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Uncovering Hidden Audience Insights with Susan Baier

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Susan Baier’s research focuses on uncovering how groups of people think and feel as they make important decisions, like selecting a college. We discuss specific ways schools have used her research to improve their enrollment and advancement efforts by better understanding critical attitudinal differences in their target audiences.

Links in this Episode

Audience Audit Website


Jarrett: You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host Jarrett Smith.
Hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab, I’m Jarrett Smith. As always it’s my job to engage with the brightest minds in higher ed in the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts. In this episode we’ll be talking with Susan Baier. Susan is the owner of Audience Audit, a marketing research firm specializing in custom attitudinal segmentation research. If you haven’t encountered this type of research before, the level of insight it can produce is really eye opening. We start off by defining attitudinal segmentation and what makes it unique. And then, we jump into some specific examples of how schools have used attitudinal segmentation to improve their marketing and enrollment activities. So, without further ado here’s my conversation with Susan Baier.

Susan, welcome to the show.

Susan: Jarrett, thanks so much for having me.

Jarrett: Great to have you here and I’m looking forward to digging into this conversation a lot. So, Susan before we get started I wonder if you could just take a minute to tell everybody a little bit about your background.

Susan: So, I mean, fundamentally I think of myself as a marketing strategist. That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 odd years both on the client side and on the agency side of things. And, when I started Audience Audit, almost 10 years ago now, it was really to try to bring something to marketing strategy that I felt was lacking, which is actual information like real data instead of just gut that I think a lot of us, you know rely on and a talented gut is a good thing but, I’m a big fan of actually having some information to guide you. So, you know, for the last 10 years I’ve been sort of doing this combination of marketing strategy and custom research to help folks really understand who they’re talking to and what’s driving those people in their audience that they can apply from a strategic standpoint and decide how to, you know how to put their best foot forward.

Jarrett: So, Susan you do a particular type of research and I was kind of hoping we could maybe start out by defining that, this attitudinal audience segmentation.

Susan: Right. So, the work we do is quantitative research, so it’s not you know, focus groups, interviews, those kinds of things that are more qualitative with smaller numbers of people. The work we do is all online survey research involving large numbers of respondents so that we get statistically reliable data. So, that’s number one, it’s a quantitative assessment so that you can sort of, steer your ship a state with some confidence. It’s segmentation research, which a lot of people are familiar with segmentation to some extent, especially with the advance of content marketing and customer relationship management, CRM kind of thing basically dividing your audience up into groups. What people really aren’t familiar with often is the approach we take which is to divide those people up attitudinally or those clients for prospects of attitudinally.

So, instead of dividing people into groups by their age or their gender, or the size of their organization, or the industry that they’re in, our research only focuses on grouping folks by the attitudes that they hold about something in particular. So, you know, all of our research is custom so every project is different and we do it for a lot of different industries but, fundamentally what we want to try to understand is what are the groups in the audience that you’re trying to reach that are really different from each other in terms of how they look at your category, how they look at their own level of expertise and confidence in making decisions in that category, what their priorities are in terms of why they’re looking for help in a particular area, who’s influencing that decision, where they’re getting information, all of those kinds of things sort of come into play.

And, of course we look at things like age and company size and all those kinds of things, but really what we see looking at people by age and income really doesn’t tell the story about why they’re in the market for something and how they’re gonna make that choice. You know, you can line a bunch of people up who look just like me, same age, income, education, where we live, family, all that kind of stuff but, we’re all gonna choose something different for vacation because what we want out of a vacation is different and you can’t see that on paper, that doesn’t show up in your demographic so you really need to dig deeper into the attitude surrounding these kinds of decisions.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: And, what you end up seeing are very different kinds of people grouped together and different from folks in another group in that same audience. So you start to get a deeper understanding of who you’re talking to and what you need to do to serve the needs that they have.

Jarrett: Yeah, yeah. You know, having seen some of the research that you’ve done specifically for higher ed it was interesting to me how even people that are interested in the same exact, say type of degree, could have very different motivations for doing that and you know, maybe if it’s a technology degree they might be, one type of student might be really focused on their longterm career prospects, another one might be really focused on entrepreneurship, another one might just be really consumed with the research and kind of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible or solving some problems. But, it’s, if you just were to look at what their degree interest was alone that really doesn’t tell the story of what they’re trying to do.

Susan: No. And, it also often sheds light on the folks that you can anticipate, you’re not gonna do a very good job of serving, right, because they’re there for something you don’t do very well or something you don’t want to do, or they’re just gonna, they’re not gonna be worth the effort, you know, that you’re gonna put into them. And so, as much as it shows you sort of who’s out there and how to speak to them in a relevant way, right, to get their interest and then to fulfill their needs, you can also sort of spot potential issues ahead of time and decide whether that’s a part of the audience that you really want to try to acquire and spend money against or not.

Jarrett: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting point that you bring up that it’s not just about figuring out who do you want to talk to and what are the best things you can say to them but also, who’s not, for lack of a better sort of phrase, who’s not worth your time or who is gonna be harder to please than somebody else.

