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Branding or Data-Driven Marketing for Your School or College? You Need Both.

This article addresses this fundamental question: should you focus on branding and messaging or use data-driven marketing (DDM) to address critical marketing issues?

The short answer is: “both.”

In this piece, we will dive into the respective roles of branding and data-driven marketing in assessing and enhancing your image, strengths and weaknesses, competitive position, constituent attitudes, marketing programs, and other key factors that affect your admissions, retention, and advancement. Branding and data-driven marketing are not the diametric opposites they seem. Rather they are complementary skills that can yield exponential gains when combined.

What Are Branding and Data-Driven Marketing?

Branding marketing meeting
  • Branding: Your brand is your reputation or what people think of when they think of your institution. Your brand is driven by factors you can control and those you cannot. In your direct control: what you say about the school, college, or university (brand messages, promise or value-add), the tone and personality of your communications (brand voice in words and graphic identity), and the quality of the on-campus experience (culture, values, and outcomes). Not in your direct control: what the market says about your institution (word of mouth), whether and how the market hears and understands your communications, and whether the market sees you as a desirable option. Though often viewed as a “soft” science with an emphasis on emotion, branding must also encompass the use of “hard” data.

DDM is data-driven marketing
  • Data-Driven Marketing: Using the results and information from your marketing activities to direct decisions on which audiences to target, which channels and media to use, what messages to focus on, how to best allocate your resources, and how to create relevance and engagement.

What topics interest your constituents, and what calls-to-action compel them to act? Data is much

more than just numbers — it includes revealing but not easily quantifiable insights such as path tracking in the admissions funnel and relationships between friends or connections. Using data in your marketing can also answer many “why” questions, e.g., why are applications down 12%? (inquiries are down 14%) or why are our online donations up 18%? (young alumni website gifts have doubled this year).

Divergent Skill Levels in Education Marketing

As is evident from rapid growth in the Facebook pages of SchneiderB University and School Growth Mastery, many school marketers are gaining valuable skills in digital marketing and social media. This is great news. However, many schools and higher ed institutions are still far

Typewriters were old data-driven marketing

behind the business world in marketing strategy and data-driven marketing. Factors such as the backgrounds of the marketers, reliance on habit and history, small budgets, and discomfort with technology still affect many who handle brand decisions, marketing and web programs, social media, newsletters, and the like. While Maria’s firm, EdwardsCo, and their clients have been using intensive data in their branding and messaging since they were founded, lots of institutions don’t have that experience.

This article is for ed marketers who want to learn more about the strategic use of data to support branding and other mission-critical marketing.

The Origins of Data-Driven Marketing

While virtually all education marketers understand the basics of branding and market research, we don’t believe the same is true for data-driven marketing, now the fulcrum on which modern business marketing rests. DDM is a much newer field but has its roots in database marketing (1960s) and

direct marketing (1870s with Montgomery Ward — wow!). Stunning advancements in the last 25 years in the internet, computing, storage, algorithms, mobile phones, and social networks have changed the nature of marketing forever, and while direct marketing was mocked by agency folks in the ’80s, the data experts are now shaping our marketing future.

Facebook ads, social media influence, retargeting, programmatic advertising, personalization, and artificial intelligence all leverage data to track results, compare alternatives, and propose new, personalized, paths. With education lagging far behind business in data sophistication, ed marketers often rely on a few tried-and-true channels and habit-driven campaigns versus strategic programs, deep analysis, and omnichannel testing. The former approach is now increasingly risky — marketers without data-based insights are at a grave competitive disadvantage as marketing becomes an arbiter in the future of hundreds and eventually, thousands of schools, colleges, and universities.

How Do Branding and Data-Driven Marketing Relate to Each Other?

The purpose of a branding initiative is to fortify your school’s attractiveness to important audiences by strengthening those factors in your direct control and influencing those that are not. A smart brand initiative always starts with data. You cannot create effective brand messages and graphic identity without first gathering intelligence about your market (i.e., the things you cannot control). The messages and voice you create based on that feedback feed directly into DDM strategies, and data-driven marketers know what to track or leverage based on your value prop and messaging. Knowledge from data-driven marketing, like your most-viewed web content, common newsletter clicks, or social media activity, increases your understanding of your brand and your market. Marketers need data from key surveys and marketing programs to know if their assumptions and choices on branding strategy are correct.

How Do Brand Marketing and DDM Differ?

Branding and DDM
  • Brand marketing: Its objective is the longer-term strengthening of your competitive value and the building of awareness and interest in your institution. It is more high-level and inspirational and less about producing an immediate response. Even the best branding

takes time to penetrate.

