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Transformational vs. Marginal Change in Education Marketing

Transformational Marketing: Butterfly to Caterpillar

Transformation is an amorphous topic, summoning thoughts of greatness, upheaval, and metamorphosis while posing big questions. What does it encompass? Is all transformation good? Can we transform one element of an institution without changing the whole? The primary characteristics of transformation are change and a profound scope.

Much of the change we have seen historically is based on transformational leaders. Choosing these individuals is in the eye of the beholder; virtually no two lists will be the same. My group includes Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, Lenin, Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar, Mao, Bono, and Melinda Gates. And while Steve Jobs was seen as a technology kingpin and disrupter, I believe his greatest strength was as a marketer, developing Apple into an icon of innovation and taste.

Marketing has become a transformative force in our connected, tech-savvy world. In the last quarter-century, we’ve seen the birth and dominance of the internet, near-universal embrace of mobile communications, explosion of digital marketing, and onslaught of social media. This upsurge in the sophistication and omnipresence of technology has reshaped how people consume information, make decisions, and think.

Transformation has been enhanced by computers

In the business world, marketing’s transformational effects include an evolution from print to digital, birth of self-service, appearance of third-party reviewers and influencers, spread of personalized media, ascent of video, and development of marketing automation, to name just a fraction.

How are These Forces Affecting Education Marketing?

While there is marketing change afoot, it has come at a slower pace and had much less impact in education – so far. I would describe the changes as “marginal” (especially for schools versus higher ed), with small improvements to websites, newsletters, social media or digital ads and an occasional leap into a new platform such as Facebook ads. The questions education institutions face now, with sky-high tuitions, demographic and societal shifts, stiffer competition, and skeptical millennial parents, is: are marginal marketing changes sufficient? Or are more profound, strategic – transformational – alterations required?

Transformational vs. Marginal Change in Education Marketing

You may already use some practices shown below as “marginal” changes. These are viewed as marginal because they are immediately doable, technically manageable, and do not require intensive investment in strategy or resources.

A small number of schools and certainly more colleges and universities are already using transformational marketing strategies and programs. Congrats! This is hard and complex work, which is why I recognize that transformational actions are often aspirational initially, may take years to implement, and may be beyond the capabilities of smaller or less advanced schools.

Several elements can create transformational marketing across different media and channels in education. These breakthrough concepts include:

Data-driven transformation
  • Data-driven marketing: Using data from a breadth of sources, including email and website activity, social media, print and digital ads, blogs etc. lets you change how you define and assess the success of your campaigns. While most businesses now leverage data in their decision-making, audience targeting, and program analyses, many education marketing do not, creating the potential for a transformational shift.

  • Personalization: Moving beyond merely using salutations in your communications to a broader, more strategic use of a parent or prospect’s web activity, survey responses, and email actions is a substantial step toward transformational thinking.

  • ·“Benchmarking+”: I developed this term to encompass not just best practices and comparisons from traditional benchmarking but also the search for new ideas as you peruse marketing channels of your competition and education leaders. Discovering powerful concepts and techniques will elevate your institution’s knowledge and open your eyes to marketing innovations.

  • Testing: Testing marketing variables can influence any organization by presenting actual data to support or refute theories, answer “either or” questions, and optimize marketing ROI. Strategic testing can transform an education institution with factual answers, and more importantly, a mindset that grasps the significance of testing in long-term marketing success.

Marginal vs. Transformational Change in Your Marketing Channels


o Marginal Change:

§ Personalize the greeting, if not already done

§ Understand open and click rate dynamics to determine what topics resonate and what subject lines drive higher opens.

o Transformational Change

Testing is part of transformation

§ Test key variables such as subject lines, copy length, engagement with individual topics, date and time of email delivery, and the use of video; reshape your newsletter accordingly.

§ Use surveys and user behavior to understand which channel and features readers prefer.

§ Personalize emails based on stated preferences and activity, e.g., covering news about soccer or field hockey games, theater productions, or community service programs.

§ Leverage variable targeting capabilities to offer your constituents unique copy, images, rewards, or activity-based triggers.

Website and Blog

o Marginal Change:

§ Ensure your site has sound search engine optimization and is responsive or reflects the mobile version effectively (much easier today than in the past).

§ Create a hub page that integrates your social channel activity, blog, and shared content.

