us understand what these numbers mean, because as long as a campaign is live, as long as a website is live, as long as a social media account is active, so is analytics, so is measurement.

It’s a never ending process. It’s a never ending struggle to achieve better results than we did last time. I don’t know about you, but I often get asked the question like, what’s a good benchmark for X? What’s a good click rate or what’s a good conversion rate? The answer is, well, what’s the click rate or what’s the conversion rate now. Whatever’s better than that is the answer. Oftentimes, I think we rely heavily upon what the “industry” is doing. That doesn’t matter. Let’s just focus on us. The more time we spend on others, the less time we can focus on ourselves.

Even if you kind of achieved, let’s say the industry benchmark for open rate for emails is 25%, we have a 30% open rate. Does that mean we’re going to stop trying to get 35% or 40% open rate? It never stops. You always want to improve, improve, improve, and that’s part of the fun.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a really interesting point. Just thinking about if you managed to get this right and you are able to really think through, in advance, what’s going to be the most useful information, that then really becomes a tool for building credibility within your organization for marketing specifically. I think one of the core challenges we have, and I think this is especially true in higher ed, where you’ve got a lot of PhDs. In a lot of cases, they’re a PhD in like a hard science, something that is super rigorous and empirical.

Marketing kind of comes in, it’s hard to nail down. It has this creative aspect to it if it’s done right. It’s part art, part science, and so I think it opens the door for people to kind of ride off marketing activities and discount what’s happening. Analytics can help build that credibility to say, no, the things we’re doing actually have impact in the real world, and these things that we’re doing matter and deserve to be funded and deserve to be expanded. What’s kind of been your experience with that?

Chris Sietsema:
My experience has been it’s a huge challenge, especially for … You work in higher ed quite a bit, and I do as well. When you have an audience, whether it be those PhDs or in a different industry, whether it’s the board or the CEO that definitely has chops and has earned her own credibility, it’s difficult to prove your worth from a marketing perspective, and I can totally get that. The metaphor I often think about when I’m talking about this topic is, do you know who Bryan Cranston is?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Breaking Bad, best TV show ever recorded.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. My wife and I, we spent like six months a few years ago and watched the thing from start to finish, and it’s excellent. If you’ve never watched Breaking Bad, for your audience, he’s also the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, which also just exemplifies the range that, that guy has as an actor. He’s a terrific actor. Right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Chris Sietsema:
We also started watching, not to take us on too big of a tangent, but we also started watching the show on Showtime called Your Honor, have you seen it or heard of it?

Jarrett Smith:
No.

Chris Sietsema:
Don’t bother. It’s trash. It’s the worst. It is so bad. It was such a let down, because he’s a fantastic actor and he’s excellent at his craft, but it kind of speaks to the point that if the script isn’t there, if the writing isn’t up to snuff, there’s nothing an actor can do to kind of salvage it. In a similar way, if the product isn’t great, the marketers can only elevate a fantastic product. We can’t turn a garbage product into like gold. The reason that, that is a problem in that the situation is marketers only elevate a product and we kind of struggle when the product is weak, is that issue exists due to this question that is posed, I think, a lot oftentimes by leadership, and that is, what if we just did nothing? What if we did none of this marketing stuff or any of this advertising or spent any of this budget on promoting ourselves, would we have gotten the same result?

Because that question exists, and I don’t know if you’ve faced that question or at least heard that question muddled subtly, that’s why analytics exists in some ways, in that we have to actually prove, that because of our efforts, we elevated this product, we improved the state of this company, this organization, this product, whatever it is, due to our efforts to promote and advertise and get the message out. Oftentimes, when we’re looking at measurement, we can run tests or we can run flights, or we can turn our marketing off and then turn it on and see what the results are and see what the differences are.

Chris Sietsema:
To build credibility, we really have to have analytics to show the change we’re making and the positive that we’re bringing to this scenario. It’s invaluable from a marketing perspective. The best moments of my career is when a client of mine or a coworker or whatever says, “Hey, Chris, I’m taking this report that we worked on and I’m bringing it to my next review,” because they can actually prove, with metrics, that what they’re doing is elevating, not only the product, but the organization and the overall company or the mission.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, and I want to circle back to something you said earlier, which is how important it is to agree upfront on what’s going to be measured. Then also, the idea of, and we all need to agree on what these things mean and the language we’re using. If you’re the one actually gathering the data and performing the analysis, that means you’ve got to walk into your bosses office and say, “Hey, I’m working with my marketing counterparts to conceive this new campaign. Here’s what we think we’re going to measure. Is this actually useful to you?” Is this actually useful to your boss? Are they going to find these things, yes, that’s great, or no, actually that’s kind of nice to know, but not actually that useful?

Then you can have that conversation of, okay, well, what can we do with that? What’s within our grasp that might be better. Maybe it is that compromise of, hey, the best we can do in this scenario, because of budgets and dimes and internal capabilities is to come up with a good proxy, but we can at least recognize that problem in advance and all agree that here’s the sort of sensible compromise we’re going to make.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. That meeting or that discussion with the measurement person or the analytics person, or whoever’s going to be pulling those numbers and whoever their reporting audience is, whether it be the director of marketing or the CEO, or the CMO, or whomever it is, is absolutely vital, because you have to understand from the get-go what it is we’re all trying to accomplish, so we’re all kind of aiming for the same target. Yeah, and sometimes those conversations do sound exactly like you described, where it’s like, hey, this is what we’re trying to achieve and this is how we’re going to measure the results of this effort, agree or disagree.

Other times it’s, do you agree that we are aiming for this target? Do you agree that this is the business objective, this is our quantified goal? We’re going to increase X by that percent, or we’re going to decrease the cost of that by Y percent, whatever it is. Do you agree? Yes, I do. Great. Then the metrics don’t get discussed until the report happens. Oftentimes, those discussions with stakeholders are all about the goal or what it is we’re trying to achieve. The actual metrics sometimes get brought up in conversation from the outset, but not every time, primarily because those stakeholders either don’t know or don’t care. I don’t care how you do it. Just make it happen. Prove that this effort is worthwhile. We should continue doing it or continue to augment it, etc.

