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Brain Waves Newsletter

Liz's Letter

Liz Gross

Dear reader,

There’s a sense of urgency guiding my work these days. Do you feel it too? I can’t imagine how anyone in higher education doesn’t, unless they’ve covered their eyes and ears for the last few years.

To cope, I’m constantly shifting between strategic planning for long-term success and tactics to produce short-term results. There is no status quo. Everything we do balances a focus on the future with new insights from ongoing data collection and analysis. We know we need to be different from the status quo in how we grow the business and how we deliver value to our clients. Are you willing to be different?

I’m fearful your colleagues and leaders (and maybe you) are responding to a growing sense of urgency by doubling down on the status quo rather than pursuing new solutions to evolving problems. Buying more names rather than understanding the ROI on those you already buy and modeling recruitment to match modern consumer behavior. Replacing your marketing VP—again—because the brand just doesn't feel right, rather than understanding that brands are built through a series of consistent experiences, not a flashy new logo and tagline. Expecting to raise more money from more donors with the same magazine, newsletter, and giving day focused on their major or class year, rather than exploring alumni engagement and development strategies that grow with their changing careers and interests.

For vendors (there’s quite a few of you on this list), it’s sending more cold emails and making more phone calls to someone—anyone—who could potentially need your services rather than focusing on a target audience and providing so much value they can’t help but have you top of mind when they need you.

Do more of the same and you can expect more of the same results. For most of you, that means further declining class size and tuition revenue, shrinking endowments or state support, and continued skepticism and distrust from the general public. If we want our outcomes to be different, we must change our strategies—which means taking risks—and envision a successful outcome that doesn’t look exactly the same for our institutions tomorrow as it does today. 

How has your recruitment, marketing, or fundraising strategy changed over the last three years? If your answer doesn’t go beyond personnel, a new view book, tagline, or implementing a giving day, has anything really changed? Our market has changed, and continues to. Are you willing to change along with it?

Liz Gross Signature

Pushing Past the Status Quo

You feel a sense of urgency. You want to act differently. Here’s a few starting points.

Recruitment document being looked over with a magnifying glassRecruitment has changed. You read Eric Hoover’s “Act Now” article last week, right? Like it or not, college is becoming commoditized—for many prospects, it already is. Marketing and sales principles apply to higher education more now than ever. You may know some of them: the traditional marketing mix of product, price, place, promotion; the importance of customer experience. These principles must be considered when designing recruitment strategies. Emailing hundreds of thousands of students about a “special extended application deadline” isn’t cutting it. They see right through you.

Higher ed brands aren’t sacred. Only half of U.S. adults think colleges and universities are affecting the country positively. Most of the 40 percent of institutions struggling to survive don’t have national brand recognition. A great brand campaign alone won’t raise your profile. Prospects, families, and donors form their opinion of your brand just like they do others—through word of mouth and experiences from someone like them. That’s why “somebody like me” has been one of the most trustworthy sources of information for years. Your brand is what other people say it is. If you’re not paying attention to what they say, you will lose the battle for consumer trust. That’s not a battle your institution can afford to lose.

A piggy ban with money in itFundraising has never been more important. Less tuition revenue doesn’t have to result in a smaller operating budget. Donor support can transform institutions as they retool for the future. While unrestricted funds (i.e., annual giving) can fill in short-term gaps, specific needs can be filled if development staff can identify donors with a capacity and willingness to give to a specific cause. This requires more than class reunions, giving days, and student phonathons. Advancement must understand not only the changing needs and interests of alumni; they must also actively seek out unaffiliated donors who support causes the campus is uniquely positioned to impact.

How Social Is Your Campus?

A toilet with a winning ribbonFun fact: One of the most unexpected unofficial social account topics we encounter is campus bathrooms. Sometimes the accounts are humorous. But sometimes they’re troublesome and pose a reputational risk to your institution.

One of the most powerful actions you can take is to know the scope of your campus’ social media accounts so you can understand your official—and unofficial—online presence. You can do this with a social media audit. If you want to learn more about this service, or schedule an audit for your campus, give Steve a shout.

Yep, We're Still Talking About Admissions

Mark your calendar for a special episode of Josie and The Podcast. Josie talks to Steve and Rebecca about our newest report—Social Listening in Higher Ed: The College Admissions Journey. They’ll talk about the report, why it matters, important takeaways, and what the report means for campus professionals. The episode releases February 26.

Content We're Consuming

What Sonarians are reading, watching, and listening to this month.

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. If you’re a manager or supervisor, Research Manager Amber is currently reading about seven essential coaching questions to demonstrate how—by saying less and asking more—you can develop coaching methods that produce great results.

Gaining the Advantage through Social Listening and Conversational Analysis Terminal Four explains what social listening is, how it’s useful, and how forward-thinking institutions can benefit.

In an Unprecedented Move, Twitter Gave a State University Access to a Student’s Parody Account after it Complained that He Was Mocking the School Twitter removed a college student’s access to his account and handed it over to administrators at SUNY Geneso. 

The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. Social Media Data Analyst Sarah recommends this book that offers a framework for leading with an infinite mindset. Leaders who embrace an infinite mindset build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations.

Social Listening Resources from Campus Sonar Find our reports, newsletters, handouts, and more, as well as general information on what social listening is and how you can use it for student engagement, reputation management, influencer identification, and many other campus outcomes.

Brain Waves Blog Posts

This month we wrote about creating a student journey map, how a diehard UMich alumna evaluates alumni conversation, social listening on a budget, and developing an executive social media strategy. Find the posts on our blog.

See Campus Sonar

There are lots of new opportunities to see us in person in 2020! We’d love to chat with you at an upcoming conference.

Tell Us What You Think

Brain Waves newsletter is for you—help us shape it. Tell us what you think, send ideas, and let us know what would help you do your job better at We want to know!

Someone throwing a paper airplane to a Sonarian

Campus Sonar C/O Spaces, 811 E. Washington Ave. Suite 500, Madison WI 53703 USA

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