  • Data-Driven Marketing: Its objective is the systematic use of data to drive action, from increasing interest, applications, and yield, to enhancing fundraising and net income, to improving retention. While not merely tactical, it is usually more focused on short-term objectives.

The Use of Data-Driven Marketing and Branding in Key Channels

Your marketing channels are the primary tools to increase your enrollment, play a major role in your fundraising and alumni/ae communications, and take an important supporting part in maximizing retention. Learn how to apply these lessons for all your marketing channels and programs:

  • Research: While research is typically seen as a close companion to and shaper of branding, it actually combines many elements of data-driven marketing, too. While you often perform research for the branding elements and the information it provides, the results rely heavily on data. Even in some qualitative research, you will need the analytics from the studies to draw comparisons.

  • Website: Branding will guide and inform the messaging and copy on your web pages and the content of your video, among many other media. The data that shows how effective various pages or sections are, which topics garner the most attention, how much time users spend on the videos, etc., can then be used to refine your messaging.

  • Your lead funnel is especially important. There are the crucial and relatively obvious numbers, led by the totals of inquiries, applications, acceptances, and matriculations. However, we now know that data can also encompass areas such as the various paths users take while progressing through your admissions process. What common patterns can you find from the activity in your lead funnel?

  • As personalization moves from targeted curriculum and individual relationships between your reps and families into personalized marketing, the use of data has grown rapidly in admissions, enrollment communication, and lead nurturing.

  • Email: Among the most effective vehicles for testing your branding and messaging, you can compare results on phrases, tag lines, and mission-related statements. Perhaps the best testing element is to present opposing brand-related links, e.g., one on the school’s reputation for well-rounded students and the other on its high admissions to elite colleges and see which your constituents click.

Social media creates data
  • Social Media: Besides obvious choices of posts and tweets about your activities and events, you have the option of what stories to tell and share, what lessons to impart, and

what topics are important to your audience.

  • Data can be collected from various social analytics processes, e.g., the number of likes, comments, and shares, topics other constituents comment on, subjects that external constituents themselves post or tweet about, and what timing is most effective for posting or tweeting.

  • If you haven’t done research upfront to inform your branding, you might be surprised to discover that your perception of your academics as very rigorous is not shared by most constituents (like survey data, social commentary offers insights that potentially reframe your branding fundamentals).In sum, your choice of what to present on social media can be influenced by both of our protagonists: branding dictates what stories fit our image or mission, while data-driven marketing tells us what topics and themes drive the most engagement.

Review sites have DDM
  • Review Sites: what do current students and parents say about your institution? What aspect of life do they comment on favorably — or not? Which review sites do they use? The

data on ratings and rankings have become a crucial factor in family decision-making: do you get many reviews and high rankings in or Great Schools? If not, that is a critical branding and data-related project for you.

  • Advertising: Branding will drive much of the content of your ads and creative, while data-driven marketing and results from previous campaigns should shape the marketing channels deployed, frequency, and timing. Both factors contribute to one of the most critical choices of all: defining the characteristics of the target audience and the best ways to capture those prospects. (See the Forsyth Country Day School example near the end of the article.)

Improving Your Marketing with Branding AND Data-Driven Marketing

Current marketing behavior by schools, colleges, and universities is heavily driven by personal preference or best guesses versus using data to determine marketing strategy and manage resources. The strategic use of data for all institutional marketing, including branding, is not common. And given the relatively limited applications of strategic data-driven marketing on its own, we believe it’s safe to say that institutions systematically integrating data and branding efforts are rare indeed. Below you will find guidance on how to enhance your marketing with three distinct strategies: using data-driven strategies specifically; leveraging research and branding best-practices; and finally, integrating these two crucially important factors to achieve the highest level of marketing performance.

How Branding and Research Can Elevate Your Marketing Performance

1. Have you performed a brand review in the last five to seven years? If not, reassessing the core elements of your brand is your first step — and just as importantly, testing the impressions of your key constituents to ensure there are no gaps between what you think your brand is and

Branding and research meeting

what your external audience’s understanding is. Fundamentally, does your (brand) promise to the market align with the primary sentiments and drivers of your target audiences? (Note: image audit services are offered by leading education researchers, including EdwardsCo., Connor Associates, and Kalix Marketing).

  • Define or redefine the key elements of your brand: your identity, promise, image, strengths and weaknesses, tagline, and imagery, as well as your target market.

2. If you make any substantive changes to your branding, you must reassess your key marketing materials to reflect the new direction. Often, this will include subtle touches in messaging and images — and will most likely require tweaks to your messaging and scripts for tour guides and other influencers.