Jarrett Smith:
As you were talking about the importance of the product, it reminded me of the classic four Ps of marketing, product, price, promotion, placement, and how, historically, promotion is just one part of marketing. Historically, there’s been a recognition that marketing can and should involve many other things. Obviously, as a marketing team, you’re not going to be deciding the next new great program that’s going to be unveiled at your school. I think it is good to remember that as a marketer, you do tie into product. You do have something useful to contribute and you have a perspective that your provost might be interested in. You have a perspective that the dean of a particular college might be interested in, that they wouldn’t have access to. Hopefully within your organization, it’s okay to express that perspective and lend a hand as they try to make the best decisions that they can.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. Yeah, I wish there was like a fifth P, maybe it’s performance. Because that absolutely needs to be configured into the whole marketing schema, for sure. The other thing that’s really rewarding about measurement and analytics from my perspective is that, when you kind of uncover those juicy insights or those nuggets in which we can kind of show our reporting audiences, whether it be, to use your higher ed example, the dean or the provost, it really is extremely gratifying, because for a lot of those people, they build a program, they build a university, they build a curriculum, and oftentimes, they don’t necessarily see how its intended audience reacts to that, unless that audience is in a classroom.

But up until that, we have to rely upon measurement to understand what resonates with the audience, what programs are really interesting, what aspects of specific programs are most interesting, that kind of thing. There’s a lot of ins and outs to the measurement process from providing leadership with visibility to the front lines, essentially.

Jarrett Smith:
Absolutely. Chris, we’ve kind of talked at length about all the various challenges of measurement and analytics, but I think you would probably agree that some organizations do get it right. I know you’ve worked with a lot of different folks, not just in higher ed, but across various industries, and it is possible, I guess, depending on how you define. But I guess, is there anything that you would bring to us, maybe as a common thread, or what kind of universal lessons might we apply? If someone’s listening to this and they’re saying, okay, I know we’ve got a lot more we could be doing, we could be doing better. Where should they kind of focus their energy? What are sort of the common threads that tie together the folks that are doing a good job?

Yeah. When we first started talking from the outset, we noted that one of the biggest challenges with analytics specifically is that there isn’t a standard. Every situation is unique. Every marketing program is a fingerprint, right? They’re all a little bit different. However, to your point, there are some common threads or common elements that I seem to find with successful measurement programs. The first is, and one of the first questions I even ask when I’m entering in a new analytics engagement is, do you have documentation? Is this stuff written down?

Because if they do have documentation, you can almost prove that there’s a process. If they don’t have documentation, you automatically are a little bit … It’s not clear whether there’s a true process or not. One of the mantras that I have used before, and you’ve heard me say this is, if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Even the most simplest measurements, and the way that things are configured, and the way that we pull numbers for reporting and things like that, write it all down, because that’s knowledge that has to be shared, and it’s also knowledge that has to be referenced later on.

Chris Sietsema:
Focus on process and documentation, the two have to go together. The other thing I would note is that a lot of times when we think about the final report, we tend to try and think about, well, what are some of the other reports that I’ve seen, and what are the metrics that they utilized? It’s like, ugh, I don’t know, because oftentimes what happens is you really have to make sure that your reports reflect the business objectives that you’re trying to achieve. If your business objective is like, get more leads, whatever that number is, however that’s quantified, leads should be at the top of the report.

We really have to avoid including measurement tables or charts or graphs that provide true information, but useless information. All the information that we provide in our reporting should have some kind of actionable next step, like a yes, and. Something that we can read and interpret and then know exactly what we should do the next time we run a campaign, or tomorrow, or within the next hour They should all be actionable. Avoid true but useless scenarios, and really focus on actionable metrics and insights that we can rely upon to make stuff happen.

The other thing that I would say is that I think … I come from an agency background, and we were definitely guilty of this, and I don’t know if your agency has been guilty of this as well, but when we think about providing a report, I think we have the notion that more is more. Like, here’s your report fad.

Jarrett Smith:
Let me justify my hourly rate.

Chris Sietsema:
Exactly. Yeah, I really want them to think that I know, and I really want to prove that I worked really hard on this based upon the size of this document and the number of pages in this document. I say that’s baloney. The truth is that the reporting format should be aligned to the audience. If you are talking to the provost, or the dean, or the CEO, I’m guessing they have limited time. I try and make, as a rule, most of my reports that I provide, one page. Just one singular page, and that’s all you get, because it really forces you to eliminate those true, but useless scenarios, really focus on the actionable stuff, and get right to it. It’s kind of the whole be bright and be gone. Get in and get out. Be bright, be brief, and be gone, I should say.

Jarrett Smith:
It reminds me of the quote, well, at least the internet attributes it, I think to Mark Twain, about I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time. The internet probably attributes that to Abraham Lincoln too, I don’t know, and Einstein, one of those guys.

Chris Sietsema:
One of those guys, yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Smart dude back in the day.

Chris Sietsema:
That’s exactly it. I think the value that we provide to our reporting audiences is not the breadth of data, it’s the clarity of our next steps. It’s the interpretation that we can provide and say, here’s the approach that we should venture into next.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. For some reason, when you were saying that orange metaphor, maybe it’s because I’m in Florida, an orange juice metaphor appeared in my mind that the analytics person is the one squeezing the oranges and selecting them from the tree, but by the time it makes it to the executive level, it really needs to be orange juice concentrate.

Chris Sietsema:
Yeah. I’m going to use that. Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
If someone’s listening to this, we do have a lot of higher ed leaders and folks in decision-making positions that are in charge of guiding teams and staffing teams, folks that listen to this podcast. I can imagine there are folks listening to this right now saying, okay, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t know that I really have the right person on my team, or at least I don’t have the right role to find, and I think we’re going to need to develop our organization in this way if we’re going to do all these wonderful things that we keep talking about with analytics.

I guess, how do you sort of think about and advise people when they’re thinking about their own team and they’re thinking about expanding their teams’ analytics capabilities, what advice might you have for us?

Chris Sietsema:
You focused on the people aspect, so I will take that and run with it as well. Because oftentimes, when people think of analytics, it’s like, what tools should we be using? What software license should I get next? That kind of thing. Really, it starts with the human resources piece of it. What I’ve seen from my clients, and this is outside the higher ed space specifically, but with other industries, is that for those organizations that have an individual or individuals that are specifically dedicated to the discipline of analytics, some of them do great and some of them struggle.