§ Expand your directory pages to present biographies of faculty and staff. Despite these being among the highest-traffic pages, many schools don’t provide bio’s, either due to effort required or to a failure to anticipate the high levels of interest among current and prospective parents.

§ Add videos to your admissions section and other important pages, and assess the viewing statistics to determine the engagement.

o Transformational Change:

Short forms help transformation

§ Short forms typically get more responses. Re-evaluate your online forms, including admissions, donations, and event registrations, to assess what information you truly need in that stage of the process. Test whether data from shorter forms in stage 1 can be augmented with follow-up requests.

§ Develop a personalized web experience for your users based on their visits, location, and other variables. Finalsite is offering a basic version of web personalization now and many more capabilities will be developed in the future.

§ Begin systematically practicing content marketing, leveraging the blog on your site to feature different authors and topics, communicate with various audiences, and leverage posts across your digital and even print channels. Test this data to learn what topics and authors drive engagement.

o Digital Marketing

§ Marginal Changes:

§ Analyze broader marketing programs using all response and cost data, to determine how your digital ads perform vs. print and which campaigns drive inquiries, donations, and open house visits. Reassess your marketing allocation accordingly.

§ Transformational changes:

  • Consider a retargeting campaign: Today, your web search results can be rapidly communicated to thousands of sites that will then show you ads for that topic. Retargeting offers advertisers visibility to highly targeted shoppers and by most analyses, substantially better ROI than traditional digital ads.

  • Test video ads. They are a hot topic and growing fast as video itself comes to dominate social and other marketing channels.

  • Explore the possibilities in programmatic advertising: This service automates and enhances your advertising by delivering highly targeted digital ads based on distinct audience segments and data-driven activity. This is still a complex and expensive solution but is gradually expanding its reach and will likely become increasingly easier and less costly.

o Print Ads and Direct Mail

§ Marginal Change:

  • Review your mix of digital and print marketing programs to determine which perform the best in driving critical action such as inquiring, applying, or donating. If you’re unable to assess the effectiveness of your print activity, see the first bullet under “Transformational.”

§ Transformational Change:

Begin tracking the performance of print ads through techniques to drive response to targeted pages using custom URLs (a/k/a redirects). A common example is creating a link for an inquiry form such as “” that’s only shown in one magazine ad, enabling attribution for your visits based on that ad.

  • With marketing, technology, and list rental companies providing a wide range of demographic and sociographic data, the personalization options are nearly limitless.

o Enrollment (Admissions and Retention) Communication

§ Marginal Changes

  • Be certain your brand and value proposition are well-understood by anyone connected to prospective families, including teachers and coaches.

  • Reassess your Admissions landing page for its clarity, content, crisp inquiry form, and ideally, powerful video.

  • Confirm that your website speaks effectively to prospects and current families, is updated at all times, and presents effective images.

§ Transformational

Training for transformation

The next step relative to your brand and mission are training your tour guides and influencers on the specific messaging that accompanies these strengths. It is crucial that people speaking on Admissions’ benefit are consistent in their focus and descriptions.

  • Develop a communications strategy for more intensive communications with your “at-risk” families, both those in “transitional” school grades such as fifth and eighth and others who are expressing dissatisfaction. In short, increase communication the previous year (e.g. fourth grade if some leave after fifth grade), reinforce the institution’s strengths, and refute common objections in your emails, social posts, videos, and web content. There are many other retention strategies beyond the scope of this article – see Chapter 5 of my recent Blackbaud eBook for more.

  • Personalized communication: you must stay in touch with all promising applicants from inquiry to acceptance to their final decision. Ideally this includes some personalized information on the student’s interests, such as a sport, arts programs, or community service. This process can be accomplished by lead nurturing, which uses marketing automation to track web and related activity; for most institutions that aren’t yet ready for that capability, consider “manual lead nurturing,” in which a team member or intern manually personalizes admissions touches (only realistic for smaller schools).

  • Influencers are now playing such an important role in decisions on where to apply and attend that I’ve created a whole section below. Of course, much of their impact is felt in the admissions and retention areas.

o Advancement Communication

§ Marginal changes:

  • Test the completion rate of your donation form and shorten it if results are lower than expected.

