Q&A with AMA Higher Ed Co-Chair, Jason Simon

Jason Simon, Vice President and Partner, Simpson Scarborough

In advance of the recent #AMAHigherEd conference, StoriedU sat down with Jason Simon, the event’s co-chair, to talk about the marketing landscape in higher education. Jason discusses everything from trends he sees on the horizon to a case study on how Butler University transformed their brand after being launched into the national spotlight following two NCAA Championship appearances. Jason was named Higher Education Marketer of the Year in 2013 and is the Vice President and Partner of Simpson Scarborough. You can find him on Twitter at @szymenowicz.

StoriedU: All right Jason, let’s start with the big picture. I’d love to get your take on what you’re seeing the higher education community do in terms of balancing the traditional and digital marketing mix.

Jason Simon: The mix, as you described it, has never been more complicated for marketers. Part of the challenge, I think for higher ed folks in particular, is they’re dealing with a multitude of audiences that require things that different point in life cycles. Whether you’re talking about a prospective student that might be making an initial inquiry, just trying to explore colleges when they’re 14 or 15 with their parents, to that student going on to become a mom and a professional donor and somebody you want to engage with. You’ve got that life cycle challenge, but you also have the challenge that I think every marketer is facing right now, which is the multitude of channels in which you’ve got to communicate with people since technology is changing rapidly.

Fundamentally, I think that the big solution always finds its way back to strategy. While it’s easy to get caught up in tactics and channels and technology, the creativity and color and fun, those can always be stand-outs. The idea is that it all comes back to the heart. What’s the idea? What are we trying to accomplish? What are we trying to communicate? Really trying to narrow on that as much as possible is the key to success in my mind.

SU: I think you just said it, right? People want to jump to the creative solutions but it all starts with making sure you’ve got a sound game plan and a strategic framework. People tend to look at branding as tag-lines or slogans or campaigns, which are just tactical outcomes of the strategy, as you talked about. On that note, could you share the highlights of your Butler University case study?


Butler University

JS: Butler is a fascinating example because in some ways they had a really unique opportunity. Here you’re talking about a private regional university that really served, primarily, Indiana locally. At the same time, it was also considered a small liberal arts institution. All things that are true. All things that are not necessarily differentiating. All things that got blown up a little bit when they catapulted onto the national stage by going to back-to-back NCAA Championship games. This was then further exacerbated when they moved to the Big East, their third athletic conference in four years. All of a sudden they’re getting major national television coverage, they’re in all these new markets in the Northeast, so there’s a strategic opportunity for them to think about how they re-position themselves.

When I think about what the challenge is, or how you differentiate, first, there’s got to be a driver. I’m one of those people that hate when the driver is “We’re the best-kept secret. If only people knew what we were great at, all of our problems would be solved.” If that’s the case, then there really is a simple answer to that. It’s spend more money on marketing and people will know about you.

That’s exactly what happened with Butler. How do we take advantage of this opportunity that we have to now attract more students from other places and at the same time begin to re-position ourselves in this changing market and communicate what makes us different in a different way?

As we did the research and began to build the strategy for them, we looked at things that were differentiating and the campus basically communicated about itself in three ways. Beautiful campus, small classes, in a great city environment in Indianapolis.

Some of their key competitors were essentially saying the same thing. Beautiful campus, small class size. It became, “what’s the market actually saying?” In reality, the market did acknowledge those things. In fact, it was the only thing that people knew about Butler, but it wasn’t necessarily a differentiating thing.

We also began to take a look at what the market wants. Here we are, we’re coming off of the economic collapse. The big thing remains true – people want us to tell them what this investment in their college education is going to be and how they’re going to be able to get a job. So because of that with institutions that were viewed as higher quality institutions, there’s an inherent sense of “Well, if I go there my degree has value and I’m going to get a job.” One of the big things we learned with Butler is you’ve got to maintain those things that are strengths of you, but you also have got to build up some level of distinction and awareness around the fact that you have positive outcomes.

We really focus in on two things. One was the outcome’s message and the second is the experience that you get at Butler that makes those outcomes possible. The core position idea really became “the right outcomes, the right way.” It was built in part off of this whole Butler narrative that came out of the NCAA, where this story of the Butler basketball team going to classes on the day of the NCAA final was nothing new. That was just the Butler way of doing things.

We had this really strong strategic foundation and then we aligned it to really strong strategic goals that we were trying to effect. We helped Butler identify, essentially, seven or eight different brand pillars and then all of that gets bundled together to really determine are we truly lifting the brand equity of the institution and helping shape and re-position it. As opposed to, “what are we tactically doing from a marketing standpoint?”

