The following interview is with Lesley Nichols, director of continuing education and extended academic programs at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. One concern that is constantly top-of-mind for continuing education (CE) administrators is their unit’s relationship with their main campus. Specifically, for CE marketers, the issues of brand identity and target audience have a tendency to rise to the surface. In this interview, Nichols expands on that topic and shares her thoughts on how CE marketers can navigate these concerns to create messaging that speaks to their audience.
1. When it comes to marketing CE, what is the role of the CE unit?
The first thing to note is that organizational structures in CE can vary from institution to institution, so the marketing role of the CE unit may be different from one university to another, but regardless of the structure, I see CE’s role as being the expert and knowing the purpose of each program, the benefits of the program and understanding how to communicate those benefits to the prospective student audiences for each program.
One thing I believe in strongly is that we should follow a market-driven strategy, and one thing that CE units are fortunate to have is the ability to create their own programming. CE marketing and programming have a great opportunity to work collaboratively on the front end to create programs [designed to meet] the needs of the market. Particularly with adult learners, who are savvy about their education choices, marketing can’t just be a sales pitch or a tagline. It really needs to be focused on providing the information a prospective student needs in order to support their decision.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can spend a lot of money on marketing to sell a bad product, but the strategy always backfires because your students will be the first to let you know if you have a bad product. We strive on the front end to develop really high-caliber programs and allow the marketing to support those efforts.
2. Conversely, what is the role of institution-wide marketing units in marketing CE?
Institution-wide marketing has a really big role to play in terms of branding of the university as a whole and working to keep the university name in the forefront for the surrounding community as well as local and national markets. Often, with resources spread thin, it’s not realistic to expect the central marketing unit to handle the type of targeted marketing that every CE program needs in order to attract students.
In the case of my department, we currently have over 30 different CE programs to market and each program has its own marketing plan, its own budget and enrollment goals to meet. We’re also responsible for generating our own revenues and paying for our own expenses. It’s sink or swim for us; we rely heavily on central university marketing to brand the institution while we focus on specific activities for marketing each program to meet our enrollment goals.
I see it as a collaborative partnership with CE bearing the brunt of the targeted marketing.
3. How much freedom do CE units typically have when it comes to marketing their programs and division?
We have a good amount of flexibility in how we market our programs and how we market our units. Of course, there are rules and guidelines to follow, as with any institution, and we align our efforts with university brand standards (color pallet templates and so forth).
But we really haven’t experienced any issues with being told what to say to our audiences or how much to spend, especially since our marketing dollars come from revenues we generate; it’s always in our best interest to spend those dollars wisely and effectively.
Every division at the university benefits if the university brand is strong. Also within that framework, every division of the university has its own story it needs to tell the public and that’s where we really differentiate ourselves from the university as a whole.
4. What happens when a university defines an institution-wide message that doesn’t appeal to a unit’s target demographic?
The new reality in our industry is that the demographics of a typical university student has shifted across the board, so it’s really no longer effective to use a marketing message or a tagline that appeals only to, for example, traditional 17 to 22-year-olds straight out of high school. That can be one component out of a larger strategy but, in general, universities serve a much broader audience now, not just in CE but in other portions of the university. The institution-wide message needs to reflect that type of diversity.
Even students we consider traditional undergraduate age may already be juggling careers, families and finances as they’re working toward a degree. It’s really an industry wide shift in how we think of students and what they need from us. I always tell people that my department has a tough job when it comes to marketing because we serve audiences ranging from five-year-olds through post-retirement age, and we’re just one division at our university.
The struggle we have is that obviously we don’t have the budget of Google or the name recognition of Coca-Cola to get our message across, so we have to be really creative in designing our programs to resonate with the audience for that program in a cost-effective way. Any time the institutional message aligns with an audience, we obviously want to take full advantage of it, but also be cognizant that every program is different. Even within each program, each student has specific needs and specific expectations from us, so we want to do everything we can to design our messaging in such a way that it helps the student make their investment decision with us.
5. How much influence do the particular divisions have in ensuring the institution-wide message is general enough that it can appeal to a wide range of potential students?
The units within the institution really have to build a case for the type of audiences they serve and be sure that’s clear to anyone who may be responsible for generating the university-wide message. It’s probably unrealistic to think that one message can serve all audiences.
[A more realistic approach would be to make] the case for having a more generalized message that could have the broadest appeal, and within that, having some freedom to do specific taglines, specific types of marketing, for each audience, for each division within the university.
This interview has been edited for length.
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- While institution-wide marketing units handle the brand reputation, individual divisions are largely responsible for getting their messaging and programs in front of their target audiences.
- For CE units, who are responsible for covering their own marketing expenditures, it’s rare for the institution to exercise oversight on marketing initiatives.
- Given the diversity of students entering all areas of higher education — not just CE — it’s critical that institution-wide messaging has a broad appeal.
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