When they struggle, they are almost too close to all the data. They’re too focused on all the data. It’s one of those, can’t see the forest through the trees type of thing. Or I would say, from a leadership standpoint, you probably have the right people on already. It’s just a matter of changing their view to understand your business and its objectives just as well, if not better, than they understand something like linear regression or something, like something very nerdy, right?

You don’t need a nerd with a calculator. You need a nerd who can eloquently articulate the core reasons your company exists in the first place. That’s where I see people struggle the most. It’s like, hold off the data just a little bit. What is it we’re trying to do here and focus all your energy and efforts on that. That’s where I’ve seen some analytics folks just struggle a little bit. They’re trying to fill a role from an analytics perspective, but not fill the role within the organization.

One thing I would say too, if you’re looking for somebody who would be a great analytics person, I definitely think a background in all those, all the math, and the science, and the art of it, and having good experience with all the tools is important. But the one quality that I see that’s consistent amongst analytics people is that they are problem solvers that are just insanely stubborn. The type of people that can not stop looking at something and trying to figure something out until it’s figured out. They examine it from every possible angle.

They’re persistent to a fault. I think that, that sounds negative, but it’s actually a good thing from an analytics perspective, because that’s where some of that creativity we spoke about earlier comes in, where if we can’t solve it this way, let’s look at another angle to solve the problem, which can be really great. Oftentimes too, especially with the agencies I’ve worked with or trained, or whatever, there’s a question about, all right, do we go find an analytics person or do we just take one of our marketing people and just train them to do analytics?

It’s like, well, I don’t know. It really depends, because it absolutely depends upon the individual that we’re talking about. For example, I work with some agencies like out in Arizona or California, or on the West Coast, Colorado, etc, where, hey, we have this person on our team. He or she is a great account manager and they really want to learn more about analytics. Then when you talk to that person, they just really want to be a great account manager, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but unless there’s a passion for the metrics and the ability to pull those numbers and configure all the data and do all the tagging work, really get your hands dirty and all that work, as well as kind of lead the meeting in which the insights are provided, they’re going to struggle a little bit.

There has to be a passion for both, if that makes sense. Because oftentimes, when we try and convert a person who doesn’t have a lot of analytics experience into something that is more of that analytics person, if that passion isn’t there, there could be a struggle there. Then the last thing I would say is invest in the necessary tools for sure. That’s not easy for everybody, but depending upon what questions we’re trying to answer, it might be worth whatever the budget requirement is to get that testing tool, or that analytics upgrade, or that tag management solution, or whatever the case might be.

But for an analytics person to really be powerful, not only do they have to have that creativity and the stubbornness, and the problem solving qualities, but they also have to have the right tools at their disposal to do the work.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. I’m going to ask a question that may be so ridiculously broad that it’s not possible to answer it in a good way, so just tell me if that’s the case, but just thinking through the kind of digital marketing operations that you have encountered over the years, what does that tool stack typically look like? I mean, things come to mind like Google Data Studio, which a lot of folks over the years in higher ed have adopted. It used to be, not that many folks really knew how to use it. Now I think it’s pretty common.

You’ve got Google Analytics, you mentioned testing tools, but what else do you consider to be the basic tech stack for good quality digital marketing? Is that even a question that makes sense, or is it too particular to the organization?

Chris Sietsema:
No, it’s a good question. I think that there’s probably three categories of items and then there’s some extra stuff. There’s three primary categories and some wildcards. The three primary categories are whatever tool you’re utilizing to track and bring all the data and all the behavior that you’re measuring into one cohesive tool, whether that be Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics, or Google Analytics 360, which is the souped up version of Google Analytics, the non-free version, that kind of thing.

We talked about configuration before. Configuration basically equates to making sure that all of the behaviors that occur with an advertisement or on a webpage or a landing page or an app or whatever, that all those behaviors can be tracked adequately, and typically, for that type of thing, you need some kind of tag management solution. The most common one is Google Tag Manager, but there are others out there. Then those tags are basically little tracking codes that you place on the website to enable you to measure certain behaviors that occur that are important to you.

So, you’ve got your primary kind of analytics repository, your tag management solution. Then, once it’s time to actually prepare a report, you do need some visualization tool. For many, that visualization tool is Excel, or Mac numbers, or whatever. They basically pull those numbers out. That concept is not foreign to me. That’s how I used to do all my reports up until probably two or three years ago. I would pull the data and make it pretty on my own. But at the same time, some of these visualization tools, like you mentioned, Google Data Studio or Tableau. Oh my gosh, there are so many. I could through a rock right now and I have eight of them, all the Domos and the Power BIs and all those different types of tools. They’re out there. When you asked the question earlier, I don’t think there’s a right tool, but those are the ones I commonly see most often.

As long as you’ve got an analytics database or repository like a Google Analytics, a tag management solution, which you’ll likely need in a visualization tool, you’re good. Then there’s those wild cards for like call tracking, or landing pages, or AB split testing, all those different types of things. Then, to make matters a little bit more complicated, certain channels that we rely upon heavily, such as Google Ads, Facebook Ads, even like YouTube, they all have their own little dashboards and Facebook insights and things like that, that we need to marry in that kind of thing. That can be a little challenging, but those are the core tools I think that you probably have in your analytics toolbox.

Jarrett Smith:
Very good. Let’s bring this down to earth. Maybe someone is saying, all right, I hear what you’re saying. I’m on board. I want to do measurement right, and they’ve got a new project coming up. Maybe it’s a new micro site they’re putting up. Maybe it’s a new campaign that’s just getting kicked off, and they’re thinking, all right, now’s our chance to think ahead on this one. Can you give us some concrete steps that we might take to sort of experiment with doing analytics right on this particular project?

Chris Sietsema:
For sure. The first steps I think would involve something pretty archaic, like a whiteboard or a piece of scratch paper, honestly. Let’s just bring it back to basics, and those are the first thing we want to do, as we spoke about earlier, as we alluded to earlier, just, what is it we’re trying to achieve? Just write down the business objectives and quantify them if you can. That’s step one. With step one, that’s not an easy step a lot of times, right? We have to determine what those are. I will say, though, if you’re trying to accomplish 23 objectives, then you don’t have an objective. Let’s probably limit it to maybe three to five, maybe six max, something that can be accomplished.