Butler has seen some real positive outcomes on all of those things. Their brand equity scores are going up, people know more about them, and people associate successful outcomes with the “Butler story” as opposed to just associating size and campus, beauty with them. All of their metrics are up. Their channels are better and stronger in telling that more unified story. It’s been a great story and we work with a really great team at Butler that’s able to carry that forward too. That’s an important part of the mix.


SU: That’s awesome. But, how do you frame that for institutions that may perceive that they couldn’t afford to do this? For the many schools that look up to the Butlers and say, “We’re not Butler. We can’t afford to do something like that.” I’d love to get your opinion on how you might explain the value of the research.

JS: Yeah. The trite one is, “how can you afford not to do it?” The other part of the answer is – there are all kinds of different ways to approach research. Fundamentally, the important thing is that your work and your expression is built on a strategy. You could test as many audiences as your budgets allow or you can get really focused on “this is an audience that we really need to make a difference in and this is what our marketing is focused on.”

The challenge in higher ed is generally two-fold. One, they have to serve a lot of different audiences because when you do a research study you have to test a lot of different audiences. That adds to the budget and the time that it requires. The second part of it is, we’re dealing with institutions where we’ve got a lot of smart people. We have faculty, we have these administrators who are PhDs. What’s the biggest thing they respond to? It’s not anecdote, it’s data. Quantitative data and being able to empirically show somebody how the audience feels and that there’s a potential segment of that audience that is a little bit different, can go a lot further in building some common understanding in what a strategy, or that expression of that strategy, should be than “here’s what we heard when we talked to a hundred people on campus.” I think that academics respond to that data side of things.

The other thing that I’ll say is, even setting all of that aside, you could do, potentially, just creative expression. I think that at times that can be completely fine. There’s amazing and great creative work that’s being done in higher ed. I think the reality becomes if you choose to go that path, just understand that you’re making a near-term, short-cycle decision, as opposed to building a long-term strategy that can last over an extended time period and that you can measure success from.

I think as long as marketers are attuned to those choices, some institutions are going to be able to afford it either in big or small ways.

SU: Along those same lines, what are the top three things that a school needs to bring to the table in order for their brand strategy to be effective from the outset?

JS: I think comprehensive research is an essential. It’s mandatory for the reasons that I just said. The next critical thing is a really strong position and narrowing of what the message is, and being able to align stakeholders to that message. Then the third thing is that the budgets that are associated with marketing in higher education need to be aligned to the reality of what institutions are trying to do and the markets they’re trying to reach; whether those are audiences or those are geographies or segments.

I think the biggest challenge is that these are seen as one-time investments. People think they can update their brand and then walk away from it. The reality for the things that we were talking about at the very start of the conversation is things are changing all the time. You’ve got to communicate. Your brand is a volatile thing to measure and to care for in the same way that your infrastructure on your campus is. There’s got to be a regular recurring investment.

Your brand is a volatile thing to measure and to care for in the same way that your infrastructure on your campus is. There’s got to be a regular recurring investment.


SU: Let’s move from brand strategy to some tactics. I’d love to get your take on the prospect journey from a digital media perspective. Are there any significant changes you’re seeing that are happening right now?

JS: I think the biggest change is that it’s continuous. There isn’t a cycle anymore. It’s constant interaction, constant data points, constantly wanting a connection and responsiveness. If I make an inquiry, students now expect that they’re going to get a response within 24 hours. Students have a question; they want to get an immediate answer to that question. This goes back to the challenge of what the marketing environment is like now and why it’s so challenging for marketers.

The reality is that there isn’t a cycle. You have to build your CRM. You’ve got to build your other communications in a way that tells the story, but then- the mix of digital marketing with digital automation, marketing automation, and then really engage in story telling seems to be the right thing but there’s got to be a level of service and responsiveness and experience from the institution that supports all of those tactical things too.

SU: Last question for you. As Gen-Z is now prospects and millennials are alumni, what type of generational trends are you seeing among prospects as it relates to marketing from a school perspective?

JS: This is one of those places that I feel like I’m a little bit of an albatross in responding to this because I think there’s really only so much that you can get from generational trends. I think generally they speak very broadly about a big swath of people. I think that one of the things that is so attractive about where we are as marketers right now is we don’t have to let that guide us. I think the generational trends tend to give us big broad frameworks of things. We know that Generation Z, they’re on the web all the time, connected on their phones and they expect a response within 24 hours. Great, so what do I need to do beneath that? Getting to that level of detail where we truly can measure what a person’s interest is, what they know, what they don’t know. We can fill that gap in based on true actions as opposed to big broad generational swaths.

SU: Thanks for your time, Jason!


Interested in hearing from more leaders in higher education? Let us know who you’d like us to profile next on Twitter at @StoriedU. 

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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