A Musician’s Guide to Your Enrollment Strategy

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 15, 2017 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As a piano performance major in college, I practiced and performed some of the most difficult piano music out there. Engaging both hands with different concepts—your brain to master the rhythm and your heart to put feeling into the music—isn’t easy. Neither is great enrollment strategy, as I learned years later as a Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing.

In fact, I often use my musical training in my enrollment and marketing work. I can hear the nuances of most conversations, thanks to years of aural comprehension classes, and conceptualize the art and science of enrollment strategy with the best of them (as any good musician should!). Yet, it wasn’t until I started working for a lot of different schools, with a lot of different challenges, that I made the correlation between musical concepts and enrollment strategy. I thought I’d take a minute to explain that correlation and share what I’ve found. I hope it’s helpful to you on your next enrollment strategy build.

For many years, and until fairly recently, marketing a college or university was pretty straightforward. The higher education industry was booming, and prospective student demand was increasing year after year after year. As long as marketing and enrollment leaders didn’t do anything too outlandish, they were okay. From a musical perspective, the entire industry was in “harmony,” making beautiful sounds together and getting along well by sharing best practices and clustering in a herd.

Flash forward to 2017: the overall value of the higher education industry has been called into question, and factors such as population decline and international policy changes have caused enrollment crises on many campuses. Most institutions, I’ve noticed, have been caught off guard by the sudden, real shift in higher education from a growth industry to a market share industry. This is illustrated in musical terms by “dissonance”—a clear departure from the harmonious state.

Almost anyone can see the industry is experiencing oversupply. Once collegial relationships between competitors have become fierce. And most institutions are grappling with how to “win” in the market—introducing rapid and transformative change across the academy, while focusing substantial resources on building a stronger brand to compete. These are all signs of a robust and sustained market share environment within higher ed. The old way of thinking is being rapidly replaced with new conditions and a new rule for success­—as a musician, I refer to this as “chasing resonance“.

The Resonance Strategy

Creating “resonance,” i.e., creating a deeper, fuller sound, requires a number of musical conditions to work together. In strategic terms, building a resonance strategy, at its core, necessitates devising a plan to reverberate more fully in the market than your competitors do. For a college or university to achieve resonance, three ultimate conditions must be met. Together, these conditions provide a new way of thinking about research, strategy, and action given the new market realities.

Condition #1: Know who you are!

Far too often, higher education institutions claim they don’t know who they are. Defining your institution’s personality and acting the part of the main character consistently across the wealth of communications on your campus is among the most important and most human of things we can do to ensure that prospective students understand us. Knowing who you are is the only way you can accurately project yourself to the people you are trying to attract.

Condition #2: Know who they think you are!

What does your market believe about you? Do prospective students see the same personality in your institution that you see in yourself? Are there perception issues to overcome related to your market’s understanding of your institution? The answers to these questions and more must be ascertained to determine a strong and strategic path forward.

Condition #3: Where are you positioned in the pack?

What is your competition doing? How are they positioning themselves? How is their personality, tone, and style affecting their presentation to the market? Does their brand present well with a strong narrative? Or not?! The answers to these questions are not always easy to find and cannot be derived simply from swiping some competitors’ travel pieces off the table at a college fair. Understanding your position in the competitive herd and the authentic and achievable opportunities you have to break away requires a research-based approach and deeper analysis than perhaps many institutions have been prepared for in recent years.

It is only through navigating and balancing these conditions that a true strategic resonance can emerge. Through knowing who you are, what the market believes about you, and where you are positioned in the competitive herd, you can pinpoint the best approach for creating a deeper, fuller sound for your strategy with your market. The combined effect of managing for optimal conditions across these elements will create the opportunity for reverberation—i.e., a unique and captivating sound for your institution—enabling you to drive the all-important awareness and reputation results you need in order to build stronger enrollment and fundraising success in a market share economy.

About the guest blogger: Scott Ochander is Co-Founder of Dartlet, a leading reputation research and strategy firm based in the Pacific Northwest. Dartlet’s innovative and original personality definition model and consensus-driven research methods are leading the way for institutions to authentically and achievably differentiate in the market to drive enrollment and fundraising growth.

To learn more about Resonance Strategy and devising a plan to reverberate in your market, get in touch with us! You can also reach Scott on Twitter @TWinnovator for more music and/or strategy discussion.

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