Then write down, for every objective, the key questions that surround those objectives, what is it we’re trying to answer. If the objective is I want to generate X amount of leads in February, 2021, then there’s probably some questions that surround that goal such as, what is the source of those leads? What is the conversion rate of those leads? How are people accessing the website? How many times do they need to see the website before they feel comfortable with filling out the lead generation from? All those different questions you want to answer, right?

So, write those questions down. For every question you’ve got, you might have a handful of, maybe say eight to 12. Assign a metric to those. So, lead volume, conversion rate, lead volume by source, conversion rate by source, all those different types of things. Then prioritize those metrics. Which are most indicative of success? What are the most important metrics or the most important questions that we’re trying to answer? Now, all this time, we’re just sketching this out. We’re writing this on a whiteboard or a piece of scratch paper.

Now that we’ve got our questions identified, our metrics identified and defined, and then our metrics prioritized, now the report almost writes itself. It kind of configures itself. Where you can start to say, all right, because this is a top priority metric, this is going to be at the top of the report. These are nice to know and complimentary metrics and questions that are going to help us determine whether we accomplished our business objectives, are going to go next, and then I’m going to provide some notes and some interpretation on that.

The structure of that report is pretty much good to go. You got your metrics prioritized, you know the structure in terms of who your reporting audience is like that single page versus maybe a couple of pages, depending upon how detailed you want to get, and so on. You also, at that point, probably need to determine what the cadence or the frequency is with which you deliver that report. Oftentimes, that question comes up is, Chris, how often should I be preparing a report? Should it be monthly? Should it be weekly?

The answer is, how often can you enact change? How often can you make decisions and actually work with them and apply some of the insights that you’ve derived from your report? If you can do that every week, then you should probably do a weekly report. If you can only do that once a month or once a quarter, then change your reporting cadence accordingly. I would say, with all your reports, automate the data collection if you can, just because it’s easier and you can spend more of your time and resources on actually reading the tea leaves and looking at those numbers and try and understand what it is that’s going on.

So, automate if you can, but don’t limit yourself to just the automated metrics. You might need to dig in a little bit to, what’s going on in Google Ads? And why did that ad in Facebook work so well? Or why did that ad in LinkedIn Ads not work so well? Then, once you’ve got all your data configured and set to go, now it’s time to actually interpret that data. The greatest value you can bring is your ability to translate data points into meaningful insights and actionable next steps. That’s how we get paid as analysts. We don’t get paid for numbers. We get paid from the actions that come out of those numbers, and that’s the most important thing to remember with all that.

Jarrett Smith:
Really good advice and very actionable, Chris, thank you for that. If folks want to connect with you more, to talk more, geek out on all things analytics, where’s the best place to connect with you online?

Chris Sietsema:
A couple of places. I’m not too active in the socials these days. Linkedin’s probably a good place. Chris Sietsema, you can find me there. My email is chris@teachtofishdigital. Website’s teachtofishdigital.com. Those are probably the primary places to get ahold of me or get in contact with me.

Jarrett Smith:
Good deal. Well, Chris, thank you for your time today. This was such a fantastic conversation. Thank you.

Chris Sietsema:
Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools, just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts, and as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

8 Ways to Rethink Yield Strategy During the Pandemic

As data pours in telling us that admission applications and FAFSA filings are down at many schools around the country, enrollment managers are grappling with how to improve yield. Laura Martin-Fedich suggests strategies for rethinking yield strategy in these incredibly challenging times.

Continue Reading

Strategies for Engaging Parents During College Search

It’s no secret parents play a hugely influential role during the college search process, from helping students research schools to getting hands-on with the nitty-gritty of applying and visiting to deciding where to enroll, their impact spans every step of the journey.

Despite wide recognition of the importance of parents among higher ed marketers and enrollment managers, many schools struggle to implement a cohesive communications plan targeting the parents of prospective students.

In this episode, we sit down with Will Patch, Enrollment Marketing Leader, at Niche.com to talk about strategies for more effectively engaging parents during the college search. We start our conversation with a review of some key findings from a recent survey the Niche team conducted with parents, then we dive into concrete steps schools can take to engage parents more effectively.

Understanding the Mindset of Today’s Parents

Niche’s recent parent survey provides an informative snapshot of what’s top-of-mind right now for parents as they navigate the college search. Not surprisingly given the current global health crisis, parents are overwhelmingly concerned with their student’s safety, but Will is quick to point out parents define safety in broader terms, not simply in terms of how schools are managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and that other factors like reputation are still a top priority. Encouragingly, nearly three-quarters of parents reported being comfortable with their student living in a residence hall and 80% indicated they were comfortable with the safety measures being taken by schools.

The survey also reveals some interesting geographic nuances around parent involvement, both at the regional level and between rural, suburban, and urban communities. For instance, parents in the Midwest reporting being the most highly involved in their student’s college search.

Tips for Effectively Engaging Parents

One of the first challenges schools face in communicating with parents is simply gathering parent names and contact details, to begin with. Will’s advice is to schools is simple. If you want to capture parents’ information, you need to ask for it. To accomplish this, he recommends placing a set of optional fields on inquiry forms that allow students to enter separate information for their parents.

Will then outlines several ideas for crafting better communication flows to parents including specific topics to address, how to strike the right tone, and how schools might consider tailoring communications to specific segments of parents.

Links

Niche Parent Survey

Niche Enrollment Insights Blog

Niche Enrollment Research

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Getting Your Campus Social Media Strategy Right

Arguably, social media managers have one of the most demanding yet least understood jobs in higher ed marketing. The hours are long, the visibility is high, and the resources to do the job well are often lacking.

Enter Liz Gross, CEO of social listening agency Campus Sonar. A higher ed veteran with first-hand experience managing institutional social media accounts, Liz recently published a new book called Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses to serve as a comprehensive guide for higher ed social media managers and the leaders they report to.

Liz is a passionate advocate for getting social media right, and the advice she delivers in this episode spans the lofty and strategic to the practical and tactical. She explains the importance of starting with the right goals and why “go viral” and “engage our audience” should never be goals. Then, Liz talks about the crucial role of executive leadership in supporting campus social media efforts and argues that leaders should plan to allocate a minimum of $100,000 annually to properly manage social media.

Later in the conversation, Liz outlines a practical framework for making content development sustainable and then describes the core components of a robust social media policy to guide official social media activities.