Susan: Yes.

Jarrett: So, you don’t waste your limited time and resources with folks who maybe from a higher ed perspective are gonna show up at the institution and ultimately be disappointed.

Susan: Yeah, and then tell everyone they know about that, right, that’s the backlash from serving the wrong audience.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: It’s just not gonna end well, it’s not gonna work well for you or for them and then you know, your word of mouth is not great coming from those folks and you know, we all know the extent to which organizations are influenced by the word of mouth about them. You know, that’s what we rely on to make decisions a lot of the time. Yeah, so some folks it’s just better to avoid. And, that doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s kind of interesting. And, you know, inevitably we do these studies and I don’t know how many we’ve done, and we do a lot of higher ed but, we do a lot of other categories too. And, I can probably count on one hand the number of studies where we saw really significant differences in demographics between the groups. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, that’s not what’s going on, it’s something different. So, and you know, I mean higher ed is no different than any other organization in that we all have our own ideas about who’s gonna love us, right.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: We all have our own ideas about who our audiences are and what they’re gonna care about. And, while we’re usually partially right, we’re rarely perfectly right.

Jarrett: I think it might be helpful if we kind of dive into some real world examples of how maybe this kind of research has been used to show something unexpected.

Susan: You know, it’s just been fascinating over the years and I have some examples that I can talk about. I won’t use the name of the institutions but I do have their permission to sort of talk about what we found. I did a study, and it was a number of years ago and it was a faith based university in the Midwest. And, this was a Christian University, private school, they’d really done a tremendous amount of work to provide learning across a range of platforms, so online, and satellite learning centered, and a sort of traditional undergraduate campus, and you know they were doing a really good job from that standpoint and wanted to sort of understand their audience better.

So, we looked at both current students as well as prospective students. And, sort of went at this from an attitudinal standpoint. And, one of the things that came out of the study, which they fully expected to see was there wasn’t a group there that was really there because it was a faith based school, that was really important to them, right. And so, their consideration sat with other schools that also had a strong sort of faith based element like this school, that’s who they were being compared to in that population. But, interestingly we found a sizeable group, I think it was almost 28% or so of their current students in addition to a sizeable percentage or their prospective students who were either there or considering the school despite the fact that it was a faith based institution.

Jarrett: Really?

Susan: Yes. There were other things about the school that were so appealing to them, whether it was proximity to home, or actually being far away from home, or the academic credentials, or some of these other things. But, they were actually matriculating at the school or strongly considering it despite the fact that it was a faith based institution. And that really surprised some of the people at the client’s side, you know. There were kids who were there because they wanted a really traditional undergraduate social experience, right. They wanted to live in a dorm, or in a sorority or fraternity, they wanted to eat in the chow hall, they wanted to participate in the campus social experience, you know.

And so, when you look at a group like this that are really driven by something different the question then becomes from a marketing standpoint, what do you do with that information. And, to this school’s credit, they just went after it, I was so impressed with what they did. So, for example, one of the first things they did was take what had been a one size fits all campus tour experience and break it up into different things. So, for example, if you were one of these people who were really interested in the faith based aspect of the school you could choose a tour that really highlighted sort of that aspect of being a student there. And, visited the chapel, and learned about a lot of the faith based groups on campus, and all of that kind of stuff, you could choose that as your tour. But, you could also choose a tour that also just focused on sort of, campus life, and the dorms, and the eating halls, and all of that kind of stuff, if you didn’t want that. And then there was a tour where you actually didn’t start by running around the campus, you start in a lecture hall where you get to hear from professors, and deans, and stuff about the academic excellence about the school and sort of how it’s viewed by employers and some of that kind of stuff.

So, the first thing they did, and this is really where marketing with this kind of information becomes so different is they basically said, “you choose” right, “you choose, how can we give you the information you want?”

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: And, it was terrifically successful. Like, people could choose to do one of these tours or a couple of them but they were really positioned as, we know there are a lot of students here who really are interested in this, or a lot of prospects who have questions about this, choose the tour that makes the most sense for you. The other thing that was really interesting about that study was, the school from a messaging standpoint was really saying something along the lines of, we’re like ten schools in one, or five schools in one right, we have the graduate program, we have satellite, we have a traditional campus, we have a night program, you know all of these things all sort of bundled up in one.

And, you know we tested messaging for the school in the study with these audiences and one of the things that was really, I think telling, and I’ve seen in a number of other studies since is that while that kind of positioning is a tremendous rallying cry internally, and they’re rightly proud of all the work they’ve done, with respect to that, you know they are really broadening access to education for their audiences. And so, it’s something they’re really proud of but it doesn’t mean anything to their audiences because nobody wants all those schools, right.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: Everybody wants the one that they want, and the more you talk about how you do a lot of different things the more these audience members are like, “but is it really focused on what’s important to me?”

Jarrett: Right, right.

