What I took away from this year’s Noel-Levitz conference: Part 1

The higher education community descended on Chicago in their droves for three days of all things student recruitment, student retention and marketing – Noel-Levitz 2014. It could easily have been mistaken for a Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen gig (everyone was of a certain age i.e. not the Miley or Lady Gaga fan base) with the crowds, the anticipation and the buzz. People that work in higher education are a different breed; it’s rarely just a job but a passion and this was evident throughout the conference.

Planning what talks to attend took military precision such was the volume and variety of talks, presentations and workshops. It’d be impossible to convey or condense the entire event into a few small paragraphs so instead I’ve decided to briefly outline some of the things that stuck in my mind (try to go to the conference in Boston next year for the full experience; and it is an experience).

 Higher Education is still fighting (and currently losing) the Public Relations battle

‘Only 57% of people think college is a good financial investment’ and this is completely understandable. A degree doesn’t guarantee a job; all it guarantees is student debt. Public perception would suggest that higher education needs to collectively start selling itself better. It needs to convince a sceptical and deeply bruised (and financially struggling) public that higher education isn’t just a privilege, isn’t just character building, a nice way to spend four years or an essential part of a resume. It needs to act like a business and ‘prove’ the return on investment. It needs to highlight the realities of a person’s projected earnings with and without a qualification. It needs to prove the hiring potential of a graduate, the career path of a graduate, the success stories. These stories exist but higher education needs to up the positive publicity platform.

The tortoise and the hare

One of the standout statements of the entire conference for me was that ‘decision making in higher education needs to speed up. We don’t have the luxury of time anymore. Things are changing fast’. This got me thinking about the old fable about the tortoise and the hare. While this fable has attracted conflicting interpretations over the years, I’ve opted for the more recent interpretation i.e. ‘the more haste the less speed’. How does this translate to higher education? Universities and colleges are traditionally associated with, for lack of a better word, tradition. Change is all politics, committees, panels etc. Juxtapose this with its target of 15-18 year olds that are flexible, open and modern.
The world has changed; it is continuing to change at a pace that few can adapt to. Technology, communication and globalisation are accelerating change at a rate the world has never seen before. Universities have got to adapt now. But it begs the question; what’s the appropriate rate and level of change within higher education? Is it true in today’s world that ‘the more haste the less speed’?

The Battle Royale: Offline v. Online

‘There is no offline and online anymore. There is only marketing. It’s about goals and aligning your marketing’. I’ll be honest; I thought everyone at this stage in the game was sold on integrated marketing. For me, it is about understanding your target audience and how they consume information, what influences their decisions and buying patterns and develop a strategy around these understandings. So I was more than a little surprised by the ‘Offline’ (TV, Radio, Billboard and Print) and ‘Online’ (Website, SEO, AdWords) debates. Generic statements about this is better, that’s better, this is more relevant, this is more measureable. ‘What’s the right balance between offline and online marketing? Online is measureable but what about the impact offline has on online’. It was partly frustrating and partly worrying. For me there are no absolutes. You have to cut your cloth to suit your measure and combine the components of marketing (offline and online) that deliver on your strategic goals. No one approach is better. There’s only the right approach for your organization and you need to do your research to realize what that is.

Read the concluding part of this blog post here