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How to Optimize Your Website for Search in 2021

Some 20 years after its launch, Google remains the preeminent force to be reckoned with in organic search. In this episode, take a step back to understand some of the long-term trends that have shaped the search engine over the past two decades, and then forecast what’s in store for those looking to optimize their websites for search in 2021.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta’s Senior SEO Strategist, Catherine Reich. With SEO experience that spans both higher ed as well as other highly competitive industries like travel/tourism and law, Catherine is uniquely positioned to offer guidance on how to stay relevant in search over the next year.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Fundamental strategies that have kept Google relevant and continue to impact search rankings to this day
  • The most significant changes to Google’s algorithm over the last 3-5 years
  • How to prepare for a major update known as the Page Experience Updates coming in 2021
  • Actionable advice for those looking to improve rankings over the next year.

Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Well, hello and 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 education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, I sit down with Catherine Reich, senior SEO strategist at Echo Delta, to take stock of the current state of organic search, and what’s ahead in 2021. We start by discussing why Google has remained the dominant force in SEO in the important algorithm changes we’ve observed over the last few years. Then we talk about a major update google has planned for 2021 known as the Page Experience Update. We wrap up by sharing our best predictions for the next 12 months. As a bonus for this episode, Catherine’s put together a short guide that lists three SEO tasks you can partner with your web developer to perform over the next year, and the first item in her guide is preparing for that Page Experience Update I just mentioned.

You’ll find a link to download that guide in the show notes for this episode at echodelta.co. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Catherine Reich. Well, Catherine, welcome to the show.

Catherine Reich:
Thanks for having me, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:
I am super excited to talk about SEO and looking ahead in 2021. It’s not the first time we’ve done this. It is in podcast form.

Catherine Reich:
Right, but it’s not the first time.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s not the first time, we’ve been here before. So this ought to be a fun conversation, and you’re my favorite SEO person. So here we go. Catherine, I want to start off with what maybe sound like a very basic question, but it’s something I think about periodically, which is why, after 20 years, is Google still the dominant force in search? I mean, DuckDuckGo had that huge billboard campaign, and then right before this, I looked up their market share, and it’s still two percent in the U.S. So why is Google still, when we talk SEO, we’re really talking about Google.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. The reason that we are still talking about Google as the eminent one is right now, they have 90% of the market share. And I think it’s an interesting question to ask why. When I started to look into that, there’s the narrative, there’s the things that make the headlines or the beginnings of a keynote speech of, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” And I think Google has a lot of that fictional, motivating stories behind it. But really, if you look into it, it was a combination of a couple of things. One, they came in absolutely at the right time. So Google didn’t enter into this stage until search engines had been a thing for about 10 years, and also, the.com bubble and burst had happened.

So they had a lot going for them. One, they hadn’t built up all of this energy and all of this business for only to be crushed. Again, everything else happened then. And they also could learn from that. So they saw not only who got decimated, but who was able to survive. And I think they made a lot of great judgment calls. One, a lot of the search engines that were still around even after the.com bubble and burst were your, I’m going to call them, hubs. So think AOL, think Yahoo, these were user experiences that were trying to be everything. They were trying to actively be the internet for you.

Jarrett Smith:
Like your entire web portal.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And since AOL really was one of the first ways that users, especially of maybe our generation and age were exposed to-

Jarrett Smith:
Yup, I remember it well.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. I think a lot of businesses went into making a search engine with the attitude of needing to be AOL, and maybe a different flavor of it. But Google didn’t do that at all. Google really was the preeminent force behind that overly simplistic design that we now see all over the entire internet.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I remember back in the day when Google came out, it was like, it’s just a search bar. That’s it, there’s just a little text box there.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And that was so special to them, but what that allowed them to do was to do one thing really well. And I think what’s interesting is even as they have expanded, and now in many ways, they are that hub that AOL used to be. But you know when you are in one of their service offerings, if you will, which one you’re looking at, and you’re only in that, and there’s ways to link back and forth. But if you are using Google search, you know you’re using Google search, and it’s not trying to send you to a million places. And so I think their ability to stay very focused, coming in at the right time, and also just asking themselves, “How do we give people what they want?”

A lot of search engines in the very beginning were trying to make judgment calls for users, and Google, when they came in in 1997, they were asking, “How do we ensure that searches are relevant?” So they came in with this whole relevancy thing. And they’re still doing that today in a lot of new and exciting ways that they were the first ones to say, “You know what, why don’t we put the user in charge?”

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. And of course, then they launched their advertising product. They’re making a ton of revenue, they can hire the best brains to figure this out. Now we’ve just seen the product evolve and evolve and evolve, and of course, fueled all by this advertising revenue that ultimately, that’s the product they’re trying to keep folks coming back to, they can see more ads. So yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about it in that long-term historical perspective. So let’s just kind of think about the last couple of years. I know you’ve been doing SEO for a long time. I know the SEO game has changed a lot over the years. It used to be a lot of these kinds of silly games you could play with keywords and that sort of thing, and it’s really a lot more sophisticated now, just kind of looking back over the past two or three years, what are the things that really stand out to you as landmark changes in how Google operates, and how it’s determining at the end of the day what’s relevant, what should appear in that number one position when you search for a term?

Catherine Reich:
Great question. I think what we saw probably at that three year mark, maybe the three to five-year mark, is that Google realized that SEOs like ourselves were doing things. Marketers had started to exploit the system, and so in that five to three mark, they started to do things like panelizing. There were steps at Google were taking to say, “No, stop that, SEO, stop that, stop trying to exploit these search loopholes.” Then I think what we’ve now seen, and what we’ve moved into in the last two to three years, is the flip side of that. And I think the more positive thing of, “Okay, how do we get back to relevancy? How do we get back to making sure that users are having a great time when they’re using our product? How do we make sure that they’re getting what they need?” For Google, big thing that they look at is, does your main content, and love their documentation, they refer to it as MC because they love acronyms, is that MC addressing the user’s intent?

What Google does that I think is really interesting too, is they have real human testers that test before and after their releases. And if you look at their documentation, they even say, listen, if somebody’s intent is to find a lighthearted humor site, then provide them that. If that’s what they’re looking for, it doesn’t need to be an encyclopedia article that’s very long and text-heavy, because they know that’s not what a user is looking for. And so I think the last couple of years we’ve seen that, and I think the ways we’ve seen that is things like page speed. Page speed has become more and more important. I think we also saw that in the HTTPS and making sure that that was part of it because what Google realized is that people’s intent was to stay safe on the internet.