3. Even more important, to drive word-of-mouth, you must retrain all outward-facing staff, students, and parent volunteers to be conversant and comfortable with putting your refined messages in their own words.

How Data-Driven Marketing Can Enhance Your Marketing Programs

4. If not done recently, conduct a communications audit to assess the effectiveness of your current marketing channels, ROI of key programs where available, and comparison with each other.

5. Develop a strategic approach to testing key variables in your top marketing channels, including your email, website, print and digital ads, social media, and video, and review

Data is critical to decision-making

data to spot trends and changes in your enrollment and advancement programs. Then be prepared to take action such as redefining your target market, changing your messaging copy, subject lines, and featured topics; increasing video development and marketing; and bolstering advertising media.

6. Remember that data is your guide, but not your boss; it is crucial you continue to consider the instincts of your veteran administrators and leaders along with your findings.

Better Together: Integrate Branding and Data for Exponential Marketing Gains

The most successful brands, those that consistently drive enrollment growth, always start by asking prospective families to identity their most important criteria for selecting a school. Some schools attract families who look foremost for “academic rigor,” while others interest families who look for an

emphasis on morals, ethics, and values. Once you determine the primary driver of your target market, then (and only then) can you craft a brand story that demonstrates how your unique learning environment helps students achieve their goal better than the alternatives. However, data alone is not sufficient for successful brands. Your brand must also inspire your target market. Your brand promise must be both relevant (you know it’s relevant because you asked) and exciting — though exciting alone won’t cut it.

7. Use data to test some of your key brand premises. This can be tricky, but if done right can lend valuable insights and lead to an affirmation that your branding and messaging resonates with your current and prospective constituents — or conversely, encourage you to rethink some branding staples. Potential examples:

a. In your current communication to prospective higher ed students and parents, test topics in your newsletter, on your website, on social media posts, or in videos that cover two competing brand elements, perhaps one on your impressive athletic teams and one for your commitment to social good. What do the clicks, time on page, video viewing times, or likes and comments tell you? For school admissions or open house ads, test different copy, video clips, or imagery, e.g. one set focused on your institution as a leader in STEM against a batch that focuses on your strong college or job placement.

8. To maximize audience engagement along the enrollment journey, the balance between brand marketing and DDM shifts according to your audiences, and your goals. For example, at the inquiry stage, when you want to build as much interest as possible, most schools begin to target families with open house ads on social media and other channels. But think about this. Why would anybody want to attend an open house before you’ve inspired them enough to care? It’s like being asked to meet someone’s parents on the first date. Whoa. They’re going to need at least the possibility of love (“I have a good feeling about this school!”) before investing the time and energy to visit.

Once you’ve begun to generate interest with inspirational, but less actionable, brand messages, it’s time to shift toward more actionable DDM like open house invitations. Brand communications will play a role all the way through the journey, but the balance between brand and DDM will shift according to whether inspiration or actionable information is most appropriate.

9. Forsyth Country Day School in Winston-Salem, NC, provides an excellent example of integrating branding and DDM. For each step in the funnel, they combined inspirational brand communications with DDM offers throughout social media and other digital channels. As seen in the Facebook at right, Forsyth is generating interest by providing valuable content to families. They’re building trust, establishing expertise, and inspiring confidence — all while using that same messaging to generate inquiries, visits, and applications.

10. By integrating brand positioning and data-driven marketing, you create a very powerful combination for recruiting and retention, as well as content marketing. Interesting stories that combine the emotional thrust of a brand with hard data reinforcing its key elements have become increasingly powerful in articles, videos, and social media.

Branding or data-driven marketing for your institution? When 1+1 = 3, the best answer is both.


William Bullard experienced marketing innovation in the early stages of direct marketing, wireless communications, the internet, digital marketing, and marketing automation. Since moving into education marketing in 2012, he has been the director of marketing at two independent schools and founded EdChanges in 2016 to deliver advanced marketing services to schools, colleges, and universities. In addition to his consulting work, William practices significant content marketing, creating articles, webinars, podcasts, presentations, and blog posts for NAIS, the Enrollment Management Association, Blackbaud, Finaliste, and others.

Maria Kadison is a trusted partner to heads of school, trustees, and directors of communications and enrollment management across the country. Maria’s career in education began in 2001 as the vice president for marketing at Simmons College. According to President Emeritus Dan Cheever, “Maria saved Simmons College by reversing our decline and doubling enrollment. Her expertise enabled us to get past a frustrating plateau.” Since the Simmons turnaround, Maria has helped hundreds of institutions. Prior to education, Maria’s corporate and management consulting career spanned 20 years, working in the US and internationally, in the for-profit and non-for-profit sectors.

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