  • Review your database to ensure you are managing it cost-effectively. Still sending a mail solicitation or viewbook to a grandmother who stopped giving when Johnny graduated five years ago? This vetting will improve your bottom line, though not the top.


Transforming advancement

Transformational changes:

  • Track your user’s behavior and preferences: go beyond how much they give to what time of year they give; the media they prefer, mail, email, or print publications (ask them or record their responses); and what causes motivate them (send stories about the hockey game or the dance recital).

  • Long-term, shift your development programs to a personalized strategy that communicates with the donor or prospect based on the personal preferences noted above. Don’t send six postcards and letters before May if the donor always gives in June, and drop the donor who only reads email from your print list.

o Social Media

§ Incremental changes:

  • Ensure you are posting enough to inform your constituents and if not, post/tweet more often, especially on Twitter (some institutions tweet multiple times per day, others much less).

§ Transformational Changes:

  • For a true one-to-one experience, have your social media manager respond to individual engagement on your social feeds, with a thank you, answer, or follow-up question. As your institution evolves toward more powerful databases like those that drive lead nurturing, capture the social media user’s interest along with the offline data, and you further refine their profile or persona.

  • Encourage your community to post and tweet vs. just responding to your activity. Their input is viewed as more credible than yours.

  • Understanding your audience is the first step to personalization, and it’s fairly easy to get basic data on the demographics and location of your followers (Facebook), with interests and household income also available on Twitter.

o Review Sites and “Influencer” Strategy

§ Incremental:

  • Determine which review sites your current and prospective families use today.

  • Request parent reviews – it is acceptable and necessary to tell your parents you have a project you need their help with. Explain which site, e.g., Niche or Great Schools, is a particular focus. Do NOT tell them what to say, but simply that their opinions can shape the experience of prospective families. This process should be spread out over several weeks or months depending on the size of your school, college, or university, as the appearance of dozens of reviews in a short span can create suspicion among readers.

§ Transformational:

  • Create a semi-formal group of “influencers” (start with current ambassadors who help with open houses and prospect meetings). Use key enrollment criteria such as parents who come from top feeder schools or those involved with popular programs like dance or soccer, who are likely to be sought for advice and whose children may be leaders as well.

  • These influential ambassadors are a natural fit to write reviews. However, they may wish to do more, and the opportunity is there: make a video, host a meet-and-greet for prospective parents, write social media posts or even a blog post, offer to speak or meet with prospective families who have been accepted, or create testimonials for your website or other marketing channels.

o Video

§ Marginal Changes

  • By now, you are probably creating some or a lot of videos for your institution. Are you putting them on either YouTube or Vimeo in addition to your website?

  • Use them on your Admissions page and perhaps other key website landing pages.

  • Reference your videos in your newsletter and on social media.

§ Transformational Changes

How to transform your video programs

If you haven’t done so, segment your videos into playlists (in areas of interest to students, parents, and prospects) on YouTube and consider how each playlist can fuel some of your targeted communications, in newsletters or post-application communication.

  • Use powerful, relevant keywords and tags in your descriptions, to ensure your videos, like your web pages, rank higher in search.

o Database Opportunities

§ Marginal:

  • Learn the basic profile (e.g. demographics and psychographics) of your current constituents and define what characteristics you seek in your prospective families.

§ Transformational:

  • Target prospects via Experian, Epsilon or other data-driven marketing platforms, usually using a combination of demographics, psychographics, and web and social media activity.

  • Use your current parents, or a subset, as the comparison for a Facebook “lookalike” audience.

  • Longer-term, artificial intelligence will begin assuming a significant role in databases, marketing automation, email, and related services. This development could lead to more precise audience targeting and perhaps easier ways to enact lead nurturing and other personalized programs.


This eBook does not tackle other important education issues such as changes in governance or academic improvements, as they are beyond its scope – and my knowledge. However, I expect the piece has provided some new ideas to better market your institution. Regardless of where you are in your marketing - caterpillar, butterfly, or somewhere in-between – you can use innovative marketing strategies to improve your admissions, retention, and fundraising. While achieving a true marketing transformation is an arduous and lengthy process, and many education institutions are unlikely to accomplish it, each idea presented here can have a positive effect on your enrollment, fundraising, and financial status. Even if you don’t believe a broader marketing transformation is feasible for you now, I urge you to assess these options and adopt any that can get you started.

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