Catherine Reich:
So even zooming out from what they want out of a search, what do they want out of their search experience? What do they want out of websites? And to me, this has been a much more exciting time to be an SEO because it’s the fun stuff. It’s not just fighting against like the bad stuff. It’s how do we truly do great work using the digital tools that we have in our toolbox in a way that Google is going to like it, but ultimately that a user is going to like it? And that’s way more fun than stuffing a bunch of keywords into something. I feel like anybody can do that, but this takes creativity, I think.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting point. On one hand, it’s like, as the algorithm has gotten more sophisticated, in a way, the SEO’s job, and you may not 100 percent agree with this, so please disagree, and I’m sure I’ll give you multiple opportunities to disagree and to set me straight during this conversation, but in a way, in a sense, the SEO’s job has gotten a little more straightforward in that there are technical details that matter, absolutely. But at the end of the day, Google has gotten very good at figuring out what people want. You need to create the best web experience and content that will serve whatever it is that your users want. If you’re doing that, there are other details that matter that could hold you back.

But that’s the main course right there, and these other things have become more side dishes where it used to be, no playing SEO games could be your main course, and getting backlinks that were from websites that you owned, and paying people for links, and stuffing your content with keywords, those kinds of silly SEO games. That could be your main course and the content could be the side dish, but it’s kind of set the priority is right, and in a way, you have to think more like a content strategist and an editor than you used to. Would you agree with that?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, I absolutely would. I didn’t know where you were going at first. I was prepared to [crosstalk 00:00:10:30].

Jarrett Smith:
Good. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going either, but it ended up somewhere good.

Catherine Reich:
I like where you ended up. No, I think that’s a great point because I think that if I had just taken you at the statement of, it’s gotten more straightforward, my eyebrow went up. Listeners can’t see that, but it did. As you’re saying, the straightforwardnesses create a good experience, because I agree. I think three or four years ago, you saw more instances if you were a search engine optimization person, such as myself, where you had to make these compromises. You had to say, “Okay, how do I spice in some things here,” we’re just going to keep talking about food analogies, aren’t we, but sprinkle in some very search engine crawler bot stuff, and then, “Oh yeah, by the way, we also need to sprinkle in some of the actual user stuff.” Now it’s really looking at the user stuff and going, “Hmm, on the technical side, are there ways that we can make it faster? Are there ways that we can, the data structures on the website to make it crawlable?” But it’s not, they’re not conflicting anymore, and I think that’s awesome. I think it’s a good time to do that

Jarrett Smith:
I remember for years having content, having SEO related discussions with clients and saying things like, “Well, we have to think about what’s good for the search engine and the user’s kind of what you’re getting at. And we have to think about those things kind of separately, and it’s not that we never say that or think about that, but I feel like that phrase, “Let’s serve both,” kind of comes up a lot less often, and it’s more like, “Let’s really nail this user need. Let’s really focus on that. Let’s be awesome and better than anybody else on the internet at this thing.” And we have pretty good idea that as long as there’s nothing egregious on the technical side or we clean up some of those details, that that’s going to be sufficient.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And I think too, that for a long time, I think if we zoom out even a little bit outside of SEO, but I swear it’ll come back here. If we zoom out a little bit, I think there was this mentality that a website was a digital brochure. And that was it, it was a digital brochure. And where I think a lot of businesses and institutions could fall into a trap, like one might in a brochure is, “I’m going to talk about myself in the way that myself is organized,” and it was very much like me, me, me. What I think search engine optimization has made people realize is that you have to match it to your users. It can’t be just about you. It has to be about you, but in a way that the user wants and needs and can understand. And that’s great for search, but that’s also great for conversion. That’s also great for brand sentiment. And so all of these things I think are coming together to work more cohesively than ever before.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. Okay. So let’s kind of think ahead. So here we are at the top of 2021. So looking ahead, I know that I’ve been hearing a lot about some updates that are on the horizon, the core web vitals for anybody who’s been following SEO for the past several months, you’re hearing that come up a lot more. And I know, mostly from talking to you, that anytime Google announces, “Hey, we’ve got an update coming,” then you better pay attention because they normally don’t. They change the algorithm and make updates to it constantly without telling anybody, sometimes with great impact. But I know there’s some things on the horizon in 2021, that are kind of a big deal. Can you talk about that? What do we know?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, great question because, like you said, we know that when Google is taking it so seriously that they are telling us in advance that it’s coming, that it’s already kind of happening. And I think a great example is to look on back at that HTTPS update where Google said, “Hey, you probably should have a secure website,” which fair.,That’s a reasonable request for them to make because users care about security. And then they said, “Oh Hey, no, really, we are going to incorporate this. We are going to mark it on the search engine result pages that your website is not secure unless you get your act together.”

And if you didn’t handle that as that release happened, people lost huge swaths of traffic. Just people who, for so long, they had an old website, but they had good, maybe robust content that had a lot of information, but that release came out just like Google said it was, and they went from being on page one for maybe some local things that they are the eminent person who maybe provides that service in their area to maybe page two where nobody is seeing it. So I think that if they’re announcing it, we know that it’s a big threat. Let’s talk a little bit about what goes into the update first. So it’s the Page Experience Update, that’s kind of the name us SEO’s like to name them, but when Google-

Jarrett Smith:
So they’re calling it the Page Experience Update?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. And so the kind of rhythm that it falls into is if Google announces it ahead of time, they get to name it. But if they just sneak one in on you, the SEO community just kind of names it, and that’s where you get the really weird ones like Panda and Fred and Phantom and all of those fun ones. But this one has a very straightforward name. It’s the Page Experience Update. And what it’s looking at are these new sets of metrics that they’re really pushing, they’re called your core vitals. Of course, it’s a series of acronyms. Of course, they sound very technical. But when it comes down to it, it’s is the user having a good time using your website? So the first one is LCP. So your largest contentful pane, and really, what that is, is it’s not just how fast your page loads, it’s also what elements load quickly.

So we could get into the technical stuff, but honestly, it would probably bore us to tears. So listeners, I’ll save you it. It’s really, if you’ve ever gone to a website and it’s taking its time to load, it’s taking its time to load, and then you start to see the stuff flicker and it comes up, and it’s like, “Oh, I don’t care what this picture halfway down the screen is. I can’t even read the content yet.” It’s making sure that those first important things that are loading are loading fast enough. So it’s not just, is it loading fast, it’s is the super important stuff loading fast enough.

