Create Audience-Centric Cohesion to Differentiate Your Brand

Your campus is working to tell a cohesive, compelling brand story, but if you’re not working with a collaborative shared strategy, your message is being drowned out by conversation from accounts managed within departments, colleges and units, research centers, and other disparate areas of campus telling a different story in a different way in hopes of meeting very different goals. Let’s count the ways your brand is fragmented.

  • Athletics is dominating online conversation. 
  • Earned conversation is running the show. 
  • More content + more accounts = diluted strategic identity, messaging, and brand story. 

The way campuses show up on social media is eerily similar—they’re on the same channels, posting similar content, chasing similar metrics. 

As an industry, higher ed tends to hop on the same trends in an effort to create engagement and tell their story. This dilutes your brand, detracting from a core need to differentiate your campus, and creates a damaging perception of social media as a playground, rather than a tool for human connection and brand awareness. 

But you can change this. Focusing on your audience and creating cohesion and specificity around your brand allows you to harness the power of athletics, learn from earned voices, and focus more on what matters and less on feeding the content machine.

Harness Athletics

Athletics continues to have a large impact on your campus conversation, increasing online conversation nearly twice over in our industry benchmarks. The increase is highest among large campuses—more than 5,000 full-time students—but very small campuses—less than 500 full-time students—are most in need of an aligned marketing and communications strategy with athletics. Non-athletics volume for this campus size is low; every mention matters and athletics can amplify your strategic messaging.

Like conversation volume, the number of unique authors increases nearly twice over when adding athletics. We’ve determined:

  • For very small, small, and medium sized campuses, athletics generally causes more people to talk about you.
  • For larger sized campuses, athletics generally causes more people to talk about you, and to talk more often.

Increasing the number of people talking about your campus online is a good thing, even if the increase is driven by athletics. Many of those individuals have other connections to your campus as prospective students, alumni, or members of your community.

But there’s risk in tying too much brand capital up in athletics. As we learned in 2020, campuses can experience dramatic decreases in awareness and affinity when athletics disappears. And athletics can often have its own voice, tone, and messaging, with the large number of campus-affiliated authors driving conversation (athletic staff, coaches, and student-athletes) and contributing to a fragmented or incohesive brand.

Strengthen your brand by incorporating these ideas into your strategy.

Making It Work

  • Partner to amplify messaging. Take the opportunity to weave brand pillars and non-athletics strategic messaging into your athletic conversation to increase awareness of your campus and overall brand alignment.
  • Ground with shared goals and messaging. Aligning goals and strategy across teams gives you greater opportunity to build your brand and generate awareness. Butler University leverages their athletics enthusiasm and notoriety to fuel general brand awareness and enrollment messaging. For example, their mascot Butler Blue hand delivers acceptance portfolios and they share the content from Butler Blue’s accounts for a wider audience reach. 
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Build relationships with your counterparts in athletics and across campus. Schedule regular meetings or check-ins to keep in touch and generate content. Consider developing a process for asynchronous content sharing and collaboration like a shared digital folder for recent photography and brand assets.
  • Use athletics as a lens for storytelling. Use the rich lives and content around student athletes to draw your audience in and tell compelling stories. Athletes offer much more than just their performance on the field. Profile them and use them as another launchpad for storytelling, particularly their non-athletic experiences and passions, such as their involvement on campus, academic lives, etc.

Learn from Earned Content

Owned conversation is generated by your campus (e.g., official campus account, athletics programs, or educational departments) and earned conversation (e.g., students, journalists, alumni, student-run clubs and organizations) is generated about your campus. 

On average, between half and two-thirds of social media conversation is from sources other than campus accounts (i.e., earned conversation). To put it another way, for every piece of content published by anyone on campus with a branded account, three additional pieces you have no control over are published elsewhere.

The large amount of earned content gives you an opportunity to learn what’s important to your audience and what they’re talking about in relation to your campus. Work these ideas into your strategy. 

Making It Work

  • Small campuses can do more with less. Pull back on your content calendar and focus on engagement. Don’t worry about posting original content as often, or from as many accounts.
  • Focus on engagement. Shift your attention to individual moments when you engage with your community. At a minimum, reply publicly or individually to people who mention any of the accounts associated with your campus or leave relevant comments on owned content. Once you set that standard, proactively engage with people who talk about you, but not to you—the posts you’ll find only through social listening.
  • Large campuses should focus on consistency and cross-campus buy-in. Top-line social listening metrics like conversation volume, unique authors, and sentiment are fairly similar across large campuses, especially on a semester or annual basis. Vanity metrics won’t communicate your effectiveness as a marketer or within your competitive set. You need to consider the totality of online conversation about your campus. Look for recurring themes and audience perception, is your messaging hitting the mark and being understood and amplified in the right places? If not, focus and adjust your strategy to better emphasize what resonates with your audience.
  • Cross-campus buy-in is critical. Your flagship social accounts contribute to as little as 1% of online conversation about your campus. If your message isn’t adopted across campus—by your school of public health, your student affairs division, and yes, even your athletic teams—your effort is pointless. Additionally, make sure that 1% owned is strong and effectively embodies and communicates your brand identity and key values.

Know How Your Audience Feels

Sentiment is a barometer of how a community feels about your campus. In our years of analyzing online conversation, sentiment has been similar across campuses. Looking at overall conversation, sentiment is largely neutral. This hasn’t changed over years of analysis.

But when we review conversation from the perspective of individuals, such as alumni, students, parents, prospects, etc., the conversation is substantially more positive or negative. This is an opportunity for marketers to take an audience first approach by making a difference around the margins instead of trying to influence general sentiment (perception) by pumping out more original content.

Making It Work

  • Put your audience first by creating a conversation flywheel. Engaging with individuals creates an effective flywheel of conversation. And when you respond, you create a more welcoming environment for all kinds of conversation.
  • Do more with less content. Make your content work harder for you by aligning original content with the needs of your audience and strategic messaging. Focus on the quality (e.g., audience-centered or authentic user-generated content) over the quantity.
  • Individual engagements are more likely to be positive. Increase your positivity and improve your reputation where you can make a difference fastest. Individualized approaches support differentiation, and when guided by a clear brand strategy, individual engagement can differentiate your institution in a market that has a whole lot of sameness.

Leverage our admissions insights to strengthen your brand. 

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