Susan: And, in this school’s shape, it just wasn’t relevant it was falling flat. And, unfortunately that’s the message that they were spending a lot of their resources on. When there were other things they could’ve been doing with that time and that money and that real estate from an advertising standpoint that would’ve had a bigger impact. So, that was a really interesting study to do.

Jarrett: Well and I think it’s so so important and relevant to higher ed, because higher ed is essentially an enterprise organization that’s running on a budget.

Susan: Yeah.

Jarrett: So, you just don’t, it is not possible to truly be all things to all people and be good at it and you shouldn’t be saying that. So, I know you’ve also done some work on the advancement side, and without naming specifics but I’d love to dig into that because I think that that also submits some interesting work.

Susan: Yeah, yeah.the study I think you’re talking about was one for a very well respected private institution in the Northeast with a terrific reputation that was interested, they basically brought us on because they wanted to create a new event for alumni with an eye obviously to their advancement goals. But, really trying to drive engagement among alumni, which is the first step right, of getting alumni to become donors and sort of interviewing potential undergraduates and all of that kind of stuff that alumni can do for a school. So, they wanted to create a new event and before they did that they decided to take a look at what their alumni audience looked like. And, that was just a fascinating study because we found alumni who were engaging with the school, really because they just treasured their time there and felt it was so formative on the rest of their lives so they’re wearing the sweatshirts on the weekend and they’re going to the football games and homecoming and all of those kinds of things because it just reminds them of a really wonderful time in their lives.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: But, we also found alumni who were really continuing to engage with the school because of the business opportunities that that offered them, the alumni network, et cetera. So, these folks might go to the football game but it’s not because they care about the football team, it’s because they’re hoping to sit next to somebody that might be a potential business contact for them, right, which is fine it’s a perfectly reasonable reason to stay engaged with your school right, it’s a big selling point for schools, their alumni network and all that kind of stuff. And, there are folks that really that’s the primary reason that they continue engaging. But, then we found this group for this particular school, which I was just fascinated by. These folks are very successful and well respected in their careers and they’re infamous for staying engaged with the school was that they wanted to bring that expertise to there for the school’s benefit, right. They really want to provide advice based on what they know that they think will help the school continue to be successful and grow in the future.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: And, you know I was just fascinated by these folks, and the school was too and decided to make this event not an all in one event but an event specifically focused on these people, that third group, right. So, what was fascinating about it was that with the help of their agency they developed this event, specifically marketed and it was basically, the messaging about it was, imagine the impact you can have on the school, right. So, they got these folks to come for a weekend, they all paid to come, it was a couple hundred dollars or whatever. But, all of the content was specifically for these types of folks. So, for example, one of the keynote events of the weekend was a sneak peak at the five year plan for the school that was then in development, followed by like a cocktail party kind of thing where you could rub shoulders with the leadership of the school and let them know what you thought about this five year plan and what you might have to contribute and all that kind of stuff.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: Well, they got, I mean so they could’ve said well let’s do an event that tries to get everybody, but instead they said, let’s do an event just for this particular segment in this case.

Jarrett: Right.

Susan: They got like twice as many registrations their first year as they had hoped to get. Reviews of the event were off the charts, 85% of the people who had attended the first year, attended the next year.

Jarrett: Wow.

Susan: And, giving was up over 20% among the people who had attended the event than it was among the alumni who hadn’t the subsequent year.

Jarrett: Wow. That’s such a great great case study.

Susan: I mean they did a great job with it, right, but they had some discipline and said you know, instead of trying to make an event that’s three days in which every single segment is gonna find something but they’re also gonna have to weigh, is it worth it to spend this for three days when about 30% of the content seems like something I’d be interested in, or should they build something that is just segment specific. And, that’s really you know, you can do both things and you can do both things well, this is just a great example of a school that decided, you know what we’re gonna target this particular group we understand them very well, we’re going to build an even specifically around what they are interested in and it was just hugely successful for them. So, that was fun.

Jarrett: Yeah.

Susan: That was neat to see that unfold, for sure.

Jarrett: Susan I want to be respectful of your time, I know I’ve occupied a lot of it this morning so.

Susan: Well I think I’ve been talking more than you have so.

Jarrett: Well, then I feel like I’ve done my job as an interviewer, that’s good.

Susan: [crosstalk 00:21:57]

Jarrett: Susan, if folks have more questions or want to find out more, what’s the best place to reach out to you, get in contact with you?

Susan: Yeah. So, you can check out, there’s a lot of information on the website it’s audienceaudit.com but you can also just email me which is susan@audienceaudit.com or find me on Facebook. I have to say I’m a woeful Twitter person but Facebook’s a good place to find me or my number’s on the website too and you can give me a call that way. I love to talk to folks about the opportunities for research in their organization and the extent to which our approach might be helpful. So, happy to chat with anybody at anytime, as you can tell I love to talk about my work.

Jarrett: Yeah. That’s great. Well, Susan thank you, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your perspective and look forward to catching up with you soon.

Susan: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me Jarrett I appreciate it.

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

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