Jarrett Smith:
Are you prioritizing things the right way in the way that the web page is loading.

Catherine Reich:
In a way that a user would want, so that’s the first one. The second one is your first input delay. So that’s going to be your interactivity. So how that’s working, how you’re able to click through things and how quickly you’re able to do that. So that’s F-I-D, FID is some people are using it.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s super catchy.

Catherine Reich:
Great. And then CLS, your cumulative layout shift. What they’re calling this is stability for those listeners who were around in maybe the AOL days and the days of the original Firefox and all of that, those popups that you would get that you would chase the X, because the interactivity is purposely trying to mess with you. It’s how is that interactivity functioning? Is it functioning in a way that’s blocking content or blocking functionality or is it moving right? Is it doing any of that kind of weird stuff? Is that operating as a good experience? And again, they’re putting metrics around it because it’s nice to have standards to measure things. We’re marketers, we like KPIs, we like goals and that’s what they’ve done, but just a KPI is really helping you measure how many leads? Are we moving the business needle? That’s what this stuff is. It’s really, is your website in a place, a measurable place where people are going to have a good experience?

Jarrett Smith:
So if we’re looking ahead to the core web vitals, or the larger Page Experience update that’s on the horizon, I guess first question, do we have an ETA? Did they dignify us with some idea of when it’s going to happen or is it just 2021?

Catherine Reich:
So in the past, Google has given timeframes, and they have not always adhered to them. I think the general consensus in the SEO community is to expect this in March. Now, all of that being said, if you make these updates now, you will see an improvement in SEO upon launching them. Hypothetically, if these metrics are bad now and you fix them, they’re already taking these things into account. It’s just that once that release comes out, it’s really going to matter. If that’s a two percent of the entire algorithm now, maybe it’s four to six later, and I’m making those numbers up totally just to give kind of a context for scale there. But yeah, we should be seeing that in March. It could come sooner. That’s just, it’s Google’s prerogative as to when they do it, but most of us on the SEO community think March.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. And I know that Google has released some tools, like a Chrome extension that allows you to kind of see how you’re doing on each of these three metrics and that sort of thing. So if we have any in-house SEOs out there, or maybe someone who manages an in-house SEO, what do they need to be doing? What would be some logical steps that they could do with this to kind of make sure that they’re ahead of it and prepared when that update comes out?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, great question. I think that first and foremost, think about whatever your developer likes in terms of snacks or beverages, and go ahead and maybe purchase those and get those stocked now. And then yeah, you can go online now, Google has several tools, I’m sure we can include a link to them, and it’ll tell you how you’re performing. And it also gives, I would say, pretty good documentation that your developer can use to see, okay, what changes on your website do they need to make in order to bring that up to goal?

Jarrett Smith:
And I can imagine somebody listening to this who says, “Okay, well, I’m in charge of an enormous higher ed website that has thousands of pages.” But one thought that I have is that it would also be helpful to kind of prioritize what really matters in search. Not necessarily every page on a website gets a lot of organic traffic or needs to appear on organic traffic, but something like, say, a degree page. To me, it seems like an obvious example. It’s like, that’s a big gateway for unbranded search where that particular page on your site could be ranking for a degree program. You’d need to make sure that, like your degree pages are pretty buttoned up for instance.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. I would say, for our higher education clients, the places they should be looking at the homepage, obviously, always a great place to start. Your degree pages, and also, if you have any blog or news articles, I would be looking at those as well since those are getting crawled a lot, they’re kind of getting added. Well, they are getting added a lot, and Google’s paying attention to them because they’re recent content, Google really likes things that are recent. And so since that template on your site is going to often be the most recent, having that in a good place is going to be sending positive signals to Google.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. So what else? Maybe we might be getting into more speculative territory here, but kind of looking out over the next year, do you have any thoughts about what else might be on the horizon, maybe not announced, or just kind of bigger picture strategy ideas that you’re thinking about personally?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah. I think in line with that thinking from earlier about just creating things that are good for users, I think we’re going to see more and more of that. What we’ve seen in probably the last, gosh, even in the last year, there’ve been a lot of developments in terms of what CMSs can do, particularly page builders. So things where a non-developer can go in and make, maybe a more graphically interesting page than just text. I think what we’re going to see is a resurgence of longer form content, which I think is a little bit of a hot take, but I think it’s going to be true because Google now is really, really looking at, are you matching that intent, like we said, and it’s looking at, are you fully answering the question?

And I think if you’re looking at things like how long people are spending on a particular page and on your website in a total session, I think what we’re going to see is if things are going well for you in terms of SEO, that number is going to be tracking with it. So as your time on page goes up, and your time per session goes up, I think you’re also going to see an increase in rankings because Google has been very evasive when people have asked, “Do you take that as a signal?” And they’ve been like, “Well, there’s a lot of signals,” and they’ve politician answered it really well a couple of times. I encourage you guys, anybody in the PR space, to go and look at how Google answers questions about how the algorithm works. It’s a masterclass.

Jarrett Smith:
Did we mention Largest Contentful Pane? How about that?

Catherine Reich:
It’s amazing, and they do it live on camera. Again, it’s fascinating. But yeah, I think we’re going to see a resurgence in that, because I think that for a little while, there was a big trend in having essentially a page on everything. So any topic you had, that gets a page. You have a topic on this, oh, that gets a new page instead of creating these comprehensive resources. And so when I talk about that, I’m talking about, say your application page. So there’s always going to be a landing page of like, “Hey, let’s put people who are ready to apply. Let’s get them to that.” But I think there’s going to be a need for a more robust, “Hey, here’s just the rundown. Here’s how the process works. Here’s the documents and milestones you’ll need along the way,” because oftentimes, people are having to search around a million different places to find what they’re looking for, and I think Google doesn’t like that.

Time and time again, Google has actually even said, “We don’t want people to bounce.” That’s why bounce rates are bad. So I think having a nice comprehensive resource for important topics, that’s going to be even more valuable in 2021 than ever before.

