Last week, I was in the great state of Texas to attend the 25th annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, sponsored by the American Marketing Association (AMA). The conference was held in Austin, known to be a bit weird at times and proud of it.
I felt a little weird myself heading into the conference since I realized the Higher Education Symposium and I were celebrating the same anniversary. I’ve actually spent my entire 25-year career exclusively in higher education marketing so I was contemplating what I would experience in Austin and at the conference itself.
The first evening of the conference kicks off with a welcome reception where everyone has a chance to settle in, meet old and new friends, and get geared up for the sessions over the next three days. I walked into the reception with a weird feeling like the one you get walking into a high school reunion not knowing who you might see, what the conversations would be like, etc. After only a few minutes at the reception, I was received with many handshakes and hugs, and that weird Austin vibe quickly went away. The evening concluded with some great Texas BBQ at Stubb’s.
After a morning run on the University of Texas campus, I was looking forward to the first keynote session of the higher education conference. I wasn’t disappointed. And, with all the buzz that morning around #AMAHigherEd, many felt the same way. The session theme focused on how colleges and universities should embrace the unique aspects of their location as they define and communicate their institution’s character. A first for any keynote that I’ve ever attended, it was highlighted by live music by Darden Smith, as well as, stories and poems from real Texas cowboys talking about the importance of place and showing a willingness to brag about who they are and what they do. A willingness to “brag” resonated with many in the audience but not in a negative context. If you have something good to say about your school and are truthful to what that is, go ahead and brag about. As I tweeted during the session, Bragging=Branding.
Following the keynote, I was geared up to attend a few key sessions. One revealed the latest insights on how students and parents go about the college search and selection process and the overwhelming impact campus visits have on their final college decision. Another focused on the art and science of demographics and the importance of knowing and using the right data in making key strategic enrollment and marketing decisions. The last session of my day highlighted the development of a reimagined higher education website for Columbia College in Chicago. Amazingly, Columbia took their old site of over 36,000 content pages down to less than 1,000 with one purpose in mind…to create a site for right-fit prospective students only. It certainly paid off with inquiries increasing 44% in the first month the site was launched. Lesson here? Know who your audience is and create content (“stories”) that are relevant and appeal to them. How weird!
My last day of the conference was highlighted by the keynote from Dr. Ann Weaver Hart, president of University of Arizona. Dr. Hart shared how the University’s “Never Settle” strategic plan was the foundation for creating an all-new institutional-wide branding campaign. Her points affirmed for me what I’ve always believed…that an institution’s strategic plan must be part of or the driving force behind any new branding initiative.
All in all, this year’s #AMAHigherEd conference raised the bar as far as record attendance, the breadth of session content and the chance to have some good times with clients and friends. I’m now looking forward to next year’s conference in the windy city of Chicago. Until then, stay weird Austin!