Jarrett Smith:
And that’s kind of a tall order though, if you think about it, a very rich, deep page that also loads really fast. And that can be a lot to balance, and then to have it’d be something that also happens to be on brand and accurate, those things. There’s a lot of considerations that have to go into that.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. It’s not easy. And I think the flip side of that is, yeah, if it’s that difficult, the ones who do it really well, that’s really going to be powerful.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Interesting. So I have a little bit of a hot take, and you can set me straight on this if you don’t think it’s going anywhere. But one thing we haven’t really talked about is how much the search results page has changed over the years. And so now you have all these new types of content that are being pulled in. If you go, anybody here goes to search for their school, they’re going to see rich content blocks pulling data, not just from their website and pulling information, not just from their website, but from lots of different sources that may not be able to control into more or less a listing that appears. And it’s super interesting to see how that’s involved, so evolved over time.

So my kind of take on that over the next year is I hypothesize that Google is trying to move people to more of, and I don’t think I came up with this, but more of a zero click environment where if you’re clicking on something, it’s just within that Google product, and you can find everything you need on that Google search results page, and they can serve you more ads, and you don’t necessarily have to click through to the website to get the information you were looking for, which is great for Google, but I think stinks for us. And I wonder, this is really going out on a limb, if we might see sort of total referral traffic coming out of Google decline over time. This is me reaching very far now, but it seems like kind of a logical thing that might happen if that’s kind of where they’re going. What’s your take on that?

Catherine Reich:
I think you’re absolutely right. And I think we’re already starting to see some of that.

Jarrett Smith:
Yes, score.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, but I think it’s important to put a couple of asterisks next to that too, because where before you might have somebody, maybe a prospective student, so maybe this prospective student they know they want to call the admissions department because they’ve got a question that they don’t know how to put succinctly and they want to talk to a person. Great. We want an admissions counselor to be able to talk to them.

Jarrett Smith:
Yes, please call.

Catherine Reich:
So before, maybe three years ago, they may have had to search for your school, and click on your page, and then scroll down to your footer to get the phone number. That’s not a good experience for them, and they might get distracted or lost in that process and forget to call you. What happens now is you search school name, phone number, and that pops up in a pretty little knowledge graph, and they call that directly. Ultimately, yeah, are you losing traffic? Sure. What you’re probably doing though, is increasing conversion, you’re increasing the speed that they’re talking to an admissions counselor, and they’re having a good experience while they do it.

And so I think it’s important as we think about those traffic losses, that you’re moving it from one bucket to another, and that’s the better bucket for it to be in. You don’t want to slow down the process for people making those informational requests that Google can serve up quickly and easily. And so I think we are going to see that. I think we are already seeing it on some of those very, very straightforward searches, but I don’t think it’s a reason to panic. I think it’s actually a reason to celebrate because if you’re able to get answers in front of prospective students of things that they need to know in order to consider you to kind of put you on their application list, you want them to get that information as quickly as possible. The danger though, I think the true danger is not a loss in traffic, it’s that those answers are inaccurate.

Jarrett Smith:
Oh no, what’s getting pulled into the knowledge graph is not coming a source that we control, and it’s incorrect.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely, and I think what we see right now on higher ed searches is the people also ask. So we’re seeing that I’m not going to say on every school, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen one that didn’t have it. And there’s a list of questions, and some of them are tuition related, some of them are, do they offer housing? And it’s not only pulling in official sources from the school. Sometimes it’s a listing site. So like, your niche.com, your college raptor, and it’s pulling in stuff from that, that if you haven’t provided them with accurate information, they may not have it. And so I think the name of the game there is to look and to make sure, and to take any actions to make sure that that information is accurate, not necessarily going to your site, but going to a site that has accurate information, that’s going to prompt the user towards converting.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, and I know a lot of folks are already doing this, but the word that kind of comes to mind for me is managing that total web presence, and thinking about all the different places where information about your school might live in, how can we do our best, control what can be controlled, in that there’s a lot that’s going to live off the .edu that you may be able to control, unfortunately, sometimes for a price.

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, absolutely. And I will say, think about it this way. If you have somebody that you really like and respect and they go, “Hey, you’ve got to check out this new restaurant. It’s amazing.” You’re going to be like, “Hmm, okay.” If you have five different people, even a couple of them you don’t like that much, but they all tell you to check out that restaurant, you’re really going to feel good about going there on Saturday night. And so I would say that you don’t want it all to go to your site because you want to be making a good impression on different sites because that just builds that reputation. It builds that total reputation in a way that it gives a lot more trustbuilding.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. I’m coming back, it just popped into my mind, was a presentation I delivered years ago where it was back in the zero moment of truth days of Google, remember that. And people were rating that how much they trusted Google versus how much they trusted their parents and close friends, and they were almost equal. So here we are, just at the sort of the logical conclusion of all that. Well, super interesting. Well, Catherine, any parting words of wisdom for folks as we embark on 2021, and we’re looking to improve our search rankings, anything we should be thinking about, or want to leave us with?

Catherine Reich:
Yeah, I would say two things. First, do not forget about the Page Experience Update. Really, really, don’t get overwhelmed with it and say, “Oh, we’ll do it later.” Really look at it. The sooner you get that handled, the better off the SEO to your website is going to be. And the second parting wisdom I would say is, don’t forget that SEO and all the insights you get from SEO can also be a great business insights tool as well. Knowing, say if you have multiple campuses, how many people are searching for each one, versus just your name and seeing what programs are in demand. You can go into many different search engine optimization tool of choice. There’s a lot of great ones out there.

I personally love Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush has got some great resources as well. But look in there and see. If your provost is looking into, should we offer a degree on X or Y, or X and Y, you could look at how often are people searching for colleges with X major colleges with Y program. And you can really get to see, is there a demand for it, and really pull that in. And so these SEO tools can do so much more than SEO. Be thinking about that. I think it’s a great way to kind of have a two-way conversation that’s more productive and more collaborative.

Jarrett Smith:
Interesting. Well, Catherine, this has been a fun conversation, and I’m so glad we got to circle up and do this, and looking forward to next year when we get to do it again. I know we’ll have more SEO conversations on the podcast between now and then, but I think this will be a fun look ahead.

Catherine Reich:
Absolutely. Always great to talk.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes to see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

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Few higher ed marketing projects are as high-stakes and stress-inducing as a complete overhaul of your school’s brand. Fortunately, complete rebrands are often unnecessary. Instead, what’s needed is